Chasing Ruins – Gudibande Fort

It was nearly two months that S was here, but we were yet to meet up. Both of us were occupied with something or the other and we could never make it. This weekend we were determined to make it happen. I had met S during the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, where we had shared a tent together. It was an instant connect. Subsequently, she even visited my home in Shillong. S is quite an inspirational woman. She left her high-profile corporate job to follow her dreams and went on to set up her own homestay at Manali. It’s quite a story and guess I should write about it. Meanwhile check out her fabulous homestay, Firdaws. I haven’t been there yet, but the Instagram pictures are drool-worthy!

We decided to do go for a hike together instead of the usual meeting at a café or in our homes. I just suggested Gudibande Fort and that was it. A joined us too. A and I had just been to Hutridurga the previous weekend.

About 100 Km away from Bangalore, Gudibande is a small town located in Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka. It’s very close to Andhra Pradesh border. On a hilltop of this town is located the 17th century fort that was built by Byre Gowda, a local chieftain of the Vijayanagar Empire. An interesting trivia that we learnt from the Internet is that Byre Gowda was a Robinhood of sorts, who was a messiah for the poor but a terror for the wealthy.

Pic 1: Ruins of the fort wall seen halfway through the climb.

It was a pleasant early morning drive as the car sped through the highway. Seated on the front seat of the car, A was relaying all kinds of information about the fort that he was reading up on his phone. Among other things, the Internet also said that the fort was closed due to the pandemic. We were already on our way and this information was conveniently ignored by all of us.

Soon the car took a turn and we found ourselves passing through winding village roads flanked by lush green fields, dotted by tiny boulder-strewn hillocks in the horizon. Large sections of these fields were dominated by tomato plantations. Certain sections had marigold plantations and the carpets of yellows and oranges were a sight a behold!

Pic 2: Bhairasagara lake filled to the brim. The colour of the water emphasizes the season of monsoon. The conical hillock seen towards the right is where the fort is located.

Soon we arrived at the large Bhairasagara lake. Located just a few kilometers ahead of the Gudibande fort, this lake was part of our itinerary. It being monsoon, the lake was teeming with water. At places, it felt like the water would overflow onto the road at any time. The hillock with the fort stood prominently and distinguishably in the background. After spending a little while by the lake, we decided to proceed towards the fort. The huge expanse of water deserved some dedicated time and we thought we would do that on our way back. Eventually, that never happened as we changed our plans went exploring another fort instead.

Pic 3: Bhairasagara lake as seen from the top. Google says it resembles the map of India. We didn’t quite find that resemblance from any angle though.

Soon we found ourselves at the base of a conical hill, on top of which sits the Gudibande fort. We could see a flight of broad cemented stairs going up, but it was barricaded by a red and white tape that ran across the breadth of the very first stair. A person sitting on a chair under a tree, who appeared like a guard seemed to be monitoring the place. So, the Google Map information was right afterall!

This was not a happy situation after having come all the way. As we wondered what to do, we found a couple of families coming down the stairs. This was our moment, we walked up to the guard-like person and asked if we could go up. He flatly refused. After requesting for a while, he allowed us charging a small sum (read bribe). Yes, we plead guilty!

Pic 4: We passed through a couple of such doorways. I forgot to keep a count, probably three or four.

It was a very easy walk up to the top and we made it in about 45 minutes. Most of the way we climbed through steps, some concrete, some just rocks, some carved out in the boulders. We passed through a couple of ruined doorways and through underpasses created by large boulders that touch on their vertices but widen at the bottom to create narrow passageways.

Pic 5: One with my inspirational wonder-woman!
Pic 6: We crossed several such large boulders that touch on their vertices but widen at the bottom creating a narrow passageway. Notice the indents on the rock right beside the stairs, those would have been used to climb up earlier.

The weather was perfect with a patchy sky covered in floating clouds and no rain or sun. We met a few people who were going down and wondered if they had bribed the guard-like person too.

On reaching the top we realized that we had the entire ruins to ourselves. There was nobody other than us and that certainly was a privilege. We spent a good hour at the top accompanied by the light breeze and the gorgeous views of the plains below. S and I were meeting after a long time and had a lot to catch up on. We found a comfortable place at the edge of the fort wall overlooking the Bhairasagara lake down below, while A went about exploring the ruins all around.  

