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  Greetings to all our readers and patrons
Stewardship and Trusteesh
  By A.J. Philip  
  I ACCOMPANIED Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to South Africa on the occasi  
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Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Back to infancy -- they n
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
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  In Shah Jahan's land
  By Meetu Tewari  
  THE minute you visit Agra, you will feel history running in this legendary city's narrow lanes. En route you will see ruins of unknown buildings scattering fields, desolate in their crumbling beauty.

The city's main destination is the Taj Mahal. Called the monument of love, this beautiful mausoleum was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. You have to enter the monument barefoot and are given disposable shoes only if you are a foreigner. Interestingly, once these shoes are thrown away, young boys collect them and sell them to Indian tourists for Rs 20-30.

Sadly, this monument's dazzling white marble has been affected by the nearby Mathura Oil Refinery. Strict orders are now in place to preserve the marble. Hotels and restaurants offering alfresco dinners with a clear view of the Taj Mahal are prohibited from directing light at the monument. The Taj remains a breathtaking sight and a must-see destination for tourists.

Agra Fort is another grand structure, which has within its walls a number of unique sights. There is the bathing tub of Prince Salim, a gift from his maternal uncle Man Singh and brother of Jodhabai. It is carved from a single piece of stone and was filled with gold, silver and jewels. It is said that Salim was conceived after Akbar received blessings from Salim Chishti, whose tomb is in Fatehpur Sikri.

Agra Fort has several structures within its walls. There are notable mosques and gateways, including the famous Sheesh Mahal, a royal bathing room with intricate carvings in marble and glass. It is mostly closed to visitors, but we were lucky to have arrived at a time when it was open. A single match-stick, if lit inside, is reflected in each and every piece of exquisitely inlaid mirror in the room. The details in the carving are beautiful and like other Mughal architecture of the city is beautiful and impressive.

They say Shah Jahan had two palaces built in the fort for his daughters. He preferred marble and thus had one built wholly in marble for Jahanara. For his other daughter, he had a palace built in red stone. It was at Agra Fort that he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb and he could see Taj Mahal from there. The prison was more an open space than a confined room. It was here that Jahanara nursed her father till he died and was laid to rest by the side of his beloved wife Mumtaz.

Close to Agra is the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. It attracts a large number of tourists. Although the locals warned us that the place was deserted and not maintained by the government, we set forth for Bharatpur. The promise of seeing exotic birds proved too strong to ignore. The trip proved to be very disappointing. Most of the water in the sanctuary had dried up and there were no birds, despite it being December. We saw cows ambling along the dusty paths, but no birds.

Fatehpur Sikri is another must-see destination for those visiting Agra. This town was built by Akbar. It was here that he had palaces built, one for each wife, with Jodhabai getting the largest. The smallest of the palaces had diamond-studded walls, while another had gold paintings -- empty spaces mark where these had been placed.

Akbar respected all religions and the carvings and paintings at Fatehpur Sikri bear testimony to this. Here was built the Diwan-i-Khas where Akbar sat with his Navratna, famous personalities from diverse religions. The house of Birbal, the emperor's Grand Vizier, is also in the compound. Another famous attraction is Akbar's huge bed that is on an elevated platform. The area around the bed would be filled with water to keep the room cool when the emperor rested.

Within the compound of the Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri is the tomb of Salim Chishti. His descendants survive to date. The masjid attracts a lot of people who believe that whatever they ask for here will not be denied them. Beggars line the area, while vendors sell an array of commodities; from plastic toys to religious items. We noticed a huge door that had horseshoes nailed to it. Our guide told us that men who had unhealthy horses would come and nail the horse's shoe here and pray for its health.

A little distance from Agra is Sikandara, the tomb of Akbar. A number of gates lead up to the main mausoleum, with the smallest gate being the first to be entered. Though high enough, it is built in such a manner that a person automatically bows when entering it. The gate here is charred, because British soldiers burnt the walls to melt the inlaid gold. To the sides, the ground falls away to large lush fields where more than 400 deer roam freely. Tourists are not allowed in the fields. Also to be seen here are a huge number of langurs, who are friendly enough to come and sit by your side or even hold your hand. Though Akbar planned this as a family mausoleum, hardly any of his family members are buried here.

About 50 km from Agra is Mathura, said to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna. It is a spot that attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. This small, crowded and dirty town reverberates with religious fervour. Old people who can hardly walk, children, men and women come here from across India and abroad. Eateries serve purely vegetarian food, with small, yet clean hotels lining the roads. Shops sell religious items. The air is heavy with the smell of incense, sandalwood and flowers. You'll hear chanting everywhere and shops continuously play aartis (Hindu rituals). If you wish to take a parikrama (path) and see the holy sites at the Krishna janmabhoomi (birth place), you should be prepared for the jostling crowds. Security is heavy as this is a place susceptible to terrorist attacks.

