Benaras – The Funny Sadhus

“Myself Pradeep Sharma, no wife, no children, no mummy, no papa…”, he effusively stated while extending his hand for a quick handshake. “Chaye pee ke jaiye”, he continued “humari taraf se”, pointing towards the tea shop right behind him. (Have a cup of tea, it’s on me). I politely refused, while my sisters giggled right behind me.

This was one of the many sadhus we came across in the ghats of Benaras. The sadhus were of all kinds – some in their own world, some wandering aimlessly, some looking to earn a quick buck, some asking for alms, some irritated and upset, some busy performing pujas and yagnas.

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I will narrate two funny encounters.

The Jovial Sadhu

We were passing by Darbhanga Ghat towards Dashashwamedh Ghat when we noticed this man talking to a family of 4-5 people. It appeared like they were seeking a solution to some problem and our man was happily obliging. We paused a few meters away watching him. The ash-smeared skin, the disheveled looks, the unkempt beard, the red dhoti, presented us with the perfect photo opportunity.  By now, we had learnt that if you approach any such person for a photo either they outright refuse to oblige or ask for money in lieu of a photo. But this time it turned out to be different.

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The man called us and said that we could freely click pictures of him if we wanted, he wouldn’t mind, and that he doesn’t want money in return. Having seen tourists in plenty, he had guessed our intention.  After the family left, he posed for us in various ways. His enthusiasm was hilariously enjoyable.

The next day, we happened to pass by the same area when we saw someone smiling at us. It took us a while to recognize our jovial sadhu as he was wearing a woollen cap and a sweater. Though we said nothing this time, he offered to pose with us. We were busily headed somewhere but he insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We just had to agree to his enthusiasm. In return, he took off his cap and sweater in the cold winter morning and posed in many different ways making sure all three of us had separate pictures with him. It didn’t matter whether we wanted a picture or not.

Happy with his earnest enthusiasm, we offered him a fifty rupee note, which he readily accepted.

The Santa Clause Sadhu

We were standing at the turning of a narrow alley waiting for the doors of a nearby temple to open for the evening. That was when I noticed a plump pot-bellied man with a flowing white beard and a red/orange robe walking towards us through the alley, which was empty until now. I alerted my sister, who was creating a photo series on sadhus. My sister jumped into action forgetting to be discreet.

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As expected, the man asked for money the moment he approached the turning where we were standing. We looked away pretending not to listen. At the same time a small boy appeared from the neighbourhood and started teasing him – “Sadhubaba, Sadhubaba, zara Hanuman Chalisa toh padke sunao!”, (Sadhubaba, why don’t you recite the Hanuman Chalissa for us!).  The man laughed boisterously and playfully brandished his stick as if to hit the small boy.

Suddenly the atmosphere became light. Digging into my pocket, I found a ten rupee note that I handed over to him. As if obliged by this gesture, he recommended a weird remedy for some unknown problem. We were supposed to take a peda (an Indian sweet) every Saturday, encircle the same around our heads three times and then feed it to a dog. This antidote to some non-existent problem was hilarious and led to a lot of playful bantering.

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Later in the day, we encountered the same sadhu once again and this time we noticed he looked a lot like Santa Clause. We had to click a few pictures.

Benaras – Entrancing Ghats

Benaras had us engulfed in its quaint and historical charm despite all the negativities and oddities – the chaos, the crowd, the touts. The energy of the Spiritual Capital of India is hard to ignore. We found ourselves embracing and enjoying every bit of it as we blended into the surroundings with utmost ease.

Not surprising though. Every nook and corner has something that would capture your mind, something that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere before, something that’s exciting enough to thoroughly engage you – the seers and the sadhus, each one different from the other; the colourful boats some parked on the ghats, others ferrying scores of people through River Ganges; the curious tourists trying to make sense of the surroundings; the vibrant ghats exuding stories everywhere; the crowded and narrow alleyways with houses, lodges, temples, shops, restaurants, people, cows, dogs, bikes, and what not; the paan shops and the sweet shops; the list is endless.

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Pic 1: Somewhere in Daseshwamedh Ghat just before going on another boat ride.

The three of us had decided unanimously that we wanted to walk the length of the ghats. There are 88 ghats and we were told they cover a distance of about 12 Km. I am not too sure of the distance though.

We walked from Daseshwamedh right up to Assi Ghat, which happens to be the last ghat at one end. Then, we retraced our path and went right up to Panchaganga Ghat towards the other end. Our guess is we would have covered about 70 ghats. We would have continued beyond Panchaganga had we not run out of time. We didn’t want to miss the evening aarti at Daseshwamedh Ghat, though it wasn’t the first time we would be watching it. Also, we walked leisurely aiming to experience the ghats rather than to rush and cover them all.

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Pic 2: The only time we got a glimpse of the Sun in the four days we were there.

Here’s an account of the ghats that touched us a little more than the others:

Daseshwamedh Ghat

This is the oldest ghat and considered to be the most important one. It’s also the busiest and one cannot escape its vibrancy and liveliness. The famous Ganga Aarti (Ganga River worship ceremony) is staged on this ghat every evening. Ironically, this overcrowded busy ghat attracted us the most, all because of its energetic surroundings. Persistent boat owners, flower sellers, pujaris, pilgrims, tourists, sadhus, temples, tiny shops, massage practitioners, touts of all kinds – Daseshwamedh had it all. One can just sit on the steps and spend an entire day simply watching people and their activities.

