Dwarika – Charming Liveliness

It was a little after 6.00 AM when I stepped out of my hotel room. It was still dark and that made me double-check my wrist watch. The morning aarti (prayer) was due at the temple at 6.30 AM. I could either watch the sunrise or attend the aarti and I still hadn’t decided which one I wanted to do. My parents preferred to stay back at the hotel as we were expecting a long day ahead.

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Pic 1: A portion of Gomti Ghat

We had arrived at Dwarika the day before. After settling down in the hotel, I had stepped out for a stroll in Gomti Ghat while my parents rested after the 4 hour drive we had from Jamnagar. Our hotel was located at Gomti Ghat and it was just a few meters from the temple.

It was late afternoon and the first thing I saw on stepping out was Sudama Setu, the suspension bridge, over Gomti River. The ghat had as many people as there were cows. There was a camel too offering rides with its owner and it just seemed so out of place. Street vendors spread out their wares and tiny shops dotted the ghat. Someone was also seeking donations over a loudspeaker for feeding cows. I turned around and spotted the temple Shikara (spire) just opposite to the ghat.

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Pic 2: A Sadhu all set for his evening rituals.

This part of the world looked so different from the hi-tech world of Bangalore – reason enough for the sense of excitement I felt. The thought that it was Christmas day and for the first time I was in a not-so-Christmassy set up amused me even more. I walked leisurely towards the point where Gomti River meets Arabian Sea while enjoying the old world charm around me.

An interesting thing about Gomti River is that, its water recedes during the day and one can walk to the middle of the river, in the mornings the river gets filled with water once again.

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Pic 3: Sudama Setu as the Sun had started conspiring with the sky and the sea

Somewhere on the way, I stopped to have a cup of tea from a roadside Chaiwala (tea seller). Meanwhile, the Sun was busy conspiring with the sea and the sky. By the time I finished my tea, the sun had started bathing the sea and sky in a burning red with tinges of orange and yellow. I hurried my pace to reach the end of the ghat to get a good glimpse of the gorgeousness that was unfolding as the sun was bidding goodbye for the day.

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Pic 4: Sunset, as I saw from Gomti River, the water had receded and I walked on the river bed.
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Pic 5: Sunset from the point where Gomti River meets Arabian Sea.
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Pic 6: The temple town after sunset as seen from the other side of Gomti River.

This morning I felt compelled to step out. All in the hope of beholding the golden colours once again. This time for sunrise. Though the morning was still dark, the ghat was abuzz with activities. It didn’t take me long to decide it was sunrise that I wanted, the morning aarti could wait for the next day.

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Pic 7: As dawn was breaking in.

Once again, all the activities in the ghat fascinated me – some were bathing in the river notwithstanding the cold December morning; some were performing Puja and releasing oil lamps onto the river; some were hurriedly walking towards the temple; some were feeding fishes; some were buying sea shells; and so on and so forth.

The cows were up too, jostling to share space with their human counterparts. Few sadhus in their saffron robes wandered around aimlessly. The shops of colourful shoes and bags were opening up. Those selling Puja items had already started their business.

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Pic 8: Sudama Setu looked brilliant at sunrise.

Somewhere, I met my Chaiwala where I sipped tea while watching people – watching people happens to be one of my favourite activities. The buzzing energy all around was somewhat contagious. Everybody and everything at the ghat seemed like little stories to me.

Somewhere in the flurry of activities, nature had quietly started painting the sky in hues of yellows, oranges and reds. As the Sun peeked over the horizon, it was time for me to go back to the hotel where my parents were waiting for me.

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Pic 9: The point where Gomti River meets Arabian Sea. The river is filled to the brim in the morning.
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Pic 10: The temple shikhara seen clearly with the first rays of the sun.

I turned around and noticed the temple shikhara, which was now clearly visible with the first rays of the Sun.

I recalled last evening when we had visited the temple during the evening aarti. The temple was swarming with people. My parents didn’t dare to brave the crowd and found a place to sit instead. I went ahead and managed a quick glance of Dwarkadhish – that’s how Lord Krishna is referred to here – but not before the undisciplined crowd squashed me completely.

As always, I wondered why people become so unruly just before the actual darshan in some of these temples. All that I could think of is Lord Krishna perhaps enjoys all the attention he gets from His frenzied devotees.

Pol-ed at Ahmedabad


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A narrow network of dusty lanes and by-lanes, sunlight trickling through congested concrete, intricately carved wooden pillars and doorways, half broken creaking wooden windows, dusty wooden doors some with shining steel locks and some that appear to have been shut forever – these are just few of the things that greeted us as we stepped in through the gateway of Hari Bhakti Ni Pol.

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Pic 1: The entryway to the first Pol in our pathway – Hari Bhakti Ni Pol

‘Amdavadi Pols’ had piqued my interest when I first read about them in a newspaper article. The article had mentioned that these Pols significantly contributed to the 600-year old Ahmedabad City being declared as a world heritage by UNESCO. I was intrigued and the article gave only a faint idea about Pols.

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Pic 2: This structure stood prominently on our left as we approached Hari Bhakti Ni Pol
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Pic 3: This structure stood prominently on our right as we approached Hari Bhakti Ni Pol

Pols (pronounced as Poles) are Ahmedabad’s cultural identity and represent a unique legacy. Therefore, it featured in my list of things to explore in the city. During this trip across some places of Gujarat, I was with my parents and exploring Pols wasn’t something I could do with them. Hence, I was looking out for an opportunity to slip out on my own and go Pol-hopping.

A cousin sister happened to be in Ahmedabad for some work on the same day. She called me saying that she had read about these old havelis (mansions) in the in-flight magazine and wanted to go visit them. I instantly knew it was the Pols she’s talking about. Both of us hatched a plan and set out in the afternoon for our most looked forward to walk through Amdavadi Pols. The enriching experience of the 3-hour walk surpassed our expectations and we wished we would have had time for more.

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Pic 4: Intricate patterns and motifs have stood the test of time

The word Pols is derived from the Sanskrit word Pratoli, which means gate. Pols are a conglomeration of houses usually inhabited by people and families linked together through caste, culture or profession. They are living testimonies of the social unrest that existed in the region hundreds of years ago. Each Pol remains guarded by its own entry gate. In earlier days, these gates would be shut at night. Each Pol also has its exclusive secret exit gate, which is privy to Pol members only. During an attack, men would defend the entry gate, while women and children would escape into the labyrinth of pathways through the secret exit gate.

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Pic 5: Doorway to another Pol that we encountered somewhere in the maze
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Pic 6: A close look at the doorway, doesn’t it seem like it has millions of tales to tell!
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Pic 7: A chabutro, PC: Flickr by FabIndia (lost the picture I had clicked.)

Each Pol also has a dedicated temple and a chabutro or bird feeder. Chabutro are tall poles that the people of Ahmedabad put up for birds. These were built with the idea of providing home to birds as trees were chopped off to build the city. A thoughtful gesture perhaps but replacing trees with man-made cement poles – I wish they knew better!

Pols are located within the walled city of Ahmedabad and have no space for motor vehicles. The narrow winding alleys are best explored on foot, bicycles or two wheelers. Apparently, there are more than 300 such Pols. While many people have moved out to live in better localities, many still prefer living in the Pols. Almost all the heritage houses in the Pols we visited were in a dismal state. I hope the authorities are aware and do plan to renovate some of them. Or else it will be a sad loss of heritage.

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Pic 8: That may look like a door to somebody’s home but is part of a narrow public pathway in the Pol!

We walked from one dusty narrow lane to another, crisscrossing and trying to make sense of the maze that we were enthusiastically navigating. Nearly at every turn in the narrow lanes, we bumped into either cows or oncoming two wheelers. We came across a number of Pols in our pathway – Hari Bhakti Ni Pol, Khadia Pol, Fatasa Pol, Sheth Ni Pol, and Sakari Ser Pol.