Sweets like the Mathura peda are very famous here. Anyone visiting the city and who likes sweets must definitely buy these.

Apart from its historic structures, Agra is famous for other things, including its 'chaat', a spicy mouthwatering dish. A trip to Agra is incomplete without a meal outside a hotel like the Taj View Hotel, with the full moon overhead. You get to see the Taj Mahal in all its glory bathed in silvery light, while you eat spicy Mughlai food and sip hot tea.

The leather goods here are well known and many factories manufacture shoes for brands, such as Hush Puppies. Some of them sell these shoes at very low cost. They, however, lack variety. Sadar Bazar attracts a large number of tourists and has a number of shops selling anything from clothes and bags to jewellery. Foreigners must be prepared to bargain and be wary of young men who will lead them to particular shops. Prices at such places will be very high and more than double than what an Indian customer would be asked to pay. Also famous here are brassware and items of inlay marble.

A curious mix of ancient and new, Agra is a fascinating city. Co-existing amongst ruins, forts and mausoleums, it is a city rich in flavours of the past. Despite the large number of people, it is a strangely peaceful town, shrouded in stillness. It is almost as if two worlds collide here, a quiet past where sound has long perished and a colourful, loud present reverberating with the sound of a thousand voices; all struck by the beauty and wonder that lie in this city called Agra.
  Maramon recalled
  By A.J. Philip  
  THE world-famous Maramon Convention began on the banks of the Pampa in Pathanamthitta district on February 14. It will conclude on February 21. On this occasion, the writer recalls his visits to Maramon:

It was after 35 years that I attended the yearly convention, which I looked forward to attending every year for as long as I could remember.
Memories flooded my mind as I sat in the Press enclosure, close to the stage, from where world-renowned theologians and Christian leaders preached the word of God. I remember clutching at the forefinger of my grandmother as she took me to Maramon for the first time. We would sit on the sand under a thatched pandal in the women's section.

While she would listen intently to the sermons, taking copious notes or thumbing the pages of her old, crumbling Bible, I would make heaps of sand and decorate them with paper flags. For all the labour I put in, I would occasionally get a pinch or two from my grandma. That was the only way she could keep me disciplined. I could neither understand the high-flown English the speakers spoke, nor follow its instant translation into Malayalam.

In other words, attending the convention was not exactly an enjoyable experience. Nonetheless, it thrilled me a lot. The most thrilling story I heard was when a friend told me that while I made "mountains of sand", he dug a well on the sand bed, found water and, lo and behold, caught a live fish. It was so big that he had to abandon the thought of bringing it home!

The next day, I attempted digging a well for which I had my ears boxed my grandma. "You are no good. My friend's grandpa is much better. She allowed him not only to dig a well but also catch a fish alive". She gave me a mocking smile as she got engrossed in the sermon.

One of the most interesting aspects of attending the convention was the pleasure of eating food in the pandal. Grandma would carry two packets of food -- curd rice, coconut chutney, a fried vegetable dish and a piece of fried fish -- for me and for herself. More memorable than the food was the aroma of rice packed in banana leaves. There was no water supply in Maramon those days. After the meal, we would head towards the river for a wash.

Maramon had everything to offer for a child. Vendors from far and near would camp themselves in Kozhencherry on one side of the river and Maramon on the other occupying both sides of the dusty, kutcha roads that led to the pandal. Balloons of different sizes and shapes and those that made a whistling sound when air is blown into them through a bamboo device beckoned me as I moved in the crowd.

It was the fear of separation that prevented me from leaving my grandma's forefinger. For good conduct, I was rewarded with a whistling balloon and a large packet of hot, roasted chana, which I munched all the way home. Grandma would buy a pound (no kilogram those days) or two of dates to take it home for others who could not attend Maramon. Dates were a delicacy available only during the convention days.

At Maramon, I envied families who came from far-off places in big boats with thatched roofs. Some of these boats would remain anchored at Maramon for the entire duration of the convention. They would cook rice and eat with an assortment of dry dishes, made of vegetables and fish. They slept on mats stretched out on the river bank. I always dreamt of living in one such boat and travelling all over the world.

Years later, when I studied about the house boats in Dal Lake in Srinagar, I could easily relate to them because of the "house boats" that I saw at Maramon. Poverty was rampant those days. Many students stopped going to school after Class VIII because they could not afford the monthly tuition fee. Yet, Maramon spawned generosity.