The Story Behind: Lord Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses at this place. (Medh meaning sacrifice; Das meaning ten; and Aswa meaning horse) 

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Pic 3: The busy Daseshwamedh Ghat.
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Pic 4: Devotees & pilgrims bathe in River Ganga at Daseshwamedh Ghat notwithstanding the cold weather while migratory birds play around.
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Pic 5: Seen at Daseshwamedh Ghat – someone cared enough.
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Pic 6: A pujari all set while waiting for pilgrims at Daseshwamedh Ghat.
Chet Singh Ghat

It is the Chet Singh fort on this ghat that attracted us the most besides the fact that it was a relatively quieter ghat. Nothing much was happening here.

The Story Behind: The name of this ghat is derived from the Palace of Raja Chet Singh, the illegitimate son of Balwant Singh, the first Maharaja of Banaras. This ghat witnessed a fierce battle between the troops of Warren Hastings and Chet Singh in 1781.

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Pic 7: Chet Singh fort at Chet Singh ghat.
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Pic 8: A view of Chet Singh ghat.
Mahanirvani Ghat

The quietude of this ghat is what appealed to us most. The fortified Akhara situated here also made it quite intriguing.

The Story Behind: Named after the Mahanirvani sect of Naga Sadhus, this ghat houses their famous Akhara as well. This Ghat also has four small Shiva Temple, said to have been made by Nepal’s Maharaja.

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Pic 8: The emptiness at Mahanirvani Ghat.
Panchaganga Ghat

We visited this ghat thrice in our attempt to visit Trailanga Swami’s Ashram, which wasn’t happening for some reason or the other. A yogi and mystic, famed for his spiritual powers, Trailanga Swami is one of the 54 foremost saints of India. The great saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, referred to him as “The walking Shiva of Varanasi”.

The Story Behind: Panchaganga Ghat (Pancha means five) is supposed to be the meeting point of five rivers – Ganga, Dhutapapa, Kiran, Nadi, Saraswati, and Yamuna – but only Ganga is visible.

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Pic 9: Approaching Panchaganga Ghat, as seen from the boat.
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Pic 10: Panchaganga Ghat that had this nice wall art.
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Pic 11: Somewhere near Panchaganga Ghat
Mainkarnika Ghat

The feeling of heaviness is what we associated with this ghat. This is the burning ghat, where dead bodies are cremated. This ghat is considered to be an auspicious place for Hindu cremation. Pyres burn non-stop here. There were about five pyres burning when we were there. The overpowering smoke rising from the pyres made it difficult to stand here for long.

“Would it be appropriate to call this Death Tourism along the lines of Adventure Tourism or Medical Tourism?” we wondered.

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Pic 12: The burning pyres and their rising smoke.

The huge piles of firewood stacked along the ghat made us depressed, thinking about all the trees that have been chopped off. The three of us agreed in one voice that given a chance, we would like to be cremated in Manikarnika Ghat because of all the mythology associated with it, but in electric pyres.

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Pic 13: Another view of Manikarnika as seen from the boat.

The Story Behind: It is a belief in Hinduism that cremation in Manikarnika Ghat leads to moksha (complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death). There are a couple of legends about this ghat and almost all are associated with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.

  • One talks about Lord Vishnu digging a pit with his Chakra, the pit gets filled with his perspiration, and Lord Shiva’s earring falls in the pit while watching Lord Vishnu in action. (Mani means jewel in the earring and Karnam means ear).
  • Another talks about Goddess Parvati hiding her earring and asking Lord Shiva to look for it in the hope that the Lord would remain near her forever searching for the lost earring.
  • Yet another, says that Manikarnika is a Shakti Peeth and Sati Devi’s earing had fallen here.
  • Some sources also say that Manikarnik Ghat is named after the Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibhai.
Harishchandra Ghat

This is the only other ghat that is dedicated to cremation rituals. There was a pyre burning in this ghat while another dead body arrived on a bamboo stretcher draped in shining yellow and red sheets of cloth amidst chants of ‘Ram naam satya hai’ (Truth is the name of Lord Rama.)

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Pic 14: The pyre at Harishchandra Ghat.

The Story Behind: Like Manikarnika, bodies cremated here are believed to attain moksha. This ghat is named after the mythical King Harishchandra, who worked at the cremation grounds for the establishment of truth and justice. Rishi Vishwamitra, a sage, asked the king to pay him a ritual fee. The king, known for his generosity gave up his entire kingdom, wealth, and riches but the sage was still not satisfied. Dejected, the king made his way to Kashi. Here he sold his wife and son into slavery and offered himself up for bondage. Years later his wife visited the cremation ground with their son’s dead body who had died from a snake bite. This was supposed to have been the final test for the King. The Gods rewarded him for his honesty, strength, and courage by giving back his throne, kingdom, and son.

Benaras – Mornings and Evenings

Mornings

It was still dark in the wee hours of that December morning as we stepped onto Daseshwamedh Ghat. The thought of sunrise over River Ganges was enough to get us out of bed and brave the cold at a temperature of 4-5 degrees centigrade. With teeth chattering and every exposed part of the skin going numb, we stood there looking around eagerly. A boat owner would come up asking if we wanted a boat ride like it had been happening every time we landed at the ghats.

