Journeysmatter

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Category Archives: Hindu religion

#Kumbh 2019 – An unique and unforgettable experience – 1

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One of the boats on the banks of the Ganges ready to transport devotees to the Triveni Sangam

Kumbh Mela, in Hinduism, is a religious pilgrimage that is celebrated four times over a course of 12 years. The geographical location of Kumbh Mela spans over four locations in India and the Mela site keeps rotating between one of the four pilgrimages on four sacred rivers as listed below:

  • Haridwar on the Ganges in Uttarakhand
  • Ujjain on the Shipra in Madhya Pradesh
  • Nashik on the Godavari in Maharashtra
  • Prayagraj at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati in Uttar Pradesh

The twelth year of a cycle sees the Kumbh happening in Prayagraj. The last grand gathering happened in the year 2013. Six years since, Prayagraj becomes the site for an Ardh Kumbh or the mid way in the new 12 year cycle. One can read more about Kumbh 2019 and its significance here.

The 2013 Maha Kumbh and 2019 Ardh Kumbh have happened during different ruling dispensations and hence were expected to be handled differently. This two day travel experience to the Kumbh was to get a bath in the confluence and experience how the grand event was handled.

The Kumbh Tent City

  • The Tent city with a green carpet, tents and fire fighting equipment
  • A sit out to relax and grab a bit of sunshine
  • Two Beds, a Fan in the tent and a Caravan music player

Heading to the Triveni Sangam

  • Gulls warming up on water barricades as the sun comes up lighting up the Sangam
  • A simple Boat ride for Rs 1500 for an hour and half to travel to the Sangam (confluence) and return after bathing. Absolutely warm boatmen with proper safety equipment
  • This Kumbh was all about cleanliness. Cleanliness was to prevent diseases and stampedes during the festival. Every medium was used to message things out.
  • There was adequate police presence on the waters and the invisible eye to watch over the crowds
  • Passenger traffic on the Ganges transporting devotees and workers headed towards the Ghats.

The Bath at Triveni Sangam OR Confluence of Three rivers

  • The Kumbh Sangam or confluence
  • Boats parked at the confluence/sangam
  • Faithfuls smeared with vermillion paste by priests who conduct prayers at the sangam
  • Man sleeping on the boat on the lap of his wife

Getting to Prayagraj

Prayagraj is about 120 kms from Varanasi, the closest international airport. Prayagraj airport too has now been brought on India’s aviation map with services getting launched from May 2019. All of India’s major airlines like Air India, Indigo, Vistara and SpiceJet have excellent connectivity to Prayagraj and Varanasi. If one enters and exits via Varanasi, the added benefit of experiencing the oldest city in the universe can be realized.

  • A Dhaba and seating space
  • Two vegetable curries - One of Cauliflower with Peas and another with potatoes and spinach. Accompanying it is sumptuous dhal / pulses, salad and chapatis with Rice
  • A Tea shop iwth tea being served in disposable mud cups. Tea is prepared on a coal stove

We will explore the Ghats of Prayagraj in our next blog piece

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Yangon – Sights & Sounds 2

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The Shwedagon Pagoda at Twilight

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. In Part 2 of this blog series we explored the township of Mingun in the Mandalay region. In Part 3, we continued our exploration of Mandalay with a shore expedition to Innwa also called as Ava. Part 4 saw us visiting the cultural city of Bagan. Later, we started soaking in the sights and sounds of Yangon. In The first part of our Yangon Series, we visited the colonial era precincts on a wet day.

The Shwedagon Pagoda

The history of Yangon is intertwined with the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Wherever one may be in Yangon, in the busy town center, in the new towns of the east, in the industrial zone of the west, in the paddy fields of the north, the golden form of the Shwedagon will be seen on the skyline rising above the foliage of the tropical trees, and the top of high rises. Its history dates back to over 2500 years ago. The Pagoda is open from 4 AM to 10 PM with various modes of transport available. The entrace fee for Non-Myanmarese visitors is USD 8. It will be appropriate to dress conservatively with the knee and shoulders being covered. Please ask questions of your guide who will explain the place the way she explains to her kids. They are very well trained to answer questions.

The founding story of Shwedagon reaches back to the days of the Enlightenment of Gautama Buddha when He discovered the cause of universal suffering and the way to its elimination.

Describing the Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon is an archetypal Burmese-style zedi, or chedi, characterized by a wide, flaring base, a bell-shaped body, and a tall, tapering spire capped by a hti (umbrella finial). The zedi’s base is octagonal with redented edges, transitioning to circular bands 1/3rd of the way up. These in turn give way to the bell-shaped midsection (in Sri-Lankan fashion) topped with what is often described as an “inverted alms bowl”. From here, the shaft slowly tapers along a series of rings which give way to multiple ‘lotus-petal’ bands topped with a ‘banana bud’. As the banana bud tapers to a point, the hti covers the final few meters and is in turn topped with a vane and a diamond orb (the sein bu). [Courtesy – www.orientalarchitecture.com]

The Shwedagon pagoda
The zedi is gilded with gold, silver and copper plates that were often sponsored or donated by individuals seeking merit. Numerous jewels also bedeck the monument, with Stadtner noting that the very top of the monument holds “over 7,000 diamonds rubies, and sapphires attached to the vane and contained within the small orb-shaped object at the top” (Stadtner, p. 97). The vane alone weighs in at 419 kilograms and measures 130 centimeters in width, while the orb is 56 centimeters in diameter and contains 1,800 carats of fine diamonds.[Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com]

The main zedi is surrounded by 64 small stupas resembling miniature bells. These in turn are surrounded by almost a hundred square-shaped shrines located nearly at ground level. 