Somewhere, we entered a Pol temple where we offered our prayers to Lord Krishna, who was the residing deity. There we met and chatted with a Baa whose toothless smile and wrinkled face stole our hearts and we felt like giving her a tight hugShe offered us laddoos as prasad and spoke at length in Gujarati while we tried our best to figure out what she had to say with very little success whatsoever.

My cousin didn’t miss a chance to peep through open windows whenever she found one, a habit she carries from childhood. At one time, she discovered an entire room filled with jewellery boxes and two men sitting in a corner with whom she went on to a serious discussion about the prices, where they supply those boxes, etc. In another, she found people busy sewing some kind of traditional stuff, maybe bags she thought not bothering to get into a discussion this time.

We realised that many Pols are part of some cottage industries that allow people to earn their livelihood without leaving their homes. We also noticed that though the pathways and the entryways were very narrow, the houses inside were quite spacious.

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Pic 10: Notice the intricately patterned pillar, the play of light and shadow, and I loved that rusted bicycle, which compliments the background so well!

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Pic 11: A haveli that was simple and not so elaborate.

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Pic 12: Those rich and intricate patterns once again, covered in heaps of dust!
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Pic 13: This world of Denim where the old meets the new and my cousin couldn’t resist clicking!

My cousin was on the lookout for two specific havelis, ones she had read in the in-flight magazine – Mangaldas Ni Haveli and a certain French Haveli. Both these have been converted to hotels now. We did locate Mangaldas Ni Haveli. There were two of them – Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I and Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II.

Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I is a residential home and had a lock hanging on the front door at that point in time. Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II was the hotel. With no inhibitions, my cousin knocked on the door and it was opened by a gentleman. When she requested for a look inside, he demanded 100 bucks per person. We happily paid and took a tour of the inside. My cousin, with her penchant for interior design, was much more excited than I was.

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Pic 14: Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I – It’s residential and the front door was locked at that time.
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Pic 15: Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II – The hotel and she’s all set to knock at the door

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I had a cap on time as I had a train to catch. So, we couldn’t go looking for French Haveli. I left while my cousin continued exploring Ratan Pol, which is now a wholesale market place.

Allured by what I heard from her I just had to go explore Ratan Pol, which I did when I had a day in Ahmedabad during my return trip. Overexcited with prices that I thought were dirt cheap, I only landed up burning a hole in my pocket, but that’s for another day….

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A Day at Srinagar


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“Kaisa laaga Srinagar?” [What do you think about Srinagar?], asked the man as he handed over a bowl of chilled sewainya. Fascinated as we were seeing sewainya or vermicelli pudding available as street food and engrossed in our own animated discussions about the same, none of us payed heed to the question.

Isn’t sewainya or seviyaan a quintessential Eid festival food! Have you ever seen sewainya sold by the roadside back in Bangalore or Hyderabad! The afternoon sun glared at us as the excited discussions continued and the chilled and deliciously rich sewainya did good to calm us down.

“Toh kaisa laaga Srinagar?”, the man repeated his question. As we answered, he went on, “Kiya socha tha aane se pehle?” [What was your opinion before you came here?]; “Aise hi log Srinagar ko badnaam karte hain, tourist ko koi kuch nehi karta” [People paint a wrong picture of Srinagar, tourists are safe here]; and so on and so forth. This was not the first time we were answering such questions. Every second person we interacted with asked us similar questions.           [All of these stemming from the ongoing volatile political situation in Jammu and Kashmir].

We had a day to spend in Srinagar on our way back from Kashmir Great Lakes trek. While some people decided to explore Gulmarg, others thought of walking the streets of Srinagar to get a feel of the capital city of Jammu and Kashmir. The latter appealed to me and I decided to join them, which did not turn out to be a great idea as I soon discovered.

This group landed up spending most of their time shopping, which is something that hardly interests me. Though I do enjoy exploring local markets and indulging in a little bit of shopping too but spending the better part of the day just buying stuff does not appeal to me at all. Perhaps, going off on my own and visiting places like Mughal Gardens and Adi Shankarachaya temple would have been a better deal. Anyway, when in a group, you do what the group does.

Eventually I had to satisfy myself with only Lal Chowk and Chasme Shahi.

Lal Chowk

Lal Chowk, literally translates as Red Square, is the city center of Srinagar located in the heart of the city. Traditionally, it has been a place for political meetings and was named by left wing activists who fought Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.

Lined with a variety of shops, Lal Chowk is the oldest and most popular shopping destination in Srinagar. A place called Kokar Bazar at Lal Chowk was recommended to us for buying authentic Kashmiri dry fruits, nuts, and saffron. It being Sunday, most of Kokar Bazar was closed but the couple of shops that were open served our purpose well.

We strolled around the busy pavements of Lal Chowk absorbing the essence of Srinagar through the colourful embroidered pherans, apples at just Rs. 25 a Kilo, the prominent clock tower standing tall, the eye-catching but nearly hidden green mosque, and not to miss the unnerving presence of Army personnel at every nook and corner.

While I bought Pashminas and Kashmiri embroidered shawls for folks at home, others bought sarees and Kashmiri embroidered kurtas.

Chasme Shahi

Built around a natural spring against the backdrop of magnificent mountains, Chashma Shahi is a Mughal Garden characterized by manicured lawns, symmetrical hedges, landscaped terraces, sculpted fountains, and colourful flowers. Chashma Shahi literally translates as Royal Spring and was built in 1632 AD by Ali Mardan Khan, who was the governor of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The garden was a gift from the Emperor to his son Dara Shikoh.

The garden is split into three terraces and water flows from the uppermost level to the lowermost level through a series of pools and aqueducts, called chadars.

The water from the natural spring at Chashme Shahi is believed to have medicinal properties, which draws locals and tourists alike. It was a Sunday and hence the place was even more crowded with more locals than tourists. There is nothing much to do at Chasme Shahi, however, drinking the cool spring water did give us a dose of instant gratification.

Dal Lake

We passed by Dal Lake a couple of times during the day. Dal lake is huge and the vast sheet of water against the backdrop the Pir Panjal mountains with floating Shikaras (houseboats) look beautiful. However, Dal Lake in its urbanism appeared a little pale to us having just experienced the pristine and  untouched beauty of other alpine lakes in higher altitudes.

It was early evening when we found some time to spend beside the lake as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive from Gulmarg. With the setting sun in the background, the Shikaras mooring on the lake tempted me to take a ride but the rest of gang were too hungry and could not think beyond food. Reluctantly, I gave in and proceeded towards a restaurant instead.

Click here to read about the high altitude alpine lakes.

Food

When it comes to food, Kashmir is synonymous with Kahwa and Wazwaan. Being the tea person that I am, Kahwa was a must-have and I had my first taste high up in the mountains when it was served during the trek. Kahwa, the Kashmiri tea, flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron was perfect and easily surpassed its already fabulous reputation. Sipping Kahwa in the chilly wilderness definitely made it all the more delightful.

I am not a foodie but some of Kashmir’s signature dishes was on my list and most prominent among those was Wazwan. Wazwan is a lavish multicourse lamb-based meal that is intricately associated with Kashmiri pride, culture and identity. I learned that Wazwan is a 36-course wedding feast and no Kashmiri marriage is complete without this grand meal. Wazwan was a delight in both appearance as well as taste. I had never seen such huge spread of a single dish before – kababs, meat balls, rogan josh, ribs, korma, rice, pulao, and what not.

However, I could eat Wazwan just once and that too could not go beyond one-fourth of what was served. I struggled with the overdose of mutton even though I am a non-vegetarian and Wazwan was uniquely delicious. For subsequent meals, I found myself away from the non-vegetarian section altogether and seated with my vegetarian counterparts. A very unusual me!

The vegetarian dishes were a delight too, especially the Kashmiri Saag, Dum aloo, and Kashmiri Pulao. We did check out some great restaurants including Mughal Durbar, Shamyana, and Mummy Please.