It was at Maramon that I heard a different interpretation of one of the wonders that Jesus performed. The Bible tells the story of how the Good Lord fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread. "Those days hotels and motels did not exist. People who travelled carried their own food with them. So when they heard that Jesus was speaking, they must have gone there with their own food. So when the time came for food, Jesus would have asked each of the assembled to take out their food and share it with their neighbours. The miracle He performed was teaching the people the art of giving or the art of sharing".

Hotels existed at Kozhencherry and Maramon those days but most people could not afford the food. There was also no quality control on the restaurants. With this in mind, every household at Maramon and nearby areas would prepare extra food on every day of the eight-day long convention because they expected unexpected guests. Relations and friends who went to Maramon to hear the sermons would drop in to have lunch. They would not be surprised if the guests expressed a desire to stay for the night so that they could attend the next day's session too.

Maramon was as much a symbol of ecumenism as it was of secularism. It was not uncommon for people of different denominations and faiths to turn up at Maramon to listen to the religious and Biblical interpretations of complicated life situations. Attack on other religions or denominations was an absolute no-no at Maramon, a tradition which has been unceasingly upheld since the convention was instituted in 1895.

Small wonder that a traditionally rich Hindu, whom everybody endearingly called Annachi, who lived bang opposite the Mar Thoma Church at Kozhencherry, would make arrangements every year to supply butter milk to quench the thirst of thousands of people who attended the convention. Mugs of butter milk which contained pieces of chilli, ginger and curry leaves would be served from a catamaran.

The lovable Annachi is dead and gone and so is the tradition of the butter milk. People now prefer to come in their own cars and drink bottled "mineral water". For two days that I spent at Maramon, I could not spot anybody arriving there by boat. Instead, I spotted several air-conditioned Volvo buses in which the faithful arrived. Haphazard parking of cars and buses was a problem that agitated the organisers. Most announcements at the convention pertained to wrong parking of vehicles.

One tradition that is still continued is not allowing policemen to register a presence in the convention area. The organisers take pride in claiming that throughout the last 114 years, there had never been a law and order problem at Maramon. Those days, the priests would stand at various points holding nothing more than a small stick to control the thousands who assembled there. The stick was the equivalent, not of the lathi the policeman wielded, but the staff that a shepherd carried to guide his flock.

A few years ago, this tradition came under attack when some fundamentalist organisations tried to kick up a shindy over a government initiative to control the flow of the Pampa to prevent sand erosion. But the church successfully resisted the pressures to post policemen on the sand bed.

Another tradition that is followed even today is the involvement of volunteers in erecting the pandal, which can seat over a lakh of people. It has been and it continues to be the responsibility of the parishes in and around Maramon not only to provide manpower but also the resources to build the pandal.

Maramon had its social relevance too. For the Syrian Christians of Travancore, it was quite common for the parents of marriageable boys and girls to look for suitable alliances at Maramon. The little pandal, meant for women who have suckling children, was the venue where hundreds of marriages were finalised. Soon after the Maramon convention, there would be a sudden spurt in marriages in the region.

Maramon also served other larger purposes. For instance, the "one-lakh house project" of the Kerala Government when the late Mr M.N. Govindan Nair was the Housing Minister had its genesis on the sand bed of Maramon. It was the call of the then Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church, Dr Yuhanon Marthoma, to build houses for the poor and his own involvement in it that encouraged the Kerala Government to initiate the ambitious house-building project, the first of its kind in the country.

It was, therefore, appropriate that the church thought the best way to commemorate the 90th birthday of the then Metropolitan, Dr Philipose Mar Chrysostem, was to build 1,500 houses for the poor, each costing not less than Rs 60,000. The social commitment of the church found its expression in the campaign against consumption of liquor, taking care of the destitute, the mentally unsound and the spiritually poor. All such projects had its beginning at Maramon.

When it began, it was known as the Pentecost Convention. Those days the practice was to repeat each sentence uttered by the main speaker by people, blessed with loud voice, standing at vantage points in the sprawling pandal. It was in 1946 that this practice came to an end when Dr Stanley E. Jones, who holds the distinction of addressing the Maramon Convention the maximum number of times, donated a public address system with the help of a church in the US.

Among one of the first speakers was Rev T. Walker. It was a pleasant surprise for the assembled at Maramon in 2008 to find Rev Walker's successor bringing a copy of the Bible his predecessor had used at Maramon for his sermons. Another great speaker was Sadhu Sunder Singh, born a Sikh, who spoke at Maramon several times from 1918 to 1920.