Pic 7: Just before the entrance of the fort.

Besides the ruins, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva on top, which is believed to be one of the 108 Jyotirlingas that Lord Rama established in various parts of India. A filled us in with this and other information that he collected from Google while exploring the ruins.

Apparently, the fort edifice comprises of seven gateways though we saw only three. Ruined temples, caves sliced deep into the hillocks, and many secret passages that might have served as escape routes for the soldiers constituted the other highlights. Also, there are/were 19 rock ponds that could have been some form of water harvesting system. Again, we saw only a few. Byre Gowda seems to have been quite a visionary as he ruled this place only for three years and managed to leave behind this impressive legacy.

Pic 8: A flight of stairs carved out on the rock just after entering the fort.

A was back, not just with his freshly gained Google information, but with a bunch of dry twigs that he collected while exploring the fort. Those twigs will add glamour to his newly designed living room. S and I were in the middle of an exuberant conversation, but we had to pause. It was time to leave.

Pic 9: That’s where S and I spent our time chatting away.

Chasing Ruins – Hutridurga

“Look at all the people here!”, I directed my comment to R as A chuckled away. The place wasn’t crowded but we encountered several groups of people all through the way. Two days back when we were planning this R was reluctant to give me the name of the place saying that I would just blog about it and make a less frequented place popular. Well, R had forgotten that there aren’t many hidden places anymore.

Pic 1: That’s Uttari Betta or Hutridurga. Look at the refreshing greenery, all thanks to the monsoon.

Bored with the monotony of being home, I had reached out to two of my friends and we decided to go on a day hike in the outskirts of Bangalore. It’s been raining almost everyday in Bangalore. Keeping that in mind we wanted to go somewhere nearby. R recommended Uttari Betta and that was it.

Pic 2: A proper road leads up to the base of the hill but we parked the car well ahead and decided to walk.

Uttari Betta, also known as Hutridurga, is a fortified hill about 70 Km. away from Bangalore. Situated at an altitude of 3708 feet above the sea level it overlooks several villages all around. The village located at the immediate foot of the hill is known as Santhepet while It derives its name from Hutri, a village about 3 Km away from the hill. Hutridurga is one of the Nava Durgas (nine fortified hills) that was built by Kempegowda, who founded Bengaluru in the 16th Century. Later Tipu Sultan used this fort as his military bastion against the British.

Pic 3: It was a lovely day, the ever-changing cloud patterns making it all the more beautiful.
Pic 4: Remnants of the fort remain scattered at various places.

We left Bangalore early and drove through a scenic stretch of road with Savandurga looking out on us most of the way, sometimes from the right side and sometimes from the end of the road. Though we woke up to a rainy Saturday, the weather had become perfect and remained that way for the rest of the day.

Upon reaching our destination, we were welcomed by an arched gateway that welcomed us to Hutridurga Trek. It appeared like a Karnataka Tourism board. We alighted from the car and pretty soon realized that wasn’t the starting point. A little bit of asking around and we found our way to the actual start point, which was a good 2 Km drive away.

Pic 5: A quick pose with ‘A’. There are several doorways all along the hike, this was right at the start.
Pic 6: ‘R’ and I steal a moment at the top of the hill.

It was a very easy hike to the top. In many places there were steps craved out on the rocky surface, making it even simpler though robbing off its natural appeal altogether. Probably done for the villagers who hike up to the temple situated on top.  As we started the walk, I was surprised to see two families with little boys and girls coming down. While it was nice to see adventurous parents, I wondered if I would have done the same. I don’t think I would have quite dared, especially with the pandemic being far from over. The worst part was nobody was masked. And that was true for most of the groups we encountered all along. The only masked people were us.

Pic 7: In many places ‘R’ and ‘A’ created their own route, rather than follow the trail. I couldn’t master the courage to follow them though!
Pic 8: Some good candid shots. Byproduct of hiking with a professional photographer, which happens to be ‘R’.