Kashmir, my visit remains incomplete and I know I will go back to explore more of you….

Luscious ‘Lwai’

An Accidental Rendezvous with the Gorgeous Waterfall

“I have a request and you can’t say no!” demanded my brother-in-law (BIL).

Now, this was coming from one of my favourite persons in the world and it was his birthday too – how could I say no! BIL declared we would be visiting a lesser known waterfall, situated in a remote corner of East Khasi Hills. Sharing my love for exploring nature, that’s how he wanted to spend his birthday. Driving his new car into the wilderness was an added incitement.

Next morning, armed with a pack of sandwiches and fruits, we set out a little later than planned. The midnight birthday celebrations had extended way into late night and we couldn’t bring ourselves to wake up early in the cold January morning.

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Pic 1: Somewhere on the way.

Driving early morning through the winding roads, surrounded by lush green pine forests in the hills is as rejuvenating as anybody’s imagination. The sun was up but its gentle morning warmth did little to ease the chill hanging in the air at that hour. Our windows were rolled up and the music was on as we happily and merrily sang along, though  interrupted now and then by the birthday wishes that kept pouring in.

Soon we were out of city limits and headed towards the village where the waterfall was located. On the way we stopped at Laitlum to have breakfast at a Kong Shop. [I will write about these shops another time].

Situated 25 Km. away from Shillong, Laitlum is famous for its sprawling green meadows and breathtaking valley. We thought our destination was just 30 min away but a couple of local villagers informed that the road beyond was really bad and it would take us another 3 hours. BIL and I contemplated whether it was a good idea, given that we were already late.

Suddenly, I recalled someone telling me about a waterfall around Laitlum. A quick confirmation from the locals and we decided to explore this place instead. Our original destination was pushed for another time.

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Pic 2: The undulating dusty road with open meadows.

The narrow winding road beside the Kong Shop lead to Thangsning village and that’s where Lwai falls, also known as Thangsning falls, is located.

BIL maneuvered his swanky new car meticulously into the narrow village road. The dusty lane with wide open meadows on both sides and a few scantily scattered village homes was an instant dose of excitement and happiness. This is our thing! How much we love such things!

The lane went on for a pretty long distance and there was no indication of any waterfall nearby. There was nobody around whom we could ask. Google was of no help either.

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Pic 3: A small flock of goats basking in the winter sun.
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Pic 4: A village woman carrying a huge quantity of dried grass while managing her children.

We arrived at an intersection where this winding dusty lane met another similar road. Not knowing what to do, we parked our car here. In just a few seconds, another car arrived and parked in front of us. While I stepped out and started capturing a few pictures, BIL went ahead to talk to the two gentlemen who had also stepped out of their car.

Quite surprisingly, they were also looking for the same waterfall. They were native Khasis and had also come from Shillong. One of them had trekked through the jungle to the waterfall before and they were now trying to figure out the motorable road to it. We decided to join them. This was immensely helpful as they could ask around in the local language.

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Pic 5: The concrete cement steps to the base of the waterfall amidst greens of all shades.

In a short while, we located the falls. We parked our cars and stepped out into the soothing lush green hills. The gushing sound of water teased us though the falls wasn’t visible yet.

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Pic 6: We are nearly at the base where the water is flowing on to an adjoining stream.

The sun was strong now and the sky a deep blue. A flight of 250 concrete steps took us down to the bottom of the falls and there it was right in front of us the mesmerizing cascading beauty gracefully making its way down into a pool of pure turquoise.

There were two columns of water falling from a height of about 100 feet. The two water columns seemed to be in some kind of a friendly banter as they giggled excitedly hurrying their way down to touch the pool below as though in some kind of a playful competition with each other.

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Pic 7: The elegant Lwai falls in its entirety. There will be four times more water later in the year.

The turquoise pool shone in its sparkling clear water through which peeped rounded yellow pebbles from the bottom of the pool. Rocks of various shapes and sizes lay exposed all around happily soaking in the winter sun making merry as long as the party lasts. Come rains and all of them will be swallowed by the increasing water of the falls.

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Pic 8: Isn’t that turquoise pool simply fascinating!

My excitement knew no bounds and as always a surge of emotions left me speechless. I sat there gaping at the spectacular site and silently conversed with the white falling beauty, the elegant turquoise pool, the perfectly rounded yellow pebbles, and the little platoon of happy rocks.

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Pic 9: I could sit there and stare at it for ages. I need no one. Only me and the waterfall.

The unexpected rendezvous with the two gentlemen was a pleasure beyond words. Such fluke meetings don’t ever fail to fascinate me! One of them, Antho Syiem is also an ardent nature lover just like us. In those few minutes, he shared his trekking experiences in the remote corners of Meghalaya.

With great pride he introduced us to his YouTube channel – Sorjah, through which he aims to show glimpses of his gorgeously beautiful homeland, Meghalaya, to the rest of the world. And I feel fortunate to be able to share this feeling of pride.

[Sorjah’s video on Lwai falls can be viewed here. Do check out their other videos as well.]

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Pic 10: A selfie with our new found friends.

BIL was elated and his excitement was evident as he slowly and steadily climbed up the steps. With a chronic back problem climbing a continuous flight of stairs is something he would rather avoid but today, he couldn’t stop smiling. And I knew his birthday was made!

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Pic 10: BIL, the happy man, celebrates his birthday with sandwiches and water as the sound of the waterfall sings his birthday song.

Tides of Bekal

Swaying coconut trees, rhythmic tides of the sea, and sparkling golden sand on a pristine and clean beach! Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? And if I tell you there are just a handful of people playing around in the beach. How ideal does that sound! Well, that was just how we experienced the Arabian Sea at Bekal Beach.

Bekal is one of the several beach destinations in God’s Own Country – Kerala. It’s home to the fascinating Bekal Fort, which is perched on its rocky shores, situated on one corner of the beach.

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Pic 1: The golden sands and the swaying coconut trees.

We were at Pallikara, a sleepy little lovely village in North Kerala, where all you see is green – just so characteristic of Kerala. Everything in Kerala is green! It’s like patches of concrete hidden in green unlike most other places in India where you find patches of green hidden in concrete!

It was a hot April day when we arrived at this place. As we had lunch at a roadside eatery, we found people staring at us, probably surprised by tourists at this unlikely time of the year or to see women who were on their own and look different from the ones they are used to seeing.

The shop owner had a volley of questions for us and though we displayed our disinterest, he continued. Sensing that he was probably harmless and not wanting to appear like arrogant tourists, we chit-chatted with him . The small talk turned out to be useful as he showed us a shortcut to the beach on the other side of an unmanned railway crossing that runs just behind his shop. The beach was right across and here we were all set to take an auto!

While the sweltering heat nearly baked us at the fort, the beach was much cooler. In fact, we had walked towards the beach preparing our minds to face the hot afternoon sun thinking that we would sit in the shades provided alongside the shore and just watch the gorgeous Arabian Sea. We were already roasting in the April heat of Malabar Coast since we arrived in the morning and that made us cautious.

However, the Sea was in a playful mood and seemed to have a different idea. It was cooler than we thought and we could even walk bare foot on the sand. We played in the water and walked around in the beach for a while and then went off to explore Bekal Fort.

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Pic 2: A glimpse of Bekal Fort right there at the corner.
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Pic 3: A closer view of the fort.

We came back to the Sea again in the evening. This time there were more people but still it wasn’t that crowded. We walked along the length of the beach, sat on the golden warm sand, felt the cool salty breeze brush against our face, played with the waves, followed the fast and furious crabs, and just relaxed.

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Pic 4: Dozens of these screw seashells washed ashore only to be taken away by the next tide.
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Pic 5: The only crab that I could click as it was lying still, probably about to die, it was still moving though.