And, soon someone approached, the requirement was discussed, the price negotiated, and we were rowing away into the darkness through the calm waters of River Ganges.

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Pic 1: The morning fog that ensured limited visibility.

So focused we were on sunrise, that we failed to anticipate the fog that could shroud everything on a cold winter morning. As darkness gave way to morning light, we found ourselves engulfed in a sphere of haze where we could see nothing more than each other’s face. Forget the Sun, we couldn’t even see the ghats from the boat. The cold seeped into our bones as we realized our folly and the fact that we had wasted Rs.1200 on the boat for no reason.

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Pic 2: When the fog started lifting and we could see the ghat through the haze.

We spent the other mornings walking the alleys and ghats, and visiting the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The latter I had to do twice, accompanying both my sisters on separate occasions. The less I say about the temple, the better it is. Not for my faith in the presiding deity of Lord Shiva, which I have enough, but the touts that seek out people like us, who have no patience or inclination to wait in the never-ending serpentine queues. The likes of us put up with them and their unreasonable demands only for a quick entry to the temple. Ironically, it’s people like us who encourage them and their unscrupulous activities – I plead guilty!

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Pic 3: The only time when the Sun made a brief appearance in the afternoon.
Evenings

Our daily evening ritual at Varanasi was simple – watch Ganga Aarti and then binge on the street food. The evening Ganga Aarti or ceremonial worship of River Ganga is a well-orchestrated activity that is a must see at Varanasi. An elaborate make-shift arrangement is made every single day, which is again dismantled after the show is over.

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Pic 4: Ganga Aarti with the tiered brass lamps.

A dedicated team from Gangotri Seva Samiti sets up seven elevated planks on which they sprinkle flower petals, mainly Marigold and Rose, making a gorgeous carpet out of them. Against each plank, they arrange several puja paraphernalia, including a layered brass lamp, flowers, incense sticks, conch shell, and so on. The team also manages the hundreds of devotees and tourists that gather every evening at Daseshwamedh Ghat – the place where the Aarti happens every evening.

We learn that the Aarti is performed by learned pundits of Vedas and Upanishads who are handpicked from institutes that impart Vedic Studies, like Benaras Hindu University (BHU).

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Pic 5: A moment during Ganga Aarti

The well-organized series of activities making for the Aarti left us stumped and we wondered how much of a practice might have gone into this. The Aarti began by blowing of conch shells and rhythmic chanting of holy mantras. Thereafter brass lamps, incense sticks, and other items were synchronously used one by one, as bhajans (hymns) played out in the background.

One can see the Aarti either by sitting on the stairs of the ghat, from the boats facing the ghat, or from the canopy of Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. We watched the Aarti from three different places on three different days. The first day was from a boat. The next day we decided to participate in Ganga Puja, which happens just before the start of the Aarti. We booked our slot by paying a fee at the Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. The Aarti Pundits conduct this Puja and it also guarantees a special seat right behind the Aarti platform.

We were also pleasantly surprised to find that a photographer had clicked our pictures while we conducted the Puja. His purpose was to sell the pictures to us, which he successfully did so at Rs. 20 per picture. We were delighted.

The food we binged on every evening consisted of a wide variety of snacks, from samosas to chats to pakoras and all kinds of stuff, deep fried in oil. Unhealthy, but who cares. We hardly ever do this in our city of Bangalore, rather there isn’t any scope to do so with the almost non-existent roadside food in the city. And, not to forget the sweetmeats – the pedas, the gulab jamuns, and of course the one and only Malaiyo.

My mouth waters as I remember these lip smacking food items and to think that I am a non-foodie….

Benaras – First Impressions

No, this isn’t my kind of a place! Overcrowded, untidy and utterly chaotic – I should be feeling disquiet, anxious, edgy, and uncomfortable. None of that was happening. Instead curiosity and fascination was overtaking me. The energy of the place was seeping into me. I muttered something and my sister said – Welcome to Benaras!

Also known as Banaras, or Kashi and more popularly Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

My Varanasi sojourn started with my phone going totally out of service right from the time I stepped into the airport and it remained that way till I left the city. I was hardly concerned, however, as I knew I wasn’t alone. My sister was arriving an hour and a half later from Kolkata. [Well, my cousin sister but hailing from a joint family we don’t prefer to use the term cousin]. I was meeting her after 4 long years and my anticipation knew no bounds. I made sure to occupy a seat somewhere between the departure gate and the baggage carousal section so that I wouldn’t miss her. She would have no idea that my phone wasn’t working.

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The taxi we booked from the airport to our place of stay dropped us somewhere in the middle of a chaotic marketplace. From there we were guided through lanes and bylanes to Chatterbox Hostel at Bangali Tola, our place of stay for the next 4 days. The narrow unkempt lanes were quite a shocker for me even though I was mentally prepared after having heard/read stories about them. I even doubted my decision of booking a place of stay in Bangali Tola, which I knew was an area marked by these network of narrow lanes and bylanes.

Soon I would realize what a good decision that was. I will have to write a separate post on the lanes.

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It was around 9 PM, when we arrived at the hostel. We had booked a separate room for ourselves. For now, it was just the two of us till my sister from Bangalore joins us two days after. Dumping our bags, we stepped out immediately for dinner and a quick exploration of the neighbouring area.