The total distance of the hike is about 5 Km. up and down. We took our own sweet time to climb up, stopping or sitting wherever we felt like. Ruins of the fort lay scattered all around. We passed through a couple of enchanting stone doorways, some of which had interesting engravings. There were six doorways in all. Most of the times R and A would steer away from the actual path and find their own routes. On one such occasion R got badly stuck in a precarious position from where neither could he climb up nor climb down, making me more than a little nervous. It took him sometime before he could figure a way out.

Pic 9: The temple at the top. In front of the temple is a clear pool of water known as ‘Dodda Donne’, which means big spring. Painted on a rock beside the pool is a large sign that reads ‘Danger’ leading us to assume that the pool must be deep.

The views from the top are just as stunning as one would expect. The cloud patterns on the sky on that day made it even more beautiful. Savandurga was standing out and was clearly visible from the top. The temple on top is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The three of us spent some wonderful time soaking in nature’s splendour while munching on the sandwiches and fruits I had carried for us. It was a good break after a very long time.

An Unexpected Trip to BR Hills

Back in December last year, my cousin came over and stayed with me for little over a month, making the most of the work from home situation. On the very first weekend of her visit, we planned a trip to Mysore. The plan was made such that we would be at Mysore Palace on Sunday evening. The reason being the entire palace is illuminated with about a lakh bulbs and remains that way for 15 min. It’s a spectacular sight and I wanted her to experience the same. (Thanks to the pandemic that didn’t happen, which is another story.)

Our weekend was sorted, we were all geared up to leave Bangalore on Saturday morning, and head straight to Mysore. Late Friday night, a friend called up and his casual recommendation changed our itinerary altogether. We were still going to Mysore but would go to BR Hills as well and spend a night there. Located about 90 Km. from Mysore and 180 Km. from Bangalore, it fitted in quite perfectly.

Pic 1: Stretches of Kans Grass right up to the entry gate of BR Hills made for a blissful experience.

Saturday morning, we left Bangalore at the stipulated time and visited Shivanasamudra. After that we headed for BR Hills or Biligiriranga Hills. Located in the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, at an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level, BR Hills bridges the Eastern and Western Ghats. It houses the BRT wildlife sanctuary, which is an official tiger reserve. BRT is just an abbreviation of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary. The temple of Biligiri Rangaswamy being the other main attraction of this place. There are hiking and trekking opportunities too, which we didn’t explore this time.

Pic 2: A pond at BRT Wildlife Sanctuary right where the Jeep Safari starts.

The native inhabitants of BR Hills constitute the Soliga tribe. They make a living by selling honey, gooseberry, bamboo and other non-timber forest products. The government has been trying to resettle them with a focus on forest conservation. The Soligas aren’t in agreement and have won a legal battle to continue staying in their homeland. Certainly, they know how to live harmoniously with nature. The battle is far from over though.

Another interesting trivia about BR Hills is that the notorious and dreaded bandit Veerappan, who had terrorized a large part of South India for a very long time, operated out of these jungles till he was killed in October 2004.

Pic 3: The small settlement at BR Hills as seen from the temple.

Driving through a green and soothing stretch of meadows and farmlands, we reached the entry point of BR Hills. The entrance is marked by a forest check post, where we had to provide details of our visit including duration of stay, place of stay, vehicle number, etc. Beyond the gate is a stretch of perfectly tarred narrow winding road with thick forests on either side. Gradually the car climbed up through the road as we remained engrossed in the heavenly marvelous surroundings. A drive of about 30 mins through this paradise, and we arrived at Giridarshini, the homestay we had booked the night before.

It was well past lunch time by the time we had settled down and arrived at the dining hall. Soon after, we proceeded towards Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple.

Pic 4: The home stay was surrounded by coffee estates and various trees of pepper, ginger, etc.

Located on a hilltop, the ancient temple provides a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest down below. The temple was under renovation at that time but that didn’t affect its quaint little charm. The strong wind blowing across threatened to throw us off the edges, and that only added to the temple’s mystical magic.

A huge, handcrafted leather slipper kept reverently just outside the main temple piqued our interest. Asking around yielded no results, thanks to the language barrier. It was only later that we got to know it’s significance. The Soligas believe that the presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ranganatha, wanders through the forest every night wearing that slipper. The slipper apparently wears out every 2 years as a result, and then they present a new pair.