Evening was slowly approaching and we decided to walk towards the rocky shore where the fort is located. The fort provides for an imposing view from the beach. However, there is no way to reach the fort from the beach, though you can climb through the rocks and approach just a section of the fort wall. The fort can be accessed only through the road.

We spent the evening sitting on the rocks with the fort behind us and the tides crashing against the rocks in front of us. It was splendid to say the least. And it was my birthday. Couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift (other than the Himalayas, of course…)!

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Pic 6: And the gorgeous sunset!

Something interesting happened in the evening. We were waiting to see the Sun slip into the sea, expecting a usual sunset that happens in most beaches. The Sun, however decided to set behind the fort providing an awesome view of the entire landscape – the magnificent fort, the setting sun, and the mighty Arabian Sea.

We watched in rapture even as the tides continued discharging their duty of systematically doing rounds of the shore, not getting distracted even once, so what if the Sun was looking gorgeously beautiful. There’s so much to learn from nature, always!

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A Walk of Faith

A Pilgrimage to the World’s Richest Temple

After the customary coconut breaking ritual on the first step and lighting a few incense sticks we were all set to start our journey. It was still dark at around 3.45 AM but the flight of concrete cement stairway was well lit with bright lights. The stairway was quite broad and divided into two halves by a railing that ran right across the center. On either side of the stairway were flat cement slabs that one can use for resting while making the arduous climb.

Accompanied by my cousin, I was on a pilgrimage to Lord Balaji Temple at Tirupati. Located in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh on Tirumala hills, Tirupati Balaji Temple is the world’s richest temple. Lord Balaji is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is also known as Venkateswara, Govinda, and Srinivasa. The Lord probably has a couple of other names too but I am not aware.

The temple receives enormous amount of donations from pilgrims, which is the main reason behind its being the richest. Pilgrims donate money, gold, precious gems, jewellery, and even demat share transfers and property deeds. They also donate their hair, which is sold by the temple authorities. It’s ironical that a country with a huge population living below the poverty line houses the world’s richest temple. India is a country of striking contrasts.

An interesting mythology is associated with this donation, which I have narrated at the end of this story.

Tirupati temple was the richest temple in India but Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple has recently disclosed incredible amount of assets discovered from a hidden place in the temple, forcing Tirupati to the second position in terms of wealth.

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Pic 1: Everything golden you see here is made of pure gold.

Tirupati Temple is the most visited religious place in South India and remains extremely crowded with an average of 50,000 to 100,000 footfalls daily. The number increases by leaps and bounds during festivals and special occasions. I had first visited the temple several years back with my family when I was in college. I hated the mad rush and thought I would never go back. Subsequently some other things led me to the temple again and I had a special spiritual experience that had brought tears to my eyes. After that, I have been to this temple 5-6 times.

The temple is accessible through a properly tarred road and one can drive up as well. I have done both – walking up as well as driving up. The walkway is a separate pathway away from the tarred road and constitutes an 11 Km distance up to the temple that passes over two of the seven Tirumala hills. The walkway is covered by a roof and well equipped with food, water, toilets, and even a dispensary.

The walk starts from a place called Alipiri, where you can deposit your luggage, if any, and your shoes. It’s a temple and you climb up barefoot. Your belongings are sent up the hill and reaches even before you arrive. There is a designated place where they can be collected after you are done with your darshan.

For me the walk has more to do with my love for hiking and trekking rather than pleasing the Lord. I am certain the Lord doesn’t differentiate between his devotees whether one walks up or drives up. It’s all a matter of faith and belief. I was quite astonished to see the elderly and people carrying infants walking up the path. Some women also pause at every step, smear it with turmeric and vermillion, light a diya (oil lamp) and only then proceed to the next step. And that is no mean feat in some of the steep sections. Sometimes men and women chant the name of the Lord at intervals all through the pathway in loud rhythmic voices and most often other pilgrims join in. It’s their unwavering faith in the Lord that keeps them going.

This was the second time I was walking up and hence knew exactly what to expect. There are a total of 3550 steps through the 11 km distance. The initial flight of 1000 steps is continuous and very steep. This part is really tough and quite a test of stamina and endurance. At regular intervals the steps are marked, I think every 100th step which gives you an idea of how far you have come.

Most of the walkway is through a forested area with a variety of trees and birds. A certain stretch has a deer park too, where you can buy cucumbers and carrots to feed the deer. A stretch of forest is also marked by Red Sandalwood trees. Statues of the Lord in various incarnations are found at regular intervals along the path.

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Pic 2: The Deer park

At the 2083rd step, the Gali Gopuram is situated. Gopurams refer to temple entrance gates in South India. The Gali Gopuram is brightly illuminated with florescent lights and is visible at night from most places in Tirupati city and the nearby highways. At this place, we need to get our biometrics done and obtain the darshan tickets. It was dawn by now and we were quite hungry. Hence, we took a break and had some traditional South Indian food. There are several places to eat here, but you can expect only South Indian breakfast kind of food (idlys and dosas).

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Pic 3: The Gali Gopuram situated at the 2083rd step.

Beyond this point, for the next 6 Km. the path is flattened and there are no climbs. The deer park is located in this section. We spent some time feeding the deer through the fenced enclosure. After this, very soon we encountered the Hanuman temple, which is prominent with its large Hanuman statue. We lit diyas here and resumed our journey this time beside the tarred road used by people driving up. This section of about a kilometer stands out for splendid views of the lush green hills and valley.

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Pic 4: The Hanuman Temple. Pic Credit: http://www.divinebrahmanda.com

At a distance of 2.4 Km. from the hilltop temple is the final flight of 1000 stairs at Mokalimitta Gopuram. This is the steepest section, much more than the one we encountered at the beginning. We rested for a while, had a cup of coffee and then embarked upon this section. Some pilgrims were climbing this entire section on their knees. I tried but couldn’t manage even two stairs!

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Pic 5: Mokalimitta Gopuram – The steepest section just before reaching the temple.

On reaching the temple, we had to wait in queue for another 3 hours before we could get a darshan of Lord Balaji. It was a Thursday and on this day the Lord does not adorn any jewellery, something we learnt in the queue. Lord Balaji is otherwise clad with 1000kgs of Gold.

This experience of visiting the Lord has been as good as the others I had so far. My Balaji Darshan actually has a very special story attached to it and probably I will write another post on that.

A Little Bit on Tirupati’s Wealth

  • According to mythology, Lord Balaji had taken a loan from Lord Kubera (The God of Wealth) for marrying Padmavathi. He now needs to repay this loan and as long as he doesn’t, he has to remain on earth. He is asking his devotees to help him pay back the loan. It is said that whatever you give the Lord, the double of that comes back to you. I read somewhere that in a single day, the temple receives approximately Rs 22.5 million as donation. 
  • Pilgrims also tonsure their head and offer their hair to the Lord, which provides another source of income for the temple. The story goes that a shepherd hit Lord Balaji on his head and some of his hair came off leaving a portion bald. A Gandharva princess saw this and cut a portion of her hair and implanted it on the Lord’s head with her magical power. Touched by her sacrifice, the Lord promised that all his devotees would offer their hair at his abode and she would receive that hair.
  • The laddu prasadam is an interesting aspect of Tirupati Temple. The laddus are humongous, much larger than the usual ones and are made with pure ghee. A geographical indication tag attached to Tirupati Laddu entitles only the temple organisation to make or sell it. A large amount of money is generated by selling these laddus, which are in huge demand.

Refer to the following, if you want more information on Balaji Darshan:

When I said Wah Taj!

On a very special trip with my parents

The other day I came by an article that listed out quotes of famous people who have visited the Taj Mahal. Amongst the great names of Rabindranath Tagore, Lord Curzon, etc, the one that caught my attention was Bill Clinton, the former President of USA, who said:

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it, and those who have not seen the Taj Mahal and love it. I would like people to watch the Taj Mahal and fall in love with it.

