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Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan

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Angkor Wat of Cambodia

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Fiji Islands - Pristine Beauty

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Mudhumakkal Thazhi - The Ancient Funeral System Of Tamils

What did the early Tamil people do when someone was dead? Were the dead bodies cremated or buried? Were there elaborate funeral rituals, as they have today? Today, most of them are Hindus who are cremated with extensive funeral ceremonies that can last up to 16 days. During my recent visit to India, I learnt that the ancient Tamil people had a fascinating way of treating the dead. They used giant burial urns called Mudhumakkal Thazhi or EemaThazhi. However, there are a few different customs around this burial system. Let us go 3000 years back, and take a look at their life.

When people got older, they became senile and stopped moving around. They couldn't talk much and their eyesight and hearing deteriorated. At this stage, these people were moved outside the village, to a specific location. A small stone house called "Madhamadhakka Thazhi" (Tamil: மதமதக்கத் தாழி) would be erected by the family members. In Tamil language, "madhamadha" means immobile and "thazhi" means a chamber or vessel. Every evening, a woman from the family would visit this chamber to feed the elderly person. She would also do other household chores like cleaning and lighting an oil lamp. This procedure would go on for several years until the old man/woman dies.
A prehistoric old age chamber found in Peru, similar to Madhamadhakka Thazhi. Note the very small entrance in front
When this old man eventually dies, the family would create a huge earthen pot called Mudhumakkal Thazhi (Tamil: முதுமக்கள் தாழி). In Tamil, mudhumakkal roughly translates to "old people". The body would be placed in a sitting position inside the pot along with his belongings. Archaeologists have found primitive weapons and tools inside these urns, which hints that they might have believed in rebirth or afterlife.
A mudhumakkal thazhi exhibited at Puducherry museum, 2nd Century B.C
Note that concept of burying a man's belongings is very similar to Egyptian and Mayan burial systems. There seems to be a worldwide custom to bury a man's belongings with him.
Mayas of Mexico were buried with their belongings - Seen in Anthropology Museum, Merida
OK, back to Tamil burial system. The urn would be placed into a hole dug specifically for the burial. A huge stone slab would be placed on top of this urn and then covered with mud. This was done to make sure that scavenging animals would not be able to dig the corpse out. A small stone pillar (nadukal) would be placed on it to identify the burial location. This implies that the family of the deceased might have performed annual rituals on the burial site.
A smaller burial urn which is 2 feet tall and one and a half feet wide
Buried Alive? In 2011, a collection of four burial urns were found neatly stacked one on top of another in Soorakuppam village. These urns reportedly buried during 100 B.C, consisted of four skeletons of a male, 2 females and a child. Since they must have been buried together at the same time, there is considerable doubt if wives and loved ones were buried alive with the deceased. There are also unconfirmed reports of multiple skeletons found in the same urn. This has sparked a furor that women, children, servants and even pets were buried alive, when a rich person dies.

There is yet another theory that very old people who were unable to walk and take care of themselves were buried alive in these urns. According to this theory, these senile people would be given a ritualistic bath and placed in the Mudhumakkal Thazhi. His/Her belongings like plates, cups, jewels and weapons would be placed inside the urn. Then the urn would be carried to a specific location where it would be buried. The old person inside the vessel would basically suffocate to death.
Mudhumakkal Thazhi found in Thanjavur art gallery - 100 B.C
In early Tamil literature, it is also mentioned that sages and saints predicted their end of life and would willingly sit inside these urns. They would begin their meditation inside while the urn was buried by the disciples. In Sangam literature, Purananuru poems talk about these burial ceremonies as well.

What else was found inside these urns? Iron objects and weapons have been found in these vessels, reminding us that Tamils were pioneers in the use of iron at a very early age. Note that the Dravidians invented crucible steel as early as 300 B.C.  Earthen jewelry, carved wooden objects, earthen vessels like plates and cups were found inside. Invariably, all these urns had oil lamps placed inside them.
A collection of burial urns at Puducherry museum
These urns have been found in a wide variety of sizes ranging from 1 foot long (containing infants) to 7 feet. A typical urn would be 6 feet long and 3 feet wide to hold an adult with ample space for other objects. These urns were usually buried near the river or village outskirts. Archaeologists continue to unearth a few every year in Tamil Nadu. You can find a few exhibits in Thanjavur art gallery and Puducherry museum.

