Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Zanskar Indus Confluence

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      Ladakh, one of the most exotic locations in India, is home to some of the most beautiful gompas, refreshing locations and warm people. The stark mountains change colours as the day unfolds. The setting sun brings on the shades of purple, orange, maroon to the slopes of these lofty mountains. If you travel to this place just as the winter is setting in and the mercury plummeting to -20,  try sitting by the river Indus and listening to the tinkle of the icicles floating on the river. These very stark surroundings sprout into green patches in the summers with sudden new streams flowing between them. 

    Of the many travel stories of Ladakh, today let me tell you the Zanskar Indus confluence at Nimmu. We were excited about our trip and so layered in woollens, since the winter was setting in, we started for the day. On our way we came to two very interesting spots. The first stop was  at Patthar Sahib Gurudwara, a place where Guru Nanak is said to have humbled  a demon who tried to kill him by rolling a boulder down while he was meditating.  However, the bid was futile as the Guru continued his meditation. the livid demon then tried to push the boulder down on him by his foot. The boulder now has an imprint of the foot on one side and the outline of Nanak Lama, the local name given to Guru Nanak, on the other side. 

     Around thirty kilometers from Leh, towards Kargil, the driver stopped the ignition of the vehicle we were travelling in. Surrounded by elevations, the vehicle  started moving uphill on its own. A signboard greeted us thus,

File:Magnetic Hill (India) sign.jpg
Courtesy Wikipedia
                                    
 It was eerie to feel the vehicle slowly move uphill surrounded by a bare landscape. The driver took great delight in creating a drama out of the incident. We were in the mysterious Magnetic Hill of Ladakh. There  was a rational explanation behind this phenomenon. Since the surrounding elevation had obstructed a view of the horizon, false geographical  references played tricks with the eye. What appeared as an uphill slope was in reality a downhill one which allowed the normal gravitational forces to work on the vehicles. 

    We were now approaching our destination, Zanskar Indus confluence near Nimmu. Ensconced between bare mountains, the road led ahead with a steep drop on one side. Daylight was fading soon and we were rushing against time to reach Nimmu. The wind was sharp and biting into us. The mountains were already casting their long shadows. Finally we reached the point where the river Zanskar flowing rather sluggishly from the Zanskar range, had joined the sparkling and bubbling Indus river. It was breathtaking to watch the contrasting rivers come together with their distinct identity. One was a sprightly and clear blue green Indus while the other was the muddy and slow Zanskar which gradually freezes in the winter. It is said that in the summers it is quite the opposite. The Zanskar river gushes down with great might while the Indus flows placidly. We sat there by the road and watched the waters of the two rivers meet and yet remain distinct.The river then flows to Batalik as one. 
                                              
File:Indus Zanskar confluence.jpg
The Confluence
Courtesy Wikipedia
                                            
        There are many moments when one feels humbled by nature. Zanskar Indus confluence is one such. But then the entire Ladakh region is a humbling experience especially it's people's collective stories of endurance and tenacity. If you ever visit this region do listen to their tales and all told with that twinkle in the eye and faces crinkling into smiles weathered in the harsh climate.



    

Monday, 28 April 2014

Yielding To Colours

                                             





    And you thought they were only in Amsterdam? Rows and rows of colours, stretching for miles together that acted as the perfect backdrop for the romantic hit number of Silsila, the 70s most talked about Hindi movie. Now, you don’t really have to sigh at the inaccessibility of this riot of colours. Book yourself to Srinagar between late March and mid April and feed your senses to your heart’s content.

                                           
                                                 
   The first time we went through the gate, I was expecting some rows of  tulips interspersed with other plants and flowers to lend relief. The moment my eyes fell on the view spread before, my jaws dropped in disbelief at the spectacular show. Rows and rows of tulips of all possible colours stretched as far as the eye could see. I was looking at ten lakh variety of tulips, and that’s quite a number. This was in 2007 when it was yet to be opened for the public. Blues, reds, yellows, whites, pinks, double coloured, shaded…name it and it was there. I believe they have increased the number now. The Zabarwan  mountain ranges as the backdrop and the Dal lake in the front, the Tulip Garden has good company. It is surrounded by Chashmeshahi gardens of Shalimar and Nishat gardens,  the testimony of aesthetic splendor of Mughal era with fountains, cascading water, a wonderful stone pavilion in the middle of a pool and old fragrant Champa trees.

      However, the Tulip Garden is resplendent in wide range of colours, the perfect blossoms on the short stalks. Walking among them we found we were not the only ones going berserk with the camera.


                                               


    Named as the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, a brain child of then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Ghulam Nabi Azad, it is the largest tulip garden in Asia. A little away around three kilometers up the Zabarwan hill is the Pari Mahal built on th ruins of a Buddhist monastery by Dara Shikoh, a follower of sufism, for his master. It has six terraces with serene views of the Dal Lake and the surroundings overlooking the city. In the distance one can see the Char Chinar in the middle of the Dal Lake, a tiny island garden with four maple trees at the four corners. A visit to Pari Mahal  fills one with calm and one doesn't mind sitting there just watching the world go by. 

   


                                        




Xatras in Majuli

                   

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            Imagine yourself walking along the periphery of Majuli in Assam, with the swirling and swiftly flowing Brahmaputra and Subansiri all around. This swiftly flowing water can turn tempestuous and carnivorous during the monsoons when it is in spate, chomping off large chunks of land with heart sinking sounds. This is  one trip I am yet to make although it has long been on our list. And  we had better make it fast.

            Now the question is why would anyone want to visit Majuli given the perilous picture painted? That people of this river island stoically endure  massive erosion facing a grim future of painful displacement, is a truth. However there is another truth. Majuli is the cradle of Vaishnavite strand that is a dominant part of Assamese life. It is also home to the many Xatras, the Vaishnavite monasteries that feed not just the spiritual aspirations of the Assamese people but also clothe them in a distinct cultural ethos.