I could instantaneously relate it to my own experience of the historical monument. Memories of my visit to the Taj Mahal came flooding by and I thought I should write about it.

And so, here it goes…

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Pic 1: A very special moment with my parents

“I’m very satisfied with your service. Thank you so much!” I heard my father say to the guide who we had hired for a tour of the Taj Mahal and who had painstakingly explained every little detail taking care to answer all the questions asked by us, especially my father.

We let the guide leave while we sat on the marble floor just outside the main dome to rest for a while. It was late morning on a sunny October day and the monument was teeming with tourists from all over the world. I sat there feeling gratified looking at my parents who seemed quite delighted with their tour of the iconic monument. This trip was for them and I couldn’t be happier.

This was my second visit to the ivory-white marble mausoleum that grandly stands on the banks of River Yamuna in the city of Agra. My first visit had been seven years back. Needless to say, I was floored when I saw this exquisite piece of marble for the first time. I was with a friend and her husband. As we entered the West Gate or Fatehpuri Darwaza and I laid my eyes on the monument for the first time, I was awestruck. Dazzling in the afternoon sun, its splendor was beyond words and somehow appeared unreal to me.

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Pic 2: Throwback to my first visit to the iconic monument 7 years back and that’s my friend

I had read and heard about its grandeur several times since childhood – from history books to Bollywood movies, from photographs and paintings to travel stories of friends and relatives, from news feeds about the effects of pollution on the white marble to the surreal experiences on a moonlight night, and so on and so forth.

All of these had imprinted the Taj’s form into my mind’s imagery and I thought I was going to visit just another historical monument knowing exactly what to expect. But, when I saw the real structure with my naked eyes for the first time, its sparkling magnificence was something else altogether. Its prettiness was overwhelming. I had never imagined the Taj Mahal to be this beautiful.

The experience was way different from my visit to other historical monuments. Being an ardent nature lover, architectures and museums do not enthuse me much. So, I never quite get it when people stare at an Eiffel tower with those admiration-filled eyes for hours on end. With this existing state of mind, my expectations of Taj Mahal were pretty limited. Not until I actually saw it…

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Pic 3: Just outside the West Gate

The stunningly magical Taj Mahal had left me literally speechless. It was only after I experienced the Taj in person that I truly understood the genius of its craftsmanship. And, I thought to myself — no wonder this iconic monument gets millions of visitors every year from across the globe; no wonder it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; no wonder it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The first thing that came to my mind at that moment was – I got to get my parents to see this. This is one of the seven wonders and it’s in my own country. This is an opportunity. It will be a pity if they were to miss this.  So, here I was experiencing the magic for a second time and this time with my parents.

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Pic 4: While we admired the superb craftsmanship

Built by 22,000 workers in 22 years, the Taj Mahal is famous as the ultimate symbol of love. That’s what I knew during my childhood and as I grew up. Later, I read some speculative counter arguments, which I think cannot be ignored (Read Here). Keeping that aside, it is the finest and most sophisticated model of Mughal architecture in India, which also incorporates elements of Persian, Turkish, and Hindu influences.

We walked our way around the tomb, my mother and I silently appreciating, the unique marble carvings, the incised paintings, the incredible Urdu calligraphic inscriptions, etc. and my father earnestly discussing all big and small historical detail with our guide. All along I was feeling deeply satisfied that I could have my parents experience Taj Mahal’s incredible wonder.

This was the Agra leg of our Golden Triangle trip (Delhi – Agra – Jaipur). The same evening, we visited the Agra Fort.

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Pic 5: While they share a special moment at the Agra Fort

My parents love travelling and my father has taken us on many a trip across India during our childhood despite all the limitations he had at that time. It’s my turn now to take them around and it gives me immense joy whenever I am able to take them on a trip with me. However, with old age and their current state of health, they cannot travel a lot and that’s a limitation I now have.

 

The Dreamy Desert Mountains

Sketches of my experience at Spiti Valley

It was dark in the room as I lay cozily tucked inside warm cotton quilts and blankets replaying the day’s events while my sister was fast asleep right beside me. It always takes me a while to fall asleep and this wasn’t unusual but today I wasn’t bothered as all I could see was the rugged roads and the radiant mountains. I smiled my way to sleep and couldn’t wait to be up the next morning.

The cold desert of Spiti Valley, with its austere barren mountains, deep gorges, emerald green river, ancient monasteries, gorgeous villages, and unique culture has given me a lifetime of memories and experiences. Here’s an attempt to capture the essence of Spiti through a brief outline of the places we visited.

Kaza – A Tiny Little Commercial Hub

Kaza brings memories of walking through narrow lanes of the busy little market area that sits right at its center.  Surrounded by jagged mountains, and situated at an altitude of 3,800 m. above sea level, Kaza is the capital of Lahaul and Spiti district. It is like a central place which connects all other places in the valley. On one side of the market area is a series of Chortens or Stupas that face the 14th century Tangyud Gompa. Just besides the Chortens is the only petrol bunk in the valley, which also happens to be the world’s highest retail outlet. The only ATM in the valley belonging to State Bank of India is also located in Kaza.

Solitude at Rangrik

While Kaza was bustling with activities, Rangrik’s solitude appealed to the nature-lovers in us. Situated at an altitude of 3699 m. from sea level, the quiet and sleepy village is marked by the large golden Buddha statue and prominent prayers written on the mountains. The village has a couple of good schools that attract students from all across Spiti. Our hotel, Spiti Sarai, was located a few meters away from the village homes just across Spiti river with sprawling open spaces. Initially we were disappointed about being 5 Km away from Kaza, but it turned out to be just as we would have wanted. We did things that we love to do, which wouldn’t have happened had we stayed at Kaza.

Walked in the open fields while watching the sun set behind the mountains; climbed up the long flight of stairs painted in white across the road to take a look at the Chorten up in the mountain but discovered a temple instead; clambered up the mountain looking for the cave with a magnetic rock that the hotel bell boy had talked about but took a wrong turn and ended up on a cliff overlooking the river on one side and the cave on the other and had to be satisfied with only a view of the cave from a distance. Most importantly, we spent a considerable time lazing on the banks of Spiti River.

Autumn Colours at Mane Village

The most notable thing about Mane was the vibrant Autumn colours in various shades of yellow and gold. Situated at an altitude of 2926 m, the village has a small Gompa that did not appeal much to us. Other than this, there is nothing much in this village. We spent  most of our time here interacting with the village kids. Later, we got to know that there is a lake known as Sopona Lake, which is a 2-3 Km trek away from the village.

The Buddhist Mummy at Gue

The intriguing mummy at Gue had captivated my imagination right from the first time I had heard about it. After I landed in Spiti, I could no longer contain my curiosity and kept asking about it to everyone I met. Finally, I was at Gue and as I knelt in reverence, it was a moment of awe that no words can describe. The remarkably well preserved mummy in a sitting position with intact hair and nails left us astonished. That no chemicals are used, the natural mummification just left us marveling. At a distance of about 80 Km and a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border, Gue is the furthest village from Kaza. Situated at an altitude of around 3200 m, Gue is famous for this 500-600 year old naturally preserved mummy of a Lama that was discovered by the army after an old tomb containing the mummified body had opened up following the earthquake in 1975. The mummy is now kept in a separate chamber inside a glass casing just beside the village Gompa. Locals believe that the mummy is of Lama Sangha Tenzin, who had sacrificed his life to free the village from a menace of scorpions. They say when the Lama’s soul left his body there was a rainbow in the sky and the scorpions had disappeared. Carbon Dating has scientifically established the mummy to be of a 45 year old Lama from the last quarter of 15th century. The Lama apparently belonged to Gelugapa order who are practitioners of Zogchen, the highest form of meditation. This is the only Buddhist mummy in the world and also the only known naturally preserved mummy in India.