Pic 5: At Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple
Pic 6: The temple presents a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest

We walked down from the hill and spent the rest of the evening exploring the narrow lanes and bylanes, sipping a coffee or a tea from the tiny shops here and there. As darkness fell, we retreated to our homestay. Dinner was over a bonfire that was arranged exclusively for us. The three sisters laughed and giggled talking about the antics and idiosyncrasies of our extended families, making this one of the most memorable times of our being together. “Now, this justifies all the money we’re shelling out!”, quipped my cousin. The homestay charge had seemed a little exorbitant, but the last minute plan had left us with no time to research any further.

Pic 7: Sunset at BR hills on a cold December evening.

Early next morning, we headed towards the sanctuary for a wildlife safari. We jumped onto the Forest Department jeep with a lot of anticipation and excitement. The two hour-long safari was a great disappointment. All we saw was a couple of sambar deer, one or two mongoose, a couple of birds, a wild boar or two, and that was all. We did spot a bison too.

Pic 8: A pond inside the wildlife sanctuary, seen during the safari.

After a while, we just wanted the safari to end. Even though we were driving through the jungle, everything felt dull and monotonous. Our expectation was a little over the top having heard of people spotting elephants and leopards. It certainly wasn’t our day at all.

Pic 9: Very unlike us, but we couldn’t wait for the safari to end.

Back in the homestay, we had a sumptuous breakfast and headed towards Mysore. On the way, we stopped at the magnificent Somnathpur Temple.

Revenge Tourism

Revenge Tourism! What the hell is this? I exclaimed as I heard this term for the first-time last evening.  Apparently, it’s been doing rounds of social media. Having stayed away from Instagram (the only social media I actively pursue) for a while now, naturally I have no clue. Being overly occupied in certain other aspects of life also does its bit in contributing to such ignorance. Quite often, I find myself staggering behind and completely lost about these current trends and other such things brewing out there. Certainly, they aren’t important and hence don’t matter. But people pick up these terminologies and casually use them in everyday conversations. Sometimes, they go a step ahead and make you feel foolish and dumb when you express your unfamiliarity. I couldn’t care less though!

Revenge Tourism, as I understand, means tourism with a vengeance to make up for all the times people couldn’t travel. The phrase feels somewhat negative to me. Are we challenging Mother Nature in some way? – was my immediate thought. Probably, I am being judgmental as I have no idea how this terminology came into being and under what circumstances it might have been coined. Probably I am just envious as I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in Revenge Tourism just yet. However, to travel with a vengeful mindset feels strange and weird, doesn’t it? Afterall, what we think is just as important as what we say and do. Our thoughts matter, they make us who we are. It’s important to be mindful, not just of speech and action, but thought too. I wouldn’t dare to invite Mother Nature’s ire by indulging in any form of activity that might upset her, least of all by making a blatant display of my arrogance.

Revenge Tourism or Reward Tourism or whatever Tourism be it, the most important thing to remember is the entire economic angle around it. Tons of people have their livelihood dependent on tourism. So, let travel happen while making sure that protocols are adhered to and the right amount of balance is maintained.

To me travel still feels like a faraway dream, at least the kind of travel I used to do. Pre-pandemic travel sometimes feels like a thing of another life – a past life. I would go on long trips at least thrice a year and that would be interspersed with smaller trips to nearby places. All of that, feels like a dream now. I shouldn’t be just blaming the pandemic though. Life has changed personally in certain other ways too and it feels like a new phase. I had never given much thought to the fact that travel can be dependent on extraneous factors, many of which aren’t in one’s direct control. Well, life waxes and wanes and all we can do is just flow along.

Now, I hadn’t set out to put down my thoughts around Revenge Tourism today. Neither did I plan to tell my travel sob stories. This post was supposed to be about something else altogether. I wanted to sum up all the things I did between the end of December and beginning of January, which incidentally includes some bit of travel too. Let me just keep that aside for my next post.

The Frustrations of Travel Sabotage

Ever been in a situation where your travel was sabotaged by fellow travelers or others? If yes, I feel your pain. After navigating such situations a couple of times, I made some simple travel rules for myself. I can’t always stick to them for reasons beyond my control but do try my best to adhere to them whenever possible.