Why are these urns still intact? It is almost a miracle that most of these earthen pots are found without any cracks or deformation. These urns were carefully baked in kilns and must have been tested for their durability. Some of these urns were found painted in red, ocher and black. Primitive symbols resembling snakes (Naga?) and inscriptions similar to Tamil-Brahmi have been found.
A huge mudhumakkal thazhi - 6 feet long and 4 feet wide
Were there VIPs during this time? You bet! In Beemandapalli village, a fancy 8 feet long sarcophagus was unearthed. The sarcophagus, called Eemapezhai (Tamil:ஈமப்பேழை) was extremely well made and resembles a modern day coffin. The skeleton was found intact, lying in a supine position. This must have been a rich or a noble person. In the same location a smaller sarcophagus was found which contained an infant's skeleton.The sarcophagus used to bury infants are called "Thottil Pezhai" (Tamil: தொட்டில் பேழை).

The Mudhumakkal Thazhi funeral system was in custom from 3000 B.C till 3rd century A.D. No burial urns from 4th century on-wards have been unearthed. Researchers think that this custom became obsolete around 400 A.D. It is a shame that we know very little about this ancient Tamil tradition. If you know more, please drop a comment below - it will be helpful to all of us.

Thanjavur Art Gallery - 1000 Years Of Indian History

Thanjavur Art Gallery, located in the Thanjavur Palace has an exquisite collection of ancient sculptures and coins. It is officially called the "Raja Raja Chola Art Gallery" and locally known as "Thanjavur Kalaikoodam" (Tamil:தஞ்சாவூர் கலைக்கூடம்). These bronze sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses range from 9th century A.D to 19th century A.D. Some very unique deities and saints can be seen. Early Indian lifestyle, their clothing, ornaments and even hairdo are carved in these statues. Another interesting feature is the collection of old coins. Coins from as early as 300 B.C are exhibited here, which is quite astonishing.
Essential Information:
Address: East Main Street, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India ( 1.2 K.M from Brihadeeswarar Temple )
Phone: +91-4362-239823 
E-mail: Not Available
Timings: 9 A.M to 1 P.M ; 3 P.M to 6 P.M; Open 7 days a week
Entrance Fee: Indians - 5 Rupees; Foreigners - 20 Rupees
Note: Thanjavur Palace has a separate entry fee. Click here to read about Thanjavur Palace
Camera Fee: Still Camera - 30 Rupees; Video Camera - 300 Rupees.
Car Parking: Available; Free
Restrooms: Available
Average Visitor Time: 1-2 Hours
Bronze Parvati - 11th Century A.D
Artifacts are placed in a hall which used to be the Kings' royal court (Durbar Hall). The walls and the ceiling of Durbar hall are superbly ornamented with paintings and statuettes. Even the pillars and arches are decorated with fascinating scenes from Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The highlight of the art gallery is of course, the collection of ancient bronze statues. To see the pictures of all the bronze statues, click here. Let us take a look at a few unique ones below:
Enthol Mukkan Emman, 11th Century A.D
Enthol Mukkan Emman (Tamil: எண்தோள் முக்கண் எம்மான்): A very rare depiction of Lord Shiva as a demon. In this form, he has eight shoulders (enthol) and he has opened his third eye (mukkan). If you look closely, you can see two sharp teeth coming out of his mouth. He is shown without any clothes, with 2 serpents around his waist. If you have time and curiosity, try to find out how many snakes are carved in the sculpture. It is said that this is the only statue ever found with a diabolical representation of Shiva.
Rear view of a bronze sculpture, shows ancient Tamil hairdo
Early Tamil Hairdo: I managed to sneak behind the bronze statues, which gave me this remarkable picture. This statue shows the hairdo of a common Tamil man during Raja Raja Chola's time, i.e., 1000 years ago. He has long hair which has beautiful curls at the end. At the top it looks like he is wearing a turban, but it is how he has styled his hair - like a modern day Rastafarian. This hairdo is also shown in paintings of Raja Raja Chola, found in Brihadeeswarar temple.
On the right is the statue of Brahmadhirayar, 10 -11 Century A.D
A fascinating bronze statue titled Brahmadhirayar (Tamil:பிரம்மாதிராயர்) is exhibited, found in 10-11th century A.D. This could be Aniruddha Brahmarayar, a minister of Parantaka Chola II. But more likely, this could also be Krishnan Raman Brahmarayar, the commander-in-chief of  Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola. The portrayal shows that he is an obese man, wearing a loin cloth and minimal ornaments. He has a small tuft of hair styled in the front, typical of Brahmin men at that time.
Ancient burial urns called Mudhumakkal Thazhi - 100 B.C
Mudhumakkal Thazhi: A 6 feet long burial urn made in 1st century B.C is exhibited here. These earthen vessels called "muthumakkal thazhi" were used to bury the dead (or sometimes even people alive?). To read more about this, click here.