Apple Orchards & Mud Monastery at Tabo

The extraordinary Mud Monastery at Tabo took us by surprise as I had not heard/read about this before. Tabo is situated at an altitude of 3279 m. and the monastery dates back to 996 CE, the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape, when it was founded. The monastery, consisting of temples and Chortens, is completely made of Mud and is surrounded by tall mountains that supposedly have a number of caves carved into the cliff face that are used by the monks for meditation. That’s why Tabo Monastery is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’. We read about the caves in the description provided in the signboard but didn’t have the time to go see them. We got to know that the Dalai Lama considers Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest and has also expressed his desire to retire in this ancient monastery. He has also held Kalachakra ceremonies here in 1983 and 1996.

The same compound also has the new monastery, which is concrete and of modern architecture. We were fortunate to attend a prayer ritual that was happening at the new monastery when we were around. Tabo Gompa houses many ancient and priceless Buddhist manuscripts and is considered second in importance to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet.

Tabo also fascinated us with its apple orchards, which start off many miles before reaching the village and continue many miles beyond it. To top it all, the apple trees were covered with ripe red apples and it was with great difficulty that we controlled our desire to just go and pluck off a few. Even the monastery has a garden of apple trees with the tonnes of apples hanging from the trees.

The Quaint Villages of Kibber, Lhalung, & Chicham

We experienced the local culture through our homestays at Kibber and Lhalung village. The enriching experiences at the homestays demanded a separate post altogether. An important highlight worth mentioning here is catching a glimpse of the red-eyed fox on our way to Lhalung as it quickly passed by our car and went down the mountain.

While at Kibber, we went to visit the newly inaugurated bridge that connects Kibber to Chicham village – a bridge that took 17 years to complete. It is unnerving to think that before this bridge, people would use a trolley tied through a ropeway between the deep gorges at a drop of about 150 m. to go to Chicham. It’s not surprising that many people have lost their lives during this commute, which was the only mode of connectivity to Chicham.

Dhankar Gompa from a Distance

Dhankar village is famous for the 1000 year old Dhankar Gompa and the mesmerizing Dhankar lake, which can be reached only after a steep climb of about 3 Kms up the mountain. The quiet and solitude at the lake made all the climb totally worthwhile.

The Dhankar monastery is built on a high spur of the mountain overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Dhankar was the traditional capital of Spiti Valley and the monastery is like a fort that also served as a prison. Dhankar literally means fort on a cliff (Dhan: cliff, and Kar: fort). Most of the fort is in ruins now after the 1975 earthquake. A new Gompa has also been built but the old one is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore the fort and had to satisfy ourselves with the view from a distance. However, we were lucky to have spotted a few blue sheep grazing up in the mountain on our way to Dhankar. You can’t have it all…can you!

The Pristine Beauty of Pin Valley

Pin Valley mesmerized us with its gorgeous landscape. Pin River, with its majestic greenish-blue color runs throughout the length of this fascinating valley before merging with Spiti River. Pin also houses the ‘Pin Valley National Park’. We took a drive down the valley upto Mud village but did not have enough time to visit the National Park.

Our Pin Valley drive can be summed up as a sunny day with azure blue sky alongside the graceful and sinuous Pin River through the enchanting silence of miles and miles of isolation accompanied by stunning views of the mottled desert mountains.

We crossed several villages on the way of which Mikkim is worth mentioning as its population of only 30 amazed us. We also walked on a hanging bridge over the river and visited Kungri Gompa on the way. Kungri is the second oldest Gompa in the Lahaul and Spiti Valley and has the distinction of being the only monastery, which belongs to the Nyingmapa order of Buddhism.

Looking for Fossils at Langza

Situated at an altitude of 4400 m., Langza village is dominated by a large statue of Lord Buddha, overlooking the valley. Langza is also the place to find fossils of marine animals and plants, which is attributed to Spiti Valley being submerged in the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. We expected to see a few but got to know that they can be found only if we trek higher up in the mountains.

Seabuckthorn Tea at Komic

Situated at a towering height of 4587m, Komic’s distinguishing feature is that it is the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road. However, our memories of Komic is associated with Seabuckthorn tea as this was where we had tasted it for the first time.  Seabuckthorn are orangish berries, the shrubs of which are scattered all over Spiti Valley. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin-C and due to their therapeutic properties are used in traditional medicines. The dried and crushed form make amazing organic tea that tastes like hot Fanta though we enjoyed eating them right off the plants too!

Posting Letters at Hikkim

Hikkim was super special – after all not everyday you get to post letters from the highest post office in the world. We sent post cards back home to our parents, which they are yet to receive and which is a surprise. Can’t wait to see their reactions. We also posted cards to our own addresses in the city and which have already arrived. At an altitude of 4440 m., Hikkim also has the highest polling booth in India. While driving back from Hikkim, we got lucky again and this time witnessed two Ibexes looking down at us from the mountain top.

Praying at Kee Monastery [or Key Monastery]

Picturesquely perched on a hilltop, Kee Monastery appears like a fortress with its haphazardly stacked rooms and temples. At an altitude of 4,116 m., the over 1000-year-old monastery is the oldest training center for Lamas and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Besides invaders, it has also dealt with natural calamities of fire and earthquake. It has a vast collection of ancient murals, books and centuries old thangkas. We had expected to see a flurry of activities in the monastery with Lamas of all age groups busily carrying out their daily activities. None of that happened and the monastery wore a barren look as all the Lamas had gone over to Kaza that day for attending a ceremony. Also, we had plans of spending a night at the monastery but our amazing homestay experience resulted in swapping it with another homestay instead. So, we explored the monastery, prayed, and chatted with the only Lama available and headed for Gette.

Tying Prayer Flags at Gette

Dozens of prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind tied around an old Chorten on a hilltop is what greeted us at Gette. Surrounded by tall mountains and situated at a height of 4270m., it is also a viewpoint for Kee monastery that lies on one side of the valley.  On the other side is the Gette village, which has only 2-3 houses. There was nobody other than us at Gette at that point of time and we spent our time leisurely tying prayer flags and clicking selfies while reveling with the wind in our hairs.

Kunzum La and Chandrataal

It was afternoon and the wind was blowing strong when we reached Kunzum La on our way to Spiti. The prayer flags were fluttering and the landscape around it breathtaking. Situated at an altitude of 4,590 m. Kumzum La is the gateway to Spiti being the only motorable route that connects Kullu valley and Lahaul Valley with Spiti Valley. It also offers a spectacular view of Bara-Sigri, the second the longest glacier in the world. A series of Chortens and prayers written on flat stones are prominently displayed. All vehicles passing by this route stop here and pay respect to Kunzum Devi. The stunning Chandrataal is at a distance of 9.5 Km from Kumzum La and the more I say about Chandrataal the less it is and definitely demands a separate post.

Spiti Valley feels like a dream. The surreal landscapes that remain cut-off by snow from the rest of the country for at least 7 months a year is a different world altogether and has completely enthralled me. I have already written so many posts on it but it still feels like I have so much more to share…..And now I can totally relate to Rudyard Kipling’s description of Spiti –

“At last entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here.”

Rugged Road to Radiant Mountains

The rollercoaster of a ride to Spiti Valley

As the car started climbing up the winding mountain road from Manali, I could sense the rush of that familiar feeling of excitement and happiness – which surfaces only when I am headed to the mountains, Himalayas to be more specific. And this time I was about to explore the cold desert mountains of Western Himalayas.

We were on our way to Spiti, the land between Tibet and India. The name ‘Spiti’ literally means ‘The Middle Land’

Spiti had been on my mind for a long time now, right from the time I came to know about it, 7 years back. However, it happened rather suddenly when impulsively I asked my Manager for leave amidst extremely busy times at office not knowing that it would be granted and everything was planned in less than two weeks. And, then my sister offered to join in. Magic just happens, all you need is the intent!

The winding roads continued as we feasted our eyes on the green conifers shining in the early morning light. As we crossed Rohtang Pass, the green trees disappeared almost suddenly being replaced by massive rocky mountains. Almost simultaneously, the tarred road also disappeared and it was replaced by a pathway strewn with pebbles and loose mud.

The pathway got narrow and narrower and seemed to hang precariously on the mountain slopes. Further ahead, the pebbles were replaced by larger stones and there were huge rocks planted randomly here and there. Every now and then I thought we were about to hit a dead end but a hidden path would emerge from nowhere. On occasions we were asked to step out of the car and walk up a few meters only to reduce the load and make it easier for Raju, the driver of our car.

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Pic 1: A glimpse of the road!

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Pic 2: A test of your driving skills and your patience

We rode across several waterfall, which we learned are known as ‘Nalla’ in everyday verbiage in this part of the world. These constitute water coming from the glaciers and the quantity of water increases as the day progresses. Some of these were pretty risky. For us, it was sheer Adrenalin rush but not quite for Raju who had to manipulate his way carefully and at one time he even sent out a sincere prayer to the Almighty. He had already displayed his driving expertise, why did he have to do that! He revealed a couple of experiences – once when his car had gotten stuck at one such nalla forcing him to spend the cold night in his car and another when he saw his friend’s car skid and fall into the deep gorge, thankfully his friend was saved. Raju also entertained us with other interesting stories of the road – sudden snow falls, increased water levels in the nallas, traffic jams created by broken vehicles, etc.

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Pic 3: Back-breaking but views that more than compensate

The bumpy ride rattled every bone in our body but we weren’t bothered. Just one look out of the window is all it took to forget the tumultuous journey.

Humongous mountains fiercely stared at us revealing their might with river Chandra gushing below with its emerald green water. It’s difficult to comprehend that there can be so much splendor in the rugged and starkly bare sky-touching mountains. We marveled at the various shades of brown, black, white, and grey. Later on in Spiti, we also found splendid shades of peach, amber, orange, and yellow. The mountains were intricately patterned and curved and each one looked uniquely different. The impressive craftsmanship is attributed to the melting snow as it flows down towards the river.

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Pic 4: Those colours and intricate patterns curved out by melting snow.

It was the beginning of October and there wasn’t much snow around. Though the mountain tops did have some snow and some of them were fresh. Winter was just round the corner and soon everything would be carpeted in white. In fact, the route from Manali would also close down. The way from Shimla would however remain open.

We learn from our driver, Raju, that the route from Shimla is what we should have ideally taken. Usually people start from Shimla and end at Manali. Though getting to Kaza, the main town of Spiti through Shimla will take you upto 3 days as compared to just one day through Manali. However, that route will take you through the beautiful places of Kalpa and Chitkul of Kinnaur Valley. Also, the road from Shimla is a properly tarred one.  I realized in my hurry I hadn’t done my research well enough.

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Pic 5: The long and winding roads across fascinating landscapes

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Pic 6: One of the many magnificent bridges we crossed

The route though Shimla would have been wonderful but I don’t regret having taken the one from Manali.  It was definitely worth the experience in its entirety and it also appealed to my adventurous spirit. At one point we even landed at a place where the road was missing, a huge boulder had apparently fallen from the mountain taking along with it a portion of the road. We had to wait for a while and a make shift road was put in place by using stones. Another time a local villager stopped us asking if we could drop him to Losar, which was a village on the way. We readily agreed and had some interesting conversations on the way. Not just that, when we saw yaks grazing in the wilderness our excitement took over us and he drove one of the yaks towards us so that we could get a good picture.

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Pic 7: The villager chasing the yak for us

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Pic 8: When the herd interrupted us

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Pic 9: There were hundreds of tiny birds on this shrub, which flew away the moment we approached. I feel handicapped with my phone camera at such times!

After all the adventures, as the sun was setting for the day, we reached Spiti. To our surprise, we were greeted by superbly tarred and smooth roads that were starkly contrasting to what we had endured so far. “This feels like butter!”, I heard my sister remark from the backseat. “Now, that’s cheesy!” I grinned from the front seat, where I had shifted to be alongside Raju a long while ago.

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Pic 10: Just when the roads were getting better 

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Magical Christmas at Kuari Pass!

When the Himalayas came calling again…

A corner of my mind and heart now stand permanently reserved for the enchanting Himalayas after my first rendezvous with the majestic snow-clad magnificence.

I was back from Kedarkanta Trek with millions of tales to tell and I’ve been told a couple of times that each time I reminisce the Himalayas my face lights up and my eyes sparkle – a comment that doesn’t fail to amuse me!

I had deliberately planned the next trek during the Christmas week in the month of December. This was to be my second Himalayan trek in the year 2016. This time my friend, Papia, was joining me and I was delighted. Papia always nurtured a sincere desire to trek the Himalayas but felt she couldn’t and it took me quite an effort to convince her. Once convinced, there was no looking back and she plunged wholeheartedly into it. She even got her brother’s family and two other people with her. A colleague of mine also joined in. So, this time we were a big gang of 7 people from Bangalore.

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Pic 1: The gang of 7 delighted with the crystal clear water of mother Ganges, which is sharply contrasting to how  we have seen her in the cities of the plains.

Thoroughly satisfied with my previous experience, I once again decided to trek with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). We had chosen Har-ki-Dun and it was the prospect of walking in snow that excited many in our group. While we were busy planning Har-ki-Dun, destiny had something else in store for us.  Just a fortnight before the trek, we got to know Har-ki-Dun was cancelled as the government had decided not to allow winter trekking in the area. IndiaHikes gave us the option of taking our money back or trek Kuari Pass instead. We chose the latter as we already had booked our tickets to Dehradun. I for one, was totally disheartened and my enthusiasm subsided considerably. The reason being Kuari Pass wasn’t rated amongst the top 10 Himalayan treks by IndiaHikes. Well, the saying ‘whatever happens is always for the best’ revealed itself later during the trek.

This time, we traveled to Joshimath from Dehradun. Needless to say this was yet another journey that is etched in our memories forever. As we passed through the ‘Panch Prayag’ (Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag) one by one with Mother Ganges in all her glory for constant company, it was a journey through paradise. By the time we reached Joshimath, dusk had set in. However, even after travelling for 12 hours on road there was no exhaustion whatsoever.

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Pic 2: Confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers at Devprayag – notice the distinctive colours, while Alaknanda is greyish, Bhagirathi is dark greenish

The following day, a 45 min drive took us to Auli, considered as one of the best ski destinations in India. The season’s snowfall hadn’t happened and Auli bore a barren look much to the disappointment of many in our group. After all, it was late December and Christmas Eve for heaven’s sake! We climbed the Auli slope for a little more than 2 hours. The rugged mountains in the background with glimpses of snow gave us some respite from the barren slopes and noisy tourists.

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Pic 3: As we climbed the barren slopes of Auli

As we left the slopes and moved higher, Mount Nanda Devi made a brief and grandiose appearance bringing in the much needed excitement to all of us. Very soon the much awaited Oak forest greeted us. The interplay of sun and shade, the ground strewn with fallen leaves, and the gradual climb made for a mesmerizing walk that I will cherish for the rest of my life. In a tiny clearing at the edge of the woods is ‘Padiyar Devta’ temple. The serene and tranquil temple seemed to be in perfect harmony with the calmness and silence of the surrounding woods.

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Pic 4: The forest floor strewn with dry leaves

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Pic 5: Padiyar Devta temple – locals believe the deity protects wildlife in the jungle

We reached Gorson Bugyal, our camp site for Day 1. The group of 18 odd people from various walks of life were slowly getting to know each other – a bunch of young scientists from ISRO, an ophthalmologist from AIIMS, an executive from a well-known MNC, the tech engineer duo, entrepreneur couples, instructional designers, and last but not the least a computer scientist with degrees from top-tier institutions across the world, who quit his high-flying career to be with the Himalayas.

