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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Here’s an account of the ghats that touched us a little more than the others:
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pic 9: The office
Pic 10: The room with bottles of water.
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.
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.
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 stairs start at the entrance of the cave
The stairs get steeper
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.
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.
The view from above (PC: Soumyaroop Chatterjee)
The view down below
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.]
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.
Somewhere in the fort
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.”
Naida cave entrance
Play of lightsand shadow momewhere inside
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!
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.
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. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Thomas Church or Diu Museum
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.
Inside St. Paul’s Cathedral
Inside St. Paul’s Cathedral
Inside St. Paul’s Cathedral
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.
The replica of the warship inside the glass casing
The story behind INS Khukri
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!
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!