        Having seen my grandfather disappear into the 'naamghor' (prayer room) every morning and evening for the prayers and heard his voice rising into a crescendo with clashing cymbals keeping the rhythm, Xatras have been an enigma. We have had many bhokots (monks) from Kamalabari Xatra visit us to help in conduct the family religious occasions. They were allotted a separate quarter in the house who cooked for themselves and fed us also. They would converse with you but will not touch you. I remember placing uncooked rice, lentils and vegetables on the floor from where they picked up and turned into a makeshift kitchen with separate utensils. And believe me the tastiest and healthiest meals sans any spices or onions and garlic, turned out from those quarters. All the family members across all ages waited eagerly for the meals.    

          I have forever wanted to visit this largest river island in the world to watch the bhokots (monks) conduct the naam (prayers) and also to understand the very core of the teachings of Srimanta Sankardev who began this movement as a way to reform the society against the mindless rituals of the Brahmins by which they dominated the society at large. Srimanta Sankardev's idea was to bring God closer to the common man without the rigid rituals and also to make people understand that there was just one God for everyone. And to this effect this great reformer, saint and  scholar utilised dance, music and drama to bring the diverse society together.

           These Xatras are monasteries where bhokots, the Vaishnavite monks stay to study and perpetuate the teachings of this great saint. It is also home to the classical dance form Xatriya, that the bhokots performed to spread the teachings of the guru through the integral medium of dance, dance drama (ankiya nat), music (borgeet, deh bisar geet) and devotional songs. These art forms have been democratised since and  have been brought to public domain to witness and pursue as a profession. There are many Xatras in Majuli like the Auniati, Kamalabari, Dakhinpat, and many more. The fear of being washed away in soil erosion have prompted many to move to the mainland to escape obliteration. I believe there are now around twenty two Xatras here.

         The Auniati Xatra hosts the famous  palnaam festival in the winters. Samaguri Xatra is famous for masks fashioned out of bamboo and clay which are then used extensively for the Raas Leela. Besides the Xatras, the island is home to the Mishing, Deori and Assamese people whose culture and traditions have further added colour to this island. The Mishing people, who live in quaint stilted bamboo homes, are excellent weavers whose typical motifs and bright thread combinations weave magic into fabric and are very much in demand. Irrespective of their religion or traditions they follow, every villager of Majuli is proud of the Xatras and the Vaishnavite culture of Majuli.

    Two French architects have gifted this island a stilted guest house made on the lines of the traditional Mishing homes with thatched roof lined with Ikorai (reed) and yet with modern amenities. I believe there are village stays also that lets one have a peep into the local people's way of life. I can imagine myself in one of these homes looking out into the twilight with fireflies flitting around. In the distance, the nagada would boom  and faint sounds of a voice rising in a naam ( prayer), reminding the faithful to spend some time to connect with God.

      Will we be able to save this island and preserve the rich culture in it's place of origin in it's natural ambience? Or will all of this be washed away by Brahmaputra or expedite their relocation. I wonder. We need to make this trip fast.

( Dhekiakhuwa Naamghor at Jorhat )
 

This post was written for A to Z Challenge.

   



Friday, 25 April 2014

Walking Around Chail




                                             

       To reiterate my theme for the A to Z Challenge,it is to be our travel stories within India. Today it is the turn for letter "W" to tell it's tale. There are a couple of places with this letter  that we have been to like Wellington and Wular Lake. The former, I've more or less covered in one of my previous posts and the latter was a very short yet fulfilling visit to this lake in Bandipore. But I so wanted to tell you our story about Chail that I took the liberty. I do hope my readers will understand and forgive me. 

                                                       
Sadhupul

        We were driving down from Delhi after picking up the kids from the school, with the rain splashing on the windshield. By the time we reached Chandigarh it was evening and we called it a day. Our idea was to take a break and not do long stretches of driving. Early next morning we kicked off from Chandigarh to follow the Pinjore, Kalka, Solan road to Chail. At Kandaghat the road bifurcates with one arm taking you to Shimla and the other towards Chail. We of course took the latter which is not a national Highway but nevertheless it had it's own charm. Our first "Oh!" moment was Sadhupul where the river Ashwini gurgled under an ancient iron bridge. There are a couple of restaurants that make arrangements for the traveller to sit in the middle of stream to enjoy a couple of drinks and snacks. It's a good place to take a break from the long drive. 
                                                         
Piano Room
        We were soon back on the track and climbing to Chail. Clouds were playing peekaboo with the sun. At many places the dense forest cover of fragrant pines and deodars hardly let the daylight trickle in. The crisp hill air was already working on soothing our nerves. I made a mental note of picking up some of those tantalising ferns of different kinds on my way back. We were accommodated  in an old bunglow, erstwhile guest house, that had wooden floors, wooden staircase, a piano room and a terrace that looked out at the surrounding hills. 

    Our first port of call here was the Chail palace. There is an interesting and colourful story of Chail's spot of prominence. Bhupinder Singh, the Maharajah of Patiala was exiled from Shimla by the British for his alleged dilly dallying with the daughter of the British Commander-in-chief. So he went exploring the neighbourhood of Shimla for a spot that was on higher grounds than the British summer capital. The palace, turned into a heritage hotel now, has a few antique furniture collection and artifacts. It has a sprawling ground edged with forest. There is a " Mowgli Trail" that takes you around the hill on which this palace is built. 