Walking through the narrow lane, dodging cows and street dogs, we settled for a restaurant that got us interested just by the way it was decorated with things like cotton sarees and jute artifacts. As we waited for dinner to arrive, we decided to grab tea from a tea shop that was bang opposite. We were seated outside, and the narrow lanes meant all we had to do was extend our arms to the tea shop to get our tea cups.

The tea shop was the untidiest I had ever seen. The walls were black with permanent deposits of soot and didn’t look like it was ever painted. The pan where tea was prepared never seemed to have been washed. It was, however, the best tea I ever had. Thereafter the tea shop became a regular visit for us over the next 4 days.

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After dinner, a 2 min walk led us to Ganga Ghat. It was quite late and we had no clue which ghat we were at. My first sight of River Ganga in the quietude of the night was nothing but magical. Peace, tranquility, and happiness is all I remember. It was freezing cold with North India being swept by a cold wave at that time. There were very few people around, some played badminton, some seated in a circle around a small fire that they would have created, some walked around, some simply huddled in a groups busy chatting away, and some were alone staring at the river.

Ganga looked calm and beautiful with hundreds of colourful boats tied along the shore.

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We walked towards one side and in another 2 minutes arrived at Dasaswamedh Ghat, the oldest and the most important ghat at Varanasi. It was 11.00 PM as we settled down finding our own corner in the largely empty ghat. Wondering how much the ghat might be buzzing with activities during Ganga Aarti in the evening and also during other times of the day, we went on talking about our lives and catching up on the millions of things we had to share with each other.

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Soon we started noticing several people kneading dough with atta or wheat flour on the ghat floor in various places across the ghat. My sister and I went about speculating and making our own assumptions on the purpose of their activity. Curiosity got the better of me and I headed towards three young men who were chit-chatting and kneading as a team. I learn they do this to create small balls that they throw into River Ganga for feeding fish. And, why do they do this? To feed a living creature before retiring for the night. This ensued an interesting discussion in that cold December night with these young men – mostly in their 20s.

My mind, unheeding, went into an unfair comparison of the seemingly uncomplicated lives of these men with their counterparts in my city of Bangalore where the corporate world swallows all these simple pleasures of life.

 

 

Travelling is a Lot of Fun – Until it isn’t…


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The world of Social Media is flooded with cool travel pictures from across the world. Pictures that make you want to want to pack your bags right away and get into that gorgeous beach to watch the sun go down, trek through the meadows and jungles to reach the supposedly secluded mountain peak, dive into deep blue pools at the base of the tallest plunge waterfall, bungee jump off the highest cliff, or simply stare at the milky-way dazzling in the middle of the night. While many of these may be slightly exaggerated, they aren’t false. Travel does lead to such unique wonderful experiences creating a lifetime of beautiful memories.

However, not everything about travel is hunky dory, not all travel memories are fun. There are tonnes of unpleasant things that happen during travels, more so when on offbeat, adventurous, and budget travels. Nobody talks about them, they are things best forgotten. Afterall, we tend to remember all good things from the past rather than the not so good things. It’s not uncommon to deal with things like falling sick, unclean toilets, long waits at transits, cancelled or missed flights or trains, undesirable fellow passengers, getting injured, sudden political unrest, delayed or lost luggage, no mobile network, the list can go on and on. Any one of these or a combination of few has the potential to completely mar a travel experience.

Despite being an avid traveler, I have had several situations where travel felt no less than a torture. Here I share three of those.

Chemical Burns

Yes, you read that right! It was peak monsoon during the month of October and I was in Goa during an extended weekend with a friend and my sister. We were at Palolem beach in South Goa on a day when the rains poured incessantly. Not to be perturbed by the dismal weather, we set out walking along a lonely stretch of the beach towards a point where the sea meets the backwaters.

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Pic 1: Palolem Beach on a rainy October day

After an enjoyable ride in a boat through the mangroves in the backwaters, we were walking back when we spotted a series of colourful boats set in a row towards the periphery of the beach. Drawn towards them, we went and happily perched on the boats oblivious of the fact that those boats were coated with some chemical that contained acid. The boats were kept there for drying. There was no warning sign anywhere.

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Pic 2: The attractive colourful boats at Palolem Beach

After a few minutes, we felt a sticky substance on our back. My sister immediately went to the resort we were staying at and changed into a fresh set of clothes. I didn’t. Being completely drenched, I thought I would dip myself into the seawater and get rid of the sticky substance. I felt some discomfort on my back but didn’t pay any heed to it. It wasn’t until midnight that my sister and I discovered we had blisters all over our buttocks and in certain areas on our thighs. My condition was far worse that hers.

Coming back to Bangalore was a pain that I am never going to forget. It took me nearly two weeks to heal and the treatment had to be done with utmost care as chemical burns can easily get infected.

Allergic Reaction

This happened to me on two different occasions. The first time in Kanyakumari when I did not know I was allergic to certain types of seafood, including prawns. I gorged on a plateful of prawns and had a lot more than I usually do. The others thought the prawns weren’t cooked well enough. I had their share too!

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Pic 3: Viveknanda Rock at Kanyakumari, where Swami Vivekananda had meditated for three days.

When in the ferry towards Vivekananda Rock, I started wheezing. Thinking that the cold wind of the sea was getting into me, I didn’t bother much. Once in Vivekananda Rock, my face swelled beyond recognition forcing us to get back to mainland immediately. A few doses of Avil, an anti-allergic tablet, helped arrest the situation. I spent the rest of the holiday with a swollen face with eyes that were nearly shut.

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Pic 4: Notice my swollen face (right)

Another time, while returning from a trek, I was bitten by certain insects leading to a severe allergic reaction. This time, I had an Anaphylactic Shock – a life-threatening situation – and had to be rushed to the hospital ICU immediately. It’s by God’s grace that I am here today to tell the story. [More on that story here.]

Marooned in a Beach and then Getting Lost in a Jungle in the Dark

It was about 7 years back when I was visiting Gokarna with a bunch of friends. At that time Gokarna was relatively unknown and didn’t get many visitors. We had hired two autos to go to a place called, Paradise Beach. We had no clue where this beach was or if such a beach even existed. There was no Google Maps, no smart phones.

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Pic 5: The so called ‘Paradise Beach’

The auto drivers duped us and took us through a jungle dropping us in some isolated place far away from civilization saying that was Paradise Beach. We could see no beach but could hear sounds of waves crashing somewhere down the hill. We climbed down the hill maneuvering tall bushes only to find ourselves on huge boulders amidst thousands of crabs.

One of us was smart enough to note down the auto driver’s phone number. Or else, I have no idea how we would get out of that place. Now, why the auto driver’s left us at an isolated place is anybody’s guess!

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Pic 6: The trail through the jungle, clicked during the day, where we got lost at night.

On the way back, it had gotten completely dark. We had to make our way down a hillock following a trail through a jungle for a distance of about 2 Km. to reach Kudle Beach, where our resort was located. No motor vehicles could pass through that part and it had to be traversed on foot. We weren’t prepared for the dark and didn’t have torches.

All we had in the group of seven of us was two working phones, the batteries of which were nearly draining. The rest of the phones were completely out of charge. The friend leading the group down took a wrong turn and we soon realized we were lost in the middle of the jungle. To make matters worse, the two working phones went out of battery. After panicking for a while, we had no choice but to carry on walking following the sound of the waves. Once again it was by God’s grace that we made it alive to our resort in pitch darkness.

Would you like to share your not so good travel memory(s)?

A Monochromatic Day at East Sikkim

Touristy Yet Breathtaking Tsomgo Lake

As the car climbed up through the winding mountain side, the charming scenery all around suddenly gave way to monochrome. The sudden transition caught us off-guard leaving us tad surprised even though it had been raining off and on for a while now. The day had started bright and sunny but now the sky was overcast. The tall mountains on either side of the tarred road were cloaked in patches of white and grey.

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Pic 1: The monochrome surroundings 

We had arrived at Gangtok the day before with plans of visiting North Sikkim. However, leaving Gangtok without visiting the touristy Tsomgo Lake and Nathula Pass would be sinful – so what if these places are located in East Sikkim! Hence, off we headed towards Tsomgo Lake. Nathula Pass hadn’t opened for the season even though it was the month of April. Last winter was harsher than usual resulting in the Pass being still closed due to snow.

Situated at an altitude of 12,313 ft, the oval shaped Tsomgo is a glacial high-altitude alpine lake. Spread over 1 Km. with a depth of around 48 ft., it is also known as Changu Lake. The lake is considered sacred and located about 35 Km. away from Gangtok. The colour of the lake changes in different seasons and it is said that the spirituals gurus of Sikkim would predict the future of the state by studying the colour of the water. Due to its proximity to China, Protected Area Permit (PAP) is required to visit this place.

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Pic 2: The oval-shaped Tsomgo Lake as seen from a distance.

The lake looked stunning even though it was teeming with tourists. It was partially frozen making it even more enigmatic and magical. A large part of the surroundings was also wrapped in snow. The spectacular beauty of the lake enticed us but the swarm of people all around was quite a turn off. Tsomgo Lake being a popular tourist destination in Sikkim, the crowd wasn’t surprising and we had expected this. A small bridge connects one side of the lake to the other. We walked over to the other side. One can also avail yak rides to go to the other side.

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Pic 3: Notice the tiny people scattered like twigs all around?
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Pic 4: A prayer wheel breaks the monotony of black and white.
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Pic 5: Tourists ride these yaks to move around the lake.

After a short walk by the side of the lake, the touristy selfie-clicking chattering people got the better of us and we decided to leave. Instead we found a quiet place higher up in the mountain by the side of the road that provided a perfect view of the lake. And there we feasted in the magical scenic landscape of the ethereal lake nestled in between tall gigantic mountains. Everything remained black and white though.

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Pic 6: Reflection of the surrounding mountains on the half frozen lake.
Unfathomable Faith of Baba Mandir

Before spending time at Tsomgo Lake, we had gone to Baba Mandir – a unique temple that houses the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh. A very fascinating story is associated with this temple.

Harbhajan Singh was a soldier with the Indian Army. He belonged to the Punjab Regiment. In 1968, he was involved with flood and landslide relief work in Sikkim and North Bengal. During that time, the 27-year old soldier had slipped and fallen into a rivulet while escorting a mule column from Tuku La, his battalion headquarters, to Donguchui La. He went missing and all search efforts went in vain. After 5 days, Harbhajan Singh appeared in the dream of a fellow soldier informing about his death by drowning and that his body was carried 2 Km. away from the site of accident by strong current. Apparently, he also expressed his desire of having a samadhi (tomb) built in his name. His body was discovered exactly at the mentioned place.