There is an excellent collection of old coins, some of them made over 2000 years ago. It is deplorable that they are not being well preserved or arranged in chronological order. To see pictures of the entire coin collection, click here. Below, let us see a few interesting coins.
Pudukkottai Amman Coins also known as "Amman Kaasu" - 1899 A.D
Can coins save a king and his kingdom? Pudukottai Amman Coins are examples of brilliant political and theological propaganda, which saved King Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman's throne. In 1889, King Thondaiman was barely 14 years old and faced a rebellion from his close relatives. Fearing a Coup d'état, his minister Seshayya Sastri came up with an ingenious idea to save the kingdom. According to the plan, Tondaiman announced that the princely state of Pudukottai would be ruled by Goddess Brahadambal. Tondaiman would only act as her "humble servant" and implement her plans.  Furthermore, anybody acting against Goddess Brahadambal's rule would not only be facing charges of rebellion, but also blasphemy. These copper coins were issued in 1889 and distributed all around the state, to spread the message. Needless to say, the trick worked and his enemies were too afraid to overthrow him fearing public backlash.
Paisa copper coins of Tipu Sultan (circa 1787 A.D)
Mysore Tipu Sultan's copper coins (around 1787 A.D). These coins have an elephant figure on one side, and Arabic numerals on the other. Tipu Sultan minted Paisa, Half-Paisa and 1/4 Paisa coins during his regime. To my disappointment, I could not find his gold coins, known as Pagodas. Tipu Sultan's other achievements include inventing rocket artillery, and making Ambalappuzha temple famous overnight. There are plenty of other interesting coins in the art gallery. You can see all the pictures here.
Statue of Raja Serfoji II in the Thanjavur art gallery
As mentioned before, the art gallery is located at what used to be the King's royal court. In the middle of the royal court (durbar hall) is a statue of King Serfoji II, reminding us of the royal scene that would have existed centuries ago. Serfoji was a brilliant King who spoke 10 languages fluently, built the first zoo in the state of Tamil Nadu, and even performed cataract surgery! Locally referred to as "Sarabhoji Raja", he is credited with implementing educational, administrative and social reforms. He also created an underground drainage system for the city of Thanjavur.
A statue of Raja Raja Chola, recently erected in the art gallery
It is rumored that some of the sculptures were stolen here and sold to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. While visiting the art gallery, make sure you take a look at the stone carvings in the Thanjavur Palace as well. There are only a few tourist attractions in Thanjavur, and the art gallery is definitely one of the top 10 things to do in the city.

Thanjavur Palace - A Fascinating Piece Of History

The original name of Thanjavur Palace is Sivaganga Fort, which is rarely used these days. If you observe carefully, there is even a small moat around it which provided security against enemy access. Often mistakenly called the "Thanjavur Maratha Palace" was not built by Maratha Kings, but by Thanjavur Nayaks. However, the Marathas made some enhancements to suit their needs. It is more popularly called "Thanjavur Aranmanai" by the people of Tamil Nadu. Today, the Thanjavur Palace Complex is a tourist attraction which houses 3 separate venues: the palace, the art gallery and a manuscript library (Saraswathi Mahal). This article is just about the palace, as there are many interesting and intriguing features that are worth exploring.
Watch the Thanjavur Palace video above
Essential Information:
Address: East Main Street, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India ( 1.2 K.M from Brihadeeswarar Temple )
Phone: +91-4362-223384 ; +91-4362-230984
E-mail: Not Available
Timings: 9 A.M to 5 P.M ; Open Everyday
Entrance Fee: Indians - 5 Rupees; Foreigners - 50 Rupees
Note: Art Gallery which is inside the palace has a separate fee. Click here to read about the Art Gallery
Camera Fee: Still Camera - 30 Rupees; Video Camera - 300 Rupees.
Car Parking: Available; Free
Restrooms: Available
Average Visitor Time: 3 Hours
Thanjavur Palace - Arsenal Tower (Koodagopuram) was also used as a watch tower
Brief History: After the fall of Cholas in 1279 A.D, and a few centuries of Pandyan occupation, Sevappa Nayak captured Thanjavur and became the King in 1532. The construction of Thanjavur Palace began in 1534 and was completed in 1535, thanks to plenty of local prisoners of war who provided manual labor. The Palace was officially called "Sivagangai Fort" and was held by the Nayak family until April 1674, when the Maratha ruler Venkoji captured it. The Marathas enhanced the original structure and expanded the palace complex. It was used by them until 1799 when British finally annexed the Thanjavur Maratha Kingdom.
Narrow staircases with sharp turns were designed to deter the speed of adversaries
Palace or a Fort? Plenty of tourists expect a gigantic, luxurious and ornamented interior and get disappointed. The complex was built as a fort, not a palace. The Nayaks chose the site carefully and there is even a moat around the complex to protect it. Another intriguing feature is the extremely narrow staircases with short steps, sharp turns and low ceilings. Why would a palace have such primitive staircases? This was a measure to prevent enemies' rapid advance. Cavalry advances would be impossible through the stairs, and the foot soldiers cannot climb up with great speed. The enemy foot soldiers would be easy prey to the men waiting for them above. Again: this was built as a fort, not a palace.
Underground tunnels and hidden chambers at Thanjavur Palace are now not accessible to tourists
Secret Chambers: There are at least 3 hidden chambers with secret, interconnecting doors. These were used as torture chambers and to have discreet meetings. One hidden chamber, located at the base of the Arsenal tower is acoustically designed in a way that you can hear even the smallest whisper from 3 floors above. This must have been used as a way for sending secret voice signals over multiple floors. Sadly, the Government has completely prohibited all access to these hidden chambers.