                                                       
Mowgli Trail 
    What I loved the most here was the walk around "Lover's Hill" that had log cabins and cottages for the tourists. The lane along this hill took you to glades with beautiful views. You can explore these trails, break off and walk down some slopes to reach open spaces sprouting toadstools and wild flowers. I would suggest  you carry a picnic basket and find your own spot to relax. 
                                                       
Glade In Lover's Hill

    We were staying in the Rashtriya Military School campus that is the proud host of the highest cricket ground in the world. It was the rainy season, the cricket ground was at it's romantic best covered in mist silhouetting the trees. We managed to have a peep through the locked gates. 

                                                       
Chail Cricket Ground

      Our next stop was the Siddh Baba Temple that is reached climbing the stairs up the hill. Since we were not in a hurry  and also that there were three kids in tow, we took our own time reaching this place. There is another interesting story behind this temple as is wont in hill stations. Initially Bhupinder Singh, smarting from the insult by the British, had chosen this site to build his palace. Soon after construction began, the project was seized by a series of mishaps like built portions falling off or snakes attacking the labourers. It was then that Siddh Baba, a hermit and said to be the protector of Chail, appeared in his dreams and said that this was the place where he had meditated and that his peace should not be disturbed. Bhupinder Singh got a temple built here and took his project to another location ( which was almost hundred meters higher than Shimla). 

     It was difficult to bid adieu to Chail. It had given us tranquility, little surprises like the toadstools and the rainbow that spread in the evening sky. Yes, I did come back with a collection of ferns hoping to grow them in Delhi to remind me of this lovely weekend trip. I leave you with these snaps now which I look at often when the going gets tough.



                                                          







         
                                               

Varanasi


Courtesy Wikipedia
                                                     
       There is a marriage ritual that requires the mother to seek a water body and fetch some water from there to bathe the bride or the groom. It was my brother's wedding. It was almost dusk. Treading the soft soil by the river Ganga, my mother dipped her 'ghat' or 'pot' to fill it with water. At the same time, conches echoed into the evening stillness, cymbals clashed and bells rang. The air was filled with shlokas (hymns) and incense fragrance. We turned around towards the steps of the bank and were witness to a spectacular show of spiritual reverence. Three priests in complete synchronization were performing the evening 'arti'  and spectators, mostly tourists, sat around engrossed in the show. Gradually there was a build up and the music was reaching a crescendo, and all around the onlookers were caught in it's grip, carried away by the fervour and intensity and sat as if in a trance. Such was the magic of the ethereal experience. And such has been the allure of Varanasi since time immemorial that has drawn luminaries, saints and scholars. Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. 

    The old city of Varanasi on the banks of river Ganga, like many other old quarters of cities, is a labyrinth of twisting and turning lanes with homes and shops stacked on either sides. Although  these streets give a chaotic feel, they hold a charm of their own taking one to a bygone era. I remember a picture of Varanasi as a child, leafing through the pages of an Amar Chitra Katha (must have been the one on Adi Shankaracharya), of the many steps of the bank leading to the river Ganga with platforms in between. Ascetics and sages sitting on these paltforms meditating or offering discourse. I've come across this scenario many times later in paintings and photography. Varanasi is synonymous to spiritual enlightenment for the seekers. The numerous temples in the city are thronging with devotees. It is the Kashi Vishwanath temple that draws the most of the faithful. Pilgrims offer puja in the temple and then take a boat ride to the middle of the Ganga to offer earthen lamps and flowers in leaf bowls to the river. My sister-in-law, who belongs to this place, tells me that an evening boat ride during Dev Deepavali is a sight to behold. Thousands of lamps light up the river, floating stars on earth, with the arti taking place in the many 'ghats'. It is surreal to witness this from a distance with the blowing conches and bells ringing. I hope to be there one day on this occasion to be part of it.

   For the others, there is of course the thrill of shopping for the best Banarasi brocade sari, much sought after for weddings. While you are busy shopping you might as well pop in some 'pedas' to give you that extra sugar. How can one forget the Banarasi paan after that? The roads like I said, are extremely chaotic with all kinds of wheelers pushing their way through as they please nonchalantly. Driving around is definitely not for the faint hearted. In the middle of all this chaos stands Banaras Hindu University like a sweet haven, tranquil and orderly. The brainchild of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, BHU was started with the aim of eradicating poverty through dissipation of scientific knowledge and inculcating a thirst for knowledge. The campus is shaded by the many old trees and has a spacious feel with wide open green fields. The various departments and hostels are housed in heritage buildings that were financed by the business houses, royal families and philanthropists.

      Varanasi is a good place to explore the heritage, traditions and Hinduism as well as the surroundings. A place that has given India saints like Kabir, Ravidas, cultural icons like shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, educationists, and even a style of Hindustani classical music famously termed Banaras gharana, my only wish is that this city be preserved as a heritage city.


This post was written for A to Z Challenge.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Udaipur



File:Udaipur palace night.jpg
City Palace
Courtesy Wikipedia
                                         

         I remember turning around a bend with the Aravalli range for company and suddenly finding myself in this pretty city. It was like we had discovered a glittering jewel in the middle of the arid region after a long drive from Jaipur. It stood welcoming the tired traveller into it's folds with many lakes shimmering in the scorching sun and palaces that bespoke of a rich royal history. Udaipur has earned a few of sobriquets for itself " Venice Of East", " City of Lakes" and " White City".

