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#Kumbh 2019 – An unique and unforgettable experience – Ghats of Prayagraj

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This Kumbh was all about cleanliness. Cleanliness was to prevent diseases and stampedes during the festival. Every medium was used to message things out.

Part 1 saw us driving down from Varanasi to Prayagraj. We visited Kumbh as it drew to a close but nevertheless it did give us a glimpse of what the place would have looked like at its peak. The government of the day at the centre and the state were led by the same political party and hence co-ordination and co-operation were in order. On the second day of our #Kumbh experience, post the Triveni Sangam bathing experience, we planned to explore the Ghats where the space for conducting the #Kumbh was prepared.

Ghats of Prayagraj

An estimated 250 million people (25 crores) would have participated in the Kumbh this year and that is about the entire population of #Indonesia. The entire area covering the Kumbh was estimated to be about 3,200 hectares which is equivalent to 3,200 rugby fields. The Ghats and the main Kumbh area consists of spaces provided to Akharas from across the country. Akharas (Equivalent of Satras in Assam) or a place for the teacher – disciple relationship to flourish. The disciple is usually a religious renunciate and trains on the scriptures.

  • River Ganges, boats docked and the well lit bridge
  • The well lit bridge viewed from the banks of the Ganges at Prayagraj
  • Boats and people on the banks of Ganges
  • People basking in the sun on the banks of the ganges
  • Sellers of water cans and coconuts on the banks of Ganges
  • Vendor selling vermillion, personal effects and care items

Citizen Facilitation services

India has seen cleanliness set in to its national consciousness since 2014. The National cleanliness mission has been driven on every available platform and has largely contributed to disease prevention. The drive was at the forefront of Kumbh 2019 as previous Kumbh Mela’s did not pay adequate attention to the sanitation needs of 250 million people. Apart from makeshift toilet grounds, cubicles with privacy were set up for people to change clothes and even for nursing mothers. Safety and cleanliness were reflected in the kind of arrangements that were made.

  1. 122,500 toilets
  2. 15,000 sanitation workers to support operations
  3. 1,500 volunteers spreading the message of cleanliness
  4. 20,000 waste bins with one every 50 metres
  5. 20,000 security personnel supported by over 100 police cabins
  6. 1000 cameras watching the proceedings and sending them to an integrated command center
  7. A lost and found center for re-uniting children / elderly who have lost their way
  • Toilets at the Kumbh venue
  • Change rooms
  • The lost and found center at Kumbh

Brands in Action

When 250 million people are expected, how can the brands stay away. They found their unique ways to blend in to the atmosphere of the Kumbh and engage with the millions. Nothing seemed like in your face but more became like a discovery.

  • Tea stall with ponds branding
  • Ponds brand standee
  • Banner with Kumbh logo and Fair and Lovely message
  • A water dispenser sponsored by LG
  • Kumbh mela notice featuring All india radio

Food

Beginning with a cup of tea, Fried stuff like bread pakoras and Samosas and even some sprouts to keep the energy going, visitors to the Kumbh can always find a low cost option for themselves and their families so that no one goes hungry. There were also camps which were serving free food for those who could not afford. Fruits were being sold in plenty along with tender coconut water and sugarcane juice.

  • Tea seller cart
  • A Bread pakoda vendor
  • Sprouts seller
  • A bhel thelawala

This Kumbh was one of the most successfully conducted, accident free and clean Kumbh in living memory. The Prime Minister made it a point to honor the sanitation workers who played a key role in ensuring a clean and disease free Kumbh. As it is emphasized, cleanliness is equal to godliness.

THe Prime Minister washing feet of sanitation workers as a mark of respect for their contribution.

The next Kumbh Mela is scheduled to be held in 2022 in the holy city of Haridwar in the state of Uttarakhand. Any Kumbh is a once in a life time opportunity to visit and understand what India truly stands for. Come and fall in love with India

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#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

Majuli Island #Assam – Visit it before it disappears

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Twilight over the Brahmaputra as we leave Majuli Island to Nemati Ghat

Majuli (Land between two rivers) is a river island on the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam. While getting in and out requires a lot of effort, not going there is not an option. With closer observation, it is infact the cultural capital of Assam. The island is now a District and covers a total of 441 square kilometers and has over 144 villages, schools, colleges and all the amenities required to lead a decent life.