The Mahabodhi tree, 64 stupas around the main zedi and devotional halls
The Mahabodhi Tree in the Shwedagon Complex. Each monument around the main Zedi is associated with one of eight ‘planetary posts’ that corresponds to a particular planet, a specific animal, and a day of the week (Wednesday is given two posts, one for the morning and the other for the afternoon). Worshippers will typically begin their visit by praying at the planetary post corresponding to their birth date, then continue in a clockwise fashion around the ensemble. [Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com]

The Singu Min Bell

The Singu Min bell was donated in Year 1779 by King Singu, the fourth King of the Konbaung Dynasty. The official name of the bell is Maha Gandha meaning “Great Sound”. Weighing about 23 – 25 tonnes, 2.13 metres high, the Bell was said to have been cast between 1776 and 1779. The British attempted to steal the Bell which sank along with one of their boats. It was finally salvaged by the indigenous people of Myanmar.

Shwedagon complex and the singu Min Bell
The Singu Min Bell.. Attractive floor tiling. The Athangudi tiles of Karaikudi closely resemble the ones here. The wooden carved panels reminds us of the pagodas in the Mandalay region. Crowds milling around the Shwedagon complex

Chauk htat gyi temple of The Reclining Buddha

This temple features the largest Reclining Buddha in Myanmar. The entrace fee is a modest donation of USD 8. Opening times are between 6 AM and 8 PM. Needless to say, better to dress appropriately. The temple is well organized with enough space for the devout, visitors and even a gallery for photographers.

The reclining Buddha
The Buddha image is 66 metres (217 ft) long, and one of the largest in Burma.
The original Reclining buddha and image of Sir Po Tha
The construction was sponsored by a wealthy Burmese Buddhist, Sir Po Tha, in 1899.Being completed in 1907, it was believed that the proportion of the image was not appropriate and the Buddha had a very aggressive expression
Close up images of the head and eyes of the reclining Buddha
In the 1950s, the old Buddha image was demolished and temple trustees began work to replace the image. THe Naga Glass Factory created benign looking eyes of dimensions 1.77 by 58 metres. The image was consecrated in 1973
The Soles of the Reclining Buddha
108 distinguishing marks on both the soles representing the three worlds. 59 indicating the inanimate world, 21 indicating the animate world and 28 indicating the world of the conditioned. Essence is that Buddha is greater than all the three worlds. These marks were apparent right from the birth of the Buddha. Only one out of the 8 astrologers present predicted that the child born was destined to become the Buddha. There was an image of a universal monarch (Cakkavatti) on the child soles and a personage superior to a cakkavatti could only be a Buddha.

Getting to Myanmar

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China SouthernAll NipponBangkok AirwaysCathay PacificSingapore AirlinesThai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

We end our Myanmar series with a very interesting Train Journey. Watch out for Yangon Sights and Sounds Part 3

Sights & Sounds of Yangon – 1

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The City Hall Building of Yangon

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. In Part 2 of this blog series we explored the township of Mingun in the Mandalay region. In Part 3, we continued our exploration of Mandalay with a shore expedition to Innwa also called as Ava. In Part 4, we explored the raw energies of Bagan. Now, we set out to explore the key sights and sounds of Yangon during our first ever visit to this wonderful country.

Rangoon was the earlier name for Yangon since independence from the British in 1948. Yangon became the closest pronunciation to its original Burmese (Myanmar) name. The world now knows Rangoon as Yangon since 2006. We planned a two day tour of Yangon covering its key sights and sounds. A good Japanese made second hand rented, re-furbished and chauffered cab is usually available with the tour companies. They are well versed with the routes and are polite and very service conscious. If doing by self, taxis can be hailed but negotiation is a must before boarding.

Myanmar City Taxis and Private cars are mostly Japanese made and hand down models. Many retain the original Japenese kanji characters. However, they are clean and very well maintained.
Myanmar City Taxis and Private cars are mostly Japanese made and hand down models. Many retain the original Japenese kanji characters. However, they are clean and very well maintained.

Myanmar Tamils

Tamils have been an integral part of the ethnic fabric of Myanmar. Their presence dates back to the chola period between the 9th and 11th century AD. Later, after British annexation, many Tamils are said to have moved to Myanmar to work as labour in Rice fields and Rubber plantations. While current generation of Myanmar Tamils have embraced the Myanmarese way of life including their own name that resonates locally, they have kept their religious fervor alive by celebrating key Hindu and Tamil festivals. The Tamils inhabit townships in Yankin and Dala.

The Gopuram of Kali temple towers above the smaller gopuram near the entrance
The Kali Temple in Yangon was built in 1871 by Tamil Labourers is among the many HIndu Temples in the city.

The Holy Trinity Church and Scotts Market

The Holy Trinity Church was the first Anglican church to be built in Yangon between 1886 and 1895 replacing a modest structure. The church was designed by a Madras (now chennai) based architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and accommodated architectural styles to suit the climatic conditions of the city. The Scott market bult in 1926 is the former name of what is now called Bogyoke Aung San Market named after the founding father of modern day Myanmar. The name Scott is said to have been attributed to Mr. Gavin Scott , a former Municipal Commissioner of the area. The former colonial era building now virtually sells everything; You may call it the Alibaba / Amazon of Yangon.

Holy Trinity cathedral and Kali temple of Yangon
The Holy Trinity Church is the main Anglican cathedral in Yangon. THe Kali temple is a key Hindu temple built by Tamil Labourers. Mud lamps are lit by devotees as part of their prayers.
Tanaka barks with a stone grinding accessory, pearls and dress materials of different colors
The Scott market is a touch and feel have it all kind of a market. Shop here for Tanaka, pearls, clothing of different states of Myanmar, Pre-paid calling cards, currency exchange, medicines and almost every kind of chinese plastic. If you do manage to find something please do bargain

Yangon CityHall area

The City Hall area gives you one place to marvel at all the colonial era buildings of Yangon. It is estimated that that Yangon has the most of these buildings in almost all of South East Asia. The City Hall is the administrative seat of the Yangon Development Council. The building dates back to 1936. In its vicinity are the Sule Pagoda, Maha Bandula Park, The High Court, Main Post offices and other structures. There are numerous snack and betelnut vendors and plenty of open space to just sit and indulge in people and building watching

The Obelisk at Maha Bandula park, Sule Pagoda and the City Hall building
The Obelisk installed in 1948 to commemorate Myanmar’s freedom from the British, The Imposing structure of the City Hall and the Sule Pagoda form a very busy town area in Yangon.

Travelling to Myanmar

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China SouthernAll NipponBangkok AirwaysCathay PacificSingapore AirlinesThai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

In part 2 of Sights and Sounds of Yangon, we explore the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Reclining Buddha

Welcome to Banteay Srei, #Cambodia

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THe Banteay Srei Temple

In my previous post, I wrote about Kabal Spean, The valley of Thousand Lingas, situated close to the temple city of Siem Reap. On one’s way back from Kabal Spean, we get to visit the temple complex of Banteay Srei. The complex houses remnants from the Khmer empire during its glorious Saivite period.

Said to have been completed in 967, Banteay Srei was the only major temple at Angkor not built for the king; instead it was constructed by one of king Rajendravarman’s counsellors, Yajnyavahara. The construction is said to have begun during the period of RajendraVarman (assigned the title Sivaloka upon his demise) and completed by his son Jayavarman V (assigned the title Paramavirataloka upon his demise) The temple was primarily dedicated to Shiva (the southern buildings and the central tower were devoted to him, but the northern ones to Vishnu). It lies near the hill of Phnom Dei 25 km (15 miles) northeast of the main group of temples, where the capital of the time (Yashodharapura) was located. It remained in use at least until the 14th century. The town of Isvarapura was centred on the temple.

The temple’s original name was Tribhuvanamahesvara — “great lord of the threefold world” — named as usual after the central image (in this case a Shaivite linga). The modern name, Banteay Srei — “citadel of the women” or “citadel of beauty” — is generally taken to refer to the intricacy of the carving and the tiny dimensions of the architecture.

The temple was rediscovered only in 1914, and was the subject of a celebrated case of art theft when André Malraux stole four devatas in 1923 (he was soon arrested and the figures returned).

Banteay Srei entrance, Walkway, moat and sandstone ruins

The Banteay Srei Temple complex was said to have been constructed during the 10th century . Construction is said to have begun by Rajendravarman II and said to have continued and completed under Jayavarman V

Banteay Srei’s style is a mix of the archaic and the innovative. It is built largely of red sandstone, with brick and laterite used only for the enclosure walls and some structural elements. Although Banteay Srei’s coloration is unique, sandstone of other shades was later to become the norm.

The Plan view of Banteay Srei Temple

Map representing the layout of Banteay Srei temple. THe Moat surrounding the temple helps maintain the water table and ensures that the temple structure is not damaged

Pediments are large in comparison to entrances, in a sweeping gabled shape. For the first time whole scenes appear on the pediments(the triangular upper part of the front of a classical building, typically surmounting a portico), while the lintels (A lintel is a structural horizontal block that spans the space or opening between two vertical supports) with central figures and kalas on looped garlands look backwards. The guardian dvarapalas and the colonettes are also old-fashioned. Decoration covering almost every available surface is deeply sculpted and figures rounded. Like most Khmer temples, Banteay Srei is orientated towards the east.

Two Monkey or Va-Nara resembling door keepers

THe Dwarapalakas near the southern library portion of the temple. Curious to see the Dwarapalakas in the form of Va-Naras. Well built, fantastic in posture and gaze fixated in a common direction, the figures epitomize discipline

Stories galore

The temple, like any other temple in India seems to have been a place for learning of art and forms, language, texts etc., and serving as a place for meditation, rest and prayers. Apart from the above, the pediments are filled with stories, many of them which have been told across the lands of India and SE Asia.

Ravana shaking Mount Kailash

The sculpture is very beautifully carved out in four tiers, each representing different categories of creatures – from the four legged in the fourth, half-human/half animal in the third, Rishis in the second and Shiva and Uma on the top-most pedestal, all of whom look petrified other than Lord Shiva.

The Supreme God sits majestically oppressing Ravana’s strength with his toe and one cannot take his/her eyes off Shiva’s consort Uma/ Parvathi – created with a fear filled jerk.

Ravana shaking Mount Kailash where Lord Siva and Parvati are seated

A famous piece in Banteay Srei. The depiction of Ravananugraha or a favour being shown to Ravana.Ravana was trying to get Siva’s attention by shaking Mt Kailash, abode of Siva. The lord trapped Ravana under the mountain by bringing the mountain down with his feet. Trapped, Ravana sang the praise of Siva for over 1000 years till he was blessed by Siva with a Sword and a powerful Linga for prayers

Krishna killing Kamsa

In the eastern facing part of southern gopuram. Krishna dragging kamsa by hair and killed by a dagger. In the bhagavatha purana it is said that Krishna killed Kamsa by sheer force of his weight. THis in response to Kamsa’s orders to arrest krishna’s adoptive father, confiscation of the wealth of Gopas and ordering the death of vasudeva and ugrasena, the king of mathura.

Image of Krishna holding Kamsa by Hair and piercing him with a dagger

The stories at Banteay Srei seemed to cover all the Yugas. Krishna is said to have emerged towards the end of the Dvapara Yuga and with Mahabharata he is said to have seen the transition in to Kaliyuga, the present times we live in. Here, he is seen slaying his Uncle , dragging him by hair and killing him with a dagger. In the bhagavatha purana it is said that Krishna killed Kamsa by sheer force of his weight. THis in response to Kamsa’s orders to arrest krishna’s adoptive father, confiscation of the wealth of Gopas and ordering the death of vasudeva and ugrasena, the king of mathura.

Siva burning Kama who is attempting to shoot an arrow at him

Kamadeva readying to fire an arrow towards Lord Siva

Kamadeva in the process of trying to disrupt Siva’s meditation gets burnt. While he was just doing the biding of the gods who coaxed him to the job so that Siva is attracted to Parvati, Kamadeva is burnt to ashes leaving his grieving wife Rati behind.

The Travel of Karaikal Ammaiyar, one of the 3 women among the 63 Nayanmar’s (Poet saints) of Siva. One of early Tamil Literature’s greatest figures, she is said to have lived during the 6th century. The Chola period of Tamilnadu which began during the 9th century is believed to have had a large sphere of influence across South , south east of India and South East Asia. Researchers from the team of varalaaru, a respected Tamil historical publication state that, ” Political Non-turbulence at home, Cordial Diplomacy abroad and Economic Affluence beyond high seas are indeed factors to prove that overseas Tamil Trader Settlements would have played a quintessential part in Religious Acculturation of the Southeast Asian Kingdoms they were living in.”

Dancing Siva or Nataraja and Karaikal Ammaiyar

Cultural Influences of India were found absorbed in the nooks and corners of Cambodia. The dancing Siva with his ardent lady Devotee – Karaikal Ammaiyar, a 6th century saint from TamilNadu, India. THe Image on top is courtesy of http://www.varalaaru.com; Below is a representation of Ammaiyar, an ardent devotee of siva and finds a place among the pantheons of 63 Nayanmars (saint poets)

Indra, a vedic deity for the Hindus, Guardian deity for the Buddhists and King of the highest heaven in Jainism is depicted across the Bantey Srei complex

Indra on Airavath

One of the first images that greets you at the entrance from the East corridor is the image of Indra the god of heavens on his vehicle or vahan, Airavath his elephant. Carved in sandstone, the Elephants are sheer delight. Indra with large ear holes are typical of Khmer architecture.

Another pediment shows Indra creating rain to put out a forest fire started by Agni to kill a naga living in the woods; Krishna and his brother aid Agni by firing arrows to stop the rain.

Indra creating rain to put out the fire started by Agni

On the north library’s east pediment, Indra creates rain to put out a forest fire started by Agni to kill a naga living in the woods; Krishna and his brother aid Agni by firing arrows to stop the rain. The photo on top is courtesy of Angkorshafie.com

Lord Siva with his consort and Yama

Lord Siva with his consort Parvati on his faithful Nandi

Lord Siva with his consort Parvati on his faithful Nandi. Around him are Siv Gans, his attendants

Lord Yama on a Buffalo

Lord Yama, the god of death on his vehicle, the Buffalo

A crucial point in the epic Ramayana where Rama vanquishes Vali

Rama, Lakshmana, Vali and Sugreeva with other Va-Naras

A beautiful depiction of a turning point in the Ramayana. Vali and Sugreeva fight while Rama and Lakshmana wait to strike. Here, Rama can be seen striking Vali.

Other pediments with stories of Bheema killing Jarasandha and Lord Narasimha killing Hiranyakasipu the demon. Also featuring Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kartikeya.

What is a Siva temple without his trusted vehicle and attendant, Nandi. There are many snanadronis which dot the landscape of the temple. The main Nandi faces the sanctum which housed the main deity.

Nandi and two snanadronis

Starting from top left, Nandi the bull without whose consent one cannot not enter the altar of Lord Siva. Often people can be found whispering their prayers and requests into Nandi’s ears. Snanadronis at Banteay Srei which would have contained lingas

Kabal Spean with Bantey Srei will keep you immersed for a day and will leave a lasting imprint on your mind.

Getting to Siem Reap – Siem Reap is served by major Flag Carriers who also service india. Regular services from major Indian cities to #Bangkok (Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways), #Kualalumpur (Malaysian) and #Singapore (Singapore/SilkAir) will get you to Siem Reap with just one halt. The Visa facility too has been eased with the introduction of e-visas. Hotels are in plenty and one can find hotels to suit one’s budget with the assistance of an excellent ground travel agent. Travel agents offer excellent service right from suggestions on hotels to suit budgets, tying up with a registered guide, park tickets based on the interests and other add ons like a visit to the magnificient Tonle Sap lake.

Content Credits

http://www.varalaaru.com – Images of Karaikal Ammaiyar, talking points about Banteay Srei temple especially the content regarding dancing nataraja and Karaikal Ammaiyar. Map of Banteay Srei temple

http://www.cambodgemag.org – Images of Indira creating rains

http://www.angkorshafie.com – Descriptive content regarding the Banteay Srei temple

 

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

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Hundreds of lingas sculpted on rocks lying on the river bed of Kbal Spean

On a trip to any country in South East Asia, it is a rarity to not come across a Hindu Temple – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, all of them have benefited from contacts which they have had with India over the centuries.

Map of SOuth east Asia 900 CE showing various kingdoms

THe region of Kambuja had deep connects with India between the 6th/7th century right up to the 12th/13th century. Not only Kambuja, Monstates(present day Myanmar), Champa (central and south vietnam), Annam (North Vietnam), Java and Malaya regions too benefited from Indian influence – all without use of force or economic coercion

Historian RC Majumdar writes in his lecture series, Ancient Indian Colonization in South-east Asia, “The term Hindu is used here in a very broad sense. As is well-known, the word Hindu is derived from Sindhu, the name of the mighty river on the western border of India. The parsis used this name to denote also the territory lying on the bank of the river, that is to say that part of our country which was known to them. Gradually the name Sindhu in its phonetically changed form Hindu came to denote the whole of this country. Advent of the Muslims necessitated the use of two different terms to denote the two distinct classes of people. Henceforth the term Hindu came to denote the people of India other than the Muslims.”

This Diwali vacation, i had the opportunity to visit Cambodia, a vibrant tourist hotspot famed for the UNESCO world heritage Angkor Wat temples, beach city of Sihanoukville, historic capital city of Pnohm Penh and of course the mighty Mekong river which emerges from Tibet and nourishes countries on its way before emptying in to the South China Sea.

With Siem Reap being the only stop in #Cambodia, my effort was to go beyond Angkor Wat and explore the visible remnants of the region and how Indian culture had an influence. One such place of Interest is Kbal Spean, an Angkor era archeological site which is also called as the Valley of 1000 lingas.

Before embarking on a trip to Kbal Spean, one has to purchase the Angkor Pass – One day for USD 37, Three day for USD 62 and Seven day for USD 72. These are available at the complex on the main road to Angkor Wat. Kbal Spean is an hour’s ride from Siem Reap and the access begins at the Kulein mountains. Enroute is another major temple complex of Banteay Srei with Banteay Samre being a detour. The three put together form a day excursion. It is important to note the timings in order to avoid disappointment.

The walk to the valley of the 1000 lingas begins at a checkpoint. It is 1.5 kms but takes a good 40 minutes as one navigates slippery rocks and rough terrain. Stairs are available at steep climbing points but one definitely needs to watch their step at every point to avoid a fall. Pause and take a look at breathtaking views of the forests below, the rainforest canopy, natural rocky outcrops, tough creepers and climbers and of course a few reptiles. There are countdown boards egging you on during the short but tricky trek.

Way to Kbal Spean where nature mesmerizes you

The Walk to Kbal Spean from the base camp is about 1.5 kms and takes a good 40 minutes across boulders, rocky paths, natural rocky outcrops, valley views and beautiful creepers and vines

For the majority of visitors Kbal Spean is a picnic spot with a waterfall to cool off; The first sight of the lingas carved in to the river bed just made me bring my palms in union. It was not just about the reliefs of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi that were carved in to the river bed but how the thoroughness with which Indian culture and civilization , in all its aspects would have been imbibed in Kambuja (ancient name of the great kingdom of present day Cambodia)

Two bas relief's showcasing the trinity brahma, vishnu and siva

Top above, Siva and Parvati on Nandi; Vishnu reclined on sesha with Brahma emerging from his navel. Below – Lord vishnu, Brahma and lakshmi on a lotus at Vishnu’s feet

Scholars, priests, merchants and persons of various hues who travelled from India to Kambuja desa left a distinct imprint whether it was about a religious, ethical & spiritual life, spirit of piety & renunciation and most importantly the concept of emancipation from birth & deaths. A peek in to texts of scholars, archeologists and historians who have taken immense pains to read through inscriptions (In sanskrit and Khmer) will tell us that all the cultural maturity was achieved between the 6th century and 12th century. The indian influence was without any force or economic colonization. The 700 golden years of Kambuja desa ended as India was trampled upon by the Mughal empire and Cambodia remained a French protectorate till atleast the 19th century.

Images of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva

Brahma, Vishnu and Siva at various points in rocks strewn across the river bed in Kbal Spean

The site at Kbal Spean was discovered by Jean Boulbet, french ethnologist in the year 1969. Cut off during the Cambodian civil war, it was not until 1989 that the site was thrown open for visitors.

4 images of lingams and snanadronis at various places on the river bed

Not only the presence of lingas on the river bed, there are a number of Snanadronis without their lingams. Snanadronis are sculpted structures which drain the water flowing over the lingam

During the period from 6th and 12th century, Kambuja Desa began as a Saivite (rever Shiva as the supreme being) kingdom. The Angkor Wat temple was dedicated to Vishnu (Vaishnavite – Vishnu as the supreme being) around mid 12th century before Kambuja desa embraced Theravada buddhism as its main religion. The Kbal Spean site is said to have been carved during the 11th and 12th century which saw the reigns of some of the greatest kings of Kambuja – Suryavarman I and his successor UdayadityaVarman II. The kings had laid out very clear rules in society – conduct of oneself, treatment of seers & the learned and priests & physicians being held in high esteem.

Lord Siva is venerated across many temples in the world. THe most commonly worshipped form is the linga and the linga is kept cool with a continuous dripping of water at its head. The Kbal spean site with its “SahasraLingas” (1000 lingas in Sanskrit) has a continuous stream of water flowing on top of it. The water having flown over the sacred lingas enters the city of Angkor thereby said to be blessing the city.

Lingas on the river bed and representation of Shakti

The full stretch of the river bed over which the river flows bathing the lingams perpetually and keeping them happy and cool. There is also a grid pattern with the water flowing out representing the Yoni, a representation of Shakti, Siva’s consort

The carving sites have been fenced off to ensure that visitors dont desecrate the holy site. Still, one can reach out and grab a hanful of the cool water that has flown over the lingas and drink up without fear of any contamination. On a hot afternoon it is an absolute delight.

Walking downstream one can watch revellers below a cataract which further flows over many more lingas before meandering its way through the forests and entering the city of Angkor.

4 images of a rainforest stream, waterfall, a chamelon and tree mushrooms

The downstream area of Kbal spean is full of vibrance. Cataracts, reptiles, mushrooms and beautiful Rain forests dot the landscape

Having visited Kailash Mansarovar in the year 2015, the import of the visit to Kbal Spean and the opportunity to be in his presence was not lost on me. The place is pure energy and brought out a determination in my wife who despite a tricky trek was able to make it and savor the moment.

After this visit, i came back and immersed myself in two books by a highly respected historian of India – Shri R.C Majumder. Kambuja Desa – An Ancient Hindu Colony in Cambodia (Sir William Meyer Lectures 1942 – 43) and Ancient Indian Colonization in South East Asia (The Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad Honorarium Lecture, 1953-54). These opened the door to understand the extent of influence of India in the region. Needless to say, i am restless to go back to Cambodia and explore other wonderful places of the Kambuja Empire.

Getting to Siem Reap – Siem Reap is served by major Flag Carriers who also service india. Regular services from major Indian cities to #Bangkok (Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways), #Kualalumpur (Malaysian) and #Singapore (Singapore/SilkAir) will get you to Siem Reap with just one halt. The Visa facility too has been eased with the introduction of e-visas. Hotels are in plenty and one can find hotels to suit one’s budget with the assistance of an excellent ground travel agent. Travel agents offer excellent service right from suggestions on hotels to suit budgets, tying up with a registered guide, park tickets based on the interests and other add ons like a visit to the magnificient Tonle Sap lake.

A photo blog and Supporting information guide for Yatris preparing to travel to #KailashMansarovar organized by Ministry of External Affairs, India

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The Himalayas

From June 11th of 2017 till September 2017, 1430 lucky yatris will be able to accomplish a cherished goal – One of successfully completing the Holy Kailash and Mansarovar Yatra. The Yatra, excellently organized by our Ministry of External Affairs with support from Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, ITBP, Sashastra Seema Bal and the Chinese authorities is a massive exercise in logistics, co-ordination and participation. The Yatris can do their bit by preparing well, staying fit and extending their co-operation to the organizers and fellow yatris. I have been part of Batch 5 of the Yatra during 2015. This photo blog captures my preparatory experience with supporting visuals wherever possible. I see this as my way of paying back to the Holy feet of the lord himself. Om Namah Shivayah!

BAGS – The bags are carried throughout the yatra with the help of mules. It is better to stick to a maximum of 10 – 12 kgs. Select a light weight duffel bag which is water resistant and a good duffel bag. Check out the choices available here for duffel bags and day packs. At the Gujarat sadan, the organizers provide you with a plastic/fertilizer bag to seal the bag. Add your identifier like a satin tape with name and batch number. This is useful when luggage is picked up and handed over at the lipulekh pass. Keep one empty small bag which can be left at Gunji with clothes you may not need. REMEMBER – As you climb altitude, shed your bag weight and get lighter.

Bags and packing for Kailash

Starting Top Left Clockwise 1- A Tarpaulin material water resistant duffel bag which gets transported throughout the Yatra. Use Plastic covers to line the insides and pack your stuff. Should be around 10 to 12 Kg maximum. A Day pack – for carrying on self or with the porter containing a change of clothes, medicines and thermals. A smaller bag which can store used items that can be either left at Dharchula or Gunji and collected upon return 2. Day pack by Quechua – Forclaz 30 Air 3. Tatonka – Medium size Duffel Bag 4. Waist pouch with Passport and Cash – always on self 5. Packing at the Gujarat sadan Using fertilizer grade water resistant bags, ropes and identifiers like satin tapes and yatri name and registration number on the bags.

MEDICAL KIT – The following 9 items are more than sufficient for your entire Yatra. This is apart from any other medication that your physician has advised. Listen to the advise of doctors at Batra Hospital in Delhi, ITBP hospitals in Delhi and Gunji. If you have to take a Pony + Porter both on the Indian side and Chinese side, take them. You will need them when your legs tire. It also helps to stabilize your breathing and settle your blood pressure. If you feel the need for an oxygen can, you can find one at Taklakot in their markets. For Altitude sickness – TR Coca 200 Drachms / Coca 6x can be purchased from any homeo clinic in your home town or in Delhi. Follow the schedule as advised and it should keep you in good shape till you start the descent back.

Essentials in the bag

From Top Left – Band Aid Strips, Paracetamol Tablet, Anti Allergic Tablet, Vaseline lip balm to avoid chaffed lips – to be kept in pant pocket, SPF 30+ cream on face, hands and exposed parts – to be used from day 2 regularly till return, Vaseline petroleum jelly – rub in nostrils before sleeping for easy breathing, Neosporin powder for any wounds before bandaging, Candid anti fungal and bacterial powder – dust in to socks before slipping on shoes. Muscle relaxing cream for any sprains

HYDRATION – Important to stay hydrated throughout the trip. Often long walks can leave you short of salts. Keep sipping water every 30 minutes and consume ORS/Electral if you feel drained of energy. Ask your porter/pony handler to fill up water from the streams on the indian side and experience the goodness of nature. Nothing can beat the taste of a natural spring.

Water bottle, ORS and Electral

A water bottle of maximum of one liter that can fit in to the sides of your day pack, a packet of ORS or Electral to support your water requirements and salt replenishment. If water is exhausted, ask your pony handler or porter to fill it from the nearest stream. It is absolutely safe. Please consume water every 30 to 45 minutes and an average of 3.5 to 4 liters per day. Don’t stop drinking water even if you don’t feel thirsty.

OTHER SNACKS – Make small sized packets of dry fruits and sugar candies. They are excellent for snacking during long walks in the sun. Keep some in your day pack and some in your trouser pockets.

Dry fruits and sugary sweets

Make small packets of dry fruits – Walnuts, Almonds, Dried Grapes, Dried Figs and sugar sweets to keep you fit when you walk long distances – on an average of 15 – 20 kms per day. Keep them in your day pack or in the pockets of your trousers

CLOTHING DURING INDIAN SIDE TREKS  – On the Indian side treks begin at 5 – 530 AM and yatris reach their guest houses post lunch around 2 / 3 PM. It is usually sunny and one sweats extensively during such treks. Stick to simple cotton t-shirts (around 6 should be enough) and a water resistant trouser; Two such trousers are sufficient for the entire trip. Rain coats are fine but keep it only for the upper part. Advisable to keep two pairs of strong shoes. One for a lower altitude and one for higher altitudes.

Clothing for the Yatra on the indian stretch

When walking on the indian side from Dharchula to Gunji via Sirkha, Gala and Budhi it will be quite sunny. Use a cotton T-Shirt, wear a water resistant trouser (no jeans) and wear shoes which give you enough grip. Use cotton socks in this stretch. If it rains, carry a rain coat (2 pieces). You can leave them in Gunji in a spare bag if you feel you don’t need it. The trouser, usually has multiple pockets to store instant snacks, ORS and medicines if required

CLOTHING DURING HIGHER ALTITUDE TREKS  – Starting from Gunji after an extra night of acclimatization, treks are always on a higher altitude. During this period it is wise to switch to full hand t-shirts with trousers, liberal application of sunscreen, sun goggles and full UV protection caps. One may also use Quick drying T-shirts during this stretch. They can be purchased from here

Full T shirt and Trouser

When walking at higher altitudes starting from Gunji up to chinese side and return, use a full length, quick dry t-shirt and a water resistant trouser. The full hand t-shirt will keep you safe from UV rays. For high altitudes and snow, use a stronger shoe which is water resistant as you may have to cross streams, walk in ankle/knee deep snow.

CLOTHING DURING THE PARIKRAMA – Clothing during the parikrama needs care and attention to avoid exposure to the wind. Starting from the crossing at Lipulekh to Dolma, exposure to winds is going to be high. During these times, it is important to have three layers of clothing as given below – T-shirt, Fleece Jacket and a wind + water proof jacket. Apart from these, important to have the right protection to cover your face to avoid chafed lips. Useful to have anti-frostbite socks if possible else woolen socks too will suffice.

Yatra Clothing

Starting from Navidhang where yatris depart at 3 AM, right up to completion of the Yatra, it is advisable to wear 3 layers. Inner layer is a T-Shirt, On top of the T-Shirt, you can consider wearing a warm fleece jacket and finally a Wind, snow and water proof jacket. The final jacket should completely cover your neck and should have a hoodie provision. Trousers can be the same water resistant one. Use either a woolen socks or a

FOOTWEAR – Important to carry two pieces of robust footwear. Break in to them atleast a month before the Yatra and feel comfortable walking in them. Go for shoes with Ankle support. You can review the models for lower altitudes and higher altitudes. Gaiters are extremely useful to avoid any leeches or insects getting in to your legs, stones and even snow. Hiking poles are an absolute must especially while crossing streams and checking for depth of snow. Buy one which can be adjusted for height.

Footwear and walking

On the left is a low altitude trekking boots usually used up to 10,000 – 12,000 feet. On top of the green shoes are Gaitors which are used when walking on slush or Snow to avoid leeches and snow seeping in to shoes. On the right are shoes with heavier tread and increased water resistance useful when walking in higher altitudes. Use the extensible hiking poles (green and red) while walking. Use only one pole during hiking.

HEAD GEAR – Extremely important considering the UV exposure, sun rays, winds and reflection of sunlight from the snow. Avoid any temporary blindness that could come out of reflected light by having a wrap around goggles always accessible.

Head and Hand gear during walking

Cap with UV protection, Wollen beanies to wear, Microfibre to protect against harsh winds especially at higher altitudes in Lipulekh pass and Dolma La. Complete eye protection from UV rays and sunlight reflecting from snow. One has to make sure that the eye wear can be worn with a neck band and hung on the neck. Leather gloves during high altitude and windy terrain are more effective in keeping one warm

GUEST HOUSE / YATRI NIVAS WEAR – During overnight stops at Yatri Nivas’, it is important to be appropriately clothed and also stay protected as the overnight temperatures dip to single digits on the Indian side and sub-zero on the chinese side.

Guest house resting wear

On the left – Simple wear when in the guest house. A cotton track pants, Cotton t-shirt and a shell jacket and/or Wind protection jacket. On the right – Quick dry underwear. Having 4 or 5 of them can help you through the Yatra without any pressure of having to wash them and waiting for them to dry.

THERMALS – Thermals have a very important function at high altitudes and at low temperatures. It is important to understand the function of Thermals and use them appropriately. Recommended to go for one pair of Cotton thermals and one pair of synthetic thermals. Use is described in the image below.

About Thermals

Thermals – When to wear them and How to use them. On the left are Cotton thermals and on the right are polyester mixed thermals. On the indian side and up to 10,000 – 12,000 feet, cotton thermals can be worn during night before going to bed. Wear only thermals when going to bed as it can keep you very warm. No other layer on top of it. During Yatra and at higher altitudes wear the other thermals. If during the yatra you feel the need for a thermal pant during walking, wear one and then put on a water resistant trouser on top. Simple rule – At night, only thermals will suffice. During walking, it is optional.

This Yatra is led by extremely competent liaison officers who are well oriented, well equipped and one who has a direct line with the ministry regarding the status and well being of the yatris. Our only job is to listen to the instructions regarding safety & comfort given by the officers along with ITBP & SSB officers and KMVN guides. This guide follows the official document provided by the Ministry; Any other items required over and above the official list is as per the discretion of the yatri.

Wishing you all a successful Kailash Mansarovar Yatra 2017

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 3

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Did you read about The Migrations of East Africa? If not, read about it here. Let us now help you prepare for this once in a life time experience. Have a sit down session with your travel partner, inform yourself and carve out a personalized itinerary catering to your requirements and budget. We spoke about health requirements and transit points in Part 1 and about the people and their lives in Part 2 . In this concluding part, we discuss about unique and easy eats, how the local people move around and about entry and exit points in to Masai  Mara and Serengeti.

Food – The local choices and No Fuss eating experiences

Cafes, restaurants in Malls cater to palates of all kinds. The Artcaffe coffee & Bakery is a must stop at all times of the day especially for their soups, breads, pastries and of course coffee. Ask your driver guide to take you to at least one of their outlets during your stay.

Soup, Falafel, Pasta and Cake n Coffee

Artcaffe in Nairobi for a light lunch and great coffee – Soups, Falafels, Fresh Pasta and great Salted Caramel cake with an Americano

Restaurants attached to lodges serve set meals/packed lunches during your game drives. For a vegetarian packed lunch ask for stir fried veggies with Rice OR Sandwiches along with a fruit and drink.

Sandwich, Rice and stir fried veggies, fruit and a drink

Packed lunch during a game drive – Sandwich, Stir fried veggies with Rice, Fruit and a drink

Apart from great tasting local coffees across Kenya and Tanzania, do try the Bitter lemon soda – Kale and a Schweppes Pineapple soda – Nannasi. Extremely refreshing on a hot day.

A bottle of Krest Bitter lemon and a bottle of Schweppes pineapple drink

Kale Bitter Lemon and Schweppes Pineapple drink

Make sure you buy some bananas (East African Highland Bananas) as it is the cheapest source of nutrition around and extremely filling during the long drives. If you dare to venture, try out the porridges on offer at some of the stops enroute. Of course, take help from your driver – guide.

Ragi porridge with BrownSugar and a Kidney Bean salad with Vegetables

Porridge with Sugar and a hearty Bean + Salad breakfast

Morning breakfast is incomplete without a steamed tuber/vegetable like potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, arrowroot or Pumpkins. The starch fills you up plus loads you up with essential minerals. The corn based dishes like Ukale along with a spinach stir fry will make you go for a second helping and make sure you have them hot. Eggs, the perennial favorite are cooked everywhere per your choice.

Omelette preparation and a finished omelette

Eggs – Everywhere and in all forms. Readies you before your arduous game drive

The lodges experiment with vegetarian variations of African dishes like the Moroccan Tagine for example which has a mix of spices, chickpeas and vegetables. With so much of indian influence, rare to not have an indian dish in the set menu for dinner at the lodges. Some of the lodges have a live meat counter much like the beloved weekend favorite NyomaChoma (Grilled Meat) available across the region.

Highlight – A few tented camps like like Kichwa Tembo offer a wake up call with Coffee, Tea and Hot Chocolate served via a pantry window at the time of your choice.

French Press, Flasks of Milk, Hot Chocolate and cookies

Wakeup Service at Kichwa Tembo – Fresh French Press, Hot Chocolate and cookies

Using services / Take Help offered

The local guide, hotel bell boys insist on taking your luggage and servicing you right from the moment you land. They insist that it is disrespectful to allow the guest to carry his/her own luggage. A decent tip atleast 100 Kenyan Shilling ( 1 USD) / 2000 Tanzanian Shilling (1 USD). For all local driver guide services, please do consult your travel partner on Tipping etiquettes, plus consider your safari experience before tipping. For all lodge services, either use the common gratuity box or tip in person. For Indian travelers it is advisable to carry USD from their point of origin for better rates at the exchange point. INR almost always fetches Kenyan shilling on parity basis.

How people Travel in the region

You must be in your 4*4 watching the traffic and wild life outside.

Matatus in Kenya and DalaDala’s in Tanzania are mini bus based transportation systems that can transport about 25 people in a vehicle. Respectable and easily accessible, they are by far the most reliable form of transportation around for those without private transport. There are about 400 Matatu Saccos registered for operation in Kenya. Saccos are cooperatives or companies for ease of management and enforcement of discipline. It is wonderful to see such a self- organised system in this fast developing region. This has brought in a lot of sanity to public transport, the locals say.

Matatus mini bus in Kenya

Matatus & DalaDala’s are the most organized form of transport across Kenya and Tanzania. Many have declared support for Football teams

It was mandatory for all those seeking a Transport Licensing Board (TLB) certification to be members of a Matatu Saccos in Kenya or belong to a company. About 1,000 matatu Saccos and 400 companies have been registered. Matatu operators, who constitute 80 per cent of the public transport system, are estimated to have an annual turnover of Kshs73 billion. To its credit, the Matatu sector buys Kshs 4 billion insurance premiums every year and remits Kshs 1 billion taxes annually. The Matatu Saccos have played a significant role in the growth of public transport and some have now become respected brands in the sector.

The Saccos proved to be the most viable way to manage large public transport fleets. They have also been pioneers in changing the image of public transport, which was dominated by rogue drivers and touts without regard for traffic rules.

Bike Taxis or ‘Boda Boda’ is another popular yet a risky mode of transport across cities and towns of East Africa; You can see more of them in Kenya. Targeted typically at the bottom of the pyramid, the bike taxis transport people and goods at affordable prices. Some of these bikes are chinese made and have to handle poor potholed roads. There is talk of a new type of bike called ‘Kibo’ designed specifically to tackle the poor roads across Kenya.

The roads in tanzania are wider, well banked and in much better shape. The current PM of Tanzania was formerly the roads and civic infrastructure minister of Tanzania. That says it all.

Masai Mara & Serengeti Entrance Gates

Whether you or your agent has selected the lodge, it is important to prepare yourself before traveling for this once in a lifetime experience. Masai Mara has 6 entrance gates and Serengeti has 5 entrance gates. It pays to understand the approach to the lodge, the closest entrance gate and if there is an option of using an air strip close by. This has an overall impact on your itinerary and helps you decide if you want to begin from Nairobi, Kenya or Dar Es Salaam/Arusha in Tanzania. This could potentially give you more ideas; For example, if you were entering via Arusha (Kilimanjaro airport), you could spend an extra couple of nights at Tarangire or Lake Manyara, visit the Ngorongoro crater and continue your onward journey in to Serengeti via the Naabi Hill Gate. In any case, be prepared for a minimum of an hour’s ride in order to get to your lodge. The option of air is a smart one and is a popular one as well. But, you visit the park for the game drives and those precious sightings of every kind.

Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Emirates, Dubai and Etihad, Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.

Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.