       The undulating land, vestiges of the old Aravalli mountain, is a pleasant surprise for those expecting Rajasthan to be a desert area. One of the first things that we did, as any other excited tourist, was to visit the City Palace - a well conserved treasure of a rich royal Rajputana past. It is a palace that has grown over a period of time with successive generations of royalty adding to it's many complexes. The amalgamation of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture with European accessories speak of the confluence of different culture. Our guide delighted in presenting the famed Jag Niwas or the Lake Palace rising from the middle of the lake Pichola, from the many ornate balconies of the city palace. The Sheesh Mahal, Rang Bhawan, Amar Vilas, Badi Mahal, Dilkhusha Mahal,  Moti Mahal, Krishna Vilas, Bhim Vilas and others. It was interesting to note that although they were built at different times the city palace does not look like an haphazard installation. It emerges as a homogeneous structure interlinked by the many courtyards, gardens and zig-zagging corridors. The last part was to delay and thwart enemy intrusion. The collection of murals, paintings, artefacts, inlay work, mirror work within the palace are evidence of a rich aesthetic taste. There are some miniature painting artists just outside the palace whom you can watch at work and also buy.

     Another place that quite fascinated me was the "Saheliyon Ki Bari", a garden that was laid out for the 48 women attendants who came as  part of a princess's dowry. It took a while for it to sink that a king would get a garden made for the attendants and a breath taking one at that. Beautiful ornate gates, a lotus pool for the ladies to frolic around, elephant fountains as befitting royalty, pathways edged with green plants and pretty flowers, marble pavilions to rest the tired limbs,  trees under which they probably gossiped and giggled... My imagination was running away with me trying to visualise the rich life of the past. This place is definitely a must visit everyone. The water for the pools come from the Fateh Sagar Lake  through the many ducts. Saheliyon Ki Bari is as romantic as it can get.

    Enamoured by royal resplendence  we next visited Shilpgram 3 kms away from Udaipur near Havala village. It is a vast complex that brings together the lifestyles, arts and crafts of the many tribal people of the western zone. What struck me was the educational value of Shilpgram. There are prototypes of houses typical of the tribal people living in the member states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa. The approach to this whole concept was pretty interesting. A village was said to be self sufficient if it had a potter, a blacksmith, a carpenter and a weaver. This basic unit was taken up and elaborated  not just to showcase the homes but also to exhibit how environment, climate and  profession moulded their requirements. It also helped to compare the lifestyles of people of the same profession belonging to different regions. This is one place I would recommend to all visiting Udaipur and preferably the lean season so you have the place to explore at your own pace. This is where I took my first camel ride and have sworn never to bother that desert ship anymore with my weight. I can still never get over the lurches with every stride the camel took. I thought I was going to make a spectacle of myself when the camel got off it's haunches or sat down. There were also exciting moments like the one when I suddenly realised the folk song the Manganiyar artiste was belting out lustily was the original of the "Nimbuda nimbuda..." from the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

   And with that haunting folk song from the desert we left Udaipur for the elevated place Mount Abu. Udaipur stayed on in my memory for the romance it weaved with the palaces, lakes, gardens nestled in the Aravalli hills. It's little wonder that most celebrities  have chosen this for their nuptial vows.


This post was written for the A to Z Challenge.

    

Trivandrum


File:TVM aps temple.jpg
Courtesy Wikipedia
                                         
            We were driving down from Wellington near Coonoor to Trivandrum during the short midterm break of DSSC. One of my local friends had mentioned that Thrissur was the jewellery hub of Kerala and also that the trade mark traditional brass lamps can be a good bargain here.This was the reason why we made a stop here, to gawk at the glittering yellow metal and settle for some pretty brass lamps. Having damaged the pocket even before hitting Cochin and spending some wonderful time exploring  the coastal beauty of Cochin, we were now on our way to Trivandrum
                                           


        We reached Trivandrum in the evening expecting it to be yet another bustling urbanised city. What we found was a laid back ambience and a city cushioned in greenery. It was extremely relaxing to go around this place. Since we were late to do anything worthwhile in the city, we chanced upon a concert taking place in a park. Taking in the fragrance of the jasmine strands that adorned the jet black hair of the pretty Malayali ladies, the carnatic music recital weaved magic into the evening. We certainly did not understand the lyrics but we did enjoy the classical strains of the recital.

       The next morning was reserved for a trip to the famed Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in the heart of the city. It is synonymous to Trivandrum, actually, Thiruvananthapuram. The city derives it's name from this temple literally meaning ' the abode of Lord Anantha'. It was many years later  we came to know that this temple is the richest temple in the world after the litigation tussle that resulted in opening of the vaults of the temple revealing a staggering figure of almost 1..2 lakh crore as assets. However we were blissfully unaware of all the arithmatic during our visit. Just like we were unaware that men also had a dress code to follow before entering the temple. Since I was already in the requisite attire, my husband went scampering to the booth that rents out 'mundus' or dhotis. The gopuram was seven tiered, if I am not mistaken and extremely impressive. Inside we went looking for the Lord reclining on the coils of the  five hooded serpent but were first directed towards the other deities of lesser stature. How we got 'managed' by a priest' taking us here and there is still a mystery to me. And for every 'here and there' we were asked monetary offering that lessened the size of our pockets. And by the time we reached the Lord, we were whisked away after just a few seconds of glimpse. The complete saga of the origins of this temple and other details can be found in their site. This temple is centuries old with some extremely beautiful architectural details and sculpturing. I think we would have enjoyed the temple more if we were left alone to discover it for ourselves.  Do visit this temple but avoid the 'priests' inside if you can.

    Next in our itinerary was the Kovalam beach, for we could never have visited Trivandrum and given the famous Kovalam the miss. One of the first tourist destinations of India, patronised by the royal family and European families of colonial India,  the crescent shaped Koavalam with miles of shallow water, saw the wild side also with the influx of the hippies culture. This is why perhaps it was more tolerant of the concept of topless bathing in the Hawa beach sector, the only part of Kovalam where it was permitted. It has been banned since and is like any other beach now. The more famous part of it is the Light House beach as can be judged by the crowd. Kovalam is indeed picturesque and calm on week days and lean season, looking out into the placid water of the Arabian Sea. The numerous coconut groves that dot the shoreline gave the name to this place.