Thereafter he came to be known as Baba Harbhajan Singh and his regiment built a samadhi at the place where he was posted during his service. The samadhi is the original temple, located about 10 Km. away from the new temple. This we learnt much later while at Dzongu Valley. The place we visited happens to be the new temple built for the convenience of tourists. I wish I knew about the original samadhi well in time to be able to visit it.

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Pic 7: The story of Baba Harbhajan Singh displayed at the temple.

Army folklore has it that Baba Harbhajan Singh still guards the international boundary between India and China. Apparently both Indian and Chinese armymen have seen a human figure riding a horse along the border at night. It is also believed that Baba appears in dreams of fellow armymen warning about any untoward activities happening at the border. Chinese soldiers also set aside a chair for the Baba whenever a flag meeting is held between the two countries.

The Army payroll still has his name and he receives his salary, due promotions, and is also granted leave as per policy. All this intrigued me and I googled later to learn that the Baba goes home on September 13th every year when a berth is booked for him in Dibrugarh Express. Army officials take his portrait, uniform, and other belongings to his village Kuka, in Kapurthala district of Punjab. The same soldiers carry the belongings back to the Sikkim, once the leaves get over.

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Pic 8: The idol of  Baba Harbhajan Singh.

The new Baba Mandir has three rooms in a straight row. The room at the center has an idol of the soldier along with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism. The room on the right has a chair and a table that represents the Baba’s office. It also has a heater to keep him warm. The room on the left, is filled with water bottles. It is believed that water kept in the shrine is blessed by the Baba and if consumed after 21 days cures all possible ailments. Hoards of tourists and devotees visit the temple and offer things like toothbrushes, slippers, etc. One can also send letters to the Baba, which are opened by other soldiers.

The original samadhi has a room that has everything that may be required by the Baba, such as, neatly ironed uniforms, slippers, shoes, camp bed, etc. Indian Army soldiers polish the Baba’s boots, keep his uniform clean, and make his bed. The soldiers have apparently reported crumpled bed linen and muddy boots.

All of these would appear delusionary to a pragmatic mind. The Indian Army, however, believes in the spirit of Baba Harbhajan Singh. Everything in the universe cannot be fathomed by our limited understanding, hence let faith triumph over logic for this bizarre place of worship.

Prehistoric Rock Art

When we spent a few hours at Wayanad…

Wayanad conjures up images of lush green hills, terrace cultivation, tea gardens, and fresh spices. It’s a tiny little getaway located in the north-east of Kerala. We were at Kōḻikōḍ one weekend, when we decided to drop by Wayanad on our way back to Bangalore. Wayanad would anyway fall on the way and that very conveniently suited us. Our intention of stopping by Wayanad wasn’t the lush greenery though. It was the prehistoric rock engravings of Edakkal Caves, believed to have been incised between 4000 BC and 1000 BC, that interested us.

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At the mouth of Edakkal Cave

Situated about 4000 ft. above sea level Edakkal Caves can be reached through a flight of very steep man-made stairs. Edakkal literally means ‘stone in between’ as the cave is believed to have been formed by a big stone that fell in between two giant rocks. The flight of stairs up to the cave wasn’t easy and left us completely breathless. It was a Sunday and the place was exceedingly crowded, which only added to the difficulty.

Moreover, vehicles are not allowed near the cave entrance and one needs to walk uphill for about 30-45 mins to arrive at the cave entrance. The steep stairs start at the entrance.

The petroglyphs, however, made the climb worthwhile. There were human figures, animals, trees, wheels, geometrical symbols, etc. Such amazing creative expressions of man left us spellbound. We wondered what a test of patience and perseverance it must have been! All these figures haven’t been completely deciphered yet and are invaluable assets to archaeologists.

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As we drove away from Edakkal, we went to another place nearby, called Phantom Rock. It’s a metamorphic rock that supposedly resembles a human skull. We didn’t quite find the rock, instead landed on a tiny little lake that appeared to be cut out of the rocky surroundings. Needless to say, the lake with it’s stillness and moss-green water made us more than happy.

On our way back to Bangalore, we passed through Bandipur National Park, which falls in NH 766. It’s a stretch of about 10-15 Km. (just assuming, I don’t know the exact distance). As one might expect it was a beautiful stretch with jungle on either side of a straight tarred road. No vehicle is allowed to stop in the forest. If you’re lucky you may spot an elephant. We weren’t lucky enough but monkeys, spotted deer, bisons, and wild boars delighted us sufficiently.

We had crossed Bandipur on our way to Kōḻikōḍ too but that was early morning and we hadn’t seen any animals then. Moreover, we were really sleepy after having to wait for 2-3 hours in the car as vehicles are not allowed between 9 PM and 6 AM through the forest.
[So engrossed we were looking out for animals that we clicked no pictures.]

 

 

Picturesque Diu – Other Attractions


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The morning was bright and sunny. I expected a warm day but on stepping out of the hotel realized there was a strong wind blowing and it felt rather cold. It was a December morning and quite like one!

My parents and I were out to explore more of Diu, which had already surprised me with the amazing sunset and sunrise I experienced in its city beach – Jallandhar.

[Read my experience of Diu beaches here.]

There is more to Diu than just the beaches and here are some of those in order of my preference.