Underground Tunnel: There are two underground passages in the palace, only one of them is partially accessible by tourists. This is a relatively short passage and the Government is renovating it as of 2014. Another secret tunnel which is a mile long, connects the Brihadeeswara temple and the palace. It is wide enough to ride 2 horses in parallel, and was designed as a getaway route by Kings during war times.
The Arsenal Tower at Thanjavur Palace 
Arsenal Tower (Koodagopuram): This is a 192 feet tall pyramidal structure with eight floors. The initial building was constructed by Nayaks in 1645 with only 2 floors. The Marathas later renovated and finished the tower in 1855, and used it for various military purposes. The top floor was used as a watch tower, and the remaining floors were used to store arms and ammunition. The second floor was exclusively used for the King's martial arts training.
The Bell Tower was once used as a clock tower (just hourly bells) by locals
Bell Tower (Maadamaaligai): This is another interesting building with a construction style exactly opposite to the Arsenal Tower. A rectangular construction resembling the modern day skyscrapers. Maadamaaligai in Tamil describes it accurately - Rectangular Mansion. This building is shorter than the arsenal tower and has 7 floors. It once housed a mechanical bell which rung every hour from the top. The people of Thanjavur used it as their time teller. For this reason, this building is also called as "Manikoondu". 
Statue of the King Serfoji II, in Thanjavur Palace Durbar Hall
Maratha Durbar Hall: This is the royal court hall, which currently houses the Thanjavur Art Gallery. There is plenty of interesting information about this place, which can take up a whole page. Please read more about the Art Gallery here. You can also see the photographs of Bronze Sculptures and Rare Coins in the art gallery. An ancient burial urn called Mudhumakkal Thazhi is also exhibited.
Lord Chandramouleshwarar was worshipped by the Nayak and Maratha Kings
Royal Family's Temple: A very modest temple is located on the ground floor, inside the palace. This is the Chandramouleshwara Temple, which was constructed by the Achuthappa Nayak in 1589. The temple has a lingam on the floor with two Nandhis (Sacred Bulls) in front. Two small decorated enclosures are kept with locked doors, suggesting some more deities may be present inside them. Royal families held their worshiping sessions here every morning.

Baleen Whale Skeleton: A 92 feet skeleton of "Whalebone whale", commonly known as Baleen whale is housed in the Arsenal tower. The dead whale washed ashore on  26th February 1955 in Tharangambadi beach, and the bones were brought into the palace soon after. The skeleton is an interesting sight to see, although it has not been well preserved.
A sculpture of Gaja Samharar (Shiva) created in 12th Century during Chola period
Sculptures: On the ground floor of the palace, plenty of stone sculpture are placed all around. These sculptures range from 8th Century A.D to 18th Century A.D.  You can capture some very interesting details, if you have the eye for it. Most sculptures are well labeled and the most interesting carvings were done during the Chola period.
A mural with plenty of details in Thanjavur Palace desperately needs preservation & protection
Paintings: A few centuries ago the walls of the palace were covered with rich paintings. However, most of them have been completely destroyed due to lack of preservation. Even today, some faded paintings remain and unscrupulous visitors continue to destroy them with graffiti.