An acclimatization walk in the afternoon followed by an abundance of ghost stories around a bon fire marked the other highlights of Day-1. The temperatures dropped as we retired for the night amidst a bright and twinkling sky with millions of shining stars. Our wishes for snowfall intensified and someone even sent out a fervent prayer to the universe. We hoped for a miracle as the weather prediction didn’t mention snow for the next one week.

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Pic 6: Gorson Bugyal with our tents in the background

And miracle did happen…..

All night long we thought we heard rain drops splattering across our tents. It was cold and the thought of rain was enough to dampen our spirits. Just before dawn, Papia put on her headlamp and opened the tent to inspect the rain…..and she squealed out in joy as all she saw was white flakes all around. It was the season’s first snowfall and it was Christmas morning. What could be more magical than this! We felt we were nature’s chosen ones and this was special. It was Papia’s first experience of snow as was for most others in the group.

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Pic 7: The first sight of snow at dawn as a tent is lit up from inside by a headlamp
(PC: Soumik Sarkar)

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Pic 8: The snow-covered Gorson Bugyal looked completely different

It snowed intermittently as we walked making for a very special Christmas Day, Day-2 of our trek.  It was a cloudy day for most part. The sun did make brief appearances during the morning half but it lacked the usual warmth. It was freezing and the cold seemed to seep in through our skin. The snow mountains peeked through the clouds once in a while allowing us glimpses of Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri. The twin peaks of Haati-ghoda had become our constant companion right from the time we had spotted them for the first time on our way to Joshimath. The setting sun had painted them a bright orange that had stolen our hearts in an instant.

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Pic 9: Taking a break while admiring the peaks that surrounded us

Walking right ahead with those at the beginning of our group, we approached the ridge, which was an adrenalin rush for many but not for me. My heart froze as I saw the narrow trail with the almost vertical cliff on one side and the deep valley on the other.  Khusiji, our guide, offered a hand and I covered the entire 1.5 Km clinging onto him. I couldn’t concentrate much on the mind-blowingly beautiful stretch with shades of green, brown, yellow, black. It had started to snow once again while we were midway onto the stretch, which intensified as we were towards the end. At the end of this stretch, I sent out a small prayer of gratitude to the Almighty for enabling me to cross over to the other side safe and sound. Simultaneously, my mind raced to Papia and the rest of my gang who were trailing behind wondering how they were faring. It was not until later that night I got to know it was just as challenging for them as well.

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Pic 10: The narrow ridge that scared the hell out of me!

Passing through the gorgeous Tali lake that was half frozen, we entered the fascinating Oak woods once again. This time, it was even more magical as the entire place was covered with snow. It was a surreal feeling of fantasy as I could imagine Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer passing by with Santa’s sleigh and leaving behind an illuminated trail for us to follow. My joyful mind quietly hummed the Christmas Carol (Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer…..) and I felt I could hear the jingling bells all around me.

As the temperatures dropped further, we reached Chithrakantha camp site, situated in the heart of the forest. It had gotten extremely cold and I have to admit that we were feeling miserable despite the layers of warm clothes we had on. Some sat around a fire while others wouldn’t step out of their tents. I felt my blood was freezing and was in no mood to even talk to anybody – a behavior alien to the otherwise exuberant me.   We retired for the night apprehensive about the weather next day and wondered how deep the snow might be higher up where we would trek the following day. The sleeping bags kept us warm and cozy but we couldn’t sleep well, which was for the unevenness of the ground rather than the cold.

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Pic 11: The snowfall had intensified as we crossed Tali lake (PC: Padmanava Sen)

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Pic 12: We camped in the middle of the enchanting snow-covered oak forest  (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

It was Day-3, the summit day and we had started early. The Mountain Gods had smiled and a bright and sunny day greeted us, which lifted our spirits considerably. There was sparkling snow all around us and we couldn’t be happier.  The terrain constituted several steep ascents and steep descents. The snow peaks glistened at the distance and their elegance and splendor kept multiplying with every ascent. Once again, it was Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri along with the spectacular Neelkanth that were most prominent peaks accompanying us all the way.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for me and Day-3 felt tough especially the stretches of steep ascents. Despite that, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the good weather had a lot to do with that. I was intermittently sending my gratitude to the Mountains for giving me this opportunity to experience their supreme splendor.

Passing through Chitrakantha top with a panoramic 360 degree view we arrived at a ridge with gradual slopes. Here, the strong winds threatened to throw us off and we struggled to maintain our balance.

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Pic 13: Clear skies and sparkling snow with Haati-Ghoda as constant companions

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Pic 14: Strong winds sweeping off snow atop the majestic Haati-Ghoda

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Pic 15: As we approached the ridge where the strong winds almost threw us off balance

Passing through a part of the legendary ‘Lord Curzon’s Trail’ we reached the breathtaking frozen waterfall. Precariously we made our way down through the sides of the waterfall with crampons attached to our shoes that provided the much needed additional grip.

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Pic 16: The frozen waterfall – notice the people climbing down through the side

Finally, we reached Kuari Pass! We were overwhelmed at 12,516 ft and each one of us rejoiced in our own way. While some of us preferred to sit in complete silence, others got busy clicking selfies and freezing the moment forever through their lenses.

As I sat there absorbing every bit of the surrounding gorgeousness, my mind ran to Papia and I wished we could enjoy this moment together. Papia, along with a few others had opted out of the summit and had instead descended to Khullara, our next camp, where I would meet her later that day. The miserably chilling conditions of Day-2 drove them towards this decision.

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Pic 17: As we trudged along nearing Kuari Pass  (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

Kuari Pass - Neelaanjana Paul - At the summit with a wee bit of snow on my shoes as a testimonial to the snow-laden path we just traversed
Pic 18: A moment at Kuari Pass – a wee bit of snow stuck on adamantly to my shoe

With the summit over, we retraced our path and proceeded towards Khullara. While most of the people moved ahead, a group of five of us decided to take it slow as we rested, chatted, clicked pictures, and made the most of our descent towards Khullara.

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Pic 19: Descending towards Khullara as another amazing day was coming to an end
(PC: Padmanava Sen)

Khullara was the most beautiful campsite of this trek. It was a small clearing, surrounded by forest slopes and mountain ranges. The brilliant sunsets and sunrises we witnessed here across Neelkanth, haati Ghoda, Dronagriri and other peaks was a feast for the eyes. People who chose not to go to the summit ended up having a wonderful time exploring Khullara and it was not a bad bargain after all.

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Pic 20: The sky at dusk – twilight is astounding in the mountains

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Pic 21: Neelkanth glowing with the first rays of the sun (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

Starting early the next day, we commenced our journey towards Joshimath through the Tapovan valley. During the onward journey as always, I was way ahead with the group of people who were always at the beginning. On the return journey, I chose to go slow, stay behind and relish each and every moment. Who knows when I’ll be back again!

Another fantastic trail of about 9 Km awaited us as we pass through forests partially covered in snow with steep descends in some places, overlooking the snow-mountains all along. Towards the end of the trail we passed through a cluster of hamlets that provided a glimpse of the lives of the local people. As we passed through one such village, someone remarked “How lucky are these people to wake up to such a view of the Himalayas everyday!” It took us a good 60-70 minutes from the village to the nearest motorable road. Joshimath was a 45 minute drive from here. Are the village people really all that lucky? And to think that they don’t have a hospital.

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Pic 22: Descending towards Tapovan through the steep forest slopes

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Pic 23: A village viewed from a distance

My second Himalayan trek had come to an end. Captivated and spellbound I was once again. Additionally, this time two realizations dawned upon me. First, a Himalayan trek is about feelings and experiences that are beyond all words.  You have to go there to know what I mean. Second, the belief that our desire and intention is nothing before the mighty Himalayas (and perhaps all other mountains). The mountains decide what they want you to experience. If the mountains concede, only then you get to set foot on them to experience their majestic grandeur and I bow in reverence.