Diu Fort – Cannons Overlooking the Sea

I am more of a nature person than a history person, Baba is quite the opposite, and Ma keeps changing her taste depending on several factors. However, when it comes to forts all three of us are on the same page and equally interested.

At the first glance, Diu Fort felt disappointing but we quickly realized that we were expecting the architectural marvel of Mughal forts like the ones in Agra and Jaipur from a Portugese Fort. The Portugese weren’t as lavish as the Mughals neither could they afford the grandeur of the Mughals.

Having made peace with that, we noticed that the unique position of Diu Fort overlooking the sea made it very appealing. The huge wall around the fort secured it tight with the sea on three sides acting as an additional barrier. The fourth side used to be protected by a canal. Huge canons occupied the bastions that pointed in different directions towards the sea. These bastions opened into attractive courtyards lined with rows of trees. We crossed several gates that looked simple yet sturdy, then there were walkways, and few rooms as well.

A light house was located at one end of the fort. The history of the fort is displayed at the entrance gate. A section of the fort is not open to public and has the office of Jail Superintendent and used to house Diu Prison until recently.

Panikotha (or Fortim-do-Mar), a former prison, located in the middle of the sea can also be seen from the fort. Panikotha was once connected with the land by an under-sea tunnel.

Naida Caves – Manicured and Neat

A labyrinth of interconnected orangish-yellow wind-eroded rocks; trees springing up here and there with their artistic roots hanging in random places; sun beams passing through narrow crevices putting up a beautiful play of light and shadow – that’s what we saw at Naida Caves. I remember jokingly telling Ma, “I can imagine an old woman holding her pet black cat wearing a pointed black hat with a cackling voice suddenly springing up from nowhere.”

The cave was truly beautiful but seemed tad cosmetic to us. We couldn’t help the unfair comparison of this cave with the rustic ones back in our hometown Meghalaya. While Ma and I had a little fun with our imaginations running wild, Baba was clearly not impressed. I loved the trees though!

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Gangeshwar Temple: Five Shiva Lingas

Five Shiva Lingas situated inside a cave located just a few feet away from the sea – that’s Gangeshwar Temple. Apparently, the temple dates back to the times of the Mahabharata. It’s simplicity and quaintness is what amazed me.

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The Shiva Lingas are of various heights and are believed to have been installed by the five Pandavas during their exile in the forest. The varying heights portray the seniority of the Pandava brothers, except the largest one at the center which represents Bheem, the strongest brother. There is a well on one side of the cave that apparently gets filled with sweet water during low tide despite being surrounded by the sea. Locals call this flow of sweet water as Ganga Dhara (sacred flow of River Ganga) and that’s how the temple gets its name too. During high tide, the Shiva Lingas are washed by tidal waves.

St. Paul’s Cathedral – Intricate Wooden Interiors

Someone had told me that St. Paul’s Cathedral was really amazing, which led me to build up an expectation that was obviously not satiable. So, I am probably biased when I say  that for me the churches in my hometown Shillong are far more beautiful. Anyway, the church did have aesthetically appealing interiors with elaborate wood work. We lit candles at the altar and sat quietly for a while before walking towards St. Thomas Church located right next to it.

St. Thomas Church is also known as Diu museum but didn’t have much to offer other than few antique artifacts made of petrified wood, mostly figures of Catholic saints, from the Portuguese era.

INS Khukri Memorial – War memorial in Glass Casing

Located in Jallandhar Beach, the memorial of Indian Naval Ship (INS) Khukri is dedicated to all the valiant sailors of this ship who died during the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971. The memorial is a scaled-down replica of the ship inside a glass casing. Khukri went down with her crew of 18 officers and 176 sailors a few miles off the coast of Diu, when a Pakistani submarine fired a torpedo at her. Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla chose to go down with his ship and was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.

Hoka Palm – A Discovery After Leaving Diu

I thought I was seeing coconut trees but I did wonder why they had their trunks fused together. Several coconut trees seemed to be growing out of a common trunk and diverging in various directions. I also noticed an oval fruit hanging in bunches on top amidst the dense green foliage. These were definitely not coconut!

Hoka Palm Tree – PC: outreachecology.com

It was only on my way back from Diu that I questioned our cab driver and got to know that these are Hoka Trees and that they are unique and found only in this part of the country. Hoka seeds are used for preparing a local alcoholic drink known as Tadi. The soft flesh inside can be eaten raw.

Hoka Palm Tree or Hyphoena indica is a native of the Nile valley in Egypt and is also known as Doum Palm or Gingerbread Tree.

Diu is a great destination for a quick weekend refreshing getaway!

 

 

Refreshingly Picturesque Diu

De-stress at the Serene Beaches of Diu

Utterly clean surroundings, well-tarred roads, spick and span roadsides as though they have received a dose of fresh paint…

The car takes a turn and the driver announces that we have arrived. Ma passes a remark from the back seat. Baba and I agree in unison that we had not seen this level of neatness in any city in recent times.

We were at the coastal town of Diu. Diu is one of the two districts of the Union Territory of Daman and Diu – the two erstwhile Portuguese naval bases that remain separated from each other by a distance of about 600 Km. Diu town overlooks Arabian Sea and sits at the eastern end of Diu Island, which remains connected to the state of Gujarat through a bridge.

I was on a trip across a few places of Gujarat along with my parents. Diu featured in our itinerary too. Diu’s proximity to Somnath made it the perfect destination to unwind after visiting the temple towns of Somnath and Dwarika.

