Journeysmatter

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Category Archives: Hindu religion

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 2

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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 here.  Now to understanding the people and their lives.

It is very well know that workers, traders and merchants of Indian Sub-continental origin found their way to Kenya and Tanzania and set up businesses that are a major source of employment. But, the region and its Indigenous people through their unique skills and diligence continue to make huge contributions to their countries’ progress.

The People of the Region 

It is important and interesting to know more about the country being visited and its indigenous people. Kenya (Kamba, Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Maasai, Ameru, Samburu, Swahili)

Tanzania (Chagga, Maasai, Makonde, Swahili, Hadzabe, Sukuma, Mbulu/Iraqw people in the great lakes region).

All indigenous people have contributed to various aspects of their respective nations’ progress be it politics, sport, diplomacy, freedom struggle, human rights, agriculture or conservation. The Tea-growing Kalejins comprise the legendary long-distance runners of Kenya, The sukuma tribe who mainly fish in the Lake Victoria are among the most able bodied men and enlist in the Tanzanian military in large numbers. Thanks to tourism and the consequent establishment of lodges, many indigenous people have found year long employment. An example is the decision of Tanzanian government to call for a halt on constructions near the Ngorongoro crater and shift all lodges near the town of Karatu thereby providing meaningful employment. Karatu is dominated by the Mbulu tribe, a large farming community.

There are the big cities of Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Arusha but it is the countryside with its small businesses – trading in coal, sweet potato, banana and other fresh fruit etc., which captivates you.

A municipal council office near Isabania, Coal sacks, finished earthen pots and butcheries

Small Business rules across Kenya and its countryside

Wildlife has opened numerous opportunities for the people across the service industry, knowledgable driver guides and as in-house naturalists at many safari camps. James, from the Kichwa Tembo is a much loved and respected in-house naturalist; He conducts awareness sessions for guests where he talks extensively about the Masai Mara ecosystem and human-beast co-existance.

The Masaai tribe cultural session on a cold evening at Kichwa Tembo, Masai Mara

At the Kichwa Tembo camp, James (in the front) from the local Masaai community introduces guests to their culture and also doubles up as the In-house Naturalist

Skilled craftsmen too sell their wares on highways at the fringes of safaris and cities. Your bargaining skills will be put to test as you set your sights on masks, shukas and other collectibles. For the art collector, a lot of these stores also sell oil-on-canvas landscapes.

Shukas and Masks on highway curio shops

Curio shops dot the highway.Bargain hard.

The Impact of Mobile Money

Many households in these parts also have a family member working in any of the big cities and supporting them. Mobile Money has become the newest symbol of empowerment for people across the society.

M-Pesa, Airtel Money – These are the most visible brands;Infact much more popular than CocaCola i reckon. The concept and resulting service has empowered the people of the region and is acknowledged universally. Every small town is serviced by the corner M-Pesa cum general store thereby overcoming the tyranny of distance, often cited as a challenge when it comes to providing banking services. There is an untold trust that has developed as a result of this system.

The service is designed to work on all types of phones. Overseas remittances, money transfer from the husband working in the city, pension transfers etc done over this network can be collected as physical cash at M-pesa centers or paid for via M-pesa money.

If you are running short of cash to tip your service personnel, dont worry, M-Pesa is there!

M-Pesa shops across East Africa

M-Pesa mobile money shops dot the landscape of East Africa. Convenience and Empowerment

Aga Khan contributions to Kenya and Tanzania

As you travel across Tanzania and Kenya, the sight of women and children carrying jerry cans for potable drinking water is unmissable. Access to clean water still remains a huge challenge in many countries in Africa. It is here that the Aga Khan Development Network, part of the Aga Khan foundation runs many programs and diverse institutions to effect social and economic development in Kenya and Tanzania.

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.

 

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 1

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Mt Kenya during Sunrise

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. Let us now cover health requirements and the Transit points.

Yellow Fever and Polio Vaccination

The Ministry of Health and family welfare has locations across major cities where Yellow fever and Polio Vaccination is administered. Access the list here http://www.mohfw.nic.in/showfile.php?lid=3642. In Mumbai, the center is located close to Terminal 2 Airport. Important to note that only 75 people will be able to receive the dose in a single day. People start queuing from 630 AM, write their names in an informal sheet of paper circulated by the first enterprising passenger and wait for the gates to open. At about 9 AM the officials start issuing tokens after verifying passports and a valid travel ticket; This is mandatory if one accesses this facility. The process inside is smooth and you walk out with a Yellow card for Yellow fever and a Pink one for Polio vaccine. Do savor the Vadapav and Pohe sold by a resident couple within the airport health center premises. Carry some water in case you plan to queue up early in the morning. There are no stalls close by.

Airport Health center Mumbai waiting queues

Passengers waiting to be administered the Yellow Fever and Polio vaccine outside the Airport Health center

Choice of airlines while flying in to East Africa

Kenya Airways is just a functional airline which focuses on just getting you from India and Nairobi;That’s it. If you are expecting pampering, better seating, in-flight entertainment and wide assortment of food, you should look at the gulf based options (Emirates and Etihad) or the increasingly popular Ethiopian. The service from Mumbai to Nairobi is on a 737-800 in a 3-3 seating. It gives you a feel of travelling in a domestic flight on an international sector. Limited leg room, Compact collection of recent Indian and long released international movies on the inflight system, one customary meal on the 5.5 hour flight and Non-alcoholic drinks complete the experience. At time seat allocation is random during full flights and the added prospect of leaving your luggage behind in case of a full flight. The last two are areas where Kenya Airways could do better with proper communication. Kenya airways was operating a dreamliner on this sector which was subsequently discontinued. Twice a day service to Nairobi is adequate for now and we will egg them on to improve Service Quality. Assorted traffic – Tourists, businessmen, MICE groups and a few religious groups as well. Affordable fares make this a popular choice.

Kenya airways Banner, Kenya airways flight and the drinks and nibbles on flight

Kenya Airways has a huge opportunity to become the Best Affordable Carrier to Africa

At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)

Instead of walking straight in to the first currency/Mobile shop, just ask your guide to take you to the Annex building of this simple airport which houses a Safaricom shop and currency changers. Safaricom plans are cheap and start from 500 KSH upwards for a prepaid card. USD, CHF, UKP are the most recognized currencies. Indian rupee, though trades at 1.51 for a KSH fetches KSH only on a 1:1 basis. Travelling with USD is quite helpful and a pre loaded Forex card is welcome almost everywhere across Kenya and Tanzania. The immigration is smooth and the folks are welcoming. The airport, like its country’s airline, could do with better passenger amenities like better seating in common areas, multiple restaurant options and of course free WiFi. Passengers often have to endure long transit times in JKIA due to itineraries and international flights departing in the evening. JKIA will do well to make their airport experience a comfortable one if not memorable.

Joao Kenyatta International airport welcome sign and airport premises

The modest JKIA needs to do a lot more if it wants to be called the “Hub of Africa”

At the Isabania border crossing

If you have not opted for air transfers from Kenya to Tanzania, the best transit point is at the Isabania border crossing. Quite a streamlined process at the border. Just make sure that your travel partner is ready with the PAX manifest with all details filled in before exiting Kenya. Once done, just pass through Tanzanian security, present proof of your vaccination, pay your Visa fees and get your passport stamped. Get a glimpse of the no man’s land before entering Tanzania.

Isabania border crossing. Tanzanian immigration building

The Isabania border crossing. Tanzania’s wonderful road quality deserves a pat on the back.

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 Dubai and 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.

 

 

 

Migrations of East Africa

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Sunrise across the Masai Mara and a Hot Air Balloon about to begin its ascent. Acacia trees dot the horizon.

Karibu, Welcome

Many reasons why the modern day traveller and/or tourist heads to the diverse regions of Africa; The Safaris and natural wonders in the east, South West and the South of Africa, commodities in the west of Africa and ancient wonders in the northern parts of Africa. As we learnt during our trip, the people, cultures, lifestyle are not as homogenous as one expects. The influence of the British, French, Belgian and Dutch colonial rule are visible everywhere – mannerisms, food, name of the currency, driving systems et al.

People who are used to seeing Africa on wildlife channels and then choosing to discover them almost always end up heading to South Africa’s game reserves or to witness the annual twice a year event – The Wildebeest Migration across the Tanzanian Kenyan border.

The Mara River

The Mara River – Gushing and Ferocious. Also, a death trap for the unseasoned crossers

The Serengeti Mara ecosystem combine encompass an area of 30,000 sq km. About 1.3 million of these brown beest’s are joined by Zebra and Thompson’s Gazelle to form the largest, long-distance terrestrial mammal movement in the world.

Wildebeest, Zebras and Thomsons Gazelle

Wildebeest, Zebras and Thomsons Gazelle – At the heart of Migration

The migration commences from the southern fringes of the Serengeti. Early spring is when the Calves are born; the Wildebeest (or Gnu’s as they are called) calf spend exactly 9 astonishing minutes learning to stand and stabilize in the world after their birth as there is no time to get tutored in to the wild ways of the Serengeti; It is time to run. With calves in tow, the animals commence their run westward, and then, northward across the gushing Mara River and, in July-August, barge in to the Masai Mara in Kenya, before returning back to Tanzania. The Wildebeest lodge around 1000 Km of annual galloping through the grasslands; or an average of 30,000 km in a lifetime.

The wet season migration from November to May. Month wise map.

Migration during the wet season

Migration during the dry months. Month wise activity map

The Dry season migration

Humans or Animals, the urge to move seems to be inscribed in to our DNA’s; For the Wildebeest it is probably more pronounced. Biologists also aver that it’s the concentration of phosphorous in the savannah grass that guides the Wildebeest in to nutrient-rich corridors. Others point to the seasonal showers, which the animals track in search for tender vegetation and water. Yes, just juicy green grass and lots of water. The act of crossing is carefully planned. First, the scanning of the other side of the banks of the Mara river for any lurking predators, the presence of fellow Wildebeest encouraging the crossing and of course someone taking the lead. Wildlife enthusiasts waiting for a crossing at a particular time are in for disappointment. While we were able to watch a disciplined line of Wildebeest egging their counterparts on the other side to cross but they could not muster the courage to do so having sighted huge crocodiles on the banks.

Wildebeest herd on either sides of the Mara River

Top Left – Wildebeest on one side of the Mara waiting for the Wildebeest from the other side – Top Right. A disciplined herd marching to a crossover point

When we finally watched the wildebeest take their decision and hurtle down in to the Mara it was late evening and in a completely unexpected area of the park. Once the decision was made, these wonderful creatures did not back off irrespective of the threat which was lurking.

It is during this time that predators lurk – Crocodiles, Lion, Cheetahs, Leopards, Hyenas – rely on the seasonal, predictable feasts the Wildebeest – and especially their calves.

All the predators - Lions, Leopards, Hyenas, Cheetahs and Crocodiles

The consortium of predators who lurk across Masai Mara and the endless plains of Serengeti

Watching the Migrating Wildebeest told us that there was a predator lurking nearby for sure. Yes, a young female leopard was patrolling the steep and muddy banks with impeccable balance waiting for the right moment and entry point to grab its prey. It looked very much like a newbie out for its first kill – trying and failing, unable to net the bigger and heavier wildebeest, scared for a moment by the stomping herds but in the end she does manage to get hold of a young wildebeest probably a few weeks old and ends a satisfying day both for herself and us. Watch her in action.

The massive migratory movement also leaves in its wake a lot of manure and urine which ensures nitrogenous fertilizers for optimum production.

Challenges confronting the ecosystem

The second most populous continent after Asia is expected to double its population of a billion people over the next 20 years, with under 18 year olds comprising almost half of it. When human beings inhabit land, they raise fences to ward of predators, thus cutting and fragmenting the wildebeest migratory corridors. One one side is saving the ecosystem and the herds and on the other hand making sure that people benefit, improve their lives, and have good education for their children.

The need for cheap protein (bushmeat consumption) for households lead to deaths of about 70,000 to 129,000 wildebeest per year; This amounts to about 10% of the entire Wildebeest herd. It is still not clear if anti-poaching measures via community outreach programmes will lead to reduced consumption of bushmeat.

Making Wildlife Pay

When there are families to feed, it is a hard one to convince people to save wildlife and habitats. People who are claimants over lands that serve as wet-season pastures or dispersal areas for wildebeest, tourism, wildlife and civil stakeholders – mainly in Kenya – have made the animals “purchase back” their right to freely roam. About 900 sq km of land across 8 conservancies bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve are leased from its individual or communal land owners at advantageous rates. The lease prices under conservation are more advantageous than under livestock or agriculture. The returns – educational and job opportunities.

Masai Mara and Serengeti are wonderful destinations but the journeys they offer are Non-Pareil.

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 Dubai and 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.

Credits

Dima Vilanova for facts and observations regarding Migration made in her article featured in the PAA Tanzania Magazine

Map of Serengeti for the Migration pictures

The Mahakali of Andheri (E), Mumbai

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Durga puja pandal with Durga, Kartikeya, Lakshmi, Ganesh and Saraswati

The Ganesh Chathurthi @ Mumbai and Durga Puja @ Kolkata have seen a regular upgrade in the Puja fervor and experience but the sanctity and the sense of tradition associated with the occasions have been well preserved. Getting to Kolkata during this grand occasion is still a dream waiting to be fulfilled. In the meanwhile there was a wonderful opportunity to experience the joy of another “Community festival” here in Mumbai. The Mahakali Sarbojanin Durgotsav Samiti , a charitable trust religiously organizes the annual durga puja celebrations in the Apartment/high rise neighborhood of Poonam Nagar in Andheri (E), north of the island city. The celebrations are held in a spacious public park, one among the many in the area, thanks largely to the legislator Shri Ravindra Waikar.

Durga Puja invite and schedule of events starting from Mahalaya

The beautifully done invite for the Durga puja festival

When asked about the significance of the tradition, one of the organizers said, “Once a year, in the autumnal month of Ashvin, Durga visits her parents with her four children, Ganesh, Laxmi, Kartik and Saraswati, and enjoys all the love and affection of home for five long days”. It just felt like my mom bundling us in to a train compartment for our holidays.

Kumortuli, a potter’s district in Kolkata is the place which supplies the idols for Puja pandals in India and now around the world. Orders for the images are placed on the Rath Yatra Day. A layer of rich Ganga mud is moulded onto the frame of clay, bamboo and paddy husks, and the final form is dried, polished, painted and dressed. It is said that the most important part is the painting of the third eye and at this point, the artisan is said to go in to a trance and in one stroke of the paint brush completes the third eye. The platform of the image along with themed backdrops enclosed inside a huge decorative tent are also constructed.

The Celebrations

Mahalaya is the day of invocation, and six days later the grand festival begins with Bengal and all mandals across India and the world reverberate with the sound of conch shells, Rhythms of Dhaaks and the chanting of hymns, prayers and offering of flowers. The Mahakali Mandal had invited a troupe of traditional drummers to lend a touch of Bengal to the occasion.

The image of Durga with the demon at her feet has become the symbol of Bengal. It is on the sixth day or Mahashasthi that Durga is decorated with the various weapons that she has received from the different gods to fight the buffalo demon, Mahishasur. Having come to know this, Mahishasur pleaded that he too be worshipped along with her and this was readily agreed to by the goddess.

Visiting the Pandal on the 8th day or Ashtami is said to be a special one for this is the day the demon was killed by the goddess and hence an important day in the festival calendar.

A closer look at the idols of Durga, Ganesh, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kartikeya

Intricate work done on the idols mesmerizes you

The Dhunuchi dance is a mesmerizing one where devotees move to music along with a pot of burning coal on which coconut husk and incense are placed. This follows the aarthi to the goddess and is an important part of an engrossing sequence of events.

A ‘Sandhi Puja’ is held during the transition from Ashtami in to Navami. This occasion is marked by lighting of 108 lamps accompanied by drumbeats to the call of the conch. After a festive treat to the goddess on Navami, the farewell of the goddess happens on the 10th day which is Bijoya. The occasion is a joyous one and also a painful one where the separation draws out tears. The ladies of the mandal celebrate the 10th day with vermillion and sweets. The immersion in Bombay happens in the seashore and creeks surrounding the island city.

The Pandal and Bhog

The Pandal at Mahakali drew out all the hidden bengali culinary artists. It is not surprising to find both vegetarian and Non-vegetarian delicacies being marketed. A lot of live counters are set up to serve traditional kolkata rolls, Fish and mutton chops and other dishes. Vegetarians prefer to hangout at the sweet counters and find that they have over indulged. The counters at Mahakali also threw up varieties like chowmein.

food counters serving rolls, chops, sweets and other bengali delicacies and not to forget the chowmein

The buzzing food counters at the pandal

Apart from the counters, the bhog served at the mandal is well and truly a delectable feast and the entire darshan crowd hung out patiently amidst all the heat to grab a plate of this puja flagship item. The traditional bhog consists of Khichuri (Rice and gram gruel), Cauli flower (phoolgobi) and other mixed vegetable curry, A tangy tomato chutney and followed by a lip smacking payesh (sweet dish). Since we were also served a rossogolla, a bite of rossogolla along with the payesh was pure bliss. The volunteers serving bhog did an admirable job of keeping the crowds’ spirits high and ensuring an orderly conduct. People from all walks of life strolled in to the pandal to partake of the bhog.

Bhog queue and the Bhog plate consisting of Khichuri, Chutney, Subzi and Payesh with a Rossogolla

The Bhog at Mahakali

This was enough to underline the fact, “all the world is one community”.

A Homestay and Navratri at Baroda…..

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What drew me last to Baroda for a pro-active trip – my better half of course! Having got a number of guided tours of this cultural hub of Gujarat, a Home Stay and Navratri weekend was not to be missed. My host, befriended during our Kailash Manasarovar Yatra threw his doors open for me to experience the Hospitality and the festival.

Baroda is a perfect getaway during the Navratri festival and is easily accessible from Mumbai (5 hours) or Ahmedabad (1 hour). For those Mumbaikars who crave for authentic Ras Garba, Baroda offers the best opportunity to savor one. A morning Shatabdi express from Mumbai gets you to Baroda in time for a fabulous lunch; What else, a Gujarati Thali of course! Families with businesses are continually buzzing with activity and my host and his parents were on their toes fulfilling customer orders, getting on with a home renovation activity, negotiating with a home appliance supplier and even a conference to attend. But, not for a moment did their attention swerve from serving me a wonderful meal and ensuring my comfort. They made it all seem pretty effortless. The lunch was simple but the accompaniments and embellishments made sure that there was enough color on the plate. A lunch such as this does send you to the nearest couch. I was definitely drawn to one and did manage to catch a few winks before i was bundled away to my hosts’ offices. It was a great opportunity to understand their business area and how employees were treated as family, customers were heard out patiently and served with due care. The Rangbhoomi concept of business was in action – viewing business as an opportunity to provide livelihood and Money (lakshmi) walking in wherever there is good customer focus and orientation. Learning Maximized!

Simple and Tasty Home Food served by my Host

Simple and Tasty Home Food served by my Host

Now, back to the Garba hop! Nothing starts before 930 PM in the evening, so one has close to 7 – 8 hours to prepare (incase you are getting in to the ring) or just wander around in this city. According to a pre-travel briefing by my better half The United Way Garba and the Fine Arts Garba were the ones to visit as they attracted maximum participants and an equal if not less, number of visitors. For the United way Garba, the passes i understand were sold out atleast a couple of months in advance. We still tried but were promised some intelligent perching at the Fine arts Garba, MSU. Navratri time is a time for Takeaway dinners as families head to Garba venues in droves, some in cars but many in two-wheelers. The Garba at Fine arts is organised by the students (alumni and current) with enthusiastic participation by the faculty. Rhythm players themselves sing Garbas while playing the instruments. This rare style of Grab is in place for the past three decades. The name given to this category of Garba is Pracheen Garba, tracing its origins back to before Poet Narmad, a Gujarati Poet – Scholar from the 19th Century. Music emanates only from traditional instruments like dholak, Nasik dhol, drumset, kansi-joda, ghugharis, conch (shankh), and temple bells. All this without a single microphone. Fusion in the rawest form – Drum and Kansi-Joda add beauty to the Garba songs. We got a ringside view of the performance, thanks to a few friends of my host. The energy levels of the students encircling the performing instrumentalists and vocalists were driven to dizzying levels. The circle moved to music in a rapid pace and one had to either get in or just stay out. Unmindful of the sultry weather and pouring sweat, the performers were themselves transported and made sure they took the audience along with them. The dresses were traditional with no footwear, as a mark of respect to the goddess. The music reaches a crescendo before dying down in respect to the Goddess and of course, the rules. Once the dance dies down, the stomachs start rumbling and the crowds head out in search of “any” place that serves snacks, food, tea, coffee, soda etc., Coffee shops we visited were buzzing till 2 AM.

New Garbas in town but the classics endure!

New Garbas in town but the classics endure!

Navratri culminates with Dussehra on the 10th day. While many fast, an equal number or more feast. The sweet shops in the city were on an overdrive, preparing the savory Fafda and stacking them till they hit the ceiling of their shops. Deep fried and served with a Raw papaya chutney, it is nice to watch during preparation but tough to digest. The sweet cousin, Jalebi when combined with Fafda are a deadly duo and it ensures that you are within your limits.

Sunday morning Nasto plus Dussehra preparations

Sunday morning Nasto plus Dussehra preparations

Baroda can get oppressively hot during summers but families have their traditional means of keeping their heads, their guests’ heads and the animals’, cool. Cement tanks are very thoughtfully placed outside homes, filled with cool water to provide stray cattle, horses and dogs with a sip. Here, in Baroda hospitality is all encompassing.

Busy Junction, Cement water tanks for animals, Train journey, Eating out and crowds heading out of Garba

Sights of the Journey – Busy, relaxing, journeying, enjoying and chilling out

Now for some dance practice. Targeting to get in to the ring next year.

Bolo Shri Ambe Mata ki! Jai!

Dwarka and Somnath…….Spending a few days in Gujarat 2

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Jyotirling at Somnath

Dwarka to Somnath is a fantastic seaside drive on the NH 8E and the Porbandar – Veraval highway. Large windmills dot this landscape which is swept on both sides with sand. Temperatures hover in the 40’s and you are better off in the air conditioned comfort of your SUV. It gets extremely tempting to step on the accelerator in this stretch but maintaining a steady drive at 80Km/hr ensures that you are relatively safe.

Porbandar is the first major stop on this route. Kirti Mandir, the birthplace of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a popular stop for tourists. Located in the busy Bhatia bazar area, this residence has now been converted to a museum housing vintage photographs from Gandhi’s life, his personal effects, books on his life and other memorabilia. Get your chauffeur to drop you at the entrance to the bazaar and you walk down the narrow lane to reach Kirti Mandir. During summers the stone floors are scorching so ensure that you are hopping around in the shade. Gandhi’s birthplace is a small corner within Kirti Mandir. Both the Mandir and Gandhi’s birthplace open at 730 AM. Kirti Mandir stays open until 7 PM where as the birthplace shuts at 6 PM. Take the opportunity to walk the streets which are lined with traders selling wares ranging from plastic, paper boards and even hand made flowers. Make sure you stop by at snack shops selling fresh out of the oven “Nylon Khaman“, a savory dish made from roasted chickpea flour garnished with curry leaves, sesame and mustard. Make sure you pack in about half a kilo as these are light and fluffy. A great evening snack that can be followed by a good cup of tea.

Porbandar and Kirti Mandir

Porbandar and Kirti Mandir

37 kms before Somnath, we come across the coastal town of Chorvad. The Beach palace was a home of the Nawab of Junagadh. These days however it is known as the birthplace of its famous son, Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder of Reliance. The entrance gates to the town have been erected in his honor and the Reliance mansion is a well guarded property. Everything else resembles a simple town with its regular features of corner shops, bus stops, houses, municipal corporation offices and restaurants. Summer season drives people to guzzle lemon soda by the glasses. Don’t miss to down one of them from the numerous shops lining the main highway on chorvad.

Chorvad Town arch memorial named after Dhirubhai Ambani

Chorvad Town arch memorial named after Dhirubhai Ambani

Driving in to SOmnath on the Veraval Somnath road, the aptly named Lord’s inn is a comfortable place to check in for a stay. The hotel is located close to the newly opened Somnath Railway station. The Somnath temple (“The Shrine Eternal”) is 3.9 kms away and is considered the foremost of Jyotirlingas. A stone’s throw away is the Triveni ghat where the rivers Kapil, Hiran and the mythical Saraswati meet before they merge in to the Arabian Sea. The coming together of the three rivers is said to symbolize birth, life and death. The place though well gated with shops selling religious prayer articles, falls short on the cleanliness front. Many devotees take a dip in this confluence before they visit the Somnath temple.

Vehicle drop off points are about 250 meters away from the main Somnath temple. Conveniences like counters to safe keep your mobile phones and cameras, footwear are plenty and service is quick and courteous. All this is free but if you are happy, you can definitely drop a coin in their service box. Make sure you preserve your token number issued against your valuables. From here you need to walk barefoot for about 100 meters before carpeted walkways welcome you in to the temple precinct. Mandatory security checks follow before you get to enter the temple. Also, make sure you wear clothing that completely cover your legs as required by the temple management as a dress code. What strikes you is the orderliness, cleanliness, accessibility, facilities that have been thought through by the temple management. There is a separate enclosure for the elderly who can have a look at the proceedings in the sanctum sanctorum over LED screens. There are golf carts too to ferry the elderly. The queues in to the temple sanctum sanctorum is orderly with separate ones for the men and the women folk. Viewing the Lingam (representation of Shiva) can be done between 6 AM to 10 PM. Religious chanting and prayers are done three times a day at 7 AM, 12 noon and 7 PM. A not to be missed event during your visit is the light and sound show for which tickets can be purchased within the temple premises. A story on the history of the temple, accompanied with melodious music and narration by the peerless actor Shri Amrish Puri give you the gossebumps. Make sure you get your seats atleast 45 minutes before the show. An important landmark within the premises is a pillar which has a direction marked as indicating an unobstructed sea route to the south pole (nearest land is 9936 kms away). Reflects ancient wisdom of Geography and strategic location of the Jyotirling. Plan to enter the temple premises around 530 PM, finish your prayers, watch the sunset, relax on the stone seating before getting to the light and sound show. Wind up with a simple dinner of Khichdi + Kadi and hit the sack.

The Somnath Temple

Sangam and Somnath

A hearty breakfast and you are back on the Veraval – Rajkot highway to get you back to base, Rajkot. 193 kms that will be covered in a time of 3 hours, this route takes you past the famous Gir forests, Girnar hill (Older than the Himalayas and equally revered by the Hindus and Jains) and a town called Virpur made famous by a saint – Jalaram Bapa. One often sees shopkeepers (observed in Gujarat and maharashtra states) paying Obeisance to Jalaram with “Jai Jalaram” written on the name boards of their shops and establishments. This is an opportunity to understand this in a better way. Followers of this saint follow his path of service without any expectations to the extent that devotees manning his memorial ensure that there are no contributions / offerings by devotees. Devotees are fed twice a day and offered a cup of tea once a day and all of these without a single rupee being asked of them. The trust relies entirely on donations to feed devotees and run charitable activities. Wade through the bazaars lining the narrow street leading up to the memorial, look through all the items on sale and understand the significance of this place better. Like Shirdi, this town too lives, breathes and survives thanks to a saint.

Rajkot is ready to serve you a solid lunch. Kathiawadi food (core of the people of Saurashtra). A lunch that cools you down even during the worst summers – comprising of millets, buttermilk, onions, mangoes, jaggery, ghee and of course spicy gravies to go along with it. Rajkot is a bustling city and is part of the Smart cities project unveiled this year. There is a fully functioning Bus Rapid Transit System which over a period of time can surely scale up to handle volumes. The Fern Residency in Rajkot is a comfortable choice for both the leisure and the business traveller. An evening in Rajkot involves a little bit of shopping, dinner and of course a grand dessert. The race course ground in Rajkot hosts a fair once in a while and it has all the usual stuff for kids like trampolines, ferris wheels, dragon boats, shooting the balloon, merry go rounds, loads of popcorn, cotton candy and of course chana chor and Bhel

Since everything starts sweet, it is mandatory to have sweet endings. Make sure you pack up a good quantity of pure milk pedas from Jai Siyaram Pendawala located in Sadar. Delicious, mildly sweet and outrageously fresh, this one steals your heart and tongues a million times. Watch them pack these pedas fresh from the trays. Other varieties include chocolate, strawberry, kesar etc., but the one from milk is a killer. An alternative sweet ending can be at Maganlal Ice cream opposite the Race course. Fresh seasonal ice cream with fresh cream, faloodas, kulfi….it becomes an endless treat. If you still have some energy left in you, make sure you stand by a pan shop and listen to all the chatter of frequent visitors and treat yourself to a calcutta sweet paan.

Sugarcane juice, kathiawadi food, Pedas and dessert and of course a lot of fun

Dinner, fun and dessert

A hearty breakfast later, head to the airport with a short trip that leaves you with the memories of a lifetime….

Dwarka & Somnath…..Spending a few days in Gujarat 1

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Jetpur Dress fabric design

Amitabh Bachchan, India’s universally loved movie star in his endorsement for Gujarat Tourism, humbly requests “Kuch Din to Guzaro Gujarat mein…..”(Please come and spend a few days in Gujarat). Such messaging accompanied by rich imagery has spurred the tourism industry in Gujarat.

Dwarka and Somnath offer the perfect opportunity to spend a few days and sample the hospitality of Gujarat. Rajkot is the nearest air-head and for now one can get here comfortably from Mumbai. There are 6 flights out of which 4 are operated by Jetairways and one by AirIndia. The early morning flight out of Mumbai at 510 AM is punctual and gets you in to Rajkot by the crack of dawn. This sets you up perfectly and will ensure that you get to your first destination Dwarka, a distance of 4 hours/225 kms right at the stroke of lunch. Rajkot airport almost feels like a quiet neighborhood and one can expect to bump in to nearby residents who have set out for their morning walks. Our tour was planned with Narmadaholidays. We set out to Dwarka via the Petro-chemical refinery town of Jamnagar, made popular by India’s biggest conglomerate, Reliance industries Ltd. A good SUV (Toyota Innovas are extremely popular), supported by roads of excellent quality make this ride an absolute pleasure. There are trains which take you straight to Dwarka, but with roads of high standards the itinerary flexibility is completely in the hands of the traveler. Drivers (chauffeurs) in Gujarat are fluent in Gujarati (local language), Hindi (spoken widely) and if you are lucky a smattering of english. However, the fellows are friendly and pro-active and will make all the efforts to understand you.

Gujarat - The route along the coast

Gujarat – The route along the coast

The Rajkot Airport - Morning hours

The Rajkot Airport – Morning hours

TIP – Before setting out it will be good to ask your Tour Planner to brief the driver on your itinerary, your preferences, likes and dislikes and what you really want to experience. A good briefing followed by regular calls from the Tour planner to the driver helps iron out any inconsistencies in service. Get a good Data plan (foreign nationals) before setting out from your home country; Helps you be in touch with your Tour Planner and stay connected with your loved ones.

The highway is lined with Neem trees. If you find a nice highway restaurant, break for a cup of tea, feel the breeze hit you and refresh you with the goodness of Neem. A veg puff goes well with a cup of tea on a pleasant morning. Toilets are average in terms of cleanliness so it is advisable to prepare yourselves for the ride before exiting the airport at Rajkot.

90 minutes is all it takes to enter Jamnagar. The city and its businesses surged when Reliance opened the world’s largest refinery in the year 1999. The refinery has a processing capacity of 1.2 million barrels per day. Other refiners like Essar and Gujarat government companies have set up their facilities in the outskirts of Jamnagar. The closest port where these companies have their oil terminals is called Vadinar and is on the coastline of the Gulf of Kutchh. As you head out of Jamnagar on to National Highway 947, the huge entrance gates to the Reliance refinery are on your left. People from all over the country and world work in this refinery and all of them have been comfortably housed in the Reliance integrated township “Reliance Greens” on the opposite side of the highway. The township houses approximately 2500 employees and is fully equipped with schools, Hospitals and shopping amenities. We had the opportunity to tour the township as a guest being hosted by a reliance employee.

Reliance Township and Petrochemical complex

Reliance Township and Petrochemical complex

Gujarat is a textile haven and one should not miss an opportunity to catch a glimpse/purchase cotton fabrics manufactured at Jetpur or Virpur. This circuit offers you these opportunities and you can plan with your tour planner to help you organize.

Cotton Dress Materials - Made in Jetpur

Cotton Dress Materials – Made in Jetpur

Interesting – Speed limit inside the township is 30km/hr. Vehicles caught speeding by the Control center inform the employee and question him on the violation!

Another smooth ride gets you in to Dwarka right at the stroke of Noon. Dwarka has the honor of being one of India’s 4 Shakti Peeth’s (centers for learning- 800 AD) set up by Shri Adi Shankaracharya, one of India’s foremost philosopher and Theologian. The Dwarkadish temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna is the magnet for millions of devotees from across India and the world. The local economy thrives on tourism and production of pulses, ghee and fishing. The temple is over 2500 years old and has withstood invasions till it was rebuilt in the 16th century.

Numerous hotels cater to tourists across price points. We checked ourselves in to the Lord’s Inn, located right on the Dwarka beach promenade. The welcome in the hotels here is not by the reception but by the in-house priest who can help plan your visit to the temple. Basic amenities and cleanliness are met and ensure a comfortable stay.

The temple (history) is said to have been constructed by the grandson of Lord Krishna, Shri Vajranabha way back in 400 BC. The construction is from limestone (able to weather the sea), spire reaching up to 78 meters with the whole structure being supported by 72 pillars. The flag atop the temple is changed 5 times during the day and always has the insignia of the sun and the moon. Facilities at the temple are run in a streamlined manner by the temple management (controlled by the Government of Gujarat. Opening hours are between 6AM – 1PM and 5PM – 930 PM.

Before you get to the temple, weather permitting plan a walk along the promenade which drops in to the steps along the banks of the River Gomti. This point where the river meets the sea is called the Sangam. Peep a little further to get a glimpse of the temple situated on the banks of the river. Mornings are busy with Devotees and cows jostling for space along the banks. Vehicles drop you off about 100 meters away from the temple entrance. Security and facilities to keep your footwear are efficient. Foreigners are allowed entry as well. Special queues and general queues are available for devotees to view the main deity. A lot of Photographers roam the temple precincts and they are super efficient. Armed with instant printers, they dish out family photographs with the temple in the background, branded with the temple logo for a nominal fee of Rs 20. Go for it!

The Dwarkadish Temple - Shakti Peeth

The Dwarkadish Temple – Shakti Peeth

Head to the sunset point to get fantastic views of the vast expanse and prepare to capture the riot of colors that ensue. A sandy promenade abutting the sunset point offers camel rides, ice candies, spicy bhel and other snacks. If you are concerned about the steel plates ask the vendor to wrap it in a paper cone which makes for easier disposal as well. Loiter around till it is time for dinner by soaking in the salty winds. The devout also make a mandatory visit to the Rukmini temple (Lord Krishna’s consort) located about 2kms from the Dwarkadish temple.

Life at Sunset Point in Dwarka

Life at Sunset Point in Dwarka

Submerged city – Way back in the year 2000, archeologists discovered ruins of the ancient city of Dwarka, thought to have been long submerged. Ancient manuscripts are said have indicated the presence of such a city on the river gomti, respelendant with as much as 70,000 palaces decked in precious metals and gems. The ruins are located 131 feet below the surface and are now collectively called the Gulf of Khambhat cultural complex. Quiz your driver or any elderly priest about this city and light your imagination!

Other places of interest near Dwarka include Beyt Dwarka and Nageshwar. Beyt Dwarka is an island 30kms away from Dwarka and is a short ferry ride away. The island houses a temple which is considered to be the original abode of Krishna and his consort Rukmini. Tourists also gather to spot dolphins, marine life and go about picnicking. The Nageshwar temple is considered the first Jyotirling (devotional object representing Lord Shiva) and the main deity has the serpent standing guard over the linga. References to the jyotirlingas are found in the Shiva Puran (Ancient text which guide the devout on the worship of Lord Shiva). Relish some cucumbers sold outside the temple premises followed by a tall glass of sugarcane juice.

Dwarka Beach front and the Nageshwar Jyotirling

Dwarka Beach front and the Nageshwar Jyotirling

Food in Gujarat is a delight! Restaurants in Dwarka are simple and are in the business of serving Thalis (complete meal with Carbs, proteins, fats and other ingredients that meet your nutritional needs). Simple , fast service and relatively clean these Thali restaurants serve fresh food as they open specific hours and have very high footfalls. The rotis (flat breads) are hot and smeared with ghee, the dipping gravies keep getting replenished. Do ask for unlimited butter milk to accompany the meal. The Damji Hotel serves such a thali for Rs 120/- per head. Other establishments cater to people with various budgets. A short walk near the Dwarka beach promenade and one can find carts selling fresh and hot Indian fare, chinese, Dosas, Parathas and of course lot of Ice creams, Sherbets, Faloodas and Kulfis. Carry a bottle of water with you if you want to venture out. The seating is on stools and you can watch the furious pace of preparation and delivery of food to your table. Gujarat is one of india’s largest milk producing states; A hot cup of masala milk will set you up for a good night’s sleep and prepare you for your long drive to Somnath…..

The Gujarati Thali in Dwarka

The Gujarati THali in Dwarka

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 3

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The Sarnath deer Park

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

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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

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“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….

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