An important lesson I learnt in the hard way is that a great friend does not necessarily translate into a great travel partner. Habits and the way you go about doing things, which do not affect you otherwise may become a major mood spoiler in travel scenarios. For e.g. a friend of mine regularly spends a long time in the shower. I don’t care about that and why would I. When we traveled together this became a big botheration to me as I can never imagine spending precious travel time in routine activities. My friend on the other hand would not relent. She was here to relax, it was a holiday afterall. Not my idea of relaxing in any way.

I have a list of multiple such incidents. Let me narrate two.

At New York

The first time I went to the US, I had a connecting flight from New York, both during the onward and return journey. Obviously, in no way could I miss the opportunity of visiting the Big Apple. The plan was to stopover for the weekend in NY. A colleague, who was traveling with me, joined in only to leave me in the lurch by changing his plans at the last moment. Irrespective, I went ahead with my plan.

L: Times Square; R: Staten Island

A cousin’s girlfriend was stationed at New Jersey, during that time, and it was decided that I would stay with her for that weekend. I had never met her before but that didn’t matter as my only interest was exploring NYC. My cousin’s girlfriend, on the other hand, had a different idea about entertaining me. She wasted more than half a day cooking and feeding me. That I am not a foodie and I wasn’t there to eat was none of her concern. Moreover, she wouldn’t let me venture out alone. By the time we could step out it was late afternoon and soon it started snowing. My Saturday was bitterly spoilt. Left with only Sunday, I wasn’t going to let that go waste. It was a sunny day, I ventured out early in the morning and spent the day in my own way, salvaging whatever little I could of my most looked forward to NYC trip.

Trying to be the best host, my cousin’s girlfriend missed the larger picture that defeated my very purpose of visiting NY. The saddest part is that in most likelihood I will never make it to NY again.  

At Miami

The second incident is also associated with a trip to the US, though this is purely coincidental. Just two months before WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, we were at the city of Miami on an official visit. Among the various places I planned to visit, I wasn’t going to miss Everglades National Park. Unlike other official visits that are quite crammed with meetings and events, this trip was quite relaxed providing us ample time to indulge in personal activities.

The picture on the left is significant for the date, we had no idea what awaited us for the rest of the year.

Two of my colleagues (or friends), whose travel ideas are drastically different from mine, started accompanying me everywhere translating into a kind of an unsaid rule that we would always go out together. And, all the trips would mostly end up in malls, shopping, and eating. Neither would they let me be nor would they do what I liked to do. They were simply being well-meaning friends without realizing that they were interfering with my ideas of experiencing the Magic City of Miami. As a result, I couldn’t visit half the places I had in my plan. Everglades National Park didn’t happen too. And once again, the saddest part is that in most likelihood I will never make it to Miami again.

While I can be quite accommodating and adjusting in other aspects of life, when it’s about travel it utterly frustrates me. Compromise in travel I shall not do! Can’t live upto it always though…

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

IMG_20191226_124442

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.

IMG_20191227_155953 (1)

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.

UCOA1250

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.

IMG_5380
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.

IMG_5392
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) 

IMG_5027
Pic 3: The busy Daseshwamedh Ghat.

IMG_5030
Pic 4: Devotees & pilgrims bathe in River Ganga at Daseshwamedh Ghat notwithstanding the cold weather while migratory birds play around.

IMG_5470
Pic 5: Seen at Daseshwamedh Ghat – someone cared enough.

IMG_5468
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.

IMG_5237
Pic 7: Chet Singh fort at Chet Singh ghat.

IMG_5253
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.

IMG_5231
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.

IMG_5442
Pic 9: Approaching Panchaganga Ghat, as seen from the boat.

IMG_5438
Pic 10: Panchaganga Ghat that had this nice wall art.

IMG_5444
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.

IMG_5309
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.

IMG_5453
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.)

IMG_5266
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.

IMG_5224
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.

IMG_5204
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!

IMG_5392
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.

HRPA2462
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).

IMG_5312
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.

IMG_5475

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.

IMG_5367

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.

IMG_5251

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.

IMG_5224

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.

IMG_5468

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…


Top post on IndiBlogger, the biggest community of Indian Bloggers

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.

IMG_3606
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.

IMG_3616
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!

IMG_1183
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.

IMG_0204
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.

IMG_4055
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!

IMG_3996
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)?