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Pic 1: The clean beaches of Diu

The refreshingly picturesque Diu is perfect recipe for a great weekend getaway – lovely palm-fringed roads, Portuguese architecture, and amazingly clean beaches.

Back in Bangalore after my Gujarat and Diu trip, I was surprised to discover that people in my circle – colleagues and friends – had never considered visiting Diu. This was strange given Diu’s easy accessibility from Bangalore via Mumbai, especially when people of this city crave for weekend destinations and easy getaways. The craze is so much that extended weekends are easily recognizable by the remarkably less traffic on the roads.

In this post, I will concentrate on my experience of the beaches of Diu. For the rest of Diu’s attractions, I will follow up in another post. Diu has several beaches – I’ll write about two of them, the ones I visited.

[Read the other attractions of Diu here.]

Jallandhar Beach – Sunset Splendour

I chose to stay at a place that was right at the center of the town instead of staying at a resort close to the sea. My preference being guided by the fact that I was traveling with my aged parents. Staying close to civilization, I thought, was a wise thing to do. The hotel overlooked Diu Port, so we had a great view of Arabian Sea right from our room and that worked just perfect.

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Pic 2: View of Arabian Sea from our hotel room.
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Pic 3: The busy Diu Port seen from our hotel room.

Like most people in this world, sunrises and sunsets pep me up like no other, whether in the mountains or in the oceans/seas. With sunset in my mind, I set out for an evening stroll to Jallandhar Beach on the day we reached Diu. My parents preferred to remain in the hotel.

The beach being located in the heart of the town and walkable from my hotel, I mentally prepared for crowd, noise, and filth. To my surprise, this city beach was completely different – very few people, no vendors, no stalls, and a sparklingly clean coastline. Greeted by a wide promenade, occasionally interrupted by well-laid benches, I ambled as trees on the fringes whispered and swayed with the intoxicating sea breeze. The golden sand looked warm and inviting.

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Pic 4: Saw these pretty flowers on one side of Jallandhar Beach

A little ahead, the sandy beach culminated into a rocky hillock, atop which I noticed a few people and the spire of a temple. That’s where I wanted to be! Moving ahead in that direction, I climbed up the hill and located a quiet and isolated place. There I spend the evening watching the sun paint the sky, lovingly kiss the glistening waters, and eventually merge into the sea altogether.

An overwhelmingly magical evening it was! Little did I expect such an experience in a tiny little city beach!

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Pic 5: My quiet place at Jallandhar Beach
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Pic 6: Sunset at Jallandhar Beach
Jallandhar Beach –Sunrise Quietude

Next day, early in the morning while it was still dark, I set out to Jallandhar Beach once again. This time, it turned out to be even better – there wasn’t a single soul on the beach. I walked on the sand for a while and then settled down on a flat stone listening to the musical silence of the soft melody created by the gentle waves. Before I knew, dawn broke in sending shimmering golden rays over the placid Arabian Sea. The quietude was intoxicating making me wish that it would last forever.

I was in Diu for one full day and two half days. This enabled me to repeat the sunrise and sunset experiences one more time. I wasn’t disappointed and each time it was equally charming.

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Pic 7: As dawn breaks in, the sky is sprinkled in myriad hues
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Pic 8: The bluish tinge is soon replaced by reddish orange.
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Pic 9: And before I know the sun makes a grandiose appearance
Nagoa Beach – Leisureliness Walk

Usually people stay at Nagoa Beach and I would have done that too had it not been for my parents. However, after my sunrise and sunset experience at Jallandhar Beach, I have no regrets.

It was late afternoon when we reached Nagoa Beach after a drive of about 25-30 minutes from Diu town. The drive was appealing, taking us through the pretty countryside lined by palm groves. The perfectly tarred roads shone in the afternoon sun sometimes up and down, sometimes winding through narrow lanes. We passed through attractive colourful neighbourhoods and one or two churches.

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Pic 10: Nagoa Beach as I first saw it, my mobile camera isn’t capable of capturing the true colors of the water – an iridescent brilliant blue. 

Upon reaching Nagoa, we alighted from the car to a row of resorts on one side and the beach just across the street. Tall palm trees demarcate the beach from the road. The sprawling white sands of the horse-shoe shaped Nagoa Beach extended to a much larger distance making it way more luxuriant but it was way more crowded too. The crowd robbed off its charm to a certain extent. However, the first thing I noticed here was the colour of the waters of Arabian Sea – it was an iridescent brilliant blue.

We spent about an hour in Nagoa beach. I walked up and down the length of the beach sometimes through the white sand and sometimes splashing through the waves. This time my parents joined in too instead of just relaxing on the sand.

Other Beaches in Diu

Ghoghla Beach, Chakratirth Beach, and Gomtimata Beach are the other beaches of Diu. Ghogla beach provides opportunities for parasailing, surfing, and boating. We did pass by Ghoghla Beach but didn’t stop as these activities weren’t things we wanted to do. Chakratirath and Gomtimata are both walkable from Nagoa. Gomtimata is made of coral rocks and has puddles of water in between the rocks where one can find aquatic life such as crabs.

We decided to give both these a miss as I wanted to go back to Jallandhar Beach and experience my magical sunset all over again.

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Pic 11: Ghogla beach seen from a distance

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.