Two years ago the convention became significant as one of the main speakers was a lady, Ms Anne Graham Lots, daughter of the world-famous evangelist Billy Graham. It was the first time a lady was enlisted as a main speaker. Her invigorating sermons, based on the Book of Revelation, revealed that she was indeed the worthy daughter of a worthy father.

The Maramon convention has spawned a large number of conventions in the area by all denominations and religions. The Hindu Convention, held a week before the Maramon Convention at Ayroor on the sand bed of the same river, is one of the prominent among them. Maramon is a symbol of ecumenism and unity in diversity.
  Chilika, a place to chill
  By Elizebath Philip  
  AS I come from the land of lakes and lagoons, and have done a lot of boating and cruising in the backwaters and rivers of Kerala and many other states and countries, I brushed aside my friend's suggestion of cruising on the Chilika lake on my visit to Bhubaneshwar.

But when I heard from the locals about Orissa's Chilika lake, its beauty, its vastness, the presence of dolphins, small, beautiful and exotic islands with a temple, bird sanctuary etc, I was thrilled at the idea of boating on the still waters of Chilika and watching the Dolphins dancing to the nature's tunes.

The road to Chilika was good, unlike the Cuttack-Paradip State Highway we travelled the previous day on our way to Erasama, a subdivision worst affected by the Super Cyclone in 1999.

The construction of the highway was to be completed in two years. The deadline expired in 2009 end. Yet, not even half the work has been completed. Erasama is in Jagatsinghpur district, a traditional stronghold of the leftists. While passing through the district headquarters and other places in Orissa, we could see huge hoardings of POSCO.

POSCO is a South Korean steel company. If everything goes as planned, India's largest steel plant will come up close to the Paradip port, through which the largest quantity of iron ore is exported to countries like Japan and China. POSCO will bring the single-largest foreign direct investment in the country.

Though Erasama is not a tourist place, I preferred to accompany my husband who, as Director of Pratichi (India) Trust, looks after a project there. I recalled the magnitude of the killer cyclone and the devastation it had caused, as I had handled the insurance claims at the Head Office those days.

The locals say the condition of Erasama was very backward and pitiable before the cyclone. The subdivision got noticed because of the cyclone and has developed much since then. Still, there are only kutcha roads, mostly thatched houses and huts. There are few pucca houses, save the shelter homes built by the Tatas, the Maharashtra Government etc.

Erasama has to go a long way in getting minimum facilities like good roads, high schools, colleges, hospitals etc. The locals are hopeful of a better future. Every year during the anniversary of the cyclone, Erasama gets some media attention.

The area is famous for prawn cultivation. The place is ideal for such cultivation as river water and seawater mingle here. Prawns grow better when such mingling occurs. A colleague helped us to procure tiger prawns, which we had to our heart's content that evening.

At Erasama, when I heard that there was a beach nearby, I thought of spending some time there. The Siali seashore is just 10 kms away from Erasama. Though I had to negotiate kutcha roads, it was worth the trouble. I enjoyed the long beach, which is quiet, clean and naturally beautiful, with a forest on one side. The approach road is now under construction. Once there is proper connectivity, this beach can be developed into a beautiful tourist location like Kovalam in Kerala.

We set out for Chilika early in the morning. Chilika is about 110 kms from Bhubaneswar. The NH5 passes through Khurda, known for the IIT and AIIMS. Go straight on the road and you will reach Vizag and, then, Chennai. There are hills on one side and paddy fields on the other. Along the road on both sides are cashew and mango trees. I was reminded of Kerala -- the differences were in the shades of green. From the National Highway, we took a diversion and hit Nachuni on the Berhampur Road. Soon, we reached Chilika.

The Chandipur beach and Chilika lake are the favourite spots of nature lovers. Chilika, being closer to Bhubaneswar, is the most frequently visited. It is a favourite place of birdwatchers. Chilika is one of the designated international wetlands as per the Ramsar Convention, a global treaty for conservation of important international wetlands.

The lake sprawls over a vast area -- 1165 sq kms. But for the absence of roaring waves, it looks like sea. Chilika is stated to be Asia's largest brackish water lake and the second largest in the world.

It also attracts the largest number of migratory birds, a claim I could not check. It is in the eastern coast of Orissa and is approached from three districts -- Satapada in Puri, Barkul in Khurda and Ganjam. As Puri was part of another itinerary, we decided on Barkul, little realizing that we would miss the beautiful sight of dolphins, as dolphins are located in the Satapada area.

A lot of ferryboats, fishing boats and motorboats were on the lake. We preferred a ferryboat. Though its capacity is 16, they carry around 18-20 people. There are many islands like Nalabana -- famous for the bird sanctuary; Birds and Rajhans -- a haven for migratory and local birds and Kaliaji -- the temple of Goddess Kaliaji, the presiding deity of Chilika.

It took almost one hour to reach Kaliaji. It was over-crowded, though it was a weekday. There is heavy rush on weekends, the boatman said. I felt the crowd could be better managed as devotees were struggling with different queues for darshan.

The cruising was wonderful. We saw many fishermen in various stages of fishing -- some spreading the nets and some collecting the fish from the nets. It was beautiful to see the sea gulls and birds hover over these boats to have their share of catch hoodwinking the fishermen. The water was green and clear and the children in the boat were splashing the water in merriment.

Chilika is a must visit. I thoroughly enjoyed the cruise, though I missed the dolphins. I resolved that I should go to Satapada, if ever I make another visit to Bhubaneswar.
  Mysore -- City of Kings
  By Nina Varghese  
  MYSORE is a laidback place, so when the city appeared on the New York Times' list of "31 Must See Destinations of 2010", no one was more surprised than Mysoreans themselves. The city, which attracts more than 25 lakh visitors to its key attraction, the Mysore Palace, every year, is not quite on the tourism map as yet.

The talk in travel and tourism circles is how to market and brand this city of kings. "Mysore needs to find the number one slot when branding," says Cherian Ramapuram, Managing Director of Orange Country, the award-winning plantation resort. Speaking at a tourism conference, he elaborated that most of the slots had already been taken by other Indian cities and states.

Ramapuram points out that Kerala had cornered a slot for ayurveda, so much so, that most people believe that ayurveda originated in Kerala, while it belongs to all of India.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu have grabbed slots for nature and temples, respectively, though Karnataka has an equal share of these tourism assets. But Karnataka has been lagging behind when it comes to branding, he said.

Travel industry sources feel that the best bet would be to grab the wellness tag, considering Mysore is already on the world map, as far as yoga is concerned.

The city gets hundreds of visitors who come to learn yoga and also to hone their existing skills. Yoga coupled with spas, ayurveda and hospitals could well pave the way for Mysore to find itself in the number one slot.

"We are venturing into wellness in a big way and trying to educate our members, especially those in the southern states," Rajinder Rai, President of the Travel Agents Association of India (Taai), told this reporter.

"The South has the best hospitals, weather and doctors, as well as the three essential elements of wellness -- spa, ayurveda and medical infrastructure," he said.

However, there are some serious roadblocks that have to be cleared before the city can find itself on the world map.

"Connectivity is the biggest problem facing Mysore and tourism in general. Although the airport has been ready since September last year, there are no direct flights from Mumbai, Chennai or Delhi. Airlines feel that operating flights to Mysore is not quite commercially feasible. "It will happen, but might take a little time," says Vinay Luthra, Managing Director, Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation. "We brought in 10 flights for Dussehra," he said.

Luthra felt that commercial flights connecting Mumbai, Chennai and Kochi would help make Mysore a part of the tourism circuit. However, one hopes that Government planners will not bring in charters and low-end tourists that do more harm than good.

But till that happens, visitors and corporate travellers to Mysore have to use the Bangalore airport, a good four hours away, making air travel very tedious. Taking personal experiences into account, it takes longer to commute from Bangalore to Mysore than from Dubai to Bangalore.

Train and bus connections are more convenient out of Bangalore. The Shatabdi runs from Chennai to Mysore six times a week. The connections to Kerala from Mysore are scant. While the journey itself, through the Western Ghats could be scenic; it is long, tedious and back breaking.

The other drawback is that Mysore has only 4,000 guest rooms, so a great majority of the 25 lakh visitors to the city are mostly day trippers. For the financial benefits of tourism to trickle down, tourists have to increase the length of their stay. Tourism planners in places like Singapore and Dubai, where tourism is a major contributor to the national GDP, have evolved methods to make tourists spend more time in one place. The first criterion is having enough guest rooms.

Power, or the lack of it, is a major problem facing Karnataka, which has ambitious plans of having surplus power in five years, by adding 6,000 MW of generating capacity. But at the moment, Mysore has crippling power cuts, sometimes six hours a day, which cuts into productivity, not just of the tourism sector, but all industries.

Mysore is like a hidden gem with fabulous climate, palaces, museums, wild life sanctuary, art and cuisine. The city has the most number of culinary items named after it; though searching for the authentic Mysore masala dosai can be quite frustrating, as places which make the real thing are few.

The big question is: Will branding Mysore be a corporate effort backed by the government or will it evolve over a period of time, like all else in this city?
The writer is a senior business journalist, now based in Mysore.
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