   Trivandrum is a lovely place for a holiday where one can take in the coastal beauty, seep in some history and royal splendour of the Travancore family and gorge on some of the yummiest, softest healthy  appams and idiappams  with  ishtew. My only regret is that our stay was too short. Hope to go back some day armed with more information and a lot wiser.


This post was written for the A to Z Challenge.
         

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Shillong



Courtesy Wikipedia
                                       
     It was the cool white sheets tautly spread with a soft white quilt under which I snuggled that changed my mind about Shillong. I've hated journeys as a child and this was my first visit to my aunt's house at Laban in Shillong. It was only the morning after we reached Shillong, dead tired after a drive from Guwahati, that I realised the fairyland we had arrived at. Her home was a cottage with wooden floor that made rather heavy sounds when anyone walked . A neat kitchen with shining utensils spreading warmth as homes in Shillong do. Outside the window I could see fine powdery drizzle that fell softly and melted in the air. These are my earliest memory of Shillong, the Scotland Of The East.

    Around hundred kms from Guwahati in Assam, Shillong has always been a place which people from the Brahmaputra plains have spoken about with reverence. It used to be a matter of great pride if one had a relative who was a Shillong dweller.They were invariably looked upon as the ones with a liberal mindset and English speaking elite class of people.  Being the erstwhile capital of undivided Assam, it has a colonial charm with the trademark architectural stamp on the buildings; a golf course said to be one of the best in Asia; old churches; missionary schools and colleges like Pine Mount, Loreto convent, St. Edmunds, St.Anthony's, Lady Keane to name a few; winding sloping roads; kwai (betel nut) chewing, pink cheeked pretty Khasi girls  in  "Jainsems", a material knotted over their shoulder ; add to this list, the salubrious clime of the Khasi hills and you have the charming Shillong.

   If you are ambling around the town do visit the Police Bazaar and try some of the local pork delicacies and the noodles. There is a Chinese shoe maker who can fashion pretty shoes out of the fabric of your choice that can go with your dress. I remember a friend who was looking for an exact shade of beige to go with her 'muga mekhela sador'. She finally gave him a strip of 'muga' silk out of which an exquisite pair of shoes were made. If you are the kind who loves to explore local authentic ingredients then Bara Bazaar is the place for you. You will find all kinds of ingredients, fruits and vegetables here and place experience the feel of a local market. Although it could get a tad dirty here. Once you are done with the market you could go to Ward's Lake, biggest man made lake here. It is a good place to relax and stroll around or go boating around this horse-shoe shaped lake. You must make a trip to the Shillong peak that gives a beautiful view of the plains below with clouds wafting in and out. And if there is a slight drizzle you will love the hot plates of maggi served there.  We have always bought potatoes on our way back from the peak. I've never seen such white and thin skinned, clean potatoes anywhere. That there is a Central Potato Research Institute here helps. I remember our car always being loaded with "Shillong vegetables" on our way back from a trip here. They are the tastiest and the freshest lot. Elephant falls ( a series of two falls) in the outskirts about 12 kms from Shillong, and Spread Eagle falls in the Shillong cantonment, are quite a crowd puller. Monsoon is the best time to enjoy these falls and the many others that add to the natural splendour of Shillong.

   Once you are done with the town visiting the churches, museum and parks, do venture out for some overwhelming places like the Mawphlang Sacred Forest ( 25 kms from Shillong), a place teeming with plant life, aroids, orchids and other epiphytes, butterflies and a ground soft with a rich layer of centuries old humus.This place has been traditionally preserved since ancient days by the local people. Another must visit is one of Asia's cleanest village, Mawlynnong around 90 kms from Shillong along the Indo - Bangladesh border.  I relate now from what I've heard of my parents account, who made a trip here a few years back. Not a piece of paper was lying about on the roads.The villagers take pride in their village and every waste goes into the bamboo bins installed at regular intervals on the streets. the bio waste is collected and turned into manure in a pit. With hundred percent literacy, the villagers practice and spread the message of conservation.

  If you have travelled this far to see the cleanest village, you might as well go to Sohra, local name for the wettest place on earth Cherrapunji. Recently Sohra has wrested back the title from Mawsynram. You will not only be showered with the rains but also have a chance to see a natural marvel, the living root bridges. The Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge is a Unesco world heritage site. The roots of the trees belonging to the ficus family are first pointed towards the opposite banks of streams by the local people. Once they grow over a period of time, they are entwined with roots coming  from the opposite direction and allowed to delve into the soil. This ingenuous bio-engineering takes 10 to 15 years for a bridge to evolve out of it. Root Bridges deserve a post in itself to do justice to them.

     The people of Meghalaya share a unique bond with Mother Nature drawing inspiration and learning to sustain themselves without jeopardizing the balance. Inhabited by charming people who believe in cleanliness and peaceful co existence with nature, Shillong  had always been a stress buster for the likes of us from the plains.


This post was written for the A to Z Challenge 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Rishikesh

File:Rishikesh - Lakshman Jhula.jpg
Lakshman Jhula 
Courtesy Wikipedia
                                           
       I walked to the middle of the bridge holding on to my father's hand for dear life. I remember looking frantically around to see if my mother was with us or had she toppled off from this bridge that was swinging and shaking with every footstep.The river flowed below as though expecting to carry away anyone falling on her lap. I could see the rocks and pebbles lying under the water as much as a 'looking from the corner of the eye' could enable. Looking back at that trip through the photos that are neatly stuck in an album at my parents' place, I can see a petrified child willing every body on the bridge to move away.