Saraswathi Mahal: Located outside the palace, it is one of the very few medieval Manuscript libraries in the world. It is considered as one of the oldest and the best historical libraries in India. There is a museum inside Saraswathi Mahal which displays only selected books. The library houses more than a million manuscripts in various languages like Tamil, Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu and Manipravalam. A survey conducted by Encyclopedia Britannica shows that Saraswathi Mahal was voted as "the most remarkable library of India".
An inside view of Thanjavur Palace's Arsenal Tower
If you are a tourist visiting the Thanjavur palace, try to hire a guide who can show you around. There are no signboards about the various structures and it can get confusing while navigating around the place. This is a fun place to visit if you are a history or an architecture buff. It is definitely one of the top 10 things to do in Thanjavur.

Bronze Sculptures Of Thanjavur Art Gallery

When I visited the Thanjavur Royal Palace, I was surprised to find that the Art Gallery had an extraordinary collection of antique bronze statues. Some deities were unique and unheard of, and they ranged from 9th Century to 19th Century. I am posting all the pictures I took, so it may be of some interest to you. Apart from these sculptures, they had a nice collection of Old Coins and also an ancient burial urn called Mudhumakkal Thazhi. You can find all the bronze sculptures from the Thanjavur Art Gallery below:


On the left is Appar; On the right is Brahmadhirayar depicted as a fat person. I could find no historical or mythological reference of him.

Yogasakthi Amman, 12th Century

Nataraja from 12th century A.D. Note how is waist cloth is flying in the air due to his dancing. However, interestingly this statue has no hair, which is often the key element in Nataraja sculptures.

This Nataraja from 11th century, shows the exact opposite. His hair is flying on both sides, while his waist cloth falls straight down.

Dakshinamurthy, shown stamping on Apasmara (the personification of ignorance) - 11th Century

A close up of Apasmara (Ignorance) shown with his lower half pushed into the ground
2 dancing Krishnas on the left and middle; The righmost is Sambandar -12th Century A.D

2 Parvathis on the right and middle; The rightmost is Sridevi

2 statues of Thirupuranthakar from 10th and 11th Century A.D

Alingana Chandrashekar 12th Century Sculptures (Alingana means embracing in Sanskrit)

2 more sculptures of Alingana Chandrashekar from 13th century


Left: Arivattaya Nayanar aka Thayanar; Middle: Chandikeswarar; Right: Unknown. 12th Century A.D

Bronze Maha Vishnu Sculpture 12 Century A.D

Bronze Nandhi 15th Century A.D

Bronze Nataraja (Dancing Shiva) 11th Century A.D

Bronze Nataraja 12th Century A.D

This angle shows a 3D version and how much work must have gone into this Sculpture

Bronze Nataraja Sculpture 11th Century A.D

Another Bronze Nataraja Sculpture; Time Unknown

Parvathi Statue 11th Century A.D

Somaskandha Sculpture, surprisingly single. This representation is usually shown with Shiva's wife and son

Another Somaskandha Sculpture, without the son (Skanda)

Bronze Temple Bell - 16th Century A.D

Chandrasekhar with Parvathi -10th Century


Another Dhakshinamurthy from 11th Century

Enthol Mukkan, an unknown deity with 8 arms and wears 2 snakes on his waist

Godhanda Rama, 16th_Century

The sculptures were made with precision on the back as well.

Left: Kannappa Nayanar; Next: Chandrashekar; Next: Parvathi; Rightmost: Pattinathar 

Mahalakshmi - 18th Century A.D

Narthana Krishna; Narthana means Dancing in Sanskrit. 13th Century

Another Narthana Krishna from 16th century.

Parvathi - 9th century

Parvathi from 14th century

Bhikshatana (Sanskrit: भिक्षाटन;), a representation of Shiva as a beggar. Notice that has no clothes on and has a snake in his waist. In this form, he is often shown with a pet deer. Bhikshatana is most popular in Tamil Nadu and his icons are almost non existent in North India.

A statue of Raja Raja Chola, made recently

A statue of King Serfoji II is placed in the Durbar hall. 
Rishabavaghana and Parvathi

Sambandar, a child poet shown in a dancing pose. 12th century 

Left: Unknown; Middle: Sambandar; Right: Appar

Sita, 16th Century

Left: Sivagami; Middle: Sridevi; Right: Kali Amman

Somaskanda (Shiva) is shown with his wife Parvathi and his son Skanda in the middle

Another Somaskanda Statue, please ignore the reflection :)

Vishnu in the middle with Sridevi on the left and Bhudevi on the right

A standing Vishnu with his 2 consorts, Sridevi and Bhudevi

Unknown deities, 11th century bronze sculptures


Vishnu, 12th century. His wheel was used a returnable weapon (like boomerang) and his conch was used to initiate war 

Bronze Vishnu, 16th Century

Vishnu Chakra (wheel). This was a weapon that would spin, strike and return back to the user.

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