World Tourism Day 2015

World Tourism Day 2015

A significant public acknowledgement and celebration of World Tourism Day 2015 in India. 1 Billion tourists and 1 Billion Opportunities – The positive intent towards tourism is visible with ease of travel through e-visa currently in place for over 113 countries. 29 states and 7 union territories can combine to offer mind-blowing journeys for which one life time is not sufficient. With Narmada Holidays

Happy World Tourism Day!

World Tourism Day
India Celebrates world Tourism Day

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 3

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 3

Varanasi continues to hold your attention. It just urges you to keep walking and looking. Our day time stop on the 3rd day was the famed Banaras Hindu University,  one of India’s oldest seat of learning established way back in the year 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a lawyer, thinker, freedom fighter and one who emphasized the importance of education in National awakening. He was recently posthumously conferred India’s highest civilian honor – The Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India). The sprawling campus of 1300 acres welcomes you with an idol of Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of learning). The campus land was a donation from the Maharaja of Kashi Prabhu Narayan Singh. The campus architecture is semi-circular in nature with intersecting roads laid out in radii or arcs. Apart from Medical, Technical streams, the visual arts faculty is one of the most sought after ones by students. When we were there in December, there was a open air exhibition cum sale of art works done by students of the visual arts. There were live sketching sessions for a fee and wonderful paintings of various sights of varanasi were up for sale. Check out on the schedule of the exhibitions and invest in some good oil works, charcoal sketches and posters. It is interesting to note that when Malaviya established the university and started a series of lectures by eminent personalities, Gandhi delivered his first public lecture in India at the BHU. Spend time, walk around the campus, interact with the students and snack with some roasted peanuts and a hot cup of coffee….All campus favorites

IT BHU

Another place of significance for Buddhists is Sarnath which is about 8 miles (13 kms) from Varanasi. This is said to be the first stop of Buddha after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. It is at the Deer Park in Sarnath where Buddha is said to have first taught the Dharma. Sarnath along with Lumbini (Nepal, 190 miles from Varanasi), Bodh Gaya (155 miles from varanasi) and Kushinagar (144 miles from Varanasi) are holy to Buddha’s followers.  The Ashoka Pillar houses the Ashokan lion capital and became the National emblem of India and National symbol on the Indian flag. Though the pillar was broken during the Turk invasion, the base of the pillar remains where as the portion containing the emblem is housed in the Sarnath museum nearby. Groups from Thailand, Japan, Vietnam and buddhists from other countries assemble at Sarnath and practice buddhist chanting and meditation. The museum and park have an entrance fee while children under 12 are free. You can avail the services of a qualified guide right before the entrance. Charges range from 150 – 200 Rs and it is advisable to fix up before beginning the tour. A good 2 – 3 hours will set you up for a wonderful evening.

Sarnath Deer Park
Sarnath

Before hitting the food trail, pay respects to Lord Hanuman at the Sankat Mochan (reliever of troubles) Hanuman Mandir. It is said that Tulsidas (Author of Ramcharitmanas, an Awadhi version of the sanskrit epic Ramayana) had a vision of Lord Hanuman at the place where this temple stands currently. Walk on the carpeted pathway to the temple (helps you beat the heat and cold alike) and watch out for the monkeys. They jump around on the asbestos sheets lining the temple precinct and some of them may end up hassling you for food in case it is visible in your hands. There are hundreds of Hanuman Chalisa books (40 verses in praise of Lord Hanuman), prayer beads, prayer notes hung on the walls of the temple. The devout pick up a book, say their prayers, prostrate, place the book back and walk back after the day’s meditation and prayers. Spend time, speak to the priests, the flower sellers and others about the historical significance of the temple. It is important to note that the idol of Hanuman in the temple faces Lord Ram whom Hanuman dutifully serves.

The food scene in Varanasi is tantalizing. The restaurants in the hotel where you stay can offer you a few options but the streets offer you unlimited options Start with the Thandai on offer at Godowlia chowk; there are atlas 500 shops selling this concoction (several dry fruits, seasonal fruits, milk and essence) in Varanasi. Vendors beckon you to their small outlets and give you an array of options to choose from. For the adventurous few the shopkeeper ventures to ask you if he can add a small ball of Shivji ki Prashad (offerings to Lord Shiva) which you may know as Cannabis. Extremely popular during the day of Maha Shivratri (Lord Shiva’s night). A few metres from Godowlia chowk lies Kashi Chat Bhandar, a dinghy and crowded storefront selling mouth watering chaats (short spicy eats) and fresh sweets (usually Gulab Jamoon and Carrot Halwa). The chuda mutter (peas and flat rice), aloo chaat, papdi chat, Palak chat, mutter chaat and the Pani puri will ensure that you head directly to your room and not the restaurant in the hotel. Have a light lunch to ensure a heavy evening snack….Malaiyo is another morning delicacy which one must savor in the winter months. Once you are done at the Kashi Vishwanath temple walk back to your vehicle or meeting point via Kachori Gully and drop in at the first shop selling Malaiyo. What is this thing? It is milk that is frothed overnight in winter and is mixed with saffron, sugar and pistachios. Me and my daughter went mad eating this stuff….

Varanasi Food Trail
Varanasi Food Trail

The list never ends. Breakfast of Pooris with potato curry, kachoris and Jalebis are extremely popular in Varanasi. Walk in to Madhur Jalpan near Kodai Chowki to sample the above. Watch the preparation and dig in to a few plates. More popular haunts with familiar sounding names – BurgerKing; No, not the ones we are used to but a BurgerKing which is a vegetarian delight. Try the Sattu ke Parathe (Pancakes made from a protein rich gram flour) and a plate of kadhi pakodi with Rice (friend gram balls in a buttermilk gravy); Absolutely delicious. As said again, savor these small helpings and reserve yourself for more chaat haunts.

Deena Chaat Bhandar is located just about 250 meters from Godowlia chowk. The huge cast iron frying pans constantly simmer with delicious potato patties, chholey etc., The service is swift but finding a seat may take some time. Don’t miss the pani puri at Deena and nourish yourself with some hot gulab jamuns towards the end. Hygiene takes a backseat so carry your own water when in these restaurants.

Finally, as a tribute to the traditions of this city, The Taj Nadesar Palace (10 rooms only) serves the Satvik Thali, a thali which consists of dishes made without using Garlic or onions. Savor the food and enjoy the Taj Hospitality.

Varanasi Food Trail
Varanasi Food Trail

As we made our way back to the Babatpur airport, we feel like sparrows being pulled by gentle strings back to Varanasi. We promised ourselves to be back in varanasi.

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 2

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 2

Continuing our Varanasi experience with Narmada Holidays…. The 7 km arc starts when the Assi river meets the Ganges in the south and ends with the Varuna river meeting the Ganges in the north. 87 Ghats  dot this 7 km arc; The ghats are stone embankments with flights of stairs providing unhindered access to the Holy River. Devotees pour in from across India and the world and the facilities at the Ghats help them complete their Bathing, rites for the departed soul, religious rituals and in select ghats, facilities to cremate the dead. The lure of varanasi and the Ganges, transcends generations and borders. The Assi ghat was the first site in Varanasi from where the Clean India Mission a.k.a Swacch Bharat Abhiyan was launched by the Hon’ble PM of India. The Assi ghat houses numerous restaurants and cafes where one can spend an entire day in leisure gazing in to the openness of the Ganges. Walking along the 7 Km arc is perfectly possible except in few ghats where a lot of clothing is washed and final rites for the dead are being administered (Harischandra and Manikarnika Ghats). There are drop off points from where walking the maze of alleys will lead you to each one of these 87 ghats. The Kedar Ghat catches your eye for it is painted in white and vermillion an indicator of its South Indian origins. People from South of India make arrangements for themselves in the temple and facilities that are on the banks of the Kedar Ghat. Priests help them conduct rituals in a way they can comprehend. Spend time, watch life on these ghats, observe humanity and take some time time to check out the hole-in-the-wall eateries that dot these alleys. The Manikarnika ghat leaves you with a Cathartic experience….whatever the person, it all ends here. Watch the unending stream of dead bodies coming in…..some of them from far off villages and cities. We saw a few being transported in vans where the dead body was tied to the baggage carrier on the roof of the vehicle….Reminded of the Verse from Bhaja Govindam by the peerless Adi Shankara

yaavatpavano nivasati dehe
taavatpRichchhati kushalaM gehe .
gatavati vaayau dehaapaaye
bhaaryaa bibhyati tasminkaaye .. (6)

When one is alive, his family members enquire kindly about his welfare. But when the soul departs from the body, even his wife runs away in fear of the corpse.

Images of the Ghats

The Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the 12 jyotirlingas (object representing the Lord Shiva) is a famous temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located on the western banks of the Ganges. The temple opens its doors at 4 AM and stays open till 11 PM. Many narrow alleys lead to the doors of the temple. The most prominent access is by getting down at Godowlia chowk and walking straight to the entrance situated on the road to the ghats. Many shops line this narrow alley called Vishwanath gully where you can indulge yourselves in trinkets, small idols, bangles, items for worship and other curios…..Prior to visiting the Vishwanath temple, the devout make it a point to offer salutations at the Kaal Bhairav temple, Bhairav being a more ferocious form of the Lord Shiva. Many get a black band tied on their hands or around their necks after the priest waves a few peacock feathers and utters a few lines of a prayer. This, many believe is said to keep evil spirits at bay. Security is quite stringent and one is expected to keep all valuables like phones, purses and any jewelry with a trustworthy person or the hotel locker before heading out. There are plenty of pujaris (priests) aligned with the shops lining the gully, who will take you to the temple for a fee and help you conduct your prayers. The shops are the last point where one can have their shoes or slippers on….Hygiene is ok and improving by the day so, stay positive and enjoy the experience of traversing the gullies and the temple.

The Gyanvapi mosque built in the year 1664 CE by the Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb is said to have come up in the place of the original Kashi Vishwanath temple. Security remains strict near the mosque and no photography is permitted. Walk along the streets lining the mosque and you will get to see a lot of Muslim artisans and craftsmen selling sarees, dress materials and other local handicrafts.

Early morning or twilight is the best time for a boat ride on the ganges. Hire a paddle boat or a motorized one to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Ghats. The gulls flock by the dozens and they are fed a diet of puffed rice….we still hope they continue to fish! A paddle boat ride for a couple of hours for 3 – 4 people should cost you about 400 – 500 Rs and i think it is a wonderful way of enjoying the ghats….slow….and if the boatman pitches in with a song for the ride, its double delight….

The Boat ride on the Ganges and the Ghats

Enjoy your day out in the Ghats! Food….more of it in Part 3

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”………….Mark Twain

Varanasi, also known as Benaras and Kashi as the locals lovingly call it, is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Since 2014, It is being represented in Parliament by India’s Chief Executive – Narendra Modi.

Fall, Winter and early spring (October – March) are the best seasons to head towards Varanasi. The city has convenient connections by Air from New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Khajuraho. All of India’s major airlines – Jet Airways, Indigo, Spicejet and Air India fly in to Varanasi. We booked ourselves in to an Indigo air flight from Mumbai, reaching Varanasi in time for a 12 noon check in. Our land package was planned by Narmada Holidays. The airport is a good 45-60 minutes away from the main city and the roads pass by the country side of Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Our stay was at Rivatas by Ideal. A well equipped 4 star hotel and apart from Rivatas, there are other options like Radisson and even Heritage options like Taj Nadesar Palace and Suryoday Haveli.

Our lunch was simple fare in the in-house restaurant, Ocean. Try the Indian breads (Roti), spinach and cottage cheese based gravy, lentils and Rice; Winter brings in the freshest of fruits and vegetables and it pays to try the season’s freshest. Lunch done, it was time to head out towards the Ghats situated on the banks of the river Ganges. Varanasi infact derives its name from the merger of rivers Varuna and Assi.   There are plenty of options to get to the drop off point at Godowlia Chowk. You can hire an auto rickshaw costing approximately between 50 and 70 Rupees or a tri cycle rickshaw which pedals you for approximately 30 – 40 Rupees. If you have hired a cab for your transportation needs, the cabbie or the guide will drop you off at this junction (Godowlia Chowk). Have fun as your transportation takes you through a cantonment area, below a railway under bridge, mosques and other places of worship, busy streets selling clothing, utensils, electronics, sweets and savories, milk based products and of course numerous restaurants. Mark the spot where your transportation drops you in case you are doing the rounds of the ghat all by yourself. Soak in the chaos of the junction, feel the humanity surge in to you, hear the policeman shout in to the microphone asking erring cabbies and vehicle owners to give way, urging people to wear their helmets and what not….

The road leading from the chowk down to the ghats are vehicle free (not entirely as bi-cycles are allowed). Don’t be under the assumption that you can swing your arms and enjoy a leisurely walk. The roads a chock-a-bloc with people and you will need to be swift and be able to maneuver yourself for the next 0.5 mile. Before you head in to the ghats don’t forget to sip a hot cup of tea, served in a mud cup. Hot and mildly spiced, you are definitely not going to stop with one. Costs all of 5 – 6 Rs.

There are 87 ghats in Varanasi and each one of them was built by India’s former princely state leaders. Each Ghat was a donation to help pilgrims conduct their religious rites and offer a place to stay. Families chose Varanasi to perform the last rites of their near and dear as it is believed to offer complete salvation for the soul.

Dashashwamedh ghat is the most splendid ghat in Varanasi and plays host to the famous aarti to lord shiva, sun god, river ganges and the fire god. Priests pray every evening to the Holy river with hymns running in the background. This elaborate ritual starts every evening towards twilight. Get in early, find a good seat – either on the steps behind the priests or on the boats in front of the priest. Bargain for your boat seat with the boatmen. The aarti ritual mesmerizes you for more than an hour. There are free lance photographers who offer you instant prints at nominal prices.

The evening draws to a close as guests head out to roam around the narrow streets around the ghats. The streets are crammed with curio shops, sweet shops and interesting international eateries. Evenings are reserved for the best of Varanasi food….Part 2….

DSCN1798_Fotor_Collage

Odisha – Jewel of India’s east

Odisha – Jewel of India’s east

Bande Utkala Janani……I adore Thee, O! Mother Utkal…..

Words written by Kantakabi Laxmikanta Mohapatra, when Odisha (www.odisha.gov.in) (Orissa till 2011) became independent on the 1st of April 1936.

Odisha’s etymology is “Odda Visaya” dating back to 1025 AD. It was historically also known as Kalinga which was conquered by Emperor Ashoka and also led him to take up a pacifist approach and ultimately embrace Buddhism.

Is Odisha the topmost travel destination in the country? Well, not at the moment but it is getting there. With Odisha tourism (www.odishatourism.gov.in) rebranding Odisha as a Scenic, Serne and Sublime destination, the state seems to be getting in to the “must visit” list of every discerning traveller. Mention Odisha and two things come to mind – The Jagannath Puri temple and the Konark Sun temple. Odisha offers a generous mix of religion, architecture, art, wildlife, food and of course a lot of beautiful beaches. Let us head to Odisha….

Bhubaneshwar is the capital and the most important Railhead on the east coast and a well-serviced airport. September was a pretty good month to visit Odisha; The scorching summer had abated and there was rain in good measure. Mumbai is well connected to Bhubaneshwar and preferred to take the Indigo connection. They had a morning service that would take us to the doorstep of our hotel, Trident Bhubaneshwar in time for a check in at 12 noon. The Bhubaneshwar airport is fairly large and quite clean. Our tour was planned by Narmada Holidays in collaboration with a local partner for logistics. We planned a visit spanning 4 nights and 5 days; ‘Longer duration trips can take you to the tribal hinterlands apart from the main highlights. Our vehicle for the next 5 days was a Toyota Innova which is a spacious SUV which can seat 5 people and yet have ample space for all the luggage. The ride to the city was on wide and extremely clean roads; comfortable and enjoyable at the same time.

IMG_20140829_123022_Fotor_Collage

Day 1 – Check in done, it was time to get a good lunch for ourselves. Odiya cuisine offers excellent options for sea-food lovers and meat eaters alike. Being a coastal state the catch is among the freshest. For vegetarians, there is nothing to sweat as there are plenty of delicious options still around. We preferred a Santula (A vegetable stew with cumin and chillies) to go with our rice and Indian bread. A few hours rest and we were ready for our tour

Our first stop was the historical Udayagiri (sunrise hill) and Khandagiri caves. These caves are situated near Bhubaneshwar; Partly natural and partly artificial, the caves are of archeological, historical and religious importance. The archeological survey of India maintains the monuments; There are tickets to be purchased for foreign nationals whereas entry is free for Indian and SAARC nationals. There are a total of 33 caves within the precinct of the hills. The most important among these are the Ranigumpha (Rani – Queen, Gumpha – Cave) in Udayagiri, which is a double storeyed monastery and Hathigumpha (Hathi – elephant). The top of Khandagiri cave is a short climb and it offers fine views of Bhubaneshwar from its summit. Spend a couple of hours here refreshed with the cool evening breeze and a magnificent view of the setting sun.

IMG_20140829_184455_Fotor_Collage

Evenings in Bhubaneshwar are either spent shopping or eating roadside snacks. A popular snack that we sampled was a cup of sprouted pulses, spiced up and garnished with onions, tomatoes, potatoes, lime and coriander. Cheap and nutritious, this one was quite a filler and gave us the energy to move around. Our guide got us to the Market Building shopping area which houses a lot of handloom and handicraft showrooms, book shops and other assorted shops. The local Handicrafts and handloom are promoted by a government showroom called Utkalika which has branches across the state. Priyadarshini, another handloom organization promotes traditional handloom of odisha – Tusser, Sambalpur and Ikkat. We window shopped and made enquiries to our hearts content. September is when the country celebrates Ganesh Chathurti (Festival of the Elephant god – Lord Ganesh). The streets were lined with finely decorated pandals housing the idols of the Lord. We were in time for the evening prayers following which Prasad was distributed among all the devotees. The Harekrishna Restaurant in Kharabela Nagar offers simple and excellent vegetarian fare, which helps keep you light before retiring for the day.

Day 2 – The nandankanan Zoo or The Garden of Gods houses a Zoological park and a Botanical garden. Located about 8 kms from Bhubaneshwar, the Zoo is a great outdoor experience for all ages. The park is well maintained and is a plastic free zone. We hired the services of a park ranger who was able to articulate the details around history of the zoo, the animals who are being reared in captivity and recent additions. The park ranger gave us valuable insights in to animal behavior, especially of the captive lions and Tigers. The Safari is not to be missed and one has to keep a watch on the timings for the same. Half a day well spent! Don’t forget to munch on a spicy cucumber sold on push carts outside the Zoo. Lunch on day 2 was at a place called Dalma, which offered local Odiya veg cuisine comprising of Dalma (lentil dish), vegetables, Indian bread and of course, Rice. Delicious and economical, it filled us up after a good 5 hours spent at Nandankanan on a hot and humid day.

IMG_20140830_120712_Fotor_Collage

Temple time! Bhubaneshwar is a city of temples and there are over 50 of them and most of them are built to honor Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva. These temples are dated between 8th and the 12th century AD. It is said that King Ashoka developed a simple way of communicating with people of his kingdom. Rocks and stone poles were used to communicate his policy of Dhamma through edicts. Travel 5 miles south of the modern city to find a few of them. Standing out among these temples are the Parasurameshwar temple and the Lingaraj temple. The Parasurameshwar temple has stories carved all around it and it is worth taking the services of the temple priest to help you understand the finer details of the same. Make sure that your next stop is the Lingaraj temple, the largest and one of the oldest in Bhubaneshwar. Non-Hindus can take photos of the architecture from a machan like structure erected outside the western wall of the temple. Bhubaneshwar was also called “Ekamra Kshetra” as the deity Lingaraj was originally found under a Mango tree (Ekamra). On the whole, the temple is considered a guardian deity of the city. With enough time left in the evening, head out to shop for leather, handicrafts and other collectibles.

IMG_20140830_161024_Fotor_Collage

Day 3 – The Konark temple beckoned us. Situated on the coast, this temple, a UNESCO world Heritage site, is approximately 65 kms from Bhubaneshwar. We had planned a good 2 hours to tour the temple complex with the help of an authorized guide. Konark comes from the combination of the Sanskrit words – Kona (corner) and Arka (sun); This temple thus is dedicated to the Sun god. An umbrella comes in handy during the tour. Make sure that you observe each of the 24 wheels, each telling you a different story. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore says of the temple, “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of Man”. The road from Konark to Puri is dotted with pristine white sand beaches and rain trees lining the road. The temple town is one of the 4 holiest of places (char dham) in India and is home to the Jagannath temple and seat of the Puri Mutt (one of the four set up by the Adi Shankaracharya). The temple of Jagannatha is one of the tallest monuments in the entire. sub-continent of India and its height is about 214 feet from the ground (road) level. It stands on a ‘raised platform of stone, measuring about ten acres. It. is located in the hear! of the town and presents an imposing sight. The largest crowd in Puri is seen during the Car Festival of Jagannatha which takes place every year some time in June-July. The idols in the temple are made of the Margosa Tree (Neem) and they are replaced with a new Idol once in 14 years in an elaborate festival called Nabakalabera (New Body); Year 2015 is one such year. There are hotels to cater to every budget in puri and our stay was a comfortable one at the Hans Coco Palms. A good number of them are on the beach front and during heavy showers, the rain just lashes on the windows and doors, just right for you to order some pakoras and tea. The beach front also houses shacks selling fresh sea food and fried snacks. Apart from the temple, the alleys surrounding the temple house shops selling variety of knick knacks, milk based sweets and fresh milk based products.

IMG_20140831_131044_Fotor_Collage

Day 4- The Chilika lake, world’s second largest lagoon is a day trip from Chilika. The brackish water lagoon is spread over 1100 sq kms and is home to over 160 species of migratory birds. The Irrawady Dolphin calls this place home and tourists set out in trawlers and catamarans to enjoy the marine fauna. Our trip to Chilika was cancelled owing to a fierce cyclone. Shrugging shoulders we headed back to Bhubaneshwar and planned to stop by at Raghurajpur, home to artisans skilled in Pattachitra. Everyday stories are handpainted on cloth and these families have been pursuing this art since the 5th century. The art has a Geographical indication thus protecting them from fakes. The street in Raghurajpur is lined with families on both sides and they welcome you in to their homes to show you live demonstrations and also offer finished work for sale. A little bargaining can get you some authentic and eye-catching work. More to come, the village of Pipli on the way to Bhubaneshwar is home to the Applique form of Handicrafts. The word Applique has a French origin and it involves placing one piece of fabric over a base layer and sewing it in place. The concept is used extensively in canopies, umbrellas and on the chariots of Jagannath temple. You can plan to pick up exquisitely designed bags, totes, umbrellas and other items, which are a nice gift to take back home. For those of you interested in unique things, pay a visit to the Bhubaneshwar Railway station, an important stop on the line to Kolkata. I am personally a fan of trains and train stations and consider stations akin to a cultural destination, a place where non-homogenous people converge. Retired after a good dinner at Hotel

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 8_Fotor_Collage

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 8.38.56 PM

Day 5 – We still had one place to visit and that was the Museum of Tribal Arts and Artefacts. Tribes constitute about 22% of the state’s population (9% of the country) and as per last count, there are close to 62 distinct tribes of which 13 of them have been classified as “particularly vulnerable groups”. The local government has done an admirable job in curating arts and artefacts belonging to these tribes and presently house them in the Museum of Tribal arts and Artefacts. This must-do item helps one understand the state and India as a country and how it is trying to balance between preserving indigenous population against the need to industrialize. Hopping over to a few sweet shops to sample a local sweet called Chhena Phoda made of caramelized cottage cheese. With that sweet ending, we made our way to the friendly Bhubaneshwar airport in time for a check in for our flight to Mumbai.

20140901_111517_Fotor_Collage

Odisha has thrown its doors open to the world. Are you next?