     That was 37 years back. My object of great trepidation was the Lakshman Jhula, the famed iron suspension bridge that spanned the Ganga at Rishikesh. Revisiting Rishikesh, 29 years after that childhood trauma, I realised I hadn't changed much. The Lakshman Jhula hadn't changed either. This time, however I was more aware of the surroundings and discovered other things to do rather than stand in the middle of that trembling thing to get clicked.

    Rishikesh is the place from where the river Ganga begins her journey in the plains after traversing the Shivalik mountains. It is considered as a holy city in India and has been mentioned eons back in the Puranas. There are numerous temples here, both old and new, dedicated to the many Hindu gods. Surprisingly there are temples dedicated to Bharat, Shatrughan and Lakshman, thr three brothers of Lord Rama which are not found anywhere else. Ascetics and common man, throng this place in their quest for spiritual enlightenment and peace. There are many ashrams that offer Yoga courses and discourses on Hindu philosophy. Rishikesh is dubbed as the world capital of Yoga. And it also boasts of the chanced visit of the Beatles to the Maharshi Mahesh Yogi Asharam among others which sadly is in a dilapidated condition.

   It was interesting to note that Rishikesh offers many adventure activities too that can test your grit and resilience. Within the lush green hills are many trekking trails that are a delight. In fact, it is the gate to the many trails in the Himalayas. There are many  organised camps on the river beach that have had people connect with nature. Waking up to the sound of gushing water nearby, chirping of birds as the early sun rays hit the earth is indeed  an experience that can transport one to a different plane altogether. You could go wading into the cold, invigorating water or sit and admire the surroundings. Then of course Rishikesh has some of the best rapids for white water rafting for the adventure seekers of varied levels. It is thrilling to dip and swiftly flow with the river as it hits the turbulent water.  We squealed  with the shocking feel of cold water spraying on the skin first and the realisation that probably we left the stomach behind in one of those bends.  Faces shining with excitement as we came ashore we were told that these rapids were for the beginners.There more serious ones up ahead that could actually test a person's courage. I quite liked the names of these rapids - three blind mice, good morning, sweet sixteen, the wall and so on. After a quick lunch we relaxed on the beach .The evening sun here is a tranquil sight as if having kept it's promise of a day full of discoveries, taking it's  leave with more promises of another new day.

    It was easy to see that Rishikesh lets one explore the inner self spiritually,  test one's endurance and reveal a world full of surprises that were hitherto shrouded with everyday struggles.


This post was written for the A to Z Challenge.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Quirky Road To Gulmarg

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       You may say this is a cheat post since I've digressed from the practice so far of keying in my travel tales with places starting with the alphabets. I racked and racked my brains ( whatever little there is) to figure out a place starting with "Q" , but alas, there was not a place I went to in India, that began with this exasperating alphabet. However I was itching to tell you the story of that fateful day when we hit the road to Gulmarg. And so here is my tale of the quirky road to Gulmarg.

                                         
Gulmarg

    It was a routine telephonic conversation between my husband and his colleague who was posted near Gulmarg that set the ball rolling. The road to Gulmarg had opened with snow  melting in many places revealing greens in patches. Yet in many places it was still four to five feet deep. It being a weekend and with due permission from the superiors to leave the garrison, we were loading our Maruti 800 with stuff and two kids for the trip. Our best chance of Gulmarg sans the tourist crowd. 
                                           
View of the Town
          As it happens, when a trip is taken in a hurry, there is always a nagging thought that something is amiss. Checked the rear seat to see if both the kids were aboard with all their requirements. After we hit the highway, this thought was pushed aside. 

                                       
Happy For An Outing
      By the time we reached Tangmarg, we were greedily taking in the snow laden mountain in the distant and the valley below turning green. I've come across many people who wonder about safety in Kashmir. To them I'll say, in our two years stay and travelling around the place we never felt the need for protection of any kind. Tourists are welcome here since that is the main source of income for majority of the population. The common man is hit hard during the winters and also after a terrorist activity when the tourist inflow dwindles. 

       Back on the road, we were starting our climb now with snow banks on both sides of the road. The road was slippery with the melting snow and that's when the nagging thought returned and it dawned on us,
" Shit! We forgot the snow chains!"
We drove slow and the car skidded here and there where the melting snow had turned to thin ice. We drove a little faster and the car skidded even more. With a prayer on my lips, fingers and toes crossed and the husband hunched on the wheel with a furrowed forehead, we managed to reach Gulmarg intact. Just when we were celebrating his driving skills and enjoying the view the car finally did what we were fearing. It skidded and tilted and came to a halt at an angle where I found myself at  a higher level than my husband. This was no time to gloat over who had the upper hand. We sat there confused for a few minutes till it was decided that I get out and bring some help. It's a mystery to me till date how I managed to extricate myself  without disturbing and worsening our precariously balanced car. Since this was the time when tourists were yet to arrive in throngs, Gulmarg  for most part was  deserted. With most of the hotels and lodges boarded up for the winters baring a few for the winter sports lovers, there weren't any local people around. In any case, only the employees of the hotels are allowed to stay here. The other vendors and guides are to vacate it by sunset. Bottom line is, there was not a soul in sight. So I hiked first in this direction and then in the other  till I found a few soldiers who helped us with the car. 
                                         
View From The Guest Room
      Did we regret making this trip? On the contrary, we loved it not because I got the opportunity to relate this. It was surreal to have the whole place to our selves. Well almost. There were some others who thought like us and had ventured here.We had the snow spread before us like a soft carpet; the green grass making their appearance from under it with small flowers; tingling fresh air and bits and pieces of meadows showing their colours. Gulmarg is one of the best skiing spots in the world with slopes graded for the beginners as well as the experts. The cable car ride, takes you over the local herders huts that lie vacant during the winters, to the peak stopping in between at Kongdori. Gulmarg Gondola is the second highest cable car ride in the world. 