To reach Majuli, travel around 300 kms from Guwahati, reach Jorhat from where you land up at Nemati Ghat which is on the banks of the Brahmaputra. There are about 7 ferry services at various times of the day plying between Nemati Ghat and Majuli with the last service around 330 PM from either sides. We spent 5 hours which was more like an orientation session to Majuli. That was however good to get us back in the future. Savor some of the main sights of this picturesque island

Auniati Satra

Entrance of the Auniati Satra
The entrance of the Auniati Satra. Satras are the Assamese Vaishnavite monasteries for religious practices. These great Vaishnava monasteries were founded at the initiative of the Ahom Kings of Assam in the middle of the 17th century.
Jaya and Vijaya Guarding the entrance to the shrine of Krishna at the Auniati Satra
Jaya and Vijaya Guarding the entrance to the shrine of Krishna at the Auniati Satra. They are places where the Vaishnavs dedicate themselves to serve God and also preach the followers for devotion towards God. They are also the centre of art and culture in Assam.
The Ceremonial drum at the Auniati Satra
The Ceremonial drum at the Auniati Satra. The Ceremonial drum at the Auniati Satra. They make use of various ritual and devotional performances to help people understand and practice the doctrine of the Vaishnavism and realize belief in one God and the means of the ultimate eternal peace. Raas Leela is a powerful and a beautiful way of conveying the essence of vaishnavism

Samaguri Satra

Entrance board to Samaguri Satra
The Samaguri Satra – Mask making is a special craft not just of Majuli, but also of the entire state of Assam. Srimanta Sankardeva first used them in the enactment of his Bhaonas. He created this craft to capture expressions which otherwise was not possible to enact in a regular face. The Samaguri Satra preserves this tradition (Notes Credit – https://www.discovernortheast.in/hemchandra-goswami/)
Guru Hemchandra Goswami at work on a wooden scultpture
Shri Hemchandra Goswami, the Guru at Samaguri Satra trains 10 – 12 boys in the craft every year (Notes Credit – https://www.discovernortheast.in/hemchandra-goswami/)
Master Hemchandra Goswami at work in his Samaguri Satra
Artist of the Samaguri Satra
Ahom king Chakradhwaj Singha built this Satra in 1663 A.D, and since then it has showed immense deftness in this craft and for generations trained young artisans to pass on the heritage and give it a momentum vis-à-vis the present. Two other Satras— Bor Elangi Satra (which moved from Salmora Mouza in Majuli to Titabar in Jorhat district) and Khatpaar Satra in Sivasagar, are notable practitioners of this craft and they have kept the tradition moving. (Notes credit – https://www.discovernortheast.in/hemchandra-goswami/)
Masks at Samaguri Satra
The earlier masks were restricted to portraying just a single expression where the eyes and the lips were not shown. Now the masks are built in a manner so as to facilitate the movement of the eyes and the lips. Again in some other characters artifices are employed, making the removal of the head or the nose during the play seem real. This adds a dramatic character to the story, enhancing it in the process and also lending an aesthetic appeal to it. The atmosphere thus becomes more animated and energetic. Materials used for the masks include bamboo, cane, cow dung, jute, potter’s clay, and muslin cloth (https://www.discovernortheast.in/hemchandra-goswami/)

Uttar Kamalabari Satra

The Uttar Kamalabari Satra is an influential religious and cultural monastery of Majuli established in the year 1673.
The Uttar Kamalabari Satra is an influential religious and cultural monastery of Majuli established in the year 1673.
A residence of one of the students of the Satra. This Satra is famous for performing art like Gayan bayan, Sutra Naas, Ankia Bhaona (dramas of Sankardev and Madhabdev).
A residence of one of the students of the Satra. This Satra is famous for performing art like Gayan bayan, Sutra Naas, Ankia Bhaona (dramas of Sankardev and Madhabdev).
The residential quarters of the Uttar Kamalabari Satra. In this Satra both the Satradhikar and the Bhakats (disciples) spend their life in celibacy. The Bhagavad Gita is the central deity to whom prayers are held everyday.
The residential quarters of the Uttar Kamalabari Satra. In this Satra both the Satradhikar and the Bhakats (disciples) spend their life in celibacy. The Bhagavad Gita is the central deity to whom prayers are held everyday.

Handicrafts from the Mising Tribe

  • Rengam Cooperative
  • Weaving centre
  • The Cooperative has been helping the Mising tribe further its skill.

The Majuli Brand Mustard Oil Project

Majuli Brand Mustard Oil Project is a contineous project being run- by IMPACT-NE since 2005. It is a kind of project for socio-economic development of Majuli through agricultural processing and rural industrialization. The main objective of the project is to ensure benefit to the farming community by providing them direct market linkage to sale their mustard seeds at actual market rate. As mustard is the major agricultural products of Majuli so it requires a competitive market for the benefit of the farmers.

  • The Majuli Mustard Project. An avenue to provide employment locally.
  • Mustard placed out for Drying. Mustard is the largest agricultural product of Majuli in terms of output
  • Oil tins for Mustard ready to be pumped in to Oil extraction machine. A log has been used to serve as a makeshift handle
  • The Mustard is poured in from the top and the extracted oil filters down while the cake is thrown out. The residue is added back in to the machine to ensure that the oil is fully extracted before being discarded as fodder.
  • Lord Vishwakarma is the resident deity of the Mustard Oil Mill
The Majuli Island Mustard Oil Project

A Simple Lunch before Departure

The Ferry Service

Heading to Majuli Island

All major airlines fly in to Guwahati from where one can either take a train or drive about 315 kms (7 hours) to reach Nemati Ghat from where one can board a Ferry to Majuli. Majuli does not have any chain hotels but provides a number of home stays. For more questions write – response@narmadaholidays.com.

Sights and Sounds of Yangon – The Circular Railway

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The Yangon Circular Railway May

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. Later, in the second part, we had the opportunity of visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda and Temple of the Reclining Buddha. As we prepared to bid goodbye to this wonderful and energetic country, we took a ride on The Circular Railway and it was a perfect way to bring the curtains down on this lovely travel experience.

The Circular train is a remnant and a reminder of its colonial days. Yet, it continues to selflessly serve its citizens. Spanning 46 km and 39 stations, the Yangon circular rail forms a loop around Yangon. Built by the British, the 72-year-old commuter service network connects Yangon’s suburbs and satellite towns. The first service leaves Yangon Central at 3.45 am. The last train leaves at 10.15 pm. A ticket on the Circular train costs about 200 kyats or about 15 cents. One must set aside about an hour to experience this journey which gives a glimpse in to the everyday lives of Myanmarese.

Trains on the circular railway, Yangon central
Wide open windows, Japanese instructions as coaches are from old Japanese trains, advertising for mobility services and easy to access platforms with no need for foot over bridges – All characterstic of the Circular railway. The Yangon central station will look like a UNESCO world heritage site if given a facelift
Insein station, mud pots serving water, clean platforms, Buddhist prayer stall and the station masters' office
We boarded the train at Insein up to Yangon Central. The station platforms are wide, relatively clean, have mud pots with water for passengers to sustain in sweltering heat and of course prayer stations where Monks set up bowls for offerings.

The circular run takes 3 hours in all and no one will go hungry with the amount of perishable goods that are transported and the number of vendors hawking their wares on board.

Quail Eggs, Mandarin oranges, Green Mango and Papaya salad, Ice Popsicles, Australian grapes and vegetables. One could almost finish their daily fresh produce shopping on the train
Quail Eggs, Mandarin oranges, Green Mango and Papaya salad, Ice Popsicles, Australian grapes and vegetables. One could almost finish their daily fresh produce shopping on the train
The making of a tangy and spicy raw mango and raw papaya salad

Along the way, we met very interesting and friendly fellow passengers. It just wants you to get to know them and their country more. Why do you chew betel leaves? Answer – Because every one else does ! 

An everyday scene - a office worker, casual labourer and a monk
The everyday people on the circular railway. Monks usually travel for free.
Well dressed gentleman and students on board
The Journey never ends on the circular railway – Young and old alike
Bananas ready for ripening, shacks selling food items on platforms and alongside tracks
Life just happens along the tracks of the circular railway
Station platforms and waiting area of Yangon central
The railways will be the way they are. It is a way of life for the people of the city.

Recent news reports suggest that Myanmar is readying for a major upgrade of the Circular line by signing agreements for funding and technical support with Japan and South Korea. We wish these projects huge success thereby improving the everyday lives of Myanmarese.

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.

The Myanmar Journey concludes here for now

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.

#Amritsar Memories : Attari – #Wagah border and FarmStay #vacations

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The Indian Tri color

Part 1 of my blog on a rejuvenated Amritsar focused on the newest attraction in town, The Partition Museum, dedicated to the pain and suffering endured by millions during one of the largest and most brutal mass migration in history. The museum has since officially opened for viewing and more sections are being opened in a phased manner.

Part 2 focused on the serene Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple), Akhal Takht, Sarovar and its surroundings. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the nooks and corners of the Darbar sahib complex, learning about the contributions made by the Sikh Gurus, ordinary folk, Armed forces, Agricultural community and the role of Punjab in shaping the history of this great country.

In the 3rd part, i share my experiences and feelings about the newly minted precincts of The Heritage street, another tragic memorial from the freedom struggle – The Jallianwala Bagh and finally the humble Guru ka Langar.

In the Fourth part, I wrote about various dishes on offer and also introduced readers to other Vloggers who have been covering the Amrtisar food scene with so much of passion

The final part of the Amritsar experience is rounded off by a visit to the Attari (Indian Side village) – Wagah (Pakistan side village) border and a visit to a Farm Stay, a concept that seems to be catching up and should a huge boost to the tourism sector and thereby incomes in the state.

My visit to the India – Pakistan border which falls between #Attari village on the Indian side and #Wagah border on the Pakistan side was planned a saturday. All previous traveller accounts including those of my wife and in-laws spoke of an exciting spectacle comprising of dances, singing and finally the Beating of the retreat finally culminating in the lowering of flags and slam closing of the gates. I was eagerly looking forward to this experience. The ceremony has almost gone on uninterrupted since 1959 except during periods of confrontation on other parts of the border. While the Border Security Force leads from the Indian side, the Pakistan side is led by the Pakistan Rangers.

The drive from the centre of #Amritsar takes about 45 minutes to an hour. With the ceremony expected to start by 5 PM, we assumed that reaching with an hour to spare would help me get an entry and a seat at the stadium.  We were wrong! From the parking area to the entry point it is a mile and to my surprise i found that the crowds that were pouring in far outnumbered the capacity of the stadium. Since entry was on a first come first served basis, the crowds i was given to understand were pouring in from noon and had occupied the stadium unmindful of the scorching pre-summer sun.

Busloads of tourists were alighting, civilian defence personnel were getting in to the stadium with valid ID papers, mounted #BSF horsemen were keeping a strict vigil and were respectfully requesting tourists to maintain order and of course ice cream vendors were busy attending to tired visitors. When it was finally clear that it was impossible to make it in, the left out visitors had to contend with watching the ceremony on a huge but very unclear LCD screen.

Attari border crowds waiting to enter the stadium to watch the beating of the retreat

Tourists and visitors who were unable to get in to the stadium to watch the beating of the retreat mill around the premises and try to get as close as possible to the gate and the LCD screen

Lesson learnt – On weekdays during the tourist season (Oct – March), it is advisable to head to the border atleast 3 – 4 hours ahead of the start. On weekends, one should head there atleast 5 – 6 hours in advance. Am assuming that such a punishing wait is not required during off season and summer months. Carry water, a hat along with optional sun screen. Entrance to the border ceremony is free and if anyone pretends to sell tickets you will know that you are with a tout.

The excitement however is palpable and hearbeats rise as the BSF guards start marching in to the narrow strip leading to the border. On the other side of the border one can see the 400 feet high pole on which the Pakistan flag is flown and a large portrait of Quaid e Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. Once the ceremonies begin, all the music, foot stamping are drowned out by the raucous crowds on either sides of the border. The LCD screen is blur and does not give a nice viewing experience. I tried to jostle my way up to the barricades amongst young, elderly, children perched on parents’ shoulders but gave up after while. I eagerly look forward to the day when the whole experience could be webcasted on 4K video.

Attari Wagah border images

THe Indian flag flies high. Unlucky visitors milling around the gate waiting for the ceremony to begin. A glimpse of the narrow strip leading to the border. The Pakistan gate is visible along with the portrait of MA Jinnah

On the last day before taking my return flight back to base, i had an opportunity to do a familiarization trip to a farm stay. The farm, owned by a tour operator is located in his native village a 30 minute drive from Amritsar. Within 15 minutes of leaving the city precincts, one is welcomed by lush green wheat fields, swathes of mustard fields identified by the golden yellow flowers, farmers transporting produce on their tractor trailers and local gurudwaras where people congregate. The Farm Stay consisted of a ground level where the guest rooms were located, about 4 of them to be precise, a well laid out dining area offering breakfast and optional lunch and dinner. The owner resided upstairs and the care takers were housed in the staff quarters. Fresh vegetables and milk are from the farm and meat is brought from outside for preparation.

Farm fresh vegetables and villa entrance

Farm stay. Fields with Pea, Radish, Cabbage, Beetroots and just harvested and dried potatoes and peas

It was calming to see the cows lazing around their fodder house.

Cows on the property and the fodder preparation and feeding area

Cows on the property and the fodder preparation and feeding area

Agriculture is Punjab’s mainstay with Wheat and Mustard fields dotting the landscape in and around the farm stay. With the likes of AirBnB allowing holidayers to plan in a jiffy without having to go through the rigmarole of hotels, the concept of Farm stays, if backed up with a clear government policy, could provide tourists with a wonderful option.

Wheat, Mustard fields and a tractor

Wheat, Mustard fields and a tractor

Other attractions in Amritsar include the Gobindagarh Fort built in 1760. It was earlier occupied by the Army but is now home to a museum showcasing Punjab and its glorious history. Be notified of any private events in the fort which may prevent visitors from entering. On the lines of Chokhi Dani in Jaipur, