Category Archives: Weird and wonderful

Offbeat café, intriguing museums, compelling art and other stories.

A ghosthunters guide to Mumbai

In India, there is a small crew of people that go out at night, armed with EMF sensors or detectors, EVP recorders, motion sensor cameras, and touch sensors, to explore myths about the paranormal. Yes, you can call them desi ghosthunters.

One such team is The Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS), group of paranormal investigators and researchers, parapsychologists, demonologists, spiritual healers, and counsellors. Their modus operandi includes heading to “active spots” armed with equipment to try to record and, later, analyse these abnormal energies.

“Before we go to a location,” says demonologist Sarbajeet Mohanty, “we try to get a recent picture of the location so that psychic mediums can give a reading of what to expect or find at the locations, which provides a roadmap for the investigators.” Mohanty founded PAIRs with psychic developer Pooja Vijay.

Disclaimer: PAIRS highly recommends you do not venture into these places without proper knowledge. All PAIRS investigators have been researching this field from the past 6 to 10 years and are certified. Enter at your own risk. 

Amar Dham Crematorium, Panvel

Cemeteries and crematoriums are apparently common hunting grounds for ghosts – location certainly does matter. This particular burial ground has spooked many a passer-by. One story goes that a woman crossing the street outside at night suddenly got goose bumps, and at that very moment the nearby lights went off, including those on her scooter. Others have spoken about seeing apparitions and moving shadows and hold them responsible for the accidents that happen in the area.

During their investigations, the PAIRS psychic team found that the location had multiple spirits, as recorded through changes on the temperature sensor and EMF sensor.

Amar Dham Crematorium, HOC Colony, Panvel, Navi Mumbai 410 206.

Mumbai Pune Highway

The story goes that PAIRS member Jignesh Unadkat was riding his motorcycle on the highway, near Bhingari, Old Panvel, when a wayward car forced him to the side of the road. It was then that he realised there was someone standing in front of him, and he veered off the road to avoid hitting the person. His bike was damaged, but he survived. When he went to look for the person, he realised there was no one there.

A few days later, Jignesh, along with Mohanty, returned to the spot to investigate this strange phenomenon, armed with a PAIRS Spirit Box app (developed by Brian Holloway of Soul Seekers, Javier Sanz of  Spain Paranormal). “Jignesh got two replies to questions,” says Mohanty. “One was, ‘Do you recognize me…my bike overturned here some days back’ to which he got a ‘yes’. The other was ‘How did you die?’ to which he got a one-word reply, ‘accident’.”

While this may be a “real” story, there are many legends associated with the place. Another story has a well-dressed lady asking for a lift. Those that don’t stop are treated to a vision of the women running alongside their vehicle, with an evil smile, saying, “You’re next”. Many crashes have been attributed to it. Mohanty says there is also a ‘fake road appearing out of nowhere, which if taken leads to death’.

Vasai Fort

Vasai Fort, or Bassein Fort, is a sprawling structure built by the Portuguese that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The fort has been under the control of the Portuguese, the British, and the Marathas and has been silent witness to many deaths. It is one of the many places in the city that locals truly believe is haunted – though that didn’t stop Coldplay from shooting their video there.

Shishir Kumar, former journalist and founder-president of paranormal research organisation Team Pentacle, and his team conducted an investigation at Vasai Fort. Initially, they didn’t think it was haunted because it still had many people living in the vicinity. “The first time,” says Kumar, “everything went smoothly and none machines worked. Then I used this trick where I asked the spirits to clap as I clap, and that started happening.”

Mohanty adds that their psychic readings reveal a woman who was murdered and whose body was dumped near the well in the fort. Village lore says a lady, assumed to be a witch, committed suicide in that same well, but her body was never found.

Vasai Fort, Killa Road, Police Colony, Vasai (w), Vasai 401201

Mukesh Mills

Mukesh Mills was built in 1870s by the East India Company and was shut down in 1892 after a strike. Soon after, a fire broke out, killing thousands of people. This dark history is possibly what led to it being considered haunted. The mill is a popular shooting location, and there are many stories of how no one, not even film crew, venture there after dark. In fact actor Bipasha Basu has claimed she was unable to speak her dialogues in one room because of some strange power.

PAIRS’ investigations and psychic readings reveal that the location has “some evil and negative spirits from its dark and painful history”. “Such psychic readings are a warning for us not to venture in there,” says Mohanty, “especially if you’re a beginner.”