                                         
Summer Palace

          On the hill behind where we stayed, was the erstwhile summer palace of the Kashmir royalty. It was in a sad state now, dilapidated and locked. We strolled around the grounds and tried peeking in through the windows. It was desolate and bare inside with some broken bits and pieces strewn here and there. The modern activities found priority here and this palace is relegated to a quiet nook in the past. I wish they would restore it and let it share it's stories.
                                       
A Green Patch
     If you have travelled to Gulmarg after that and seen the palace in a better shape than how we found it, do share your story. Do be careful and do not forget the snow chains if you are travelling the same time as we did. You may find the roads suddenly quirky deciding to act on it's own.




      

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pahalgam

   

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         A two years posting in remote Sharifabad let us sneak around to some lovely places in the Kashmir region. Pahalgam, in the Anantnag district, was one such stolen trip. And twice over. For that matter, any drive around Jammu and Kashmir has been a show stopper as far as I am concerned. A drive along the National Highway 1A is a delight for the many scenic treats. There will be willow wood stacked in the sheds, left to be seasoned before being honed into cricket bats. Once you hit Pampore in the Anantnag district, vast stretches of ground kissing saffron fields will greet you. You could get off at any point on the road and take in the view, inhale the fresh air and just relax for a few minutes.

                                               
Approaching Pahalgam

      Around two hours journey by road from Srinagar, Pahalgam is another halt for pilgrims taking the Chandanwari route to the holy shrine of Amarnath, a more arduous trek compared to the route taken from Baltal in Sonamarg. Once you approach Pahalgam, you would sigh your way through the beauty of the place, with the Lidder river keeping you company. Make friends with the river for this is what will make your stay here worthwhile and be the perfect host. The river gushes and frolics along the road as if to welcoming you to your destination.

                                         
Gujjarwal And his Lamb At Baisaran


    You could trek up or take a pony ride to the Baisaran meadow, of dipping and rising landscape surrounded by the thick coniferous woods. People take pony rides around this vast meadow or just soak in the ambiance, that had probably seemed distant till then. We chose to sit and relax in Baisaran and make friends with a few Gujjarwals, the local herders. Some of them will offer to let you hold their lamb, for a price. They have a hard life,especially during the winters when the entire area is snowbound. Summer is the only time when they can make money from the tourists and the pilgrims.

    Our next stop was Betaab Valley just 15 kms away from Pahalgam, a picturesque expanse with the Lidder river flowing along forested banks. The water is crystal clear and chilly, shallow at many points for you to wade in. This is another good place to sit down for a picnic. Didn't I say that Lidder will be the perfect host?  Many of you may know that this place got it's name from the Sunny Deol- Amrita Singh hit movie 'Betaab'. Don't know about the movie but this place will surely stay in your mind for a long long time.
                                         
                                         
Betaab Valley
   
     In the evening, we strolled around the main road of this little town taking in the hustle and bustle of the busy tourist season. Couples, families, groups of friends out to find their share of togetherness in the lap of nature. River rafting on Lidder is a popular tourist activity as is angling for trouts. Then of course, there are the inevitable Kashmir handicraft kiosks luring the tourists with saffron to shawls.

   Next day, we decided our place of relaxation to be Aru, 12 kms uphill. But our first stop was the centuries old Mamleshwara temple. The very entry to this little temple has an exotic feel with the climbing rose arching over the gate. Once you step inside, Mamleshwar stands before you, built of stones with a little porch supported by two pillars. A spring is said to originate under the temple whose water is collected in a stone tank in front of the temple. I would recommend this place as a little surprise or a visual  treat for the traveller.
                                   
                                   
Mamaleshwara Temple


     Aru is also the base camp for trekkers to the Kolhoi glacier, the biggest in the Kashmir valley. On our drive up, another pleasant climb, we came across little cottages and the gujjarwal huts by the river Aru, which is a tributary of Lidder. In the winters, Aru is frequented for skiing as well as heliskiing. With view of surrounding snow capped peaks, dense forest sloping down and  lush meadows, it is a place where one can connect with the inner self, happy to be with their thoughts.

                                     


Aru 





    Pahalgam is perfect for a holiday if you are the nature loving kind. You could never get tired of all that it has to offer. And when it is time to leave, the Lidder will show you the way out, happy to host you again. I will leave you for now with this mosque nestled in the mountain which we came across on our way back.

 
                                     
 

This post was written for the A to Z Challenge.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Ooty Revisiting

Botanical Gardens - Ootacamund (Ooty) - India 03.JPG
Botanical Garden
Courtesy Wikipedia
                                         

       The Nilgiri hills in the south of India boasts of many hill stations, Ooty being the queen of them. It is but natural that tourists hound this place as an escape from the nearby cities. During our one year stay in Wellington ( not the one in New Zealand), we sneaked out to explore Ooty and other interesting places nearby. Like any other tourist's first visit we paddled round the Ooty lake, savoured some homemade chocolates and pattiseries, inhaled the the fragrance of pine and eucalyptus trees ( snuffed by the urban development), climbed up to Dodabetta peak and the rest and sat around the Pykara Lake. 

      There are two interesting things we found in Ooty apart frm many others, not including the chocolates. The first was the Toda village in the upper part of the famed Botaniacal Garden and the Thread Garden opposite the Ooty lake. The Todas are the original people of Udhagamandalam ( anglicised into Ootacamund  by the British and later shortened to Ooty). The Todas are a pastoral community and strictly vegetarian thriving on dairy products. Their homes are barrel shaped huts with low entrance to keep away wild animals. Their embroidery is a unique combination of red and black threads on white or off white cottons. 

                                                   
Toda Embroidery

      The Botanical Garden lived up to it's fame and we were not disappointed with the   Italian section, the collection of numerous trees and plants and the collection of orchids. But the other garden, the Thread Garden proved to be a surprise. It took Antony Jacob and his team 12 years to complete this project of creating flowers, plants and lawns out of thread without the use of any needle or machinery. The major materials used were different shades of embroidery thread, canvas and wire. Don't go expecting a real garden for the specimens are placed in pots and vases. It is interesting to note the effort made to come as close as possible to the Nature's beauty. 

    If you have the time try exploring the nearby places of Ooty. The first one that comes to mind is the Beulah Farm between Coonoor and Kotagiri. It used to be a delight for us to visit Eapen Jacob's cottage full of his bottled 'nectars' which he so passionately made. Beulah Farm is synonymous with wine made without yeast from all possible fruits and peels, around 80 varieties which he lets you taste. Not the eighty of them. Maybe 15 of them that leaves you feeling quite 'happy' when you walk out clutching the bottles. So relaxed were we that unknown to us our two year old daughter was also sipping from our glasses letting all my efforts of toilet training go down the drain. I could go on and on about Beulah Farm, the wines, the exotic herbs and  the preserves but I need to remind myself that this is a blog post. If you are there and if the farm is still around do get yourself the rose wine.

                                             
    If you are travelling from Bangalore brace yourself for the 36 hairpin bends on the short route that takes you to Ooty. We took this road on a trip to the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in our good old Maruti 800 and lived to tell the tale. By the time we were 30/36 lesser, I lost all my speaking abilities and the throat went dry applying the brakes and the clutch in my seat while my husband was driving. It is a journey we both are proud of including our good old Maruti 800. 

   There are many nearby places that are famous for fine embroidery on home linen and fabrics like Ketty and Coonoor. Since this was a trip we made long ago The snaps are stashed away in an album hard to find. I have taken the liberty of borrowing some from the internet but that shouldn't take the charm away from this place.


This post was written for A to Z Challenge.  

   

Nasik

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         There are many reasons to be in Nasik if you are the religious kinds. A little more than hundred if I am not mistaken, for there are that many temples here. Considered as one of the holy cities of India, Nasik is one of the four places where Kumbh mela ( a religious congregation of millions of people) takes place. This is the place to visit if you are a staunch follower of Lord Rama who is said to have made this place his home during his fourteen years of exile. In fact, Nasik derives it's name from the mythological tale in which Lakshmana (brother of Lord Rama) cut off Surpanakha's  nose for bothering him with amorous advances and attacking his sister-in-law Sita in a fit of jealous rage. Nasika in Sanskrit means 'nose'. Trimbakeshwara in Nasik, is famous for it's ancient Shiva temple. It is also the place from where the river Godavari originates. Nasik is closer to Shirdi, another pilgrim's haunt, which is around two hours drive from here.
                                           
                                           
Trimbakeshwara Temple
   
      
There are many other reasons to be in Nasik even if you are not the religious kinds. I have loved the climate here which is pleasant for most part of the year except in the month of May. Once the monsoons arrive, one can get the taste of the rains in the Deccan plateau, for Nasik is situated in the western part of the plateau.The countryside turns lush and fresh exhibiting the potency of the black soil here. If there is one place I would like to settle down, Nasik would top the list. Partly because I had already made my home here for a year in the quaint Devlali, an old military cantonment with huge ancient banyan trees with an equally quaint market place. The countryside here can give one some very soothing moments to relish. Nasik is a city, that is around three hours drive from Mumbai, on a fantastic highway with a picturesque view. Pune is another 200 odd kilometers away from here connected by good roads. 


Picturesque Countryside

               
    The drive to Shirdi is also pleasant where one can see the the giant windmills at the distance. And if you do plan a trip in this circuit, don't miss the chance of stopping by at Gargoti Museum at Sinnar. One man's passion for rock collection has turned into a huge collection of stones, minerals and  crystals from around the world including two NASA certified rocks from the moon and the Mars. K C Pandey's collection of zeolites, green apophyllites, blue-green aqua marine, gold in it's ore, diamonds and many others are neatly showcased leaving one inspired.

At Gargoti Museum
                                                                                                                             

 
      Acres and acres of vineyards around Nasik bear testimony to it's status of being the wine hub of India. Well! I too indulged in some wine making at home when the grapes were in season. And they turned out pretty decent. The Sula vineyard of the famous brand conducts a wine making tour culminating in a wine tasting session in the outskirts of Nasik. It is a beautiful property with a couple of restaurants and a panoramic view of the surrounding vineyards. I would suggest a drive to this place in the late afternoon, take the wine tour and relax in the evening followed by dinner. They also host the Sulafest in the month of February with activities for the kids and adults, cultural shows and some DJing thrown in.



Sula Vineyard
                                                                                                                 
           If you are done with all the soaking in of the 'spirits' of the place, hike up to the Pandulena caves adjacent to the Dadasaheb Phalke Park which is 8 kms away from Nasik. The last time I went to Nasik, this once vibrant park was going through bad times. I do hope they have revived it by now. The Pandulena caves are a different story altogether. It's a climb up a hillock that gives beautiful views of the city from many vantage points. You could carry some cool cucumbers from the lady (wonder if she is still around) before you hike up, to refresh you through the climb. It is said that Pandavs had camped here when they were spending their exile period and hence the name  Pandulena  (there must be some reason for  all the exiled taking  refuge here in Nasik). The group of 24 caves are almost 2000 years old with some exquisite carvings, intricate details and water tanks hewn out of rocks.

                                           



                                                 
                                                                Pandulena Caves
         
                                                     

                                                                   

    There, don't you think you have enough reasons now to explore Nasik?