Srinagar-Avantipura-Pahalgam

The bloom at Nishat Bagh and CheshmeShahi are worth spending some time in the backdrop of the Zabarwan ranges and the gigantic decades old Chinar trees are a real treat to watch but if you are a Bangalorean then you will find that the Moghul gardens are more or less the same as Lalbagh botanical gardens.

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Nishat Bagh Srinagar

Some of the lesser crowded places to visit in and around Srinagar are Doodhpathri, Pari Mahal near CheshmeShahi, Hari Parbat, Shankaracharya Hill, Avanthipora, Parihaspora, Sri Pratap Singh Museum, Verinag, Yousemarg, SInthan top, Gurez valley, Warwan valley and Daksum.

If you have to explore newer and quieter destinations you can clearly skip places like Gulmarg, which is an over hyped place with annoying horsemen who will cling like leeches. There is absolutely no scope for a relaxed walk on your own here as you will be haunted and hunted down by menacing horsemen. We did not want to take the Gondola ride but just walk around the place but the horsemen kept stalking us throughout the time spent in Gulmarg. It was a complete waste of time driving up to Gulmarg. So don’t make that mistake just head to Pahalgam.

Srinagar to Pahalgam is a distance of 96kms and a 3hours drive. This route is heavily guarded by the Army. En route you can find vast stretches of paddy and saffron fields. It is really heart breaking to see that this panoramic heaven _ Kashmir _ the abode of Kashyapa Rishi is today plagued by terrorism turning most parts of the region into a no go zone!

Beyond the saffron fields you can find shops selling saffron, dry fruits, Kesar based perfumes and face creams.

Avantipora:

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Avantipura en route Pahalgam

Avantipora or Avantipura is 29kms from Srinagar. The Avanthipura Ruins is an ancient Vishnu temple site with huge columns, carved pillars and arches. Two massive columns with figurines of Devi, Devathas and the royal family of Avanthiverma etched in those carvings welcome you to this huge heritage site that is not a living temple anymore.

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It was first damaged by an earthquake and further destroyed and looted during Mughal and British era. There are depictions of goddess Lakshmi, Garuda, Navagrahas on the columns.

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The Vishnu shrine lies above a large double base, surrounded by 4 smaller shrines which were dedicated to Shreedevi, Bhoodevi, Ganesha and Saraswathi but now there are no sanctums but only the bases. It is alleged that the silver idol of Lord Vishnu was stolen by the British. But much before the British the temples of this region were destroyed by Sultan Sikander who was known to be a fanatic temple destroyer in Kashmir. Owing to his madness for temple destruction he came to be known as Sikander Butshikan as Butshikan literally means Ídol Breaker’. During his time he would melt the idols of Gods and turn them into coins to fill his treasury. He was lethally instrumental in converting the Hindu masses of Kashmir into an Islamic den. He had restricted all Hindu practices, broken and burnt temples, slaughtered those who refused to convert. Most Kashmiris either escaped out or poisoned themselves and those who could not escape submitted by converting to Islam. The Martand Sun temple near Pahalgam had witnessed the most brutal assault during his time.

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The Avantiswami temple has 27 arches on a broad stone platform representing the 27 nakshatras. The site is maintained by the ASI and is a must see place that reminds us of the grandeur of our ancient past but the fallen structure in its ruined form is also a gruesome reminder of the gory past, if only a reconstruction of such a grandeur in these very regions would be possible to undo the past sins!

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The pillars are believed to extend deep down up to 20 feet below the ground, the site lay buried until it was excavated in the eighteenth century. It was constructed by Avantiverma hence the town gets its name after him.

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King AvantiVerman of Utpala dynasty reigned here between 855-883AD at the banks of Jhelum river. The king had built two magnificent temples, one for Lord Vishnu and one for Lord Shiva. The Avantheeswar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is a few kilometers away from the Vishnu temple and faces similar conditions.

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Today a mosque lies just adjacent to this vast ancient splendor that now remains in a pitiable state of ruin yet the grandeur architecture and the techniques employed in those times cannot be missed. It is a pity that the locals do not know their own brutal past!

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Willow Cricket Bat making unit

After Avanthipura, the sides of the highway are laden with stacks of similar sized wooden planks that are neatly arranged in front of every other shop cum home. Yes they were the cricket bat making units. The Kashmir Willow bats are known for its sturdiness. We stopped by one such home unit where we could witness the making of cricket bats. We also ended up buying one!

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On the way we stopped for lunch opposite an Apple farm that was selling fresh apple juice and apple jams. We also spent some time in the apple farm and then we were passing through the bypass of Anantnag district that is known for its notorious terror activities. There were Madrasas and Mosques blaring out aggressive speeches on loud speakers and locals stared at us like animals in a cage as we passed them but we were travelling with a taxi guy from the Hurriyat dominated Lal chowk markets and hoped that we were safe as we were actually giving business to these stone pelting India haters but there was no other way!

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Pahalgam, the valley of Shepards

We reached Pahalgam around 2pm and after quickly dumping our luggage at the hotel, we took the pony ride to see around this Switzerland of India as it is known!

The local sightseeing is dominated by the pony and local cab drivers or so they make it up, our personal taxi driver claimed that they are denied permissions (unofficial mafia) to tour around to those spots in order to give the locals some business. This is the standard problem across J&K tourism especially in Kashmir. Most of these people are uneducated and are not digitally savvy they don’t have their presence online and heavily depend on their Srinagar brethren who bring them tourists. So there is no escape from these local pony and cab mafia if you have to see around.

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We took the pony ride for was a fixed number of places which would be covered in 3hours for Rs.1500 per person. We took the ride apprehensively but sitting atop a horse felt really kingly! We trotted off like royals beside the Lidder River which was an ashen turquoise.

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Look at the color of Liddar River

Pahalgam is an extremely beautiful place away from the overt commercialization that still maintains its scenic solitude.

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The Rough Mule Route

We took the hilly routes ascending the steep rocky paths amidst dense trees and large roots. We had gained some height and could now view the picturesque Kashmir valley and the Pahalgam golf course. Sitting on a horseback requires a certain understanding with the horse to bend back when descending and bend forward during ascend, as we were getting used to these majestic beauties, our horseman Shaka kept company with a lot of local information.

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Baisaran Valley

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Sunset at Baisaran while returning

Some of the places on this route were Baisaran which is vast expanse of grassy meadows it is called the Switzerland of India. There is a small cafeteria serving hot snacks, maggi and tea here, the place also has some sporting activities like zorbing. Just as we were clicking pictures it began to rain. The locals rightly point out that “Mumbai Ka Fashion Aur Pahalgam Ka Mousum _both are fast changing”!

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Bajrangi Bhaijaan Movie spot-Munni’s house

Horses are very intelligent animals they tread very cautiously and cleverly, discovering the shortest possible routes and have an amazing sense of directions. We reached an isolated serene hill which has now become a popular spot after the movie Bajrangi Bhaijan that was shot in these locations. One can get a breathtaking view of the landscapes here.

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Next we descended a steep hill, where at its bottom a clanking stream flowed past the rocky paths in all force revealing the pebbles beneath. Our young horseman was a regular to the Amarnath caves escorting pilgrims, guiding and aiding them in their holy endeavors. The people of Pahalgam are not so educated or tech savvy and are dependent on Srinagar travel agents for the inflow of tourists but they express that they are tired of the hate and rage and really wish to welcome tourists from across India but as of now they still have to rely on their Srinagar counterparts for all bookings. It was a memorable ride in spite of the terribly chill weathers.

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The next day morning we took the cab ride to Betaab Valley, Aru Valley and Chandanwari.

Betaab valley:

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Betaab Valley

The valley gets its name after the movie Betaab that was shot here, the plush green valley has a small stream flowing through it making it a scenic solace to the tourists but the commercialization has cost it its serenity. The place is owned by politicians who have fixed up a gate and an entry fees is charged to enter the valley. The artificially paved paths seem like an encroachment on nature’s beauty.

 

The Aru valley is another beautiful and calm place which is home to some resorts. At every location, you can find shawl sellers, photographers chasing tourists like werewolves.

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Drive to Aru Valley

The best place was Chandanwadi which is the base camp of Amarnath Yatra. We spent a lot of time climbing the steps beside the gushing waters of NeelGanga that flows down to join the Jhelum downhill.

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Neel Ganga River at Chandanwari, Amarnath Basecamp

We walked up to the point from where the mule routes begin. Amarnath cave was 37kms from here.

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Chandanwari- Amarnath Yatra begins from this point

 

The place is extremely serene and evokes spirituality. We vowed we would one day take the pilgrimage and headed back to be leaving for Srinagar.

Some of the other places we totally missed out are the Martand Sun temple, Mamaleshwar temple, Mattan, Tarsar lake. I wish to come back here making my own itinerary some day!

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Nubra To PANGONG!

From Nubra to Pangong is some 158kms, a 4 hour drive. The night at Nubra was biting cold and the first rays of Sun was so soothing. The apple trees and the homegrown vegetable, fruits and flower gardens in our resort seemed to smile under the bright sunrays that was now spreading everywhere.

 

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Hunder Sand Dunes Resort

 

It was time to say good bye to the sand dunes that were just adjacent to our resort, just before leaving NUbra we walked around sinking our feet in the soft sands.

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Hunder Sand Dunes

 

The drive from Nubra to Pangong is very memorable for me for all its scenic surprises. There were sudden flowing streams cutting across the pebbled paths that doubled up as roads. Such clear waters I had never seen. I could see the stone beds in those streams.

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En route Nubra to Pangong pebbled paths

 

From Hunder we passed through several little towns. The route was Hunder- Diskit—Khalsar- Agyam- Shyok- Durbuk-Tangse-Lumong.

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There were only the sounds of cutting air amidst the vast expanses of lemon green meadows surrounded by naked brown mountains that lay untouched in isolation as if in a deep penance, we drove in admiration of this unique nature’s beauty where herds of sheep grazed blissfully unmindful of what lay ahead. On the way we were lucky to spot a stud of wild horses.

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We had early lunch at Durbuk village and proceeded to Lumong. Actually Lumong is the actual name of the little village where the Pangong lake gleams in her royal blue. Thanks to the movie 3Idiots, now the village itself is called Pangong! But we must agree that the movie has definitely promoted tourism here.

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Yet again we were the only ones driving on this route now around noon as most people leave early in the morning and head back around late in the afternoon. Also this is the advantage if you travel in October where tourists are considerably less. But the only disadvantage is that the tents at the Pangong Lake pack off by 10th of October. So if you are keen to sleep by the tents and watch the night sky at Pangong then you better make it before October.

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The drive was a pristine one where the Chakor Pakshis sat beside the clear waters, it was as if we were the only intruders in their serene lives.

As we drove close to the Pangong Lake, our driver asked us to watch out for the first look of the jewel in the hill that we were about to witness.

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First look at Pangong-The Kohinoor

 

The first sighting of the Pangong Lake was indeed breathtaking as she lay their like a Kohinoor amidst the glistening auburn hills. The more we saw the more we were hypnotized by her sight.

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As we neared the lake, stark bare mountains in vivid shades of brown and indigo stared at us. We reached the lake at 2 o clock in the afternoon and the weather was just right and we wanted to make the best out of it, so we did not even check in to our hotel as weathers are so uncertain in hilly regions.

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The Pangong is a salt water lake at 14500feet bordering with China, stretching over 135kms where only some 40% is with India while the rest of the lake is in China as the Line of Actual Control passes through the lake. The lake is a basin lake where its waters do not flow out into any oceans or sea but is evaporated or absorbed deep into the grounds or at the most flows to other lakes or swamps. The width of the lake is some 5 kms at its broadest point and has no marine life except for some crustaceans. No boating or fishing is done here as it is a border area. Afternoons are the best time to visit this lake as the Sun is steadily moving west allowing that celestial blue to dominantly hypnotize you. Such blue that makes one wonder if the waters are reflecting her colors on the sky! It was perhaps here that the lines’ ye jeel si neeli ankhen’ were coined.

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She is green- she is blue- she is green? Okay she is blue again! She is fickle minded and freezes into a white in the winters.

Our driver quickly drove to us to the spot where the 3 Idiots film shooting took place. It is a serene location 5kms away from the general tourist hullabaloo. The first 3kms are smooth but the last stretch is an absolute mule route layered with pebbles and rocks. But the drive is worth every bit once you have reached here. It is just you and serenity unlimited! This is the place I had been dying to visit!

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As the blue lagoon was drawing me like a magnet I was suddenly jerked by some Bollywood absurdity. A ghastly promotional residue or commercial paraphernalia of 3Idiots movie was sitting pretty here to make some quick bucks! Yes along the serene lake lies a framed poster of Kareena Kapoor in her bejeweled bride’s costume! What is even more amusing is that even that bride costume is available here for rent to be posing on that yellow scooty! I mean, really? Yes a yellow scooty is parked here at the Pangong Lake! I cannot understand but then even the 3 colorful buttock seats, the tin barrels were also present here. and then after an hour of solitude there were few travelers sitting here and taking pictures.

Traditional Ladhaki costumes are also available here on rentals, we did dress up like the Namgyal king and queen and posed ridiculously. We spent some 2hours here talking a leisurely stroll on the sandy paths. The icy winds were piercing cold and we had to wind up to our hotel.

We stayed at the Pangong Inn, our travel agent had screwed up the booking and we had to fight it out for a deluxe room for which we had already paid. It is always better to be on your own than rely on travel agents. But the inn was good, out of the entire Ladakh trip this was the only place with delicious food. It was a wooden cottage with 3 layers of blankets to stay alive till the next day. The tap water was freezing cold and there was no way we could think about a bath here. This is one place where we literally prayed to the SunGods for good weathers and warmth! We completely missed watching the night sky here as the cold was unbearable to get out of the cottage.

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Army helicopter patrolling the Pangong Lake

 

The next day morning we took an early morning stroll yet again and walked some 3kms by the lake. The morning sun was gleaming on the waters making her look a greenish black this time. There were Army helicopters patrolling across the lake for their morning rounds. We took a lot of pics and then were driving back to Leh via Chang La pass at 17688feet.

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Road to ChangLa

 

This was the most difficult drive in our entire trip apart from KhardongLa route.

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Chang La Pass 17688 feet

We reached Leh by 2pm, after lunch we headed to the Hall of Fame, spent some 3hours

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Places of interest in Ladakh

That was the end of our trip in Ladakh, the next day morning we were descending back to Kargil and then back to Srinagar to visit Gulmarg and Pahalgam.

The next day morning we visited Alchi monastery, Mulbek yet again as we did not take the Batalik route, it was time to say JuLeh!

If you want to hire a Taxi driver at Leh, you can call Dorjee 9469706051, he was an amazing chap who knew every corner of Ladakh.

Leh 2 Khardong La – Nubra and Turtuk

The next day morning I saw a stranger’s face in the mirror, the bike ride had left me with a patchy suntan and a brutally sunburned nose. I had underestimated the deadly combination of chilly weathers on sun soaked days!

We started after a light breakfast as the impending routes were steep(vulnerable for vomits) and with falling levels of oxygen. Our driver Dorjee was a friendly Ladakhi chap playing Buddhist prayers and local Ladhaki songs. We were heading to Nubra valley from Leh which is 105kms, a long drive of 7.5 to 8hours.

As you ascend on this journey, one can get a good view of the mountain ranges encapsulating Leh. Visiting Nubra, Pangong, Tso Moriri requires a permit from the DC’s office which can be obtained in Leh by submitting an application if you are on your own, if you are on a package tour or taking hired taxis, the travel agent or the taxi guy can arrange for the same.

Leh to Khardong La is 40kms which is a 2hours drive, this route is strategically significant for India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen glacier.

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Road to Khardong La after South Pulu

The first 25kms of roads upto South Pulu is decent, at 15300feet the South Pulu Post is a District Police checking post, you are checked for the permits, after this point begins the narrow steep muddy paths with loose rocks leading to Khardong La pass all the way up to North Pulu. KhardongLa is one of the world’s highest motorable passes at 18380feet.

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View from Khardong La

The temperatures were freezing at Khardong La and I thought my nose would freeze anytime if I continued to stand there any longer. The snow clad vistas invoked a spiritualistic spell but the thought that the Army Jawans stand here throughout the year, even in times when temperatures are in minus degrees gave me a shuddering chill within. Small shops serve tea and maggi here.

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The army has constructed a SarvaDharmaMandir here such little shrines of prayers are a common sight in these areas manned by the army. A huge Indian flag splutters in the icy winds and we challenged ourselves to click pictures without the cap or jacket! We clicked some pictures and after spending some 30minutes here, we were heading past the Khardong La towards the Khardong village which is some 30kms from this point but typically takes 1.5 hours to reach there on low traffic and no landslide days.

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Route from Khardong La to North Pulu

The crucial 15kms drive from Khardong La to North Pulu is an exhilarating and a nail biting one where the roads get really narrow and scary.

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Road to North Pulu

Driving in these tapering rough dusty paths amidst the hostility of chill weathers requires experienced hands at the steering.

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Road construction workers working in freezing temperatures.

After a bumpy drive crossing the North Pulu, we were now descending to the Khardong Village. We had lunch at the Khardong, a little hamlet soaked in the beauty of nature, you can see Yak farms here, yaks can be seen grazing everywhere here they are just cows encrusted with a thick furry blanket.

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Restaurant at Khardong village

After the Khardong village the roads up to Nubra are smooth. The drive to Nubra is mesmerizing with the Karakoram ranges cupping the Shyok River. Kharakoram means ‘the place of black gravel’ and Shyok means sorrow! Shyoka in Sanskrit means sorrow, how and why these places were named so, nobody knows!

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Shyok river along Karakoram Ranges, en route Khardong to Nubra

The Shyok River finally flows to Pakistan after Turtuk, Northern most Indian village bordering POK.

The Nubra valley is an arid looking flat valley but strangely apple, apricot and berries and flowers grow here in plenty. The unique thing about Nubra is the confluence of the Nubra and Shyok rivers and the Hunder Sand dunes. At 10000feet amidst ice glaciers lies a desert where the twin humped Bactarian camels walk.

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Bactarian Camel at Hunder Sand Dunes

 

The pebbled beds of the valley gives a feeling as if it was some ocean bed millions of years ago and due to some tectonic shifts and drastic climatic changes it is today a mix of rivers, mountains, desert and snow.

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Maitreya Buddha

 

The giant Maitreya Buddha statue against the Shyok river facing Pakistan is another attraction at Disket village, that is also home to the famous Disket monastery, another ancient Gompa! The site at the Giant Buddha Maitreya statue offers a magnificently marvelous view of the Karakuram ranges and you can easily spend an hour or two looking endlessly at the barren vistas against the blue skies with racing clouds.

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View of Disket Monastery from the Giant Buddha Statue

 

After visiting the monastery and the Buddha statue we headed to the Hunder sand dunes around 5 in the evening. A 15 minute camel ride was complementary in our package . It would be a beautiful experience if the camels are taken separately carrying lighter people but it was a horrifying to see the poor camels carry bulky bottoms in between the narrow space of their humps, some of them had their humps sagging(almost broken) because of the commercial value they offer. Some 7-8 camels are stringed and pulled closely together where we were sandwiched amidst furry stenches that were rubbing against our legs.

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Camel ride at Hunder Sand Dunes

 

The ride did finally come to an end giving relieving those camels, we decided to trek on the sands the next day as the evening chill was freezing. We stayed in Nubra for 2 nights. Nubra and Pangong were the coldest in our entire trip although the hotel was cozy enough.

The shrill Muezzin calls woke us up as it tremored the tranquility in the entire place. After breakfast we headed to Turtuk, the northern most Indian village bordering POK. The drive to Turtuk via Skuru, Bogdong, Changmar village is a picturesque one with mesmerizing views all along. It is completely an untouched desolate stretch with heavy Army presence and we were the only vehicle driving besides the snaking Shyok River in all her turquoise splendor!

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It is intriguing that the river has beach like sand shores here and its fine sand gravels are silk smooth. The towering mountains look like huge sand and rock castles that might rain sleets of loose rocks with the slightest of winds cascading into a terrible land slide in a domino effect.

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En route Turtuk

 

Nubra to Turtuk is 80kms and a 3 hours drive. You cannot find any civil settlements or hotels here on this stretch. The Turtuk village itself has some 4000 inhabitants with Balti ethnic Muslim culture. Until 1971 Turtuk was under Gilgit-Baltistan territory with Pakistan. But during the 1971 war India pushed back the Pakistan soldiers who were towering the Siachen mountain posts. Turtuk is predominantly a Muslim hub in the Buddhist Ladakh and their Islamic vulnerability to radicalism may always pose a threat to the security of India, perhaps it is good to build a monastery or a Hanuman Mandir here and have some Buddhists settle down here!

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Turtuk view from the bridge

 

The village has flowing waters and streams everywhere amidst the dense green scenic expanses of Apricot and Walnut trees. It is a small Baltic cult where women toil in the fields while men laze around near the mosque.

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A view from the large bridge over the Shyok river makes for a panoramic delight. Crossing this bridge connects you to the little uphill village that grows lots of vegetables in front of every house. There is a small Government school here where I saw little girls throwing stones at each other!

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Okay it’s not them! It’s the plenty of loose stones available from those rocky mountains of J&K state that is to be blamed! There are many Ladakhi faces who have converted to Islam in Nubra. We had lunch at a Buddhist restaurant overlooking the bridge. The air was filled with the sounds of flowing streams that joined the river beneath. The Shyok River receives water from the glacial meltdown.

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The Siachen glacier is very close to this village as Turtuk is the underbelly between Siachen and Aksai Chin. Sia means rose and chun mean place of abundance, Siachen- means Place with plenty of roses! But it is filled with the thorns of hate post partition.

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By 4pm we were driving back, en route we stopped and walked on the sands along the Shyok river! It was an enchanting experience to be surrounded by the reflections of the mountains in the pristine waters of Shyok with only the sounds of the flowing waters and gentle winds.

We totally missed visiting Panamic that was oddly scheduled for the day although it was in a totally different direction. But still we could call it a day!

 

 

Ju LEH!

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Kargil to Leh is a 3 ½ hrs drive of 214kms on NH 1D. The panoramic scenes of nature’s glory coupled with the BRO built seamless roads make these stretches one of the best places to be driving in. The weather was perfect with not one cloud to be seen on the clear blue skies _ such deep blue that you cannot find it in the cities! And those vistas of layers and layers of brown mountains seemed to stretch as far the eyes could see and the mind could comprehend.

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Some of the places one can see on this route are NamikaLa, FatuLa, Lamayuru, Mulbek, Moonscape hills, , Magnetic Hill

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We crossed the NamikLa pass at 12198feet which is the highest in the Srinagar-Leh highway and the Fatula pass at 13478feet. The entire area is a defense den with lots of convoys and army folks securing this serenity.

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View in front of Lamayaru

Lamayuru is an ancient monastery of the 8th century, I do not understand much about Buddhist spirituality but I like the calm in monasteries and their locations are often encapsulated in extremely beautiful panoramas with absolute tranquility. If you have ample time, take a walk here, it is a one off experience you cannot afford to miss.

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View of Moonrock landscapes from the Lamayaru Gompa

The view and the vistas are astonishingly beautiful around this place. Each hill has a different pattern to swirl up your imaginations. It is as if God was making his choicest sand castles here.

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The Moonrock hills, true to their name, look like craters on the moon. The pyramid shaped formations on these hills are really intriguing.

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Next was the Magnetic Hill, the expanse of similar looking smooth slopes in the backdrop of open skies against a levelled surface road make the downhill path appear like an uphill path. It creates an optical illusion that vehicles are moving uphill much against gravity. There are monster trucks available for a fun ride on hire.

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Magnetic Hill Road

Driving here is like a beautiful dream!

 

Next is the Sangam point where the Sindhu and Zanskar rivers meet.

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Sindhu Zanskar Sangam

Then there is Pattar Saahib Gurudwara, if you are reaching Leh by afternoon, you can visit the Gurudwara and have Langar.

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The Hall Of Fame is another must visit attraction where you can easily spend some 3 hours reading about the Army regiments, wars, weapons, winning stories and woeful memories. I would call it an Army Heritage Gallery with a lot of interesting information and insight into what it takes to be standing there at the borders. (We visited the Hall of Fame on the eve of our last day of the tour from 2.30pm to 5.30pm and covered the Gurudwara in the morning just before leaving Leh).

You are almost entering Leh!

Julay!

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We reached our hotel Blue Mountain in Leh at around 2pm. The Leh market is a 7minute walk from here. We had lunch at Sneha Vegetarian Snacks. Strolled around in the markets looking at why Ladakhis had a red burnt nose.

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Leh Market

I was reminded of my Srinagar driver telling me – Ye Ladakhi Kheenchke oxygen lethe hai na – isi liye inka naak laal hota hai’! Leh is at 11,562feet and the October weather was sunny yet very chill, a strange unease was overwhelmingly arresting me and I felt as if my nose was becoming numb!IMG_20171004_180519502 (1)

However I was much better after a nice hot ginger-honey drink, also fatty food like butter will do lot of good in high altitudes to keep you going.

The next day morning was the moment I was looking forward to _ what is a trip to Leh without a bike ride beside the Sindhu Rivers?

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Leh Palace

 

Bike rentals are available for Rs.1000 per day, fuel fills is on you. We started off visiting the Leh palace – a small wood and mud building. You can catch a good glimpse of the Leh city from here.

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View from Leh Palace

 

Leh is the land of Changpas, Drogpas and Dards, its palaces are simple inornate structures devoid of grandiose, built with whatever substances were available and suitable in the hostile climates by the local kings.

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The chirpy HazaarBaasha or the Chakor Pakshi

 

Ladakh means the Land Of Passes(La-Pass, dakh-land). In this land of lofty mountains and splendid valleys the best thing to do is to plunge in its scenic beauty by simply driving around against the wafting winds.

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Enroute Stok, now don’t look out for the stand!!

 

We drove to Stok Palace which is some 12kms from Leh, located in a serene seclusion, the Stok Palace overlooks the Giant Buddha statue in its close vicinity.

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The insides of the palace are mostly wooden, the walls and ceilings are complemented with bright colored paintings and artefacts.

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View from Stok

 

The occasional chiming sounds of the large Mantra Mani spun by curious tourists, adds a unique sanctity in the air. En route the highway we had lunch at ‘Buddhist Garden Restaurant’ owned by an old friendly Ladakhi lady.

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View at the Shey Palace

 

 

Next we were heading towards Shey Palace in Shey village. Shey Palace is a 16th century structure that hosts a monastery with a gigantic copper Buddha statue. It was the ancient capital of Ladakhi kings before they moved to Stok.

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Vistas near the DrukPadmaSchool

 

Next we were driving towards Thiksey Monastery and then to Hemis in Karu village. Between Shey Palace and the Thiksey Monastery there is a splendid burst of yellow! On the way we saw a whole lot of tourist vehicles parked near the Druk Padma Karpo School that is now famously called as Rancho’s School because parts of the movie – 3 Idiots was shot here (the school scenes). It was amusing to see the number of people queued up here to have a look at Aamir Khan’s classroom and of course Chatur’s pissing point! The hill stations of J&K are smitten by the Bollywood Bug, many valleys or points are named after some movie. We took some pictures here and didn’t go inside the school. We also skipped stopping at the Thiksey monastery as we were headed to see the biggest monastery _ Hemis.

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Leh to Hemis monastery is 45kms and an incredible drive with breath taking vistas of the Sindhu river and those barren terrains with a dash of Saffeda and Willows spread across in their vivid hues.

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Ladakh is known as the cradle of diverse cultures. Although predominantly Buddhist it has considerable Muslim population as Islam was brought in by invading kings, travelers and trades from around the 15th century.

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Located amidst the high Himalayan ranges like Karakoram, Zanskar and The Himalayan ranges, Ladakh is a rain shadow region with no vegetation or rain, making the place a rocky edged barren terrain that is very difficult for human existence but still Leh manages to attract lakhs of tourists round the year because of these very unique features.

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Bridge Crossing to Hemis

 

Although you can see flowing waters everywhere, there is acute scarcity of water in Ladakh. So while in Ladakh, use water judiciously and leave this heavenly place nice and clean.

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Arch gate to Hemis, 5kms before the monastery

 

Hemis monastery is located on a remote hill gorge we were the only ones driving on this route at around 4pm. It is an ancient monastery that was reestablished in the 16th century.

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Main monastery is another 3kms from here

 

It is the biggest and richest gompa that hosts the annual Hemis festival also known as The Kumb Mela Of The Himalayas, where sacred masked dances and other traditional rituals are performed. Lamas from across the world congregate here to commemorate the Padmasambava who is believed to be the reincarnation of Buddha.

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Hemis Gompa

 

This place has a small restaurant, museum and clean toilets.

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The sun was setting and the weather dipping, it was time to call it a day. And we were driving back beside the Sindhu once again against the hostile winds. By the time we reached our hotel my nose had almost signed off and felt like it didn’t exist!

 

Srinagar to Kargil, Day2

Srinagar to Kargil is some 201kms via NH1 and a 5.30hrs drive nonstop. The gradual ascend by road helps in acclimatization to the hostile weathers that await you at Leh and beyond hence we had allotted 2days to reach Leh. We left Srinagar around 8.30am, driving via Ganderbal district, the vistas by the countryside are beautiful with roads lined with willow trees in all their sun dipped yellows and apple farms in all their bloom.

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The route from Srinagar was via Ganderbal – Sonamarg – Zozila pass – Drass- Kargil on NH 1D.

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Typically there is negligible public transport available from Srinagar to Kargil. The transport service is dominated by the private local Taxi mafia where Taxis from Leh and Ladakh cannot enter Srinagar and Srinagar taxis are not allowed to engage customers beyond Leh. So it is impossible to hire a through Taxi. One has to change the Taxi at Leh as the Srinagar Taxi can only drop you till Leh. The taxi fares are exorbitant, shared cab or a bus is another option but a its going to be a tiring nonstop drive. You could also drive your personal vehicle or hire a bike. For the adventurists the bike option is the best as it is not only economical but also an exhilarating and indescribable experience to be driving amidst such picturesque paths. However since our travel plan was through an agent the taxi engagement was part of the plan so we didn’t have to worry much except for the kind of driver we would be given. Previously my experience with makemytrip was a pathetic one, with an arrogant driver.

This time around our driver Gulzar was seemingly enthusiastic about tourists, willing to interact and explain freely. A staunch Abdullahs supporter who believes in a separate Kashmir but holds the current Government responsible for low influx of tourists, when the truth is that people are bypassing these stone pelters by flying directly to Leh. When I gently remind him about the same and tell him that Kashmir was getting all the funds from the Indian Government he quotes the Sheikh’s autonomous prescriptions and plebiscite dreams of remaining separate. The rigidity of religious radicalism blinds all logic, even as he kept saying panchaaz for pachaaz without knowing that Pancha is the Sanskrit 5, he confidently claimed that all media reports were false! Clearly the Maulvi scores over the media here. I could only wish if he had known that Sheikh Abdullah’s father was a descendant of a Kashmiri Pandit Ragho Ram Kaul who was converted to Islam in 1722 as per his own autobiography ‘Aatish e Chinar’.

I was quickly reminded of Shri.B.L.Santosh’s words at the writer’s meet who said that ‘to take control of a waywardly speeding bus heading towards disaster, one has to first board the bus, take control of the steering, then ensure that innocent passengers are safe while taking care of your own safety before bringing the bus back on to its track. The Kashmir issue is a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, they want us tourists but don’t like India or Indians.

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En route we saw many Army personal training in rock climbing. Every time we stopped to shake hands or click pictures with the Army with their consent, it was a heart burning moment for our driver and apprehensive to stop near them but after a while he got used to it.

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Sonamarg

 

After some 90kms, we reached Sonamarg which is much sought after tourist spot at 2730 meters above sea level. Sonamarg(Sona-golden, Marga-path) is a mountain valley that is encapsulated by towering Himalayan peaks with many Himalayan glaciers in its vicinity. You can take pony rides to the Tajjiwas glacier which will cost you Rs.1500 per person for a 2hrs ride. You have to bargain. Parts of the movie Bhajrangi Bhaijan were shot here.

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Tajjiwas Glacier

 

Many trekking, rafting and pilgrimage(Baltal camp for Amarnath) base camps start from here. Best time to visit here would be the early April when summer is just beginning when the valley is still dressed in snow. But since we had an overdose of snow in our previous trip to Manali we were keen to meander amidst the bare barren hills of Leh that too in October when the crowds are thin where your clicks will not be interrupted by selfie clicking travelers. It was a beautiful sight of vast green and gold meadows with imposing deodar trees standing tall in vivid Vermont like shades and interesting patterns. The snowcapped peaks played peekaboo against the backdrop of the Sindhu River that snakes picturesquely in all her chaste clear waters! The roads here are maintained by BRO and manned by the Army.

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This route gets buried under 50feet of snow after November, disconnecting Ladakh through this route hence the center is building a tunnel to keep the connectivity open throughout the year as the routes beyond this point are shut down in winter and only the Army stays put here as of now.

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We spent some time here on photography but gave the pony ride a slip. After zero point we were heading to Zozi La at a height of 11474ft.

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Zozila routes

 

La means pass, Zozila is the second highest pass in the Srinagar-Leh highway and the link between Ladakh and Srinagar. It is the most difficult route with rugged rocky and dusty paths, prone to frequent landslides that can be triggered by the gusting mountain winds.

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Rugged routes of Zozila pass

 

After the rugged and rocky routes of Zozila begins the brown vistas with good roads.

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Shades of hills through my eyes

 

During this drive you can see the Tiger Hill all along at the far end.

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Tiger Hill

 

By 12 noon we reached Drass, the coldest place in India at a height of 10764feet_ the quiet little town in the Kargil district today that had witnessed one of the fiercest battles on its treacherous terrains in 1999 when Pakistan had intruded into our territories.

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Kargil War Memorial in Dras

 

Set against the foothills of the Tololing heights in the background of Tiger Hill and Point 4875(Batra Point) where the mighty Indian soldiers sent home the Pakis disgraced and embarrassed, the Kargil War Memorial is a fine tribute to the many heroes who fought relentlessly to recapture and restore these integral points back to India. The current structure was built by the Indian Army in Nov 2014.

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There is no entry fee or any charges here but you have to sign and enter your details along with ID proof at the entry.

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The moment you enter, the huge Indian Flag fluttering in front of the barren Tololing Hill against the backdrop of the blue skies is a nostalgic moment. As you proceed you can see a full size replica of the Bofors gun and the MIG 21 aircraft placed here as they played a crucial role in the Kargil battle.

Then there is Manoj Pandey Gallery showcasing the various achievements of different units and regiments of the Army that participated in the Kargil War.

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Veerbhumi: Sandstone Wall

 

To the far end on the left side is the Veer Bhumi with hundreds of sandstone memorials of all those officers and soldiers who gave their lives. As I salute these martyrs a strange silence floats in the air moistening your eyes, I kneel down to read those several names etched now in heroic history _ soldiers from Kerala to Karnataka, Bihar to Bengal and Punjab to Sikkim. They had all come here to fight in these unknown terrains for their motherland to fight against the enemy in these treacherous terrains amidst hostile locals. It is upsetting to note that the locals here who stay here don’t seem to care. Kargil is predominantly a Muslim settlement again, perhaps it is for this reason that a radical rogue like Pakistan could infiltrate into the hilly pockets of India.

It is an out and out demographic war encouraged right under our flawed constitution with obnoxious articles like 370 and 35A. While some stupid Hindus blinded by their secular filters may refuse to see the truth and say ‘hey let’s not discuss politics and religion’, the ground reality is ruthlessly harsh where radical mosques are fast multiplying in the serene spaces of Ladakh too. The war memorial is a tale of many unknown faces, unheard names of unbelievable courage and sacrifice who have made it possible for us to stand safe amidst these serene vistas today. Such tales that moisten your eyes and such bravery that you could swell in pride.

The Memorial also has an ATM, a souvenir shop, a small refreshment area selling Samosas and tea. This stretch has no hotels so it is better you grab something here. We had not realized we had spent almost 3 hours here. We came out with a Jai Hind cap and our driver was almost turning squint.

Somewhere near the memorial is a place called BhimPattar which is believed to a Mahabharatha time rock thrown by Bhimasena. We followed the board and looked around but could not place it.

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Sindhu-Soru Sangam

 

We were now driving off to our hotel in Kargil via the Sindhu Soru Sangam point, where the green Sindhu waters meet the black Soru tributary. The confluence is an enticing sight in a bewitching background. We entered the Kargil town, tired and hungry.

Our hotel _ The Zozilla Residency was a decent place with an open restaurant overlooking the Soru River. But the whole place was invaded by flies making it impossible to have food outside however the vegetarian food was decent and the room comfortable.

After a hurried lunch at 4pm, we left our taxi behind and took another local cab to a secluded place called Hunderman which is a 15kms drive from the Kargil town. It is a cliff hanger like drive with extremely narrow paths and sharp bends. No outside taxis are allowed yet again here. So we had to shell out another 1500 for this drive in an Omni Van. Later on I came to know that it can be availed for even Rs.800. If you look at it, it is a convenient agreement amongst the Kashmiri Muslim populace to give business to local crowds at the cost of the customer where one has to compulsorily hire a local cab for local sightseeing even if they had their own taxi at their disposal.

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Hundarman Hill

 

Hunderman is the last village on the Indian side, the hill falls directly in the firing range of the Pakistan(POK). You can see Indian and Pakistani bunkers and soldiers in a binocular. We managed it with our camera zoom. There are some old houses in a dilapidated state that the villagers left behind. At the bottom you can see clusters of apricot trees by the Sindhu River. The Ladakhi faced driver Kasim narrated how closely he had deceived death during the Kargil unrest when Pakistani shells had bombarded his town from the opposite hills.

It was around 8 degrees and falling further by the evening. We headed back and that was the end of day 2.

Stay at Kargil or Drass or Alchi helps you acclimatize better so as to avoid AMS (altitude mountain sickness).

 

 

 

Srinagar Houseboat stay!

A reverie of those serene paths snaking uphill

As if to embrace the blue skies

Seemed to rekindle our wayfaring thrill

The mountains were calling …And we set sail like little travel flies!!

We grabbed a great flight deal and before we knew it we were in a cramped rear seat onboard an Indigo flight flying to Delhi and then to Srinagar. We had customized this travel itinerary with a Srinagar based Travel Agent called Milli Tours and Travels, flight bookings were our own!

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We reached Srinagar on 2nd October at 3pm and were picked up by our driver Gulzar. Srinagar is big town with tall old Chinar trees, lakes, ancient bridges and broad busy streets laden with carts of fruits and dry fruits along with an eye popping number of Army personnel and patrols present everywhere.

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As we drive past the Jhelum River in the backdrop of ancient bridges, I wonder how this ancient town of Srinagar – which ideally means the land of Goddess Lakshmi (Sri-Lakshmi, Nagar-town) came to become the hotbed of terror.

Driving in and around Srinagar felt like visiting a different land altogether _ with a 98% Muslim population it felt as if I was in some Islamic country. Shops and streets are filled with Phiran clad, typically sharp bearded men and hijab or burqa clad women who gaped at us Bindi wearing bare headed tourists like aliens from Mars! As we passed avenues of tiny shops which were all with Islamic names with not one Hindu name or presence to be felt, we realized there was nothing strange about the alarming presence of the army.

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If we could travel with open hair and a Bindi on the forehead, it was because of the Army’s presence. En route to Dal lake I saw CRPF personnel engaged in Swatch Bharath initiatives where they were sweeping the roads, it was quiet annoying and saddening to see them employed for this work but it is also possible that this method is employed to get them acquainted with all the streets and the ongoing activities.

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By 4pm we reached our houseboat in the Dal Lake, where our night stay was scheduled.

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Dal lake is a floating boulevard of Shikaras, Houseboats, gardens, handloom and textile shops, paper mashe artworks and a whole lot of trinkets, Saffron and Khawwa(local kesar drink) sellers. The backdrop of the tawny towering Himalayan ranges encapsulating the expanse of the gleaming waters makes for a picturesque sight! Dal in Kashmiri means lake but yet people like us call it Dal lake!

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But my first impression about the Shikara was very disappointing as I was hoping to see some overtly decked up colorful swan like Shikara with a lot of vividly hued flowers like in the Shammi Kapoor song. But we had to settle down into our sober looking Shikara along with our entire luggage to shuttle in to the Houseboat hotel for the night stay.

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We dumped the luggage at our destined Houseboat amongst the many Houseboats that were lined up as if at the onset of a boat race. And then began our complementary Shikara ride of 15minutes arranged by the Houseboat via the agent. Shikara rides cost around Rs.200-Rs.300 per hour per head as claimed by our Shikara chap Majid Bhai.

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It was sunny but the chill factor was still there. The lake is a vast stretch of green waters filled with obnoxious amount of weeds in spite of 4-6 weed cutting machines deployed across it. The lake seems to have lost its original beauty because of overt commercialization and Eutrophication which means excess nutrients being present in the water leading to growth of too many plants, algae and weeds robbing the lake of its oxygen. From the Dal you can view the Shankaracharya hill.

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Within 5minutes into our pristine ride, began the annoying harassment of pleading vendors and leech like photographers who wouldn’t let go of us till we yielded. We were charged an exorbitant amount of Rs.1500 for 15 photos when we had asked him only for 2pics. Also the quality of costume, jewelry and the picture quality is pathetic in Dal lake, you could try the same in Nishat garden where the costume and the background are extremely beautiful. But if you want the lake background pay him a couple of hundreds borrow the costume and do your own photography.

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Since we did not want to turn the ride into an ugly experience we succumbed to his exploitation and let go of him. Going forward we were on the hit list of many such pesky vendors. We decided we shall not talk to anybody or even make an eye contact and it really worked.

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Houseboat of Gul Gulshan Gulfam fame

Majid Bhai our boat man showed us around the lake pointing to distant boats of significance, one such houseboat was where the Gul Gulshan Gulfam teleserial shooting took place and another large antique boat turned out to be a British era DhaakGhar or the first floating post office of their summer capital.

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British era Floating Dhaakghar

Gradually the conversation turned to the tourist influx and their routines, their source of income, livelihood and things like that. Then came the topic of stone pelting, we were cautious not to ask questions that would get us toppled into the waters but then Majid Bhai was more than friendly and shared quiet some opinions. He did not deny the stone pelting incidents but is not too happy with the media. He holds them responsible for a reduced tourism into this part of the country, and that this slowdown of tourism itself is a potential reason for radical exploitation of the unemployed youth in his opinion. He also concedes that there are people who dont want tourism to grow. I could almost connect his thoughts with the braid chopping incidents where tourists were being beaten up as being suspects. But I was determined to insist on a nice bob cut in the event of such attemptsJ. As he shared his opinions the Azaan calls blared out from the nearby mosques one after the other muddling up the serenity of the lake.

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However in my brief stay here I saw that most places I stayed did not subscribe to main stream English news channels. They watch Hindi channels largely and most of them were local channels except Zee Kashmir Express. Perhaps our Government should air freely some of the important news channels here. Essentially the messages of national bonding do not even reach here and they rely on fake whatsapp forwards and videos. My driver told me that he has a whatsapp video of army personnel pulling up some innocent guys and shooting them. It is disturbing to note that such fake propaganda where such staged fake attacks are carried out by militants themselves wearing the Army combat gears to conspire people against the armed forces is shaping the mindsets of these impressionable and religiously bigoted minds. Army uniforms are easily duplicated and available in the markets. In the recent past there have been many attacks by militants wearing the BSF, CRPF and Army uniforms

The Government should perhaps  send counter whatsapp push-alerts/videos and texts revealing the truth perhaps through mobile service providers or banks via their mass sms or whatsapp/emails. As of now most of these people don’t deserve the convenience of the social media and the inherent freedom that comes with it, to that effect internet connections in Srinagar are often down and disconnected for security reasons. Hence it is better to keep print outs of all your travel plans, contact details and enough cash but remember make card payments only to these folks, let them pay up their taxes and be reminded that they are Indian citizens!

No amount of peace or diplomatic talks can help contain the demographic decadency in the valley as I witnessed while driving past places like Ananthnag (in the later part of our trip) and the situation here demands a curt hand at plucking out religious radicalism that is vehemently and unabashedly propagated in the Mosques and Madrasas here with their blaringly fanatic speeches of instigation for upholding a dominating Islam with an anti-Indian pitch. There is nothing religious about it but only rabidly radical repression of vulnerable minds. For security reasons loudspeakers must be banned here and Mosques and Media houses shut down as they are the root cause of the unrest. On a lighter vein the Hurriyat and other separatist leaders should be given protection by these very duplicate olive green uniforms in their fake combat gears.

Maybe we should parcel some Southern land sharks or set up some Idly Vada shops and mellow them down or deploy some brash pan spitting Bihari/UP babus to change the demographics there!

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Anyways coming back to the Shikara ride, it was a good ride but for the overt commercial activities. We were later taken to some Handloom shops where I bought some salwar suits and sarees only to realize later that the same stuff was available for lot lesser in the outside markets.

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We also visited some paper mash art shops and bought some trinkets as souvenirs which were again available for ¼ of its price in front of Shalimar Bagh. The shops near Dal lake are pricy and you can shop only if your bargaining skills are sharp and shrewd.

A fifteen minute complimentary Shikara ride turned out to be a 3 hours affair as we were haunted by several marketers and spent lot of time in the shops and saying no. It is a predetermined quid pro quo arrangement between the Shikara and the shops hence he had willingly extended it so generously.

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It was 8.30 in the night and the temperature was dipping, finally we went back to our houseboat. A nice hot vegetarian dinner was served in the living room of the boat, the boat had 6rooms totally and only 2 were occupied.

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The insides of the houseboat seemed like a spooky setup in an old Bollywood flick. The dim lights, walnut wooded ornate interiors with their velvety bedspreads and mink blankets were very inviting not for us but the mosquitoes! It had been almost 19hours since we left Bangalore and our eyelids were collapsing. it was completely a ‘Wud-ja-makki’ hour and we just sunk into the cosy bed hoping not to be bitten by any termites.

Next day early in the morning we woke to shock! We could hear Hanuman Chalisa at a distance!!

Following the Hanuman Chalisa were several blaring rounds of Azaan as if in some Jugalbandi. I wondered if the mosques had suddenly become secular but then we quickly found out that the sloka was coming from the Shankaracharya Hills which is guarded by the army.

It had worked like our morning alarm and we began our day quiet early. The bathroom was neat and with steaming hot water as the geyser was on all night. After a quick breakfast, by 8.15am we were jet setting to Kargil.

Wait for my Leh and Ladakh posts!

Pattadakal and Aihole

We started from Badami to Mahakuta, a group of Shiva temples which is 12kms from Badami.

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Mahakuta Temple

 

Mahakuta is sacred place for Veerashaivas(Lingayats), it is an ancient temple which has Shiva Linga in the Pushkarani itself. We spent some 20minutes here and continued to Pattadakal. Mahakuta to Pattadakal is a short ride of 10kms

Pattadakal

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Pattadakal

 

Pattadakal means place where the kings were coroneted, it is a UNESCO world heritage site with a group of 10temples. The masterpiece architecture is built expansively with exemplary forms of Dravidian and Nagara styles and was a flourishing and important town of the Chalukyan times during 500-750AD. Though much of the previous glamor as quoted by locals is lost to vandalism and nature, what remains is still awe inspiring.

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Pattadakal

 

Pattadakal in ancient times was known as “”Pattada Kisuvolal” or “Rakthapura”which means valley of red soil.

The Western Chalukya dynasty founded by Pulakeshi I in the 6th century was a powerful dynasty that ruled for nearly 2 centuries where there was all round development. Those were peaceful and prosperous times that people excelled in the fields of art, architecture, literature, administration, socio-religious and economics.

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Stone Window

There are no decent hotels in the vicinity and the only source of food was from the street vendors who sold North Karnataka variety of Jolada Roti and Curry.

 

We were forced to live on tender coconuts and soft drinks.

If you are planning to visit Mahakuta,

Pattadakal and Aihole in one go, it is strongly

advisable that you carry your own food(get it

packed from your Badami hotel) as there is

literally nothing here in Pattadakal and Aihole.

Next in the list was Aihole, the much awaited place for me, Pattadakal to Aihole is some 25kms which is a one hour drive on the dusty lanes by the Jowar fields.

Previously these fields were considered for construction purposes but the ASI has intervened and stopped any construction near the proximity of the ancient monuments.

jowar-and-onion-on-roads onionsBleating flocks of sheep, open scape of fields as far as your eyes could see welcomed us on the dusty lanes with Jowar and onions harvests spread out by the roadsides to dry in the scorching sun.

Aihole is an ancient rustic town on the banks of the Malaprabha River in the dusty abode of Bagalkot district.

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Aihole is derived originally from the term “Ayyavole” or “Ayyagala Hole”, Ayya means learned one and Hole means stream, so Ayyahole literally means a place of Brahmins. In fact the word ‘Ayyavole” is a corrupted version of the Sanskrit word “Aryapura”, Arya means Pundit and Pura means a place or town.

There is a legendary story behind the origin of the name Aihole, the story goes like this….

Aryapura was ruled by a mighty king named Kartaviryarjun, once on his expedition to the forest, Sage Jamadagni invited the king for extending his hospitality as it was customary in those days to for hermits in the jungles to host and serve the king when he passed by the forests, the king was very pleased and equally surprised at the swift service extended, upon enquiring the sage revealed that it was due to the divine powers of the God sent cow “Kaamadhenu”. The king demanded that the divine cow be handed over to him but the sage refused, Kartaviryarjun in his fury killed Jamadagni. Parashurama who was the son of Jamadagni was furious on hearing this and set out to avenge his father’s death, also those were the days when the tyranny of the Kshtriyas on the sages had become rampant hence Parashurama decided to cleanse the world by destroying the whole of Kshatriya race. After the killings, he came to Malaprabha river to clean his bloodstained axe upon which the entire river had turned red and he exclaimed _ Ayyi Holi”.

Another angle is “Ai or Aiyoo is an exclamation and Holi in Kannada means stream/river”, thus the town got its name.img_5085

Aihole was the cradle of temple architecture during the prosperous rule of the Chalukyas between the 4th and 8th century. It was an important educational and religious capital that housed many scholars and saints. Varaha(Boar avatar) was the emblem of the Chalukyas, which bears similarity to the Vijayanagara emblem.

The Chalukyan empire extended across today’s Karnataka, AndraPradesh and Maharastra and Karnataka was called as Kuntala Desha as it was a flourishing trade center, the inscriptions in Aihole bear testimony to it.

Aihole is a town full of temples however the main attraction is the Durga temple complex that houses several little architectural wonders. Although the sanctum deities are mostly Shiva Lingas, some mutilated, some missing, the inside of the temple porches/entrances have a sculpture of Garuda with folded hands which is a symbolic trait of Vishnu temples, meaning that these were originally Vishnu temples. No deities are there and the ones remaining are disturbingly destroyed.

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The Indian Parliament design was inspired from this ancient architectural marvel of the Durga temple.

The apsidal shaped monument is clearly one of the finest structures of the 7th century. The pillars have carved figurines of Mahishasuramardhini, Varaha, Vishnu, Shiva and Ardhnarishwara sculptures, some figures are plucked out from the pillar and even the dilapidated sign boards and information boards need a facelift.

Some of the other temples surrounding the main monument mostly have low ceilings and they are unfortunately named after shepherds and nomads who occupied the place before the place was taken over by ASI. Not much study seems to be done on these sandstone marvels that lie in a pitiable environment. There is also a ASI museum within the temple complex.

Another interesting stone carving that I came across here is the MAKARA carving or the Makara Torana

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Makara is a strange beast with a crocodile’s face, lion’s feet and a body bigger than an elephant with snakes emerging from its mouth, whatever it indicated I could not get any information about this strange depiction of art form which may even be mythological or symbolic to the spirits and lifestyles in those reigning times.

If you are a first timer then you have to hire a guide lest you don’t understand a thing and might miss out on some important aspects but since this was my second visit we were content pretending to be amateur historians with our own deciphering and interpretations.

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Next we headed to Ravanaphadi, which is a unique and very interesting rock cut cave. It is also a 6th century marvel, with a hall and pillars and a deity chamber inside. It has large sculptures of ten armed Shiva in a dancing pose on one side and Harihara on the other side.

You can get a good view of Aihole Durga temple from here. There are some 28-30 ASI recognized temples around but most of them are in a deplorable condition.

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Even in the immediate vicinity of the main monuments things are not very inspiring,

the irony is that although the cluster is maintained by ASI, the surroundings are shockingly filthy with no food or facilities for tourists, also many squalid shants are lined up dangerously close to the monument. The roads are horrendously dusty and except for couple of main tourist attractions the rest of the hundreds of temples lay in filth with narrow connecting roads where pigs soaked in slushy swamps welcome you and one cannot even think of getting down to enter the temple premises.

After a hectic day we headed back from Aihole to Badami which is 36kms and could not wait to have some delicious food at 5pm.

After which, we visited the Banashankari temple which is 5kms from Badami.

Banashankari temple

Banashankari temple

Located by the side of the

Harishchandra Thirtha the temple

is dedicated to ‘Banashankari’ or

‘the deity of forest’.

Bana or Vana means forest.

 

The goddess is also known as ‘Shaakaambari’ meaning the one who wears a garland of vegetables.

This goddess of nature and vegetation is offered 108 vegetables by the local devotees who regard her as their Kula Devi as she had emerged from the Yagna Kunda and saved

Dried up Harishchandra Thirtha

Dried up Harishchandra Thirtha

them from the demon Durgamaasura.

She was the revered deity of Rastrakutas and Chalukyas. But after the white man came here to explore he engaged in his quest of lies and tirade against intrinsic beliefs and values of Hinduism. Today in the several branches of Banashankari temples, the devotees no more offer vegetables but sacrifice animals as they have no knowledge of the very meaning of Shaaka Ambari. We took blessings from the eight armed Devi seated resplendently on a lion and called it a day.

That was the end of our 4day architectural extravaganza in Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal.

The next morning we were driving back to Bengaluru.

 

 

Badami Caves and Bhootnath Temples

Nothing is more fascinating than the architectural marvels of Hampi, Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole. An entire township filled with the glorious stone pillars, pathways, stepwells, Mahals, temples with towering gateways laden with carved intricacies in awe inspiring precision is what makes the arid towns of Hosapete and Bagalkot an enchanting experience where one gets to explore the rich heritage and lifestyles of our glorious kings. Watching the rusty radiance of these sandstone structures on a moderately sunny day is something I can do endlessly.

Our trip to Hampi a few years back was very enriching so this time, we spent time only in Badami and Aihole.

We set off driving on a lazy afternoon from Bengaluru via Tumkur on NH47 road up to Chitradurga and NH50 up to Hospet route to reach Hampi is 375kms and a 7hours long drive without taking breaks.

After a day’s halt at Hampi we resumed our journey to Badami by 5pm in the evening.

Hampi to Badami is 160kms and a drive of 2.45 hours on NH397 _ Bevoor_ Gadag road. While we were still enamored by the seamless visionaries that the Vijayanagar kings were for having chosen to establish their erstwhile capital by putting their natural surroundings to best use amidst enclaves of rocky dunes that served as a natural security barricade while the Tunga River satiated their water needs, but what stood in store on the NH397 was quite the opposite as the highway was laden with not just highway men but also women, defecating in the open! It was as if a whole town was out there congregating in a mass-relieving exercise and that too while chatting away to glory on their mobile phones with little plastic mugs of water beside them. The headlights of the zipping vehicles served as a torch perhaps.

The water scarce, arid zones of northern Karnataka are really appalling and a grim reminder of today’s callous administration!

As we zoomed past pictures of rural reality, we could only pray that our resort booking in Badami had enough waters for our basic rituals because the more we traversed the lesser were our hopes of even getting a decent accommodation, on the dusty uneven roads(ditches) of Bagalkot until we reached what looked like a tar road but with several beauty spots in the form of pot holes.

Fortunately our hotel ‘Heritage Resorts’ in Badami was a nice and clean, decent place with a vegetarian kitchen, cozy comfortable beds and we could not have asked for more.

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Badami in Kannada means almond, due to its almond colored sandstone architectures the city was called Badami. Badami was earlier known as Vatapi owing to the legend of demon Vatapi and sage Agasthya.

“Vatapi and Ilvaku were two demons who hounded sages with their tricks. They would lure the sages into a feasting meal, where Vatapi would take the form of food and be served by Ilvaku to the sages, once the sages had feasted then Ilvaku would call out Vatapi to return. Vatapi would emerge from the sage’s stomach thereby killing them. But when Agasthya rishi was served this tricky lunch, he immediately said “Vatapi Jeerno Bhava” meaning let Vatapi be digested, that was the end of the demons.

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Badami, was the capital of the Chalukya kings who ruled from the 450AD to 757AD, Jayasimha was the founder of the Chalukya dynasty. These rock cut caves were undertaken during King Pulakeshi’s time and completed by King Mangalesha. After the Chalukyas, Badami was ruled by Pallavas, Rastrakutas, Hoysalas followed by the Vijayanagara kings, Adil Shahis, Marathas, Odeyars, Hyder Ali and British. The Pallavas who invaded Chalukyas, took away a statue of Lord Ganapathi (flat stomached idol, the only idol of Ganapathi in his flat tummy) as booty and placed it in Thiruvarur. The 17th century poet Muthusamy Dikshitaar praises this idol in his song ‘Vatapi Ganapathim Baje’ as the idol was from Vatapi(Badami).

badami-mobile-picThe Cave temples located beside the Agastya Theertha is the main attraction, the sandstone structure with 2000 steps is a steep summit of gigantic rocks that houses four caves(a fifth one is discovered recently).

img_4921The 1st cave depicts Shaivism with Shiva as Nataraja in his dancing form with 18 hands.

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img_4933badami5The second cave is dedicated to Lord Vishnu with panels of Vamana-Trivikrama and Bhoovaraha. The ceilings have Swastika symbols carved and MatsyaChakra(fish wheel), Puranic episodes of SamudraManthana and Krishna’s tales can be seen.

Cave 3 is again dedicated to MahaVishnu, it is the largest and most ornate caves of all, it was completed by King Mangalesha.

Cave 4 is a Jaina cave temple, the smallest of all, you can get an excellent view of the Agastya Theertha in the backdrop of Bhootnath temples and the scenic range of sandstone rocks.

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badami6badami3After descending from the caves we headed to the Badami Museum which is just some 200meters away. A narrow and dirty path ridden with pigs, open gutters and small dingy houses in all its filth surrounds this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the immediate vicinity. A mosque is also built in the same sandstone material right next to the caves, like in most of all our heritage sites/temples. This one was perhaps from the Adil Shahi’s times. But the overall filth surrounding the monumental wonder is acrimonious apathy of successive governments. However the locals told me that the Modi government has already undertaken to make things better.

img_4929As of now whether it is in Hampi, Badami or AIhole there are no strict safety or security measures for the upkeep. If you go to the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort or Humayun Tomb in the north one can see the kind of elaborate security measures, CCTV screening and numerous guards at every point but the Hampi, Badami, Aihole are sites where the whole town is a monumental wonder with numerous breath taking structures, all of them without much security deployed and with unapologetic tourists with no regard for the grandeur of the heritage site as they call it ruins.

If this kind of extravaganza were to be in any other Western country it would perhaps arrange guided digital tours with Walkie talkies aiding tourist to re-live this ancient history. If it is maintained and propagated even today its rich heritage can make Karnataka synonymous with Hampi. But today most North Indians are not even aware of this glorious place called Hampi, Badami and Aihole as it is not given the importance like other Mughal monuments.

Most sites are at the mercy of the tourist guides who demand img_4950anything like Rs.500 for two hours when you need a whole day to cover just 8-10 places. Hampi has some 550 places where some 54 are UNESCO recognized heritage sites and Badami takes 2full days.

We spent some 30-40minutes at the museum and then took a stroll along the Agastya Theertha. Walking beside the serene holy waters enclaved by gigantic sandstone rocks amidst green patches feels blissful.

This route leads to the Bhootnath temples, a place that was once filled with scents of flowers, bells clanging and Vedic Mantras, the Kalyani where holy baths were taken is today devoid of the main idol itself, as we neared the Bhootnath temples, we could see groups of ladies washing utensils and clothes in the Agastya Theertha polluting it with detergents and soaps.

 

img_5000The Bhootnath temples are a group of Shiva temples located on the far end of the Agastya lake, with both Nagara style and Dravidian style architecture. One can sit here in eternal solace watching those majestic almond reflections in the gleaming waters calmly.

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A little away from the Bhoothnath temples on the left side is the Mallikarjuna temples, a plainer version of Shiva temples of Kadamba times.

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A whole lot of temples but no prayers offered anywhere here as it is customary in Hindu temples that once a Vigraha or idol is broken even if partly then no Pooja is offered. Today it is a much sought after place for cinema shootings and adventure enthusiasts for rock climbing as Badami has its own rock climbing camps.

We completely missed out the Shivalay temples, the fort and the Vatapi temple where once the unique idol of Lord Ganesha with a flat tummy was worshipped here before being taken away as booty by the Pallava kings.

Badami has mostly budget hotels and very few luxury hotels, it is well connected by rail, bus and ideal to visit from October to January.

Navabrundavan _ By The Tunga River

Navabrundavana is a sacred place for Madhwacharya’s followers, it is located near the ancient town of Hampi, Karnataka. While the heritage town of Hampi is filled with tourists across the year for its rich sand stone temples and glorious sculptures that stand tall in spite of those ruining invasions, Navabrundavana is a  quiet and calm abode of the 9 holy saints of Dwaita Siddantha who meditated here in this pristine and picturesque rocky island amidst the Tunga river.

Madhwacharya was a Vedanta philosopher who was a proponent of philosophy of reality_’Tattvavada’.

People refer to this place as the ‘Jeeva Brundavanas’, as a Brundavana is a fortification around the revered saints when they entered penance when alive. It is unlike the concept of a tomb hence the word Samadhi is avoided.

Navabrundavana has two routes, one is from Anagundi which is a long drive of 30kms from Hampi and the other one from Hospet is a shorter (6kms from Malligi hotel) one near the banks of the Tunga River which is not a popular route.

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We took the shorter one and reached a dead end near the river bank, we had to take a ferry to reach the island temple but could not find a single soul. Some faded graffiti on the wall slab beside the waters, revealed a mobile number. Upon calling the number we were asked to call out loudly and look for one Ramzan Bi, who would probably be asleep somewhere in the surrounding farms. So chances were that if Ramzan Bi was in a deep slumber then we would miss seeing the place however we cried out as best as we could and finally Ramzan Bi turned up from across the other side, speedily rowing a large caracole.

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This is Ramzan Bi at 60+years she has a family of 7 members and makes a living by rowing Hindu pilgrims to their sacred place, this is real India! As she rows amidst the scenic splendor of nature surrounded by rocky dunes and lush green Jowar farms against the gleaming Tunga waters in the hot Sun, she tells us about the peak seasons and good days to visit it here.

After this brief ride amidst nature, we had to walk some 200meters in between tall blades of grass and rocky enclaves to reach the temple.

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Navabrundavana is an absolutely quiet place without any elaborate architecture, it is for the spiritually inclined with only the sounds of nature and few religious chantings. It is perhaps because of such calmness and serenity that the sages chose to meditate here.

After the darshan, we headed to the Virupaaksha temple, had lunch at Mango tree which is now shifted behind the market area in the Virupaksha temple vicinity.

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Virupaaksha temple

Then we walked up the Rathna Beedhi(Street of gems), the pillared avenues where diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds were once sold like vegetables in open trays, such was the Vijayanagar economic splendor and architectural vibrancy that in spite of sabotage and loot these monuments stand tall attracting lakhs of tourists across the year. In spite of the beheaded and broken sculptures I refuse to call it ruins! You can view my earlier Hampi post here.

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We walked by the Tunga rivers that is picketed by rocky boulders, an early morning or early evening walk here is the best thing to do, the rocky paths leads to Kodandarama temple and Yantrodharaka temple(Hanuman temple) which is said to be consecrated by Vyasa Raja, the Raja Guru of the Vijayanagar empire, who set up 732 Hanuman temples, he was the teacher of Purandara dasa.

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Little mantapas by the Tunga River

The story goes like this “Vyasa Raja usually took bath in Chakratheertha, the TungaRiver banks where Kodandarama temple is located. As he meditated and prayed on the rocky hills of Chakratheertha, the Charcoal image he had drawn, symbolic of Lord Hanuman would disappear into the rock. The incident occurred several times, Vyasa then composed the Yanthrodharaka Hanuman Sthothra and encircled the image with Shatkona yantra (Hexagonal star) or the Vaayu Yantra, thereafter the image of the lord stayed. It is also believed that it was here in this ancient town of Kishkinda that Rama met Hanuman during his search for Sita. Hampi is full of footprints from our Ramayana epic as it is the oldest town in the civilization as per scientist who have carbon dated some rocks here.

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View from Yanthrodharaka

 

As luck would have it, the Mandir was closed(this is the second time I tried to visit) so we just sat down for a while, enjoying the picturesque view of the Tunga River from the mountain top.

This was the end of our Navabrundavan trip, we then resumed our journey to Badami in the evening.

Do read my upcoming post on Aihole and Badami.

Go Goa!

After a historic trek in the Chitradurga fort, we headed to Goa!

Chitradurga to Goa is 385kms on NH4, after driving on NH4 for an hour we took the Haveri Yellapura Karwar route on SH 6 via Bannikatte. There are couple of Kamat Upachar hotels to break for if you take the Hubli Dharwad route else there is literally nothing on this stretch, except expansive wheat and paddy fields under the scorching sun.

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We took the Haveri route amidst the countryside avenues, with lush green fields and coconut trees lined up as if to extend a civil salute to the passing passengers on this desolate stretch with absolutely no sign of people or shops! It was Eid and most roads seemed to be heavily decked in green flags and hoardings and our hopes of finding a vegetarian hotel here had almost diminished and died down until we found Hotel Shanbhag(veg) in Yellapura which came as a respite and life saver for us!

We reached our destination Blue Planet Café in Canacona, South Goa around 7pm after 8 hours of driving (lunch break included)! A month ago when I tried to reach out to this place the bookings were full, but life is all about hope isn’t it? So I tried my luck card yet again on the previous day of our travel and bingo, somebody had a last minute cancellation, fortunately for us, just for us!

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Blue planet café is a quiet vegan and vegetarian hangout in nature’s backyard run with a theme of staying close to nature by redeeming its natural goodness and refurbishing a mutually beneficial eco-friendly environment.

A series of steps led us to our wooden cottage that lay embedded in earthen aromas surrounded densely by holy basil plants and chirpy birds!

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The place has a yoga hall opening into the façade of nature that overlooks you beseechingly. It is a perfect place for book lovers, couples and people who love the beaches of Goa but want to cuddle back into the calmness away from the chaotic nightlife of Goa.

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The food here is different from the routine spicy Indian food, with loads of health drinks to choose from organically grown vegetables and fruits to smoothies to nourishing healthy platters of freshly cooked homemade food, it is a great way to cleanse those toxins that you have accumulated in your hectic routine.

We explored most options and found each meal to be a healthy and nourishing one with a range of exotic vegetables and cereals but I must confess that for Indian standards the food is rather bland but the hosts Pradeep and Urmila an enthusiastic duo who dedicatedly persevere to serve the best, are indeed skilled and passionate chefs who genuinely accommodated our every request  and customized the meal course to suit the Indian palate.

The kids had a good time cycling around and playing with their dog Jolie, I fondly called her Angelina Jolie!

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The place is close to Agonda beach which is just 2kms away and Pallollem beach at 3.5kms. During my innumerable visits to Goa previously I have always stayed in North Goa(mostly Goan Heritage) shuttling between Calungute and Vagator beaches but South Goa is definitely more serene and less commercialized.

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The next day we headed to the Agonda beach, a flat white sand beach that seemed like a sun bathing den of foreign tourists. Small beach side restaurants lined up the shore along with many wooden shacks and stilts that overlook the untiring waves sweeping against the swatches of golden sand!

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Although Goa is today known in the light of the calendar years of Vijay Mallya, the real India is a lot different from the celluloid India because the sight of sunburnt bare bodies on Indian shores is as gross for Indians as much as the westerners find it gross to spot a fully clad Indian in a swimming pool, because you can’t be a Roman in India!

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But interestingly Goa, the city of cosmopolitan cultures, gets its name from the Mahabharatha times when it was called ‘Gomantha’ or ‘Govapuri’ which means ‘the land of cows’, even today you will find lot of humped Desi cows in Goa, don’t be amused if you find them on the beach as well! They are slightly luckier than their metropolitan counterparts to be spending time at the beaches than at the busy traffic signals!

After our tryst with massaging waves, it was time for some real massage and that too in our own resort!

Yes, just above the café, there is a little pool on the hill that reads ‘Aquatic bodyworks with Fluid Symmetry’! At first I thought it was just another spa kind of a thing, but curiosity got the better of me and I am glad I ventured in!

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Daniel with his trainee Martha

I spoke to Daniel Aber, the brain behind Fluid Symmetry and expressed my apprehensions about water and wondered how it could really benefit me, it was then that he suggested that I was the best person to try and experience it to believe it as this therapy works on trust!

Fluid symmetry is a form of massage to the mind and body in the waters that takes you into a trance of thoughtless state of mind. A gentle tune of flute plays in the backdrop amidst the bamboo stitched walls as you dip yourself in the warmth of the waters that matches the body temperature, Daniel takes you by your hands as he checks for the receptiveness of your muscles to water, assuring you with his reassuring words ‘Trust the water’ _’The water is there is hold you up’ , he sets you afloat planting his palm on your forehead, gripping mildly at the back of your neck to let go of all that is boggling on your mind as you are gently swayed above and beneath the warm waters for an invigorating experience immersing yourself into a subconscious embryonic state with no worries or stress!

It really felt like I was levitating somewhere in space with absolute nothingness! The set -up is predominantly eco- friendly, a solar mat is used for heating the water, and the waters from the pool are let out to the surrounding vegetation while refilling the pool with fresh water.

Water is a vital element for existence of life yet we fear water even when 71% of our planet is covered in water, if water can destruct and destroy, it can also cure, heal and raise your spirits, making you fall in love with the whole watery experience. So next time you head to Goa don’t forget to check out this new fluid Asana in town!

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The following day we headed to Anjuna beach in North Goa which was a 2hours drive of 80kms for some water sports, we did some parasailing but felt that we were really taken for a ride! Each person is charged Rs.700 for a parasailing ride, suspending you at 60feet that lasts only for a couple of minutes, if you choose to dip in the waters then you are charged an additional Rs.200 and will hang up there one extra minute else you will land even before your pictures were clicked!

The last time I tried parasailing some ten years ago, I was suspended at 200feet for good 20minutes on the Coco beach but this time it was a little disappointing and wondered if the 2hours drive was any worth! But if you tried piquing this fishermen community, you will perhaps be left black and blue matching the twilight waters as they are a big group of locals who will stick together no matter what, this we witnessed as a fellow tourist was thrashed mercilessly with no sight of any policemen or security guards around.

After our little adventure at the Anjuna beach we grabbed a quick bite at Sita veg restaurant and headed for the Saturday Night Market near Baga beach!

 

The concept of Saturday Night Flea Market was started in the pre-independence era where European goods were sold but today it is a mix of Indian and international goods that you could grab at interesting prices.

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A beeline of kiosks with little trinkets, jewellery, apparel, artefacts, spices, carpets, decorative lights, leathers, bags, belts and more importantly the amount of bargain that goes on here will enthral you., There were beer bars, tangy cuisines to tether every tongue and a live concert of rock and classical music went on till 11pm and you can shop till your partner dropz! We reached our resort at 1.30am!

The next day we lazed around till 11am and then visited the Pallollem beach which is another flat beach ideal to play with kids, we walked almost some 10-15 meters into the waters and it was great fun to be tossed in the gentle December tides! There were some shacks available here and we were tempted to extend our stay for another day but could not stand the poor hygiene and loud music in the restaurants around here.

Bengaluru was calling and it was time to say good adieu to Goa and we were soon driving home!

It was a relaxed and refreshing holiday and time well spent with family!

The Chitradurga Fort

IMG_4575Bengaluru to Chitradurga is 204kms, a 3.5hours drive on NH4. We started at 4.30pm from Bengaluru and reached Chitradurga at 8pm. We halted at a hotel called Amogh International which is an average hotel and about 1km from the fort.

The next day morning we started around 7.am to visit the historic Chitradurga fort in the arid and dusty narrow lanes of the old town.

IMG_4684Spread over 2500 acres, the massive Chitradurga fort is a reminiscing trek back into the lives of the brave Palegaara Nayakaas who built this magnificent fort.

Until the 15th century the Vijayanagara kings ruled the entire southern India, they had delegated powers to smaller group leaders like the Palegaras or the Nayakas who acted as subordinate kings under the direct control of Vijayanagara kings.

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After the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, the Nayakas established an independent provincial status. The Nayakas were fierce warriors who constantly fought with neighbouring kingdoms and successfully reigned over central Karnataka until they finally succumbed to Hyder Ali’s ploy of consecutive besieges in 1779.

Chitradurga gets its name from the many unusually shaped stones found here in the fort. Its original name was Chitra kal durga, chitra means artistic, kallu means stone and durga refers to fort. Chitradurga essentially means a fort of illusive forms, where the stones and rocks take the shape of one’s imagination. Allegorically many temples have been built and named in accordance to the stone shape.

It is also known as the yelusutthina kote meaning the fort with seven gates, 3 lines of concentric ramparts are located on the ground and other 4 ramparts are on the slopes of the hillfort.

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Today, we can enter the fort from the 3rd gate itself. At the entrance you can find the emblem of a coiled snake which is actually depictive of the zigzag route leading into the fort, this kind of cryptic patterns were used to aid the soldiers swiftly in times of enemy attacks.

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As soon as you enter the fort, on your left side you find the Asthtabhuja Baawi or Kaamana baawi where the new king would undergo the coronation baths and do his rituals. The moat around this well was crafted as water reserves to hold the excess rain waters flowing down from the fort. It is believed that many crocodiles and venomous snakes were reared in these water pits at the entrance of the forts to keep check on trespassing enemies.

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You can also see the large flour grinding stones here adjacent to which lie stones that was used to pound concrete mixtures to strengthen the fort.

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The fort has many granaries, oil pits, water tanks, secret entrances and has around 2000 watch towers it is home to many parrots and squirrels.

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A few steps into the fort and you can find large boulders these gigantic rocks have storage like caved pits that were used to store oil. The fort also has a ghee tank. The folklore has it that when an enemy attack was expected oil was poured on the outer walls of the fort so that no enemy could climb the forts, even the soldiers smeared themselves in oil to avoid being caught by the enemy.

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It is believed that swords and other sharp weaponry were kept immersed in ghee tanks to avoid corrosion.

Rekha chitra of the Aadhimanavas

Rekha chitra of the Aadhimanavas

We also found this Rekhachitra carved on the rocks that hint that the Aadhimanavas might have inhabited this place!

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Every gate is nested in the zigzag paths with little space for any kind of forced breakage. In those days fort gates were fitted with robust metallic doors and hinges and only an elephant or a battery of soldiers with wooden logs could break it open that too by garnering enough speed to dash against it. Since the fort gates were cleverly nested beneath the concentric walls, with absolutely no space to break open, and with a scientifically plastered stone fortification, even canons fired by Hyder Ali’s army failed to break the fort walls, there was no way the fort could be captured. Hence Hyder Ali’s army had to crawl like creepy cockroaches from a drainage hole.

Hinges those days

Hinges those days

Marks of cannon firing by Hyder Ali's army

Marks of cannon firing by Hyder Ali’s army

Bombe chavdi

Bombe chavdi

Bomebe Chawdi is another small mantapa with idols of elephants and horses, this structure erected in memory of the war steeds and elephants who fought bravely goes on to show the love and respect the Nayaka rulers had even for animals.

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As you walk up the fort you can find Aane bande, a rock that resembles an elephant hence a Ganesha temple has been built there.

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A few steps on its right you can witness the stone cutting techniques employed then which is still in use. Series of small spaced holes were drilled into the rocks, by gently tapping iron pegs into these holes the masons could slice the rock exactly where they wanted.

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As you enter the last gate you can see the Deepa stamba and the Uyyale(swing) stamba where many religious rituals were performed.

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There are several temples here, the Hidamba ratha and Bheema ratha temples are built in the shape of a chariot. You can get a good view of the fort from atop these temple hills.

 

Then there is the Mudralaay or minting place in the durbar square which is today a barren expanse with gushing winds that bring an air of the bygone era.

Akka Tangi Honda

IMG_20151224_092823  Rain water harvesting methods were deployed carefully in the fort and the water stored would suffice the inhabitants for 12years even if there were no rains and all the excess waters were let out to the nearby villages.

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Kallinarasappa nayakaa betrayed Rajaveera Madakari Nayaka and eventually Madakari Nayaka was taken prisoner by Hyder Ali to Srirangapattinam, his two wives who were sisters, committed suicide by jumping into the water reservoirs, which is today called as Akka Tangi Honda.

Tanneeroo dhoni

Tanneeroo dhoni

A series of steps to your right leads you to Tanneroo Doni meaning cold water storage, this is the place where the brave Obavva came to fetch water for her husband.

Obavva was the wife of a soldier who was a guard at one of the watch towers, when MaddaHanumappa, the guard broke for lunch there was no water at home, so Obavva, his wife came out to fetch water, on her way she heard murmuring sounds near the drainage hole, on a closer look she saw the enemy soldier trying to creep out from the hole. She immediately grabbed a rice pounding stone pestle that lay nearby and smashed the soldier’s head and dragged the body aside. She stood there courageously striking the enemy with all her might. Soldier after soldier she dragged aside stacking a mound of slayed soldiers who lay soaked in blood. After some time her husband came looking for her and upon sighting this hair rising scene he stood there in disbelief even as she signalled to him to blow the war trumpet. Thus an ordinary woman with extra ordinary courage had saved the fort that day.

The place is today called as Onake Obavvana kindi(Onake means pestle, kindi means window)in honour of the brave woman.

IMG_20151224_091658 The place was crowded with enthusiastic school children and curious tourists as I struggled for some space to take position and pose to smash somebody’s head!

Chitradurga is famous for 3 things _ Onakke Obavvana kindi, Avarekaalu(hyacinth beans) and the upcoming uranium nuclear hub.

We had breakfast at Laxmi tiffins and were heading to Goa next!

 

Mysuru, A Traveler’s Gateway!

The Bengaluru Mysuru SH17 is a 4 lane carriageway which is a  red treesmooth drive of 2 and half hours with decent restaurants en route. The city of Mysuru is better planned than Bengaluru and has a radial and gridiron pattern road network with arterial roads originating from the city center where the inner and outer ring roads nest the city roads parallel within. The city has 5 arterial roads which are State Highways connecting Bangalore and Ooty, Bannur and Kanakapura, Hunsur and Mangalore, H.D.Kote and Manvantvady but in spite of this the city still grapples with the lack of public transport facilities and insufficient tourism shuttles due to the excessive round the year tourism inflow that has increased the private vehicular population multi fold congesting the otherwise broad streets of Mysuru.

Also in the aftermath of the exploding hub of IT and real estate in Bengaluru, people are now slowly stretching and eyeing this heritage city as an alternate option but even as Mysure, the culture capital of Karnataka grapples bracing up to the ever expansionist urbane culture, it is still a culturally rich heritage haven for rigid tourists like me who still throng the city to soak in its antique splendor.mahishaasura

Mysore was once ruled by the buffalo headed demon Mahishasura as per Hindu puranas, hence the city was called as Mahishana Ooru(Mahisha’s town) which came to be known as Mahishooru which got corrupted into Maishooru , that was later christened as Maisore or Mysore by the British. It is believed that Goddess Chamundeshwari killed Mahishasura atop the Mahabaladri hills, which was then named after the goddess as Chamundi Hills and to commemorate the victory of good over the evil the world famous Dusherra festival is celebrated with grandiosity and festivity in honour of goddess Chamundeshwari.

Image from holidaytourism.com

Image from holidaytourism.com

During the Vijayanagar reign, the entire region of Karnataka was referred as Maisooru but post-independence India was linguistically divided and Mysooru went on to become a city in the state of Karnataka.palace1b

This quaint old town of Mysuru that has stood testimony to the rich sagas of royalty and grandeur still exuberate a flavour of flamboyance with its ancient architecture and craftsmanship on its traditional and wide streets that are today abuzz with transport vehicles and tourists from across the world.

Mysuru is a traveller’s den and one of my favorite inlay work teapoyplaces to go on a weekend drive from Bengaluru anytime of the year. This humble town of friendly people has a cool and equable temperature and is certainly an all in one stop, travel destination as it is one place that has it all, be it art, craft, artifacts, historical architecture, monuments, temples, palaces, great food, a large zoo, the Krishnarajasagar Dam, Brindavan gardens, St.Philomena’s Church, Balmuri falls, great shopping dens especially the silk sarees, teak and rose wood artefacts with inlay work, sandalwood oil, facepacks, lovely culture and cuisine _ don’t forget to melt some Mysuru Paks into your mouth and don’t miss the Masala Dosa at Mylari hotel but the best part is, the city borders with Bramhagiri hills on the western ghats leading into the Bandipur national park, Nagarhole National park. In fact Mysuru is a compulsory and comprehensive travel gateway that branches out into several tourist destinations as it borders with Tamil Nadu, Coorg giving you a wide range of choices from falls to forests and from historic monuments to hills.

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It is the land of geniuses like Sir M.Vishveshwaraiah, the Indian scholar, engineer, statesman and Diwan of Mysore who was responsible for the construction of the Krishnarajasagar dam, who architected the flood protection system for the city of Hyderabad. Although the KRS dam and Brindavan gardens with its musical fountains is a must visit place, the place is very unsafe for women especially if you are a small group or travelling solo as the place is infested with eve teasers and audacious anti social elements, so it is best to travel here in big groups or be geared with metal fasteners to counter any insolent groping! Also it is an expansive area requiring at least 2 hours of walking around but its a tragedy that the toilets here are totally defunct and in a pitiable and nauseating condition.

birds2En route to Mysuru you can also visit the birds1Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangapattinam in the Mandhya district which is just 15 kms from Mysuru, it was the capital of Tippu Sultan and has some structures ruminating around his rule, just 3kms from Srirangapattinam is Ranganathittu, also called the Pakshi Kashi of Karnataka as it is the largest bird sanctuary of Karnataka.

 

A boat ride is a must here to capture the winged beauties on your camera but beware of the crocs underneath in the Kaveri basin here. It is definitely a mystic ride into nature amidst the myriad migrators in the most exotic hues on this islet especially if you are visiting in the peak migratory season from June to November.

somnathpuraSomanathapura is another hidden treasure with its intricate carvings reminiscent of the Hoysala rulers, just before this temple you can enjoy boating and kayaking at another place called Amblee.

There are at least 200 structures in and around  Mysuru that have a heritage tag and each one is worth the visit.

Some of my favourite spots in Mysuru are the Mysuru Maharaja Palace or the Amba Vilas Palace that is located on the Sayyaji road in the old fort that I compulsorily visit each time I travel to Mysore, I love the wide roads and the expanse of the architecture here, the silhouette of the palace makes for a breath taking view when illuminated with 98260 Mysuru Lamp bulbs against a dark sky, It has become the culture identity of Mysuru and is synonymous with the splendour and grandeur of the erstwhile Wodeyar rulers.

Diagonally opposite to the palace is a ground where there is always some kind of an exhibition fair put up and I love to hang around here venturing on the roller coaster rides.

Next best place is the Mylari hotel on the narrow lanes of Nazarbad road, which is close to the zoo. The masala dosas here are so tasty that you just can’t stop at one!

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The Mysuru zoo is another star attraction of the city and a favourite spot for my kids so much that the animals here might actually recognise us! Remember Friday is a holiday for the zoo!

You can reach Mysuru by air, road or rail, for local transport you can take a cab, auto or even a traditional tonga(horse cart) to get a rustic feel but buses are off course the cheapest mode of transport. Mysuru has a small airport with modest connectivity and the railway connectivity is being drastically upgraded and extended by introducing many cross country and intercity express trains to Mysuru and the best part is almost every major town has a bus plying to Mysuru.

 

For me a trip to our own local Mysuru, is essentially a reassertion and recap of the greats and grandiose that once governed us and an opportunity to relive the authentic flavour of kannadigas to its fullest.

Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi Trip

On day 2 we started off from Madurai to Rameshwaram which is a 3.30hours drive of 170kms on NH49, Rameshwaram is 620kms from Bengaluru.

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We reached Raameshwaram around 4 in the evening, parking our car outside the barricaded area in the narrow lanes around the Raamanathaswamy temple we headed straight for the darshan of Rameshwara linga, the presiding deity here. This early evening hour is perhaps the best time for the darshan as the crowds are lot thinner and we had an easy and comfortable darshan.

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Raamanathaswamy temple is the 7th Jyothirlinga and part of the char dham yatra, it is the main attraction in the Ramanathapuram town in the Pamban island apart from the Ramapadam, RamaKunda, Laxmana theertham, Agni theertham and Dhanushkodi.

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After vanquishing Ravana and returning victorious from the battle in Lanka, Lord Rama installed a Shivalinga here on the shores of Rameshwaram to invoke Shiva and rid himself from the Bramhahatya dosha of killing the scholarly brahmana(the one who has attained Bramhagyana) Ravana,.as Ravana was well versed in Vedas and a devout worshipper of Shiva.

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We took a hotel that was just in front of the temple and went around walking in the vicinity that was lined with tiny shops selling a host of sea shells of all sizes and shapes. We walked up to Agni theertham that is just 100 metres from the temple, I was expecting a well, but the sea shore area on the eastern side of the temple, behind this arch is called Agni theertham.

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It is believed that the lord of fire, Agni took a dip here to cleanse himself of the sin of enveloping Seetha devi in flames when she had plunged herself into the fires to prove her chastity to the people after her stay with demon Ravana.IMG_20151022_190603994

We had dinner at a place called Gujarat bhavan that served explicit vegetarian food with no onion or garlic, the food was just okay but was hygienic in comparison to the other hotels in the locality! One other decent hotel to stay somewhat near the temple would be hotel Tamilnadu, it has a good vegetarian restaurant and the hotel is a 15 minute walk from the temple but is close to Agni theertham however we didn’t get a booking here and ended up staying in hotel Ambika.

If you want to stay close to the temple then choices of very good(3star type) hotels are fewer.

The next day morning we woke up to a picturesque sight, we were lucky to capture the sunrise in the backdrop of the sea.

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I had only seen paintings like this earlier but to see the scintillating golden rays of the sun paint vivid shades of crimson on the horizon adding gleam to the holy waters was a precious moment.

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Devotees with metal sticks inserted into their mouths a religious custom

When we stepped out of the hotel the multi layered queue was snaking up to our hotel doors and it began to rain, the surrounding gutters overflowed immersing us in deeper spirituality.  I am deeply saddened to see our holiest places surrounded by filthy unplanned infrastructures and poor administrative works.

 

Agni theertham

Agni theertham

Before entering the temple one is supposed to take a dip at the Agni Theertham(the sea) and then proceed for the other theerthams inside the temple but since the place around Agni theertham had a vile stench of pollution and felt miserable to take a dip we simply sprinkled it on our heads.

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You are required to deposit all your mobiles, cameras outside and purchase a ticket for the teerthasnaan(holy water bathing), you are also required to carry a set of dry clothes to change as you are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum with wet clothes as per Vedic practices. There are changing zones allocated within the temple.

The temple is as old as Ramayana but the structure was expanded in the 12th century over 350years under various rulers.

It is a massive maze of architectural wonder with thousands of pillars and shivalingas with various sculptures of gods and deities depicting different stories and has the longest pillared corridors measuring upto 4000feet. It has 22 fresh water wells, bathing with which expiates one’s sins.

The Theerthams inside the temple are Mahalaxmi theerta, Savithri, Gayathri, Saraswathi, Sethumaadhava theertha, Gandhamadana theertha, Kavatcha theertham, Gavaka theertham, Nala and Neela theerthams, Shanku and Chakkara theerthams, Bramhahathathi Vimochana theertham, Surya and Chandra theertham, Ganga, Yamuna, Gaya theerthams, Siva, Sathyatmatheertha, Sarva and Kodi theerthams.

There is another legend that says that originally sage Pathanjali created 112 theerthams to rid people of their sins by bathing in them, but some say it is only 64 theerthams spread out across the town of Rameshwaram out of which 22 are within the temple precincts itself and the rest are slowly being lost to encroachments and urbanization outside in the temple town.

IMG_20151023_122225327But one nice thing here is, it is plastic bag free and the locals use cloth bags or wrap articles with paper when you buy a trinket, but still we get to see mounds of plastic wrappers and bottles, maybe somebody will soon introduce a metered drinking water kiosk to refill bottles to reduce the wrath of plastics.

We had got into the queue by 8am and finished the darshan only by 11.30am after all the theertha snaan.

We had booked a jeep at 1pm to Dhanushkodi through our hotel.

We quickly finished our lunch and at 1 o’ clock when the sun was at his raging best we boarded our rugged jeep and headed to the ghost town of Dhanushkodi.

It was here that Rama pointed his bow to Nala the vanara who with his army of monkeys built this bridge at Rama’s command to reach Lanka.

When lord Rama prayed to Varuna to pave way in the ocean, the Samudra Deva appeared and with folded hands requested Rama to commission his powerful and talented vanara(monkey) Nala to build this bridge as he was the son of the Vishwakarma, the architect of the universe, and that if he paved way now he might be compelled in future to pave way for others as well. The Samudra deva went on to say that even if Nala threw any of grass, stick or stone into the sea it would float. Hence the Vanara army of Rama built the bridge with floating stones which is today called as Ramasethu or Nalasethu. It was 100 yojanas long and 10 yojanas wide  when constructed as per the Ramayana but today after 1.7million years it is 30kms long and 3kms wide.

Floating stone at Dhanushkodi

Floating stone at Dhanushkodi

A radio carbon dating of this beach testified that it is 1.7million years old which dates around the Tretha Yuga.

Until the 1480AD people used this route but after a devastating cyclone, it was submerged under sea.

One cannot see the Ramasethu with naked eyes from the Indian shores today however it can be seen in the satellite image. From Dhanushkodi, Srilanka is only 30kms by sea.

Although many scientists, historians argue that it is just science, that limestone shoals float because of low density and air bubbles trapped inside the stone, which after some years when the air inside the shoal is released slowly with water seeping in, it sinks and that the whole theory of Rama building floating stone bridge is rubbished but strangely enough the scientists in India have found that there are many black and dense floating stones in Raameshwaram whose physical and chemical properties are like any other huge rock.

Lime stones or pumice are generally spongy, white and light and are found in Volcanic zones but no volcano has been recorded so far in this zone.

NASA image of Ramsethu

NASA image of Ramsethu

In 1966 the Gemini IX space mission had released an image that showed the ancient land connection between the two countries.

NASA released the satellite images of Ramasethu in 2002, and opined that it could be floating coral reefs but it is proven that coral reefs are dense calcium carbonate formations and cannot float.

Many ridicule the belief that monkeys built this masterpiece engineering piece and question how could monkeys build, but don’t we acknowledge Neanderthals or Darwin’s theory of evolution and endorse the fact that man did evolve from the monkeys? Don’t we keep excavating gigantic skeletons from pre historic times?

Today we use cloud computing technologies, I am able to store my weblog writings on air on an American server but what if the world submerges under water tomorrow, how will the future gen know about our technological sophistication? Couldn’t it be that, that in those days Nala and Neela had indeed mastered some exceptional engineering skills to architect the floating bridge 1.7million years ago whose exact proof was washed off with time. There are thousands of sacred Sanskrit texts telling us about Ramayana and Mahabharatha, millions of Indians today have their names after Rama, Krishna and Shiva but I have not found anybody by the name ‘Kamsa’ or ‘Shakuni’ or ‘Ravana’ except Sharukh Khan’s movies! We have millions of Laxmi, Saraswathi, Parvathis amongst us but have you met anybody by the name Shoorpanaka or Tataki or Puthini? There are numerous manuscripts that reiterate that Ramayana and the Ramasethu is our proud history and not mythology.

But then just because I cant read  Chinese can I say that all the Chinese scriptures are bogus?

If Ramasethu is mythology then why did the British cartographer in 1804 name this as Adam’s Bridge? Adam, another mythical character in Islam!!

The reality is that Ramasethu was first mentioned in puranic verses of Valmiki’s Ramayana, the westerners heard about it only in the 9th century when traveler Ibn Kordadbeh referred to Ramasethu as Set Bandhai in his work ‘Book of Roads and Kingdoms’. But in 18th century the British called named it as ‘Adam’s Bridge’! It is well known that during the 18th century India was under the British, who thought that all our scriptures, traditions and practices were inferior and worked against us with the single motto of  divide and rule, so it is evident that the British cartographer chose to name it after Adam, another mythical character in Islam and formally named it Adam’s bridge to pit the Hindus against the Muslims and erase our glorious past

Ironically the UPA government sanctioned the ‘Sethusamudram Project’ that involved dredging of Ramsethu, the historical and sacred bridge in order to establish shorter sea routes for the ships plying between eastern and western coasts of India that have to circle Srilanka. Dredgers worth crores of rupees were procured which strangely broke in the process, the project was a threat to the marine life and the valuable thorium deposits found in the area, dredging this route would throw open the route to international waters creating a security threat and additional burden to the defense forces of India, it might even increase the risk of Tsunamis, since it is not viable economically and ecologically,the project been stalled by the courts after a petition to reconsider the alternative 4 routes that were initially proposed and restore this significant historical and spiritual monument heeding to the sentiments of millions of Hindus.IMG_20151022_154420842

Now back to our trip, we headed to Dhanushkodi, the tip of Pamban island connecting the Mannar island of Srilanka. Dhanush means bow and kodi means end, it is some 18kms from the Rameshwaram temple.

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Sand tracks in the backwaters of Dhanushkodi

Sand tracks in the backwaters of Dhanushkodi

Only jeeps and buses with 4/4 gears can ply here on the bumpy trails of sandy backwaters of Bay of Bengal. It is an 8km drive from the check point. The buses charge Rs.150 per head and allows you to spend 30minutes but the jeep that we took charged 1500 for 3hours from our hotel in Rameshwaram it included the to and fro drive time as well, so more or less we only got an additional 60minutes than the bus passengers. During the 2004 Tsunami, the locals reported that minutes before the Tsunami the waters in Dhanushkodi had receded some 1600feet revealing the submerged areas just before the violent wave came dashing. Earlier there was a train from Madras to Dhanushkodi called the ‘Boat Mail’ that was destroyed in the cyclone.

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The sangam point, where the calm blue waters of Bay of Bengal meets the furious green Indian Ocean is some 4kms walk from here where one can see the tip of the land with an endless expanse of blue green waters is believed to be the exact point where Rama’s army built the bridge.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

In 1964 a devastating cyclone struck the little town of Dhanushkodi and washed away 1800 people along with a passenger train uprooting even the railway tracks. Schools, hospital, post office and the entire village was buried under water, since then the area is identified to be prone to such calamities and is declared a ghost town.

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However the fishermen community still brave it out here and live in thatched settlements amidst the ruins selling a range of sea shell products.

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I had already bought a Spatika linga, some conches in the lanes of Rameshwaram. Spatika is a gemstone made of silicon and oxygen, wearing it is said to bring an electro chemical balance in the body and has positive healing properties on the body. Even conches are of different varieties, I bought a Ganesha Shanka and Mahalaxmi Shanka.

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We could not walk up to the tip of the land as it was a 4kms walk that didn’t seem achievable in the hot sun with kids and the time constraint as we were supposed to come out of the place before 5pm. However we were happy to be on the shores(Dhanushkodi Theertham) where Lord Rama had set his foot

IMG_20151022_151103916We spent some time playing in the blue waters and walked along the serene white shores as the mighty Indian Ocean roared thumping and thwarting furiously against the white sands.

IMG_20151022_151616106You have to come here in the morning and strike a deal with the driver that you spend 3hours exclusively here on the beach else taking a jeep doesn’t make much sense unless you are a big group.

You can see ruins everywhere and spot some broken remains of the railway track.

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Crystal clear Backwater beds en route our drive

But the good news is that the Indian Government is now building a road upto the shores of Dhanushkodi connecting mainland India to its southern east tip so that tourists and pilgrims don’t have to take the tedious bumpy ride on the jeeps.

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On the way back we also visited the Kodanda Rama temple, it is the place where Veebheeshana the brother of demon king Ravana surrendered to Rama. IMG_20151022_162059335

And later he was named the sovereign of the demons of Lanka after Ravana’s killing and crowned the king by Lakshmana at the behest of Rama.

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We had dinner at hotel Tamilnadu, the food was decent.

Gandhamadana hill, Rama Padam found here

Gandhamadana hill, Rama Padam found here

The next day we visited the Gandhamantana Parvata, a small hill where Rama’s foot steps are preserved on a circular rock.

Rama Kunda

Rama Kunda

 Floating Stone

Floating Stone

We then visited Rama Kunda, where Rama took bath after the bloody war. There was a fisherman who was selling the floating stone that he claimed had got it from the Srilankan side. I ended up buying a chunk of it for 200 bucks.

This local site seeing is not much of a distance and can be covered in your own vehicle, the auto guy was demanding Rs.700 for the same but when we drove ourselves it was all very close within a short radius.

Next we visited Laxmana theertham and also visited the temple here

Temple at Laxman thirtha

Temple at Laxman thirtha

We then headed back to our hotel and checked out , had lunch in the vicinity and bid goodbye to Raameshwaram.

Villoondi theertham

Villoondi theertham

En route we saw Viloondi theertham, the place where Rama shot his arrow and dug a sweet water well in the salty sea to quench Seetha’s thirst.

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By 3pm we were driving on the Indira Gandhi road Bridge along the Pamban railway bridge, India’s first sea link.

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We were lucky to see the train cross the bridge, the shore here is bordered by many Shivling like rocks and the spot is worth a stop by.

The craze to view the train run on the sea amongst fellow tourists had led to a mini traffic jam as many stopped by the bridge for some customary photography. The rocks lining these shores look like Shivlings

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That was the end of our Rameshwaram trip and we were then off to Tanjavore.

Road Trip To Madurai

Come October and the travel syndrome steers you involuntarily but this time the school announced that there would be no Dussera vacation and the extra coaching classes began in full swing, life became distressingly monotonous with the 5.30am alarm teasing and taunting my dabbawali demeanour yet again, friends and relatives with teenaged kids welcomed me warmly into their house-arrested havens and enlightened me that the next few years would be like this with a tinge of sadistic smile but the drive_bug itched in the tummy, the camera craved, the kitbag crooned and the sunglasses gaped wondering if I would flinch and clinch to home sweet home. And suddenly there came an SMS saying the school would shut down for now and resume only a week later that left us in an indescribable travel nirvana.

At 9am we planned for a quick tour towards Shimoga, by 10am we thought of Wayanad but by 10.40am we were driving on NH7 to Madurai!

We took the Bangalore- Hosur- Dharmapuri- Salem- Karur- Dhindigul- Madurai route which is a 7hour drive, Bengaluru to Madurai is 450kms and the entire route through NH7 is a splendid experience.

En route Madurai on NH7

En route Madurai on NH7

Unlike Karnataka’s uneven patchy bumpy toll roads the Tamil Nadu highways are a pleasure to drive.

Lined with picturesque lush green fields and thick coconut grooves on the sides the entire stretch is a smooth drift with not even one patchy surface area anywhere from start to end.

We reached late in the evening by 7 ish when the temple town was blurred amidst heavy downpours, with our 4G network down we scrambled through the knotted boards in Tamil and finally managed to get a room in a hotel called Metropole.

Although Madurai is known as the temple town, sadly finding a vegetarian hotel with decent hygienic vegetarian food is a great challenge here.

The next day morning we tied up with an autorickshaw to visit in and around Madurai as parking is a choking hazard in most of the ancient narrow lanes.

North gate view, Meenakshi temple

North gate view, Meenakshi temple

First we headed to the Meenakshi temple which was around 8kms from our hotel and entered from the North gate, technically you are supposed to enter from the eastern gate as it is customary here.

Madurai, is famous for Meenakshi temple, its smooth soft idlis and cotton sarees.

Madurai, the ancient temple town located on the banks of Vaigai river which was the epicentre of culture and art is believed to be more than 3600years old, legend has it that once Indra in order to rid himself of the Bramhahathi dosha came to Kadamba forest in the Pandya kingdom and worshipped the Adi Swayambuhu linga, the powers of which relieved him of his curse of becoming a wanderer. Indra built the Astagaja mantapa by raising an elevated vimaana like structure around the linga to commemorate and show his gratitude, after which the Devas began to worship here.

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Once a trader named Dhananjaya came here to take rest en route his trading expedition, while he was asleep he heard the sounds of clanking bells and saw the Devas worshipping the Adi Swayambuhu Linga. He narrated this to his King Kulashekara Pandya who then built the temple and a town around this lotus shaped mantapa hence the city came to be known as the temple town of Madurai. The current day architecture of 12gopurams was built over by 64 generations in 800years.

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Kulashekara’s son Malayadwaja Pandya, was childless for a long time and besought a heir by performing many yagnas but in vain, then Indra advised him to perform Putrakameshti yaga here in order to be seek a son but during the yagna a little girl with a splendid radiance of virtuousness with 3breasts whose eyes were fish shaped emerged from the yagna kunda, when the king was anxious at the turn of events there was a divine interception from the skies saying that the little girl was an embodiment of Shakthi with the power of 10men and was here to rule. And the man before whom she surrendered in coy and bent her head, seeing whom her 3rd breast would disappear would be her divine consort Shiva himself.

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Meenakshi, the goddess with fish shaped eyes douses all your problems and blesses with her eyes, as she was born from fire she was named ‘Thadaa Dagai Prateur’ she grew up to be a powerful princess who proved to be a valiant ruler and an able administrator of the Pandyan Kingdom,IMG_20151020_113136028  she conquered the three worlds in all eight directions and after conquering Sathyaloka, Vaikunta, Amaravathi she aspired to conquer Shiva’s abode ‘Kailasa’, during the conquest in Kailasa she was mesmerised on seeing Shiva and her 3rd breast vanished,

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she knew at once that he was her divine consort. After marriage they ruled over the Pandya kingdom and are believed to be living here in the Kadamba vana in the form of Meenakshi and Sundareshwar, hence Meenakshi devi is also called Kadambavana Vaasini.

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As you walk through the 1000 pillared mantapa you can see the story of Meenakshi devi depicted in colourful art form across the walls and ceilings, besieged amidst the pillars with puranic engravings lies the Lotus Pond or the Hondavare Kola, the pond from where Indra plucked golden lotuses for worshipping the Shiva Linga. Scholarly writings were tested here by immersing the scriptures in this pond, the meagre quality ones sank and the good ones floated establishing their scholarships.

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The Meenakshi deity is made of emerald and has a diamond nose ring adorned in a gold crown, Meenakshi devi holds a parrot in her hand, it seems that during earlier times the parrots here recited verses praising Meenakshi devi, the parrot is perhaps symbolic of knowledge transfer.

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In the stretch between the Meenakshi and the Sundareshwar sanctum you will find an ancient 3D painting of a Shiva linga on the ceiling, the base spout of the linga will turn towards you from whichever direction you view it.

Golden kalasha of Astagaja matapa

Golden kalasha of Astagaja matapa

The inner sanctum or the garba gudi of Sundareshwar is also called Indra Vimaana as it has 8 elephants, 32 lions and 64 Bhoothaganas and is built as if it is being carried.

The inner sanctum is illuminated only with oil lamps hence viewing the entire figurine is difficult in the mad rush which is ever prevalent here.

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Velliambinataraja: The silver Nataraja is located inside the Sundareshwara sanctum at the entrance of to the main Linga.

The dancing Nataraja here is unique as it stands on the left feet throwing the right foot in the air. King Rajashekaran Pandya who was an expert in 63 out of 64 forms of art was unable to master the art of dance but due to his devotion to the lord he attempted to learn it and realised how painful it was to stand on the right leg hence he requested lord Shiva to shift to his left leg, but the lord didn’t budge, it was when he attempted to offer his head that the lord agreed and shifted on to his left leg.

Mukkurini Ganesha/Pillaiyar/Vinayakar

This 8feet tall Ganapathi idol was found while Thirumalai Nayaka was getting a temple tank dug, ‘Mu-Kkuruni’ means 3 measures, during Ganesh chaturthi the elephant lord is offered a single large Modaka(sweet dish) made with 3 measures of rice(rice sacks).

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Panchamuki Gayathri Devi

Panchamuki Gayathri Devi

There are various mantapas in the temple, In the Kambatthadi mantapa you can see various sculptures depicting stories of Shiva, the monolithic Nandi,

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the dwajastamba, the sculpture depicting Lord Vishnu giving the hand of Meenakshi in marriage to Sundareshwar(Shiva) is marvellous as it depicts different expressions and moods.

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On one side you can also see idols of Agni Veerabhadra and Agora Veerabhadra the two demon commanders of Shiva who fought Daksha while on the other side of the entrance you can see Shiva doing his Tandava.

IMG_20151020_123006140 Even Gods and Goddesses had fights:

Shiva in Oordhva Tandava poseParvathi in Chandekeshwari formOnce Shiva and Parvathi had a dance challenge, while dancing Shiva’s earrings fell on the ground but he didn’t stop dancing instead he lifted the earring with his toes and put it on performing the Oordhva tandava step swinging his leg in 180 degrees posture which is normally not possible for women to perform hence Parvathi was annoyed and took up her Chandikeshwari form, in order to soothe her burning anger the devotees burn lamps in front of her and seek her blessings.

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The temple is spread across 15 acres with 12 gopurams, the colourful outer towers with 9 storeys each form the land marks of Madurai amongst them the southern tower is the tallest at 170feet with 1511 stucco dolls each tower has many magnificent idols depicting different tales. There are totally some 6825 pillars in this temple.

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It is terribly hot in the morning so if you looking for some good shots of the external architecture it is best to visit the temple in the evening. You will need to spend a minimum of 2hours here.

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We had hired a guide for the temple tour for Rs.300 but most of the information he gave was incorrect and half-baked but it still helps as the temple is vast and you will not know where and what to see but if you have ample time then you could read through the story and leisurely count the number of pillars and ascertain the numbersJ.

Thiruvalai Nayakaar's Palace

Thiruvalai Nayakaar’s Palace

After lunch we visited the Nayakar’s Palace which is built in an Indo-Italian style but it was a big disappointment to see the plain sober architecture buried in pigeon poop and unkempt ambience after a splendid architectural extravaganza at the Meenakshi shrine.

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An artist at the Nayakar palace

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Artist’s work at Nayakar palace

By 3 o clock in the afternoon we reached the Tirupurukundrum Muruga temple, pronouncing which was like pronuncing ‘Albuquerque ‘.

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The temple opened only by 4pm, the whole vicinity was crowded with locals and many Aiyappa devotees thronging the place and sleeping all over the outer temple premises hence we chose to while away time in the auto itself.

It is a huge temple with Muruga as the main deity, Muruga or Karthikeya who married Indra’s daughter Deivamaaye, gave darshan to his devotees in his bridegroom’s avatar here.

Thirukundrum Muruga temple Madurai

Thirukundrum Muruga temple Madurai

The government employed priests here are an embarrassment to spirituality.

By now the kids were growing restless with our overdose of religiousity hence we skipped the Alaigar Kovil temple and Maariyamman teppukoolam.

Gandhi Museum, Madurai

Gandhi Museum, Madurai

Lastly we visited the Gandhi museum which houses many rare pictures of Gandhi and some of his belongings and letters. The complete revolting scenario that existed during the pre-independence era is exhumed in detail with various pictures.

Writings at the museum

Writings at the museum

The museum also displays the blood stained loin cloth of Gandhiji because it was in Madurai that Gandhiji adopted the loin cloth after seeing the peasants.

By now we were exhausted and also it was closing time for the museum, the auto guy dropped us at the hotel and by default demanded extra as the time was a little extended because of the wait at the temple.  This was end of day2.

Panache At Pondicherry

You get humidity free for a dose of heritage here at the port city of Pondicherry since our recent trip to the Mangalore beaches in peak summer had somewhat emboldened us and we decided it was time for a little colonial hangover. I looked up some colonial homes for our stay and even hoped to see a blue eyed French ghost but all that we sought was already taken, nonetheless we were further encouraged to visit this place knowing that there were many others like us who dared the summer heat at Pondi, yes this is how the locals refer to Puducherry or Pondicherry the Union Territory that still houses many colonial homes along the serene beaches of this heritage city that once flourished as a port city trading pearls, beads, textiles and silk from the times of the Romans, Pallavas, Cholas, Vijayanagara kings to the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the French who set up their establishments here in 1674 that was later usurped by the British in 1761.

Bengaluru to Pondicherry is a 6 hours’ drive covering 378kms,, we started at 7.30am and took the Vellore- Kanchipuram-Vannavasi-Pondi route, driving on NH-46 was like driving on Route 66 and our Tata Manza felt like a Lightning Macqueen!

We relied heavily on GPS for all our maps as most sign boards in Tamil Nadu are very sweet like this.

We drove through Vellore, the city of churches, I saw dozens of churches here in a stretch of just 5km which spoke of the rampant conversion activities going on here. Vellore is home to one of the first missionary hospitals called Christian Medical College which is the forefront for all evangelical activities that was set up by the Scudders family who were sent to India in the 18th century as medical missionaries, today they successfully call this evangelical home as the ‘Home of the healing god’.

If only our people understood that behind all that spiritual salesmanship lies an unquenched greed for power and a deceitful ploy to keep us subservient to the west who employ religion as a tool for divisive soul hunting, pitting us against each other where communal hegemony is disguised as charitable work.

At 9 we stopped for breakfast at Adyaar Ananda Bhavan the only vegetarian respite on this stretch, we touched Kanchipuram around 12.20 noon, the Kamakshi temple closes at 12.30pm hence missed it, by 2pm we were at Pondicherry heading straight to Hotel Surguru, a popular vegetarian hotel that showed lot of good reviews, true to its reviews the food at Surguru was indeed good and thence we decided to check in here as most hotels at the French Quarters where we intended to stay were already taken and the ones left didn’t have a restaurant within, so experimenting in a place where good Vegetarian hotels are a thing of rarity was not a good idea after all. Surguru was a decent 3 star hotel with centralized A/C, WiFi connections costing Rs.2500 inclusive of an extra bed, even the veranda had a bed so all four of us slept comfortably.

Promenade Road, Puducherry
Promenade Road, Puducherry

In the evening we went around the Promenade Road which was just 2kms from our hotel. True to its name the Promenade road is a vehicle free boulevard at the southeast end along the rocky shores of the Promenade Beach which turns into a people’s fair in the evenings where the young and the old laze around on the benches and the boulders sipping on a soda or simply munching on a popcorn musing amidst the many old French bungalows now converted into hotels in the backdrop of breezy waves.

Promenade Beach
Promenade Beach

This vicinity is called French Quarters where the secretariat, the embassy and other old official buildings are located keeping alive the French architecture. Even the cops here wear red flat hats.

French War Memorial, Promenade street
French War Memorial, Promenade street

Pondicherry was divided into two sections __ the Ville Blanche which means White Town __ today referred as French Quarters and secondly the Ville Noire which means Black Town which is the Indian Quarter but the interesting hypocrisy is if you search in Google for the most racist country, India tops all the lists as the most racist country!!

 

The French buildings are painted in an exuberant yellow while the other British and Indian styled homes are in grey and white.

French Consulate, Puducherry
French Consulate, Puducherry

 

IMG_3895 The Promenade street is lined with statues and memorials commemorating history, a four meters high statue of Gandhi is the star attraction in the center of Promenade street

Gandhi statue, Puducherry

Gandhi statue, Puducherry

Gandhi statue surrounded by temple pillars

Gandhi statue surrounded by temple pillars

with 8 tall pillars that were probably pillaged from some unknown temple that are resurrected here by the shores surrounding the Mahatma, the sloping marble blocks that hold and encircle the statue serve as a slide to the local children who have no clue why this man stands here!

Temple pillars next to Gandhi statue

Temple pillars next to Gandhi statue

The temple pillar from Gingee Fort that now stand by Gandhi

The temple pillar from Gingee Fort that now stand by Gandhi

Facing these oblivious children and Gandhi is the statue of Nehru that is again encircled by a few more artistic temple pillars. The diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai a Dubash(translator/interpreter) during the French administration mentions in his diary that Jeanne Dupleix the wife of Joseph Francois Dupliex, the backseat driving force the real high command was the one instrumental in dooming the destruction of many temples and responsible for religious persecution of the locals,

19th Century Light House, Puducherry

19th Century Light House, Puducherry

It was getting dark now although we wanted to explore some French cuisines, the IPL fever drew us back to our humble hotel and we settled for a North Indian meal for the night.

Chunnambar backwaters

Chunnambar backwaters

Next day by 9 am we set off for the Chunnambur Boat House which is a 10minutes drive from city,  Chunnambar, located along the Cuddalore main road is a 8km drive from Pondicherry.

Chunnambar backwaters

Chunnambar backwaters

At the Chunnambar backwaters we took a motor boat to the Paradise Beach, it is a pleasant 15minutes drive, the ride costs Rs.200/adult and you can stay here till 5pm. The dancing reflections of the coconut trees in the pristine waters and the distant view of the white shores engulfing the backwaters gleaming like sugar crystals under the sun was a treat to the eyes.

Chunnambar backwaters

Chunnambar backwaters

We reached the island beach where the picturesque sight of the Chunnambar River on one side and the Bay of Bengal on the other was simply hypnotising. This place is less crowded and ideal for fun with family.

Paradise Beach, Chunnambar

Paradise Beach, Chunnambar

Although I find the Vagator and Calungute beaches of Goa more scenic and happening this place has its own charm.

A local kid who got this bounty, fishing with her hands

A local kid who got this bounty, fishing with her hands

Of course playing in Arabian Sea is more fun than Bay of Bengal as the shores have a predictable gradient but one advantage here at Bay Of Bengal is that the sun sets behind you and hence you are not blinded while you play in water but it is just that your back might look like a burnt tandoori roti at the end of the day.

The coastal guard kept warning people to stay behind the danger line as he narrated to us how this whole island was submerged under water during the 2004 Tsunami and relived the horror of losing his dear son to the dreadful dance of the waves.

Paradise Beach

Paradise Beach

It was time to take a break from the terrible heat and we hurried for some tender coconut water which costed Rs.50 here in this town of coconut extravaganza, this is what is called ‘make hay while the sun shines”. IMG_3783 We played for some 2hours here and then headed for a shower only to find the taps dry, fortunately there was a well and we had to “fetch a pail of water” for some desi showers!! IMG_3785 By the time we reached our boat we were almost dry even when we walked beneath the hay thatched shelters.

I had read about some archaeological excavations at Arikamedu which was close to this area, we switched on the GPS and were soon driving on narrow isolated lanes.

Way to Arikamedu

Way to Arikamedu

Arikamedu is an archaeological site that dates back to the 2nd century BC. Beads, coins and other artifacts depicting Roman symbols were recovered here which suggests the Indo-Roman trading connections then.

Arikamedu Archaeological site

Arikamedu Archaeological site

The Arikamedu site looked haunted, after walking some 500meters in that dense mango groove we found some really deserted brick built structures in a deplorable condition which once was a trading hub in the Iron age,

Arikamedu

Arikamedu

IMG_3814the artifacts found here are kept at the Arikamedu museum at Pondicherry.

Brick buildings, Arikamedu

Brick buildings, Arikamedu

If you are not an archaeology or history enthusiast then this place is not for you. Since this place is isolated it is a safe haven for antisocial activity so make sure you visit in bigger groups.

By now we were starving and turning squint, there was no sight of any decent hotel nearby so we humbled ourselves to some Bananas and Biscuits to cover a few more places. Actually vegetarians are the real Banana and Biscuit Republics as we are heavily dependent on this frugal fruit.

Ousterri Lake, Puducherry

Ousterri Lake, Puducherry

By 4pm we were at the Ousterri Lake, the Ousteri or the Osadu is an important wetland in Asia which is a man made fresh water lake that hosts many migratory birds and local birds across the year. IMG_3857We took the 20 minutes motor boat ride that gives a closer glimpse of the rich avifauna present here. Right opposite to the Ousteri Lake is a small eat out called SeaGull Lake View restaurant, we had some Samosas, Veg Noodles and Cassatas this place was a lifesaver for us.

Sunset at Ousterri lake

Sunset at Ousterri lake

After this we were recharged again and went back to the Ousteri Lake for some pedal boating and spent time around the robust aviators at leisure.

We headed back to our hotel and crashed, this was the end of day 1. Next day morning the two of us escaped for a stroll yet again on the Promenade street that was much more calm in the early hours.

People meditating at Promenade beach

People meditating at Promenade beach

The smooth cemented road is a walkers’ den where many fitness enthusiasts jog while a few others practice yoga/pranayama on the boulders of the beach at sunrise time. I sat there looking at the seamless waves splinter into droplets of silver every time they crashed tirelessly on the rocks beneath my feet.

Promenade street

Promenade street

Kargil War Memorial at Promenade street

Kargil War Memorial at Promenade street

By 8.30am we were back at our hotel tearing into the soft idlis, just then we noticed a mini army of uniformed men escorting a dhoti clad man who had come here all the way to parcel off some veggie food, I later learnt that it was Narayanasamy our ex union minister from the UPA.

We then visited Auroville, a spiritual town set up in 1968 by the followers of Sri Aurobindo to realize human unity, it is home to some 50,000 residents from across the globe who live here practicing meditation and yoga living the essence of community living.

Matrimandir at Auroville

Matrimandir at Auroville

It is no tourist spot and takes at least an hour walking up to the Matri Mandir, so if you are not serious about seeking spirituality you could skip this place as they will allow you inside to see the spiritual glass globe only after 2days after your first visit that too with an appointment. Next we spent some time at the Serenity Beach in the scorching afternoon sun as kids wouldn’t agree to go back without taking a dip.

Serenity Beach, Puducherry

Serenity Beach, Puducherry

In the evening we visited the Sacred Hearts Church which is 100years old IMG_3940 I wanted to visit the Ananda Ranga Pillai house, it is one of the few buildings to survive the British invasion in 1761, the GPS was of no use here, the locals here on the Ananda Ranga Pillai Road pitiably had no clue who he was or where his home _ the museum was, I clearly missed this museum as the road was too narrow with lot of vehicles and filth but I almost died of curiosity and ended up reading his diaries in which he gives a picture of the social circumstances that prevailed then, he mentions how brutally the Hindu homes were looted not even sparing rice, how the Bramins were driven out of Pondicherry, about the highhandedness of Ms.Dupleix and how the Vedapuri Ishwaran temple was desecrated and demolished by the governess along with Father COEURDOUX, the superior of St. Paul’s church who had come with a hammer and had kicked the inner shrine with his foot and had ordered the Coffrees to remove the doors and the Christians to break the Vaahanams .

Immaculate Church that was built after razing a Shiva temple

Immaculate Church that was built after razing a Shiva temple

Today in place of the Swayambu linga that was destroyed lies the Immaculate Church which is also called as the Samba Kovil by locals. So much of heritage isn’t ? No matter how hard they criticized idolatry today Pondicherry is haunted with political idolatry, every circle, every street every nook and corner is occupied by statues of politicians, poets, proselytizers in marble, granite, bronze, silver and gold. IMG_3943 IMG_3935 IMG_3936idol1

In the evening we went to Bakers street which is not a street but a popular pizza joint, the kids had fun, later we went around on the Roman Rolland Street, Caserene street and visited some Colonial homes that are now converted into antique artifacts shops.

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The broad teak pillars were used as decorative and supportive columns in ancient homes, the rosewood chest, the 15feet tall teak wood doors, 19feet high ceilings, the huge bimbam clock, the rich brocade cushions, Tanjavur paintings in gold, the large wooden Narasimha carving, the regal looking settees all this was certainly an overwhelming experience to imagine the grandeur they lived in.

It was time to get back home and I walked past the pompous patio pondering over the panache with which these people lived here in this port city of Pondi.

Woi Amritsar

It was day 10 of our trip and the thought of a drive felt wearisome since we had clubbed both Himachal Pradesh and a little bit of Punjab making our travel schedule really hectic but then driving endlessly in the backdrop of picturesque mountains and plush green and golden fields of wheat and poplar, felt both liberating and exciting to see newer places, people and perspective, creeping into me a sense of inquisitiveness about the vivid chapters in the journey of life letting me turn the pages of the world around.

Dharmashala to Amritsar is some 190kms, we reached Amritsar by 1 O’ Clock but we didn’t check in to our hotel as unloading the luggage and freshening up would eat into our schedule hence we headed straight to the Attari-Wagah Border crested with our entire luggage tied atop our Innova.

Amritsar to Attari is 30kms we collected our passes for the Beating Retreat ceremony en route the Grand Trunk Road at one of the defence gates and broke for lunch at a roadside Vaishnav Bhojanalaya(vegetarian dhaba) where we were received with great enthusiasm and rushed inside an almost dark dungeon like area. Post lunch we still had some time left so we just sat outside the Dhaba basking in the moderately sunny weather looking at the mustard fields amidst the fog that pierced a bone-chilling effect on us.

A bunch of turban clad youngsters in the adjacent hotel kept waving saffron scarves and tried to stop vehicles plying their way, initially I thought it was a marketing trick to trap customers into their hotel and wondered at the stiff competition but soon I realised that it was a Langer (free food) on occasion of the birthday of the Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. It was only then I realised why the Dhaba guy was in such a haste to receive us

Small groups of people on tractors heading to Langar and Gurudwaras adorned the highways every now we even caught a glimpse of a folkside Punjabi wedding.

Attari-Wagah Border

Wagah is a bordering village in Pakistan demarcated as the partitioning Radcliffe Line in 1947, named after Sir Cyril Radcliffe who architected the demarcation dividing 88million people over 450000 square kilometers.

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The Indian side of the border is called Attari which is the last village on the Indian side connecting Lahore. Attari is named after Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala, one of the generals in the Army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Grand Trunk Road connecting Attari and Wagah was the only connectivity between India and Pakistan until the Aman Sethu in Kashmir was opened in 2005. The Samjauta Express runs from Attari to Wagah covering 3kms.

The Beating Retreat

Attari marching

The beating retreat ceremony is a daily military practice that the Border Security Force of India and Pakistan Rangers of Pakistan perform since 1959 as a watch setting practice at sunset. The origin of this practice dates back to the 16th century in England when military chiefs used to recall nearby patrolling units to their castle. Many colonized countries still have this practice.

People cheering at the Attari Border

People cheering at the Attari Border

A fleet of steps forms the gallery for viewers that are again barricaded and marked into sections for commoners, VIPs and VVIPs. The Pakistani gate presents a picture of Jinnah staring at a smiling picture of Gandhi on the Indian side.

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We took seats in the front row of the VIP pavilion to get a closer view and felt fortunate not to be shoved in the crowds that was now dancing in full fervor to the many patriotic Bollywood tunes played flamboyantly.

A BSF soldier ready for the beating retreat

A BSF soldier ready for the beating retreat

A very tall and very heavily mustached guard stood there like a gladiator shaking hands and posing for ecstatic tourists like me.

A sense of pride reverberated with the music and people seemed patriotically possessed. Women and children took turns to run the stretch with the tricolor which was followed by a loud shout from the captain indicating that the show was about to begin.

The Wagah gate with Jinnah's picture on the Pakistani side

The Wagah gate

The trumpets began in high decibels and the very tall strutting peacocks as they are often referred as marched mightily with the utmost muscle and dignity in their crisp khakhis, holding their heads crested with a bright red fan like head-gear high, swinging their arms and foot up until the sky as the crowds cheered and swooned upon their every stunt.

The Indian side crowd

The Indian side crowd

Our VIP charm was short lived as many late comers just crowded in front of us and many others without passes jumped into the VIP section and kept blocking our view by standing up and pretending to be kneeling down holding up their sophisticated cameras.

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The VVIP pavilion was on my left that was just adjacent to the bordering gates meant only for media and firangs(foreigners) and other top level dignitaries, also foreign nationals are treated as elites here and are allotted a separate gallery away from the chaos of the common man who are left to crowd like cattle. Wonder why this bias when it should be allotted on first come first basis, wonder why media and Firangs should be allotted special seating here, if only Arnab Goswami would question the #VVIP racism here!!

Gandhiji's picture on our side

Gandhiji’s picture on our side

During the beating retreat the bordering iron gates are thrown open and the soldiers on both sides align and march dramatically on their respective sides, stomping and strutting with rigorous shouts and exaggerated high kick marches with clenched fists and muscle flexing right in front of Radcliff line posturing powerfully before the neighbour with the broadest shoulders, this drill is followed by lowering of the flags at sunset on both sides simultaneously and then finally the metal gates are slammed ragingly after a brisk handshake.

A Pakistani soldier lowers the flag

A Pakistani soldier lowers the flag

This aggressive 45 minutes spectacle is one of a kind that attracts thousands of tourists from the world around, there is no entry fees on the Indian side here but you will be thoroughly scanned no bags are allowed, even an extra camera cell or the camera bag will not be allowed. You can buy BSF India T-shirts to cheer the Indian side that are sold while you are seated. Many people even get themselves tattooed with tricolor on their faces to cheer our soldiers.

This whole dramatic exercise is surely a great opportunity for us civilians to witness the might of our defense forces closely and swell up in pride and take home a bit of uprightness. But the fact that this whole ceremony is predominantly a British trait called by the queen, kind of makes me rethink if this whole patriotic fervor should be festooned only at borders? Why not across all army units where the civilians get a chance to connect with the army folks?

But then when this muscle flexing match happens against Pakistan the spirits are always high like in a India-Pakistan Cricket match hence in order to tone down the aggressive approach the Indian side has of late included women guards as well to perform this marching retreat as a gesture to establish cordial relations between the two warring nations.

A view of the Pakistani Crowd

A view of the Pakistani Crowd

While the Indian side clearly outstrips the Pakistani side both in numbers and spirit, on the Pakistani side an entry fees is collected and men and women are seated separately to watch this ceremony.

After experiencing a patriotic high we headed to our hotel CJ International which was right behind the Golden temple.

Amritsar apparently is a very clumsy city with garbage strewn around everywhere we drove into a narrow lane where cups of hot pista-badam milk were thrust into our windows. I was a little shocked at the crude hospitality, welcome to Amritsar! It then struck me that it was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and the steaming drink was much needed in that cold evening, I readily gulped it down

The temperature was freezing at 3 degrees when we checked into our hotel hoping for some international standards but the plethora of plastic cups thrown in gutter cutting across at the entrance of our hotel said it all. It was an average hotel with 3 star comforts. The MakeMyTrip guys had not paid the tax part hence the hotel manager demanded an additional payment towards the taxes which we had to accommodate as the Makemytrip guys didn’t pick our call anymore and we didn’t have the energy and time to fight, probably if I had booked directly with the hotel it would have been cheaper.

It was 7.30pm we dumped our bags in the room and crossed the garbage laden road to enter The Golden Temple from the backside.

A narrow path covered with tarpaulins led our way to the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple.

Entrance of Golden Temple covered in fog

Entrance of Golden Temple covered in fog

Here we had to compulsorily rid our socks too, I had last jumped on my feet when I burnt my feet on the hot rocks of Hampi but we were now jumping due to the unbearable chill penetrating our feet.

Night view of Golden Temple

Night view of Golden Temple

The temple is a commemoration to the advent of Sikhism and the Sikh guru Guru Nanak who meditated at this lake in the 15th century. Later, Guru Ram Das initiated the construction of a Gurudhwara and Guru Arjan Dev built a Hari-Mandir which is today called as Harmandir Sahib. Guru Ram Das called the lake as ‘Amrit sarovar’ meaning ‘pool of nectar’ probably nectar of knowledge and the city was named after this lake.

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‘Harmandir Sahib’ was demolished several times by Muslim rulers but each time it was reconstructed even more spectacularly by the Sikhs. In the 19th century it was renovated and covered in gold by Raja Ranjit Singh and got its Anglican name as ‘Golden Temple’.

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The Harmandir Sahib houses the sacred scripture ’Guru Granth Sahib’ which is considered the holiest texts of Sikhism that is read and worshipped throughout the day. After Guru Nanak there were 9 other gurus but the 10th guru Guru Gobind Singh passed the guruship to this holy text which contains all the holy verses advocated by all the 10 gurus in Sikhism.

Swords and spheres are a symbol of bravery sold in all shops of Amritsar

Swords and spheres are a symbol of bravery sold in all shops of Amritsar

The entire vicinity of the holy structure was lit up reflecting itself in the lake we perambulated the temple walking only on the carpeted area as it was like walking on ice. I had never seen such a huge congregation of turban clad Sikhs together and my little one who is obsessed with Sunny Deol’s performance as Major Kuldeep Singh in the movie ‘Border’ was ecstatic about seeing so many Major Kuldeep Singhs. . People religiously upkeep the spiritual decorum here and everybody is found praying, I didn’t find a single person talking or surfing their mobile phones. Few people donate goodies to the kids around and my kids were pleasantly surprised when they received chocolate bars as dhaan.

Gangnam Kejri Style

Gangnam Kejri Style

As we were clicking pictures an old sardarji stopped next to us explaining the significance of the temple, initially we were apprehensive if he was a guide but soon we realized that he was just another devotee helping clueless tourists like us to understand Sikhism.

The old gentleman explained a few basic details that I had never heeded to.

He began….”Do you know why the Sikhs greet with a Sasriyakaal?

As I curiously listened, he expanded it, Sasriyakaal is actually Satsriakaal, the true form of which is ‘ Sathya Shri Akaal’ which means Truth of God is eternal

Next he said ‘do you know what Vaheguru’ means?

Our blank expression turned into a curious look as he went on to relate it to us.

Va He Gu Ru means

Vaasudev Hari Gobindaha Raama which is in short praying to the almighty Krishna and seeing them through their Guru Gobind Singh.

Due to tyranny of the Moghuls during the early 15th 16th and 17th centuries some Hindu familes decided to give a son for a brave cause to fight and save themselves from religious exploitation which took a new form and went on to become a religion in itself which believed and emphasized that Shakti with Bhakti was the need of the hour.

During the most atrocious tyrannical rule of Aurangzeb, Guru Gobind Singh formed a team of brave warriors known as Khalsa to fight the misrule and save innocent gullible Hindus. He baptized the men as Singhs meaning Lion and the women as Kaurs meaning princess to fight like lions and command like a princess, thus today you find Sikh names ending with Singh or Kaur under which lay hidden stories of their brave participation during difficult times. Thus this brave offshoot of people who took upon them the task of saving our clan are very much part of us but unfortunately today many claim that they are different from us and are a separate sect.

These words of the old gentleman filled me with inexplicable respect and pride for these brave Sikh gurus and men, but my heart bleeds when fragments of these very groups deflect from the very purpose and ideals of their inception and tries to disintegrate and dissect away from us

At the langer we were served hot tea, hot water in large bowls, Roti and Kaali Dal, since it was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday we were also served cake, my kids exclaimed Cake instead of Cosambri!!

We decided to walk back to our hotel before we turned into ice-candies.

Next day we were scheduled to leave early but however I quickly escaped with my sister-in-law to have yet another view of the Golden temple early in the morning.

With the Akali Takht Guards

With the Akali Takht Guards

The morning mist played a spoil sport and denied me a glistening view of the Golden temple in the morning sun however I didn’t miss posing with the Akalitakht guards.

After breakfast we visited the Jalianwala Bagh Memorial which was just a furlong away from our hotel.

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I walked the narrow passage where General Dyer had stealthily marched in and shot hundreds of innocent people assembled there to protest against the Rowlatt Act.

Narrow Passage of Jalianwala Bagh

Narrow Passage of Jalianwala Bagh

I then saw the Martyrs Well where hundreds of people jumped in to save themselves from the swarm of merciless bullets.

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Martyr's Well

Martyr’s Well

The walls still bear the bullet marks, the sight of which wounds every Indian even today

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The museum here takes you back in history with many memoirs, articles, newspaper cuttings, pictures, belongings of the people who were killed here.

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You definitely need 2hours here but we were crunched on time as we had to drive back to Delhi, a distance of 500kms before evening.

The rest of the day, we were speeding on NH 1 bidding goodbye to the land of the brave Sikhs.

Destination DHARAMSHALA

We drove down the Ghandara Mountains bidding adieu to Manali and the beautiful Beas River that glistened brightly in the morning sun, en route we stopped at an Angora Rabbit farm en route

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Angora is a variety of rabbit whose wool is used to make warm clothing. These rabbits are reared specially for their premium quality soft silky wool which is cut or plucked once in 70days.

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God created creatures differently some with fur, some with skin only to survive the natural habitat that they live in but alas man has evolved shedding his fur coat along with his conscience that he no longer hesitates to brutalise these harmless voices.

Watch this heartrending video to know how brutally those docile creatures are ripped off inhumanely, the shearing and moulting is mostly a myth sold to customers. Say no to Angora wool

Raghunath Temple Kullu

40kms from Manali is the Raghunath temple at Kulanthpitha or Kullu, to reach this temple you have to deviate near the Kullu market from the main road to an uphill narrow lane and drive up for a furlong, once you park your car here you have to walk amidst the tapered paths that leads you to a stretch of houses that are stacked neck to neck like matchboxes against the walls of the Pagoda temple elevation almost suffocating its otherwise serene ambience.

Raghunath Temple Kullu

Raghunath Temple Kullu

Raghunath temple is an ancient temple built by Raja Jagat Singh in 1660AD.

Inside the premises of Raghunath temple

Inside the premises of Raghunath temple

The story goes like this — King Jagat Singh once set his greedy eyes on the precious pearls possessed by a Bramin called DurgaDutta when in reality all that the Bramin possessed was pearls of knowledge, fearing the king’s wrath the helpless Bramin jumped into the fire cursing him thus __ “whatever you eat will appear as worms and whatever you drink will appear as blood”, the king was distressed and sought advice for annulling this curse. The holy men advised him to worship the lord that the lord Rama himself had used during Ashwamedha Yagnya and hence this 6inch idol (Yagnya murthy) was stolen from Ayodhya, when the devotees of Ayodhya came to retrieve the idol it became heavier as they headed towards Ayodhya and when they headed back towards Kullu it became lighter, perplexed they sought advice from the holy men who narrated the curse and its reprieve for the king, the devotees later handed the idol to the people of Kullu, the king washed away his sins by worshipping this idol, ever since then Raghunathji is the deity of Kullu.

The 6inch idol of Rama

The 6inch idol of Rama

But as the saying goes “Paapi samudrakke hodaru monakaaladi neer iralilla”… meaning when a sinner visits an ocean there is not enough water beneath his knees, when we went to the temple the idol was stolen. Disappointed we just clicked some pictures and returned.

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En route we saw schools running classes under the sun to beat the cold.

Baijinath Temple

Baijinath Temple, HP

Baijinath Temple, HP

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At around 4pm we touched Kangra district which is home to the Baijinath temple yet another ancient Shiva temple, the inscriptions on this 12th century temple built in Nagara style reveals that a Vaidhyanatha temple existed here much before this structure was built.

baiji2 A spectacular view of the Dhauladhar ranges sneak peek every now and then amidst the fine carvings of the ancient structure.

Dhauladhar ranges

Dhauladhar Ranges

Dhauladhar Ranges

From Baijinath to Dharamshala is some 50kms and this entire drive is completely mesmerising especially if you happen to touch this place before sunset. The Dhauladhar ranges overlooks the Kangra valley gleaming with her golden smile just before dusk sets in.

It was now getting dark, after being crammed for more than 7hours now the journey seemed like an endless drive finally around 6.30pm we reached our destination “Snow Hermitage” in Dharamshala.

Snow Hermitage Hotel

Snow Hermitage Hotel

An old man wrapped in a rustic muffler took us in, a fleet of stairs greeted us waiting for the grand ascend but we chose the lift instead which opened into a small passage that led us to a long bridge leading to an expansive colonial style reception with an array of large clocks hung on the 20ft wall ticking the times of many zones, below which stood a skinny old man who carefully perused all our booking details and insisted for a hard copy leaving us mobile geeks digging into all suspected pockets.

A spiral set of steps led us to our rooms it was a large room with colonial style furnishings and the ambience was perfect for some horror fiction, the old man seemed like a Stephen King’s character when he rang the bell a second time to hand over some additional blankets. We were thrilled to see the huge bed that could have easily accommodated even our neighbours there, it also had a small balcony that gave a splendid view of the Dhauladhar ranges

Dhauladhar ranges

Dhauladhar ranges

The best part in this hotel was great food it was freshly made every time, the hotel also has a TT room in case you want to drive noisy kids from the room.

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Overall it had a cosy appeal to me and felt at home, probably after that packed drive such roominess was certainly a luxury and I slept like a dog hoping the sun never rises. But this hope of mine gets ruthlessly shattered every morning and I hate to be an early crow.

‘Early crow’ is a new connation designated for ‘early birds’ to restore equality and honour and also counter those ridiculing the night owls.

But surprisingly enough I was up really early to capture some sunrise shots.

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At 9 the sun was in full fervour, the snow peaks now mirrored their golden gleam across the vicinity turning the valley into a vivid Eastman color.

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We first visited the Dal Lake, a cluster of Deodar trees stand guard around the otherwise pristine waters which makes for a picturesque picnic spot when the waters are full but for us the lake was marshy and under some restoration work during our visit, I told you about the ‘Paapi’ syndrome already.

Dal Lake Dharamshala

Dal Lake Dharamshala

The area is has a heavy army presence as there is a basement camp here.

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Bhagsunag Temple

Later we headed to the Bhagsunag temple, another ancient Shiva temple that stands at 6000ft surrounded by the hills and a sea of sellers, there is a waterfall called Bhagsu falls for which you have to trek for a kilometre.

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Bhagsu apparently was a king in the beginning of Kaliyuga who was defeated and later blessed by a Nag, hence the name. Most temples built in the hills actually make for a good view point with glimpses of unsullied peaks that play pica boo.

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We shopped a little bit of junk jewelry here and then went straight to McLeodganj, a Tibetian monastery the abode of DalaiLama.

Mcleodganj entrance

Mcleodganj entrance

It gets its name after a British Lieutenant Governor called Donald Frell Mcleod when the British annexed this area in 1850. Ganj means ‘neighbourhood’.

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The path to McLeod ganj is a shopper’s delight with colourful handicrafts flooding the lanes on both sides but sadly the spiritual essence of the monastery is encroached and condensed by an over doze of hawkers.

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To me it was just another view point, later we also visited the hotel where our cricket team stays during IPL here and headed back to our hotel to enjoy the vistas around.

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View from our hotel

View from our hotel

We walked around the hotel clicking pictures in the twilight and soon enough it was time for a steaming hot dinner.

If you have read every line till the end I bow and thank you for reading my blog patiently, this is my 75th post.

Catch you…….

Manali Day2

Our day 2 in Manali started at 9 in the morning that was rather early as per our standards, we set foot on the Dhungiri forests amidst which stands the ancient Hidimbi temple,

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the entire vicinity was covered in frozen snow making it very slippery to walk up to the temple,  as I looked up the tall deciduous trees wondering if Hidimba was taller than these trees, an unknown hand covered in black mittens grabbed my shoulders jerking me and my photographic stints completely__ friendly tourists you know! who will smile and thank you for being a pillar of support on a slippery stretch!

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I was standing in the Hidimbavana that once had magical spells during the Mahabharatha times when the Pandavas came here in hiding after their escape from the wax palace. Anybody who came here would be devoured by Hidimbaasura. Bhima the mighty Pandava defeated the demon Hadimba and later married his sister Hidimbi. The couple begot a virtuous son Ghatothkach. After entrusting the kingdom to him Hidimbi retired to meditate in the Dhungiri vana, till date the gigantic footprints of Hidimbi Devi remain in this natural cave around which a wooden temple with a four tiered pagoda roof is built, the fourth tier is of metal, this wooden temple with intricate animistic carvings dates back to 1553 AD but the cave is of Mahabharatha times. The footprints are anything like Bata size 15! Wikipedia says if you zoom in on this place in Google satellite images you can see a giant foot print in this area where the temple is located,

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Photography inside the cave is strictly prohibited, the stretch behind the temple which was yet another slippery conquest leads to the Veer Ghatothkach shrine, whose ancient walls have collapsed and only a tree remains around which you can see some animistic forms of worship.

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Ghatothkach played a vital role in the victory of Pandavas in the Kurukshethra war of Mahabharatha as he was incidental in saving Arjuna from the Indraastra of Karna.

Did you know that “I Dream of Jeannie” television series during the 1965-70 is inspired from the Hidimbi-Bheema love story as quoted by the author himself here?

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There is a small museum near the Ghatothkach tree where we spent some 15minutes, tiny shops selling woollens, razais are lined up near the parking lot and you will not return without getting edged by the touts selling Spaaru. Spaaru happens to be a special rug made from the wool of Sparu or Chingur an endangered yak like species in the Himalayan terrain. Earlier they were killed for their skin and wool but after Maneka Gandhi’s activism this has been stopped but the sellers vehemently insist you buy it as it is now gotten by cutting the wool from the animal and not by killing it. The strange thing is they sell it on lease basis and offer all kinds of lucrative freebies __ a package of 3rugs, 2bedspreads, 2shawls, dress material etcetera all for 8k or 10k to hook you but believe me it is worth only 2k for all the 5+items that they offer, as per a TOI report the Spaaru sale is a rampant fraud going on in the hills as the animal is almost extinct now, even if it was real it is illegal to procure one.

After this futile marauding attempt we left the shop with our purses intact praising Maneka Gandhi’s activism but alas the Bengaluru stray dogs will never grow any wool on them nor will they become endangered any day!

Vashisht Village

We then drove to Vashist, a small village 3 kms from Manali, it is a narrow climb of 2kms from the parking lot amidst tiny shops on both sides on that narrow lane but you can catch surreal glimpses of nature amidst the flowing hullabaloo of shops, vehicles and tourists.

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Houses built on the most precarious slopes, ridges buried in snow peep at you beholding an image of hardships encountered by people here for everyday survival.

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The Vashist temple built to commemorate the great sage Vashisht the best among 88000 sages meditated here on the banks of Ajikeeya river which was later referred to as Vipaasha River.

Vashisht temple

Vashisht temple

He built an ashram on the Arvudha parvatha and lived with his wife Arundathi here, they begot 100sons who were devoured by an asura called Kalmaashapada at the behest of sage Vishwamitra who envied and despised the virtuous Vasista rishi.

Inside Vashisht temple

Inside Vashisht temple

An aggrieved Vashista tried to leave his body in the Himalayas but did not succeed he then jumped into the Ajikeeya river tying a rope around him in putrashoka but the pasha(rope) gave way and the river refused to drown him hence the river was named Vipaasha(freedom from bondage) river which was later referred as Vyaasa river and now as Beas.

A view of Vashisht temple from Ram temple

A view of Vashisht temple from Ram temple

The Vashist kund, a hot sulphur spring is believed to be invoked by Lakshmana during Ramayana by shooting an arrow to fetch hot water for Vashista rishi who meditated here for 88000years.

This temple is more than 4000 years old and the water here is supposed to have medicinal properties, anybody who bathes here will wash away all their sins. The kund is today barricaded and has separate bathing arrangements for men and women.

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The floor was freezing but the sulphur springs were with steaming hot water where many were bathing, I sprinkled some water on my head and prayed to Vashista muni.

Opposite to the Vashisht temple is Lord Rama’s temple, the Garbagudi(inner sanctum) is again 5000years old but with new wood carved walls.

The narrow paths house many tiny homes who are blessed with hot water from the Kund throughout the year for all their daily household purposes.

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If you trek up further you will reach Jogini falls but we chose to visit the Manu temple instead.

We parked our car in the market area and walked across the bridge which was like walking on a sheet of uneven ice that was buzzing with vehicles and we were cornered on the frozen mounds of ice that worked like a scary footpath for us, holding on to the railings of the bridge we somehow managed to cross it and headed to the Manu temple which is an uphill climb of one hour.

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We started off with great courage but as we climbed the narrow path was really getting very slippery and felt almost impossible to proceed any further

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but the thought of climbing down was even more scary as one fall and we would end up breaking our bones, to add to the misery were skidding cars who honked incessantly to give way as they could not afford to slow down on the steep slopes and had to take off in one go no matter what, leaving pedestrians crawling on knees and clutching to icy mounds on the edges to save ourselves from the vehicular wrath,

Houses en route to Manu temple

Houses en route to Manu temple

We even tried to take short cuts and ended up climbing on 4legs, finally somehow we reached atop.

Manu Temple

Manu temple

Manu temple

Manu temple the only one of its kind stands in serenity across the Manalsu River surrounded by snow clad peaks is a small wooden temple again with an ancient wooden palanquin and a small idol of Manu, our progenitor.

The village on the slope View from Manu temple

The village on the slope
View from Manu temple

Surrounding it is the old Manali where you can get of glimpse of a typical village, if you don’t enjoy trekking and don’t get a high on history and all its wonders then this place is not for you.

Snow capped houses near Manu temple

Snow capped houses near Manu temple

The thought of a slippery down trek petrified us but luckily we found an autowala who readily agreed to take us all 6 together but cautioned us “memsaab darna nahi aur hilna nahi’, we stacked ourselves tightly into this humble beast and the ride was like a free fall in a waterslide and in no time we were near our parking lot.

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We went back to the mall road for some womanly rituals i.e…shopping and exchange after lunch we strolled around and then headed back to our hotel.

It was Christmas Eve and we were in for a rude shock by our unprofessional trip-planner ‘Makemytrip’ who kept us guessing with unknown cryptic asterisk marks and additional bills every now and then. We had to pay extra for the exorbitant compulsory Christmas dinner party although we had completely paid for the entire 11day package. After a lot of haggling we were really drained and frustrated he finally settled down at half the price he quoted for this party like in a vegetable market, a few Santa barged into our cottage inviting us to the dance party. The kids were very excited and we had to buck up our spirits.

After shaking a leg we headed for the dinner which was a big ‘paisa vasool’ for the non-vegetarians but a big hole in the pocket for us veggies as we ended up eating the same daal, chaawal for a bomb. I would never ever go with ‘Makemytrip’.

That was end of day 2 and we went back to freeze in our beds.

Manali, the land of Manu

Manali gets its name from Manu, the first man on earth, the progenitor of humankind as per our Puranas. Before we proceed with Manali let us rewind a little and catch up with the story of Manu which goes like this:

One day when Manu rishi was giving ablutions he found a small fish in his palm which pleaded to be saved from bigger fishes, Manu moved it into an earthen pot but the fish outgrew it only to be shifted to a big pit, a lake, a river and then finally on releasing the fish into the ocean it warned him against an impending catastrophic flood that would submerge the whole world in water. It also informed him of the exact date and time of the deluge and instructed him to build an arc and collect all seeds and species of different forms of life to begin a new world along with the saptarishis.

On the day of the deluge Lord Vishnu in his gigantic Matsya form tied the mast of the arc to his horns and escorted Manu and the Saptarishis to safety in the Northern Himalayas who then descended in the land that is today called Manali(Manu Alaya__the abode of Manu).

There are many other arc/flood stories which are a spill-over of the Matsyaavatara katha written in our Veda-puranas.

The Bhagavadgita says that each Manvantara = 71 Mahayugas(306,720,000 years) and each Mahayuga = 4,320,000years, each Mahayuga is in turn divided into 4 yugas namely

Satya Yuga or Krita Yuga, Treta Yuga,Dwapara Yuga, Kali Yuga

Lifecycle of earth comes to an end after every Manvantara washing away all evils only to start a new one afresh. Apparently one day of Bramha, the creator of this cosmos is 4.32billion years as per the Hindu time calculation and each day of Bramha consists of 14periods or manvantaras. So every Manvantara will have a Manu or a progenitor to lead the human race, the manvantara is named after that particular Manu.

We are currently in the Kali Yuga of the 28th Mahayuga in the 7th Manvantara which is called Vaivasvata Manu.

Brahma creates at the beginning of his morning and merges everything into the absolute before he sleeps.

Essentially our Tsunamis, volcanoes, nuclear wars, ice ages maybe a bed time story for Bramha.

The word “Man” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Manushya” and Manu is symbolically the first man on earth, the word “manuscript” is also derived from “Manusmrithi”, the book of laws written by Manu for mankind.

Okay now! before I scare you off with this mythological overdoze let me quickly take you into the splendor of this dazzling hill Manali.

Manali is a photographer’s delight, a traveler’s frenzy, honeymooners’ paradise and an adventure lovers’ den bustling with hiking and biking freaks.

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The drive to Manali is breath taking with the Vyas river snaking picturesquely amidst the curving Ghandarva mountains,

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I don’t know why many states in India goof up the “Va” sound and corrupt it with “ba” sound, the Vyas river is referred as Byas river which the British further corrupted as Beas river. Whatever the sound the Beas/Vyas River beguiles you with its breath taking vistas.

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Although this is a highly seismic prone area the authorities have built tunnels, one such interesting tunnel that runs for 2.75kms is the Aut tunnel in Mandi district.

We reached Kullu around 4.30 and spent some time in the weaving factory which happens to be the only shopping place that most drivers will take you to.

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Shimla to Manali is 260kms which took us 9 long hours we had started at 9am and reached only around 6 in the evening of course with a couple of breaks for lunch and shopping at Kullu

The drive was really scenic, serene and safe, thank god Himachal Pradesh is plastic free, there is an unbelievable driving coordination amongst drivers who readily give way and wait patiently without much honking or overtaking, you don’t get to see this etiquette anywhere else in India, also one cannot play music while driving which was a big respite for us from our driver who was a Honey Singh devotee.

We reached our Hotel “Holiday Resorts and cottages” by evening, it was already dark and the temperature was freezing below zero degrees.

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Our room was right in front of a snow capped mountain and the paths leading to the cottage were picketed with walls of frozen snow forcing us to cover every inch with layers of woolens that we looked like bloated bean bags in the dinner room.

Our cottage had 4 rooms with a common living and dining area that we monopolized occupying 3rooms, the ambience was perfect for a ghost story but we were tired and felt like frozen peas getting thawed before a frail heater whose effect was almost non-existent in the biting cold night.

A view from our room

A view from our room

In the morning the temperature was still ice cold and we shivered at the thought of coming in contact with water but the morning view from our window was very romantic, our eyes met and after a long intense stare he whispered ‘you are the one to brush and bathe first’.

A view of the mountains in front of our room

A view of the mountains in front of our room

The weather had remained depressingly stoic the past week because of heavy snowing leaving many tourists still stranded in Rohtang and the army was still clearing and rescuing folks out of it. Rohtang was closed so we had to settle for Solang valley.

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But today luckily for us the sun seemed to smile and there was a sudden warmth in the air, everything around gleamed merrily with the bright sun rays and we were relieved that the weather would not play a spoilsport. The barren apple trees that had appeared like testimonials to a murder mystery now looked enchanting like in an artist’s easel.

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We headed for the Solong valley which was 13kms from Manali, en route we hired snow boots and boiler suits to gear up for some snow time. This whole set costs you Rs.250 but if you are equipped with good jackets and woollens you really don’t need one but we hired it just for the heck of it to look a little different for pictures. These shops are usually tied up with the drivers and your driver might insist that you have to essentially hire here but there are shops right at solang valley with all snow gears so you don’t really have to worry about it.

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Solang valley is at an altitude of 8500ft with lots of sporting activities like parachuting, paragliding, skiing, biking and zorbing.

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The valley bustles with commercial activities with a pool of vendors waiting to make brisk business, it is flooded with chaiwalas, vendors renting out Himachali traditional dresses for couples to pose in the backdrop of snow clad mountains, a rabbit-wala whose rabbit you can pose with for 20bucks,

woollen sellers, the yak guys and the maggi wallahs,

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the sports rides all this and much more in the midst of the glacier bowl but the vast stretch swallows all this din and stands serenely surrounded by splendid cedar trees accommodating them all.