Mukesh Mills, Narayan A Sawant Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

St John Baptist Church

This Portuguese Jesuit Church was abandoned in the 1800s after an epidemic. Although no one visits the place any more, a Mass is conducted once a year. The claim is that the church is haunted by the evil spirit of a bride who scares anyone who enters the place. In 1977, an exorcism was conducted there, and everyone present suddenly heard a loud moaning sound and maniacal laughter. It was believed that the exorcism destroyed the spirit.

In 2016, a PAIRS team visited the space to check if it was an “active” location. “We were about to enter,” says Mohanty, “when Pooja told us that a woman was watching us from the wall nearby. When inside, we heard footsteps running away from the place. Later, one of the team members told us that while he was texting, out of the corner of his eye he saw an apparition near him. All this happened in broad daylight.” Mohanty intends to return to do proper investigation.

St John Baptist Church, Seepz Road D, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400 096

 

[This story was first published in The City Story: THE GHOSTHUNTERS’ GUIDE TO PARANORMAL MUMBAI]

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An evening at Vienna’s Central Cemetery

It was meant to be a search for the final resting places of music legends Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. In two hours, however, the Central Cemetery in Vienna gave us all the trappings of a horror flick with a surprising cast of characters. No, they weren’t the ghosts of music past. 

It all started quite harmlessly. We had earlier visited the St Marx Cemetery that once contained the remains of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and now just had a representative grave. 

 It seemed only right that we follow the trail of his remains, which were resting at the city’s largest cemetery, Vienna Central Cemetery or Zentral Friedhof. His grave was moved in 1891 on the occasion of his 100th death anniversary. Another attraction was the fact the cemetery was home to the graves of over 2.5 million souls. 

There we were, having braved a 40-minute tram ride to the cemetery, situated on the outskirts of the city at Simmering, on a cold and wet evening. On entering, we perused the map, neatly divided and numbered into sections. There was no mention of the grave we were out to find so we decided to start walking, hoping the memorial would be conspicuous enough to spot. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The oldest and largest cemetery in Vienna, much like the rest of the city, is pleasing to the eye. Every grave was different and more intricate than the rest. We spotted the normal angels and religious figures gazing beatifically down; statues of children clutching toys and pets as if they were frozen in time (creepy, yes); canopies shielded scenes from history; busts of people; They were creepy but we couldn’t help admiring the artwork; many tombstones also had the names of the architects who built them. 

Aside: History lesson  The cemetery was built in 1870 and opened on All Saints Day in 1874. It is quite interdenominational – houses a Protestant cemetery, a Muslim burial ground, two Jewish cemeteries, Russian Orthodox Burial Ground – which caused much controversy at the time. At 620 acres, it is the largest in Europe and the dead population is believed to be more than the actual population of Vienna! 

The cemetery was empty but for us, and another couple who walked ahead, frequently taking detours to hunt among the rows. We stuck to the main path, losing them in the bargain, and 40 minutes later, couldn’t find anything; even the tombstones had begun to lose their charm. 

We were ready to give up and return – the light was fading and a slight drizzle had begun – when we spotted the church. It suddenly struck us that the most important graves would be around the structure and so set off towards it. Our hunch proved right when we stumbled on the Music Graves, and there were the souls we had come to see. 

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In the centre was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; to the left was Ludwig van Beethoven, to the right was Franz Schubert and a little further away, Johannes Strauss and Johannes Brahms. 

Suitably wowed – we were in the presence of geniuses, after all – we turned back. It was only after reaching the gate, half an hour later, that we realised it was shut. We were locked in. (I confess, at this point, I had a moment of terror. I’m not a fan of cemeteries and especially not when it was getting dark and we were all alone in). A few tense moments later, we realised there was a sign for an emergency gate so we started walking back the way we had come, this time taking a short cut through the muddy paths between the graves. 

A few steps later, my friend K (who has been laughing at my attempts at stalking all the dogs I saw during my trip) suddenly said, “I saw a dog here”. We were both surprises, stray dogs don’t exist in most European countries and who would bring their pet to a cemetery. We continue walking and then in the distance, the ‘dog’ appears. It isn’t a dog but a deer and it freezes just like the idiom it gave rise to. We pull out our cameras with as little noise as possible, not wishing to scare it away before we get a shot at it. But, it scampered away. We ran into it again, a few metres away but my squeal of surprise scared it. It seemed alone and we couldn’t spot any other deer or any other animal around, leading us to wonder what it was doing in an empty cemetery. 

We will never know. 

Conclusion: After walking through half the cemetery in the rain, we found the tiny emergency gate and made our exit quickly. We don’t know what happened to the couple, we didn’t spot them anywhere.  

At: Zentralfriedhof, Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Vienna (look for group 32A).

 

[A version of this story was published in Hindu: On the Graveyard shift in Vienna on December 27, 2017]

Brno: To the market

This is the second story in a three-part series about Brno’s underground wonders. Read the first one here: Bone Season 

The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market

There’s a legend related to the tunnels under the vegetable market that I discovered in the book, The Czech Republic – The Most Haunted Country in the world? It says that the beautiful Countess Amalia murdered her lovers – 13 in all – and hid their bodies underground. She still roams the tunnels, ensuring the bodies remained hidden. If true, she is doing a good job, because during my one hour tour of the tunnels, I didn’t spot any bodies.

The Labyrinth underneath Zelný trh (Vegetable Market) is located about eight metres, and 200 steps below one of the oldest squares in the city. The individual cellars, I’m told, were discovered in the last decade. In 2009, they were reinforced and connected via passageways.

I join a Spanish tour group, lurking in the back with my English audio guide, which though informative, is boring. Luckily, the tour is fascinating.

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The Alchemist’s lab.

The guided tour is actually an exhibition offering insight into the different uses of the cellars. In the early 13th century, the cellars under the Horní trh (Upper Market) were used for storage of food, wine, and beer. My audio guide points out the barrels of wine and beer, which were ‘refrigerated’ by placing them on wooden grates. An alchemist’s lab shows us how medieval doctors functioned, and a wine cellar and tavern are reminders of the local tradition of winemaking. We learn about the different sources of light used back then, from the first torches to oil lamps. Our guide allows us to reference our cavemen ancestors, by trying to start a fire using two stones. She isn’t disappointed when few of us can.  

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The wine tavern.

The most chilling section is saved for last. Here, we are shown replicas of torturing devices and punishments used on dishonest people. In a corner, by itself, is the much-publicised cage of fools. In the olden days, the small iron cage was stuffed with people – the unusual height meant you couldn’t sit or stand in it. A few braver members of the group attempt squatting uncomfortably but give up after a few seconds.

 

At the exit, I ask the guide about the legend of the Countess. She dismisses me with a wry smile.

Information: Located at Zelný trh 21, 65878. Closed on Monday; 9 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost: 80 Kč to 160 Kč

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno

Going underground in Brno

The Moravian capital of Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, has much to offer those looking for a break from Prague. Their biggest attractions are down under. There is a has a thriving underground network of crypts, museums, and even a hotel, showcasing bones, Cold War mementos, and torture devices.

This is a three-part story. Read part 2: The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market.

Church of St. James Ossuary

It is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet, as I tour the crypt beneath the Church of St James, I’m underwhelmed. The entire place is about 100 metres in length, with just a main chamber and two side passages.  

Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars. They’re made up of the remains of 50,000 people – skulls bones, tinted yellow because of lack of exposure to sunlight. They stare at me, hollow-eyed and un-moving.

In the central chamber, I come across the creepiest chapel – it has a life-size cross and pulpit and ‘walls’ made of bones; in the far corner is a small stained glass mural. Nearby are two glass coffins – one has the skeleton of a grown man, and the other, the bones of a 13-year-old child.

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The central chamber has a small chapel and brackets holding candles, which in the evening, throw light and shadows across the skulls.

There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but, they’re well within reach. Around me, many are surreptitiously touching them. The thought of disturbing the tightly packed bones and have them fall on my head is enough to turn me away. At the end of one passage, is a pyramid of just skulls, some of which still have decayed teeth in them, making it seem like they’re grinning at me.

A few modern sculptures, in black, provide visual relief, including a statue of a guardian angel. The other relief is tonal – somber music composed especially for the especially for the ossuary, streams over the speakers.

The tour is self-guided. I refer to a pamphlet and elsewhere, displays in Czech and English. The sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The original crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate the remains from the cemetery of the church of St James. The initial three rooms filled up quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate more bones. These were victims of the biggest serial killers of the time: plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once the ossuary was full, it was covered up and lay in oblivion for 200 years. It was discovered in 2001 as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, cleaning them and rearranging them back. The ossuary opened to the public in 2012. 

It’s not just all bones. Along the passages are tombstones, from the original graves. At the entrance is a mini exhibition, showing old photos of the church and cemetery.

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My tour has taken me just 20 minutes but, I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I silently say the Latin prayer inscribed on the marble wall outside: Eternal rest grant unto them….

The ossuary is located at Jakubské náměstí; it is closed on Monday; 9.30 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost 70 Kč to 140 Kč. 

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno

Still life in Prague

It isn’t often that I see naked men on the street. These two stand proud in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to Franz Kafka. The tourists milling about aren’t interested in learning about the life of the tortured genius. Their voyeurism is basic. They watch in delight as the men move their bronze penises to spell out quotes from famous city residents. On moving closer, I realise the men are urinating into a puddle shaped like the map of the Czech Republic.

‘The Piss’ is one of the more whimsical works of contemporary and controversial artist, David Černý. When it was created in 2004, many said he was showing his displeasure at his country joining the European Union. Others said it was a reference to the many invaders in Czech history. I soon learn that the artist, like his mechanical figures, enjoys pissing people off.

Černý’s art is a social commentary and the city of his birth, Prague, is his playground.

The Czech capital is rich in historic imagery, from the Baroque statues that line Charles Bridge to the horse-riding monument at Wenceslas Square. The public art at Prague’s squares, parks and streets is alternative and experimental, amusing and irreverent, playful and provocative.

A troubled past

On a narrow alleyway near the Old Town Square, a glance upward reveals the figure of a man about to commit suicide. This is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, or what the locals call ‘Hanging Man’. Another Černý special, it has a bearded Sigmund Freud hanging by his right hand, at the end of a beam. This sculpture hints at the hopelessness of the psychoanalyst’s life and his phobia of dying. The other meaning is more symbolic. Černy called Freud “the intellectual face of the 20th century” and perhaps, this is the artist’s way of pondering the role of intellectuals in this century.

Hanging man

The Hanging Man is such a lifelike figure that when it was first put up, local police got a lot of calls about a man committing suicide.

I leave Freud hanging and head out in search of another troubled genius. Self-doubt and depression had plagued Kafka all his life. Černý represents this through an 11-m, 45-tonne stainless-steel kinetic bust of the writer. The ‘Head of Franz Kafka’ rests near the office where he was a clerk. The head consists of 42 motorised layers that move independently, metamorphosing into the writer’s face only for a split second.

Another strange tribute to Kafka lies in the old Jewish Quarter, in the neighbourhood where he lived, worked and wrote. In it, sculptor Jaroslav Róna has a mini version of the writer riding on the shoulders of an empty suit, a reference to a passage in Kafka’s short story, Description of a Struggle. It’s a surreal tribute, slightly ruined by tourists touching the statue’s feet and sitting on each other’s shoulders, mimicking the pose. I wonder if it would depress Kafka to see this base devaluation of art.

Kafka monument

“I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot..”

In the streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter is a monument that truly does depress. At the base of Petřín Hill, I climb the stairs to find six naked figures. Unlike the gleeful naked men in ‘The Piss’, these men are zombie-like, their faces a mask of pain and despair. This is Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek’s ‘Memorial to the Victims of Communism’. The six figures, in different stages of disintegration, descend a flight of stairs. A bronze strip tells us of the losses — 205,486 arrested; 170,938 forced into exile; 4,500 dead in prisons; 327 shot while trying to flee and 248 executed. Only one figure is whole; the rest are missing body parts, and the last one has just limbs. For a monument that’s a sombre reminder of the perils of despotism, the setting couldn’t be more picturesque — the surrounding garden and paths are blooming with colour.

Local legends

The most scenic view is at Prague’s oldest bridge, the Charles Bridge. I weave my way through street musicians, artists and selfie-sticks to admire the 30 Baroque statues lining its balustrade. I’m searching for a legend, which I find at the feet of the statue of St John of Nepomuk. John was a priest in Prague, under King Wenceslas IV. He was thrown into the river for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to the king, who suspected her of having an affair. It is believed that touching the plaque commemorating his martyrdom brings good luck. The brass portion I run my hand over is smooth, and gleams bright against the blackened surroundings. Nearby is a plaque of a dog, whose shining body indicates that it also receives attention.

St John statue

Locals dismiss this legend associated with the statue putting it down to a tourists phenomenon.

My favourite legend in the city involves a statue of a ghost. This creepy cloaked figure sits outside the Estates Theater in the Old Town, where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the première of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. The creation of Austrian artist Anna Chromy, it is said to represent the opera’s character, Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.

The cloaked figure has no face and is empty inside, possibly an allusion to the emptiness of Don Giovanni’s soul. Local legend has it that pictures taken without a flash reveal the image of a face inside the empty cloak. My photos reveal nothing but a black hole but I revel in the possibility of a spectre haunting this ghostly figure.

Il Commendatore

The artist created a similar Cloak of Peace (Pieta) in Salzburg.

 

It’s what makes Prague a fascinating city. Every statue has a story to tell, even if some are more believable than others.

Pussies galore: Cat Café in Budapest

Why would someone who isn’t fond of cats enter a café dedicated to them? Curiosity, I say, and it didn’t harm me or the cats.

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cat blog

Budapest has a Cat Café, and a Cat Pub (by the same owners) which surprised me considering all I saw, everywhere, on my visit there were dogs. The café is home to a dozen fluffy felines, who will wander about aimlessly, tails brushing against you and just out of reach hands itching to pet them. The café rules, handed over with the menu, are simple: you don’t bother the cats unless they come to you. The menu also comes with detailed information about the cats present there. You can admire them from afar, or with special permission, feed them treats (you’ve to order them off the menu). 

The feline wonderland had 14 gorgeous creatures, curled up on cushions, on plush beds and scratching posts and shelves. The cafe has huge rooms, one of which serves as the cats’ playground, so the animals have plenty of places to hide. Don’t be surprised if one, Pongo, jumps at you when you enter the bathroom. He loves the sinks in there, and will sneak up behind you to drink water when you open the tap.  

 

It’s a good place to go and take a paws. Sip on their selection of coffee (it comes decorated with cat paws) and munch on their cakes, served on cat-themed plates, while trying to ignore the hungry eyes that follow your every move. 

Note: The staff is unfriendly but the cats are adorable. The place is not recommended for people who have fur allergies, and hate cats.   

Cat Café Budapest is located on Révay utca 3 (closest landmark is St Stephen’s Cathedral); it is open from 10am to 9 pm; log on to catcafebudapest.hu/.

Let’s go LEGO!

We walked into the museum and paused, allowing our jaws to gently drop to the floor. Ahead of us was a room filled with glass, behind which lay bricks, lovingly shaped and turned into different scenes. To the left was a section dedicated to Formula racing, further ahead were cranes and construction sites, followed by trains and  finally, other vehicles. The middle section was like a city in itself with little houses, a police station, trains, factories and little people going about their daily work. 

It was a veritable treasure trove of LEGO at Prague’s LEGO museum. 

Once we picked up our jaws off the floor, we walked through the two floors, marvelling at some of the structures, pressing switches and button that made the planes and trains move and exclaiming in delight like little children. 

Here’s what to find: 

Star Wars 

If you’re one of the millions of people who worship the cult space saga, the museum’s top floor is where you can go and pay homage. There are battleships, beloved characters and scenes from the menu. I am not a fan but was impressed at the intricacy and the detailing of the structures. My friend though, was like a kid in a candy store (he loved LEGO and Star Wars), even pressing his nose  against the glass for a glimpse of the battleships. 

 

Harry Potter

As a Potterhead, I consume the Harry Potter world in every possible form. I was excited on hearing the museum had scenes from the book and was expecting a grand Hogwarts Castle. What we did see can only be described as cute – giant spiders, Hagrid’s hut, Quidditch, the classrooms, the Gryffindor tower and the characters. None of it was inspiring enough to wow me, but I did spend a happy few minutes trying to guess the exact scenes displayed. 

 

Famous (heritage) structures 

It was all there, from the pristine white Taj Mahal, the shades of red in the Kremlin to the inspiring Golden Gate Bridge. Each structure is accompanied by small snippets about how/ when it was built and other trivia. For instance: the Taj Mahal is the biggest factory set Lego has ever made, with 5,922 bricks. 

Our favourites were the Prague monuments especially the Charles Bridge – the five meter long monument was too big to capture in a single frame and was decorated with 1000 figurines. We were encouraged to look closer and observe the minute details, find our favourite Star Wars characters/ animals in it or count the coins in beggars’ bowls. The National Museum was a two meter wide model built of 1,00,000 bricks. As impressive as it was from the front, looking at it from the behind revealed different floors, visitors and exhibits too! 

Beloved characters

The museum had many popular children’s characters, from books and television – Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Blue Beard and well, Barbie and Ken. 

If you haven’t had your fill of these blocks, there is a separate play room containing stations where you can create your own masterpieces. And, like us, you can also buy your fill of LEGO characters or blocks – their selection of keychains featuring characters like Batman, Darth Vader and Wonderwoman is impressive.
The museum is located at Praha, Národní 362/31; it is open from 10 am to 8 pm; the nearest tram stop and metro station is Narodni Trida; log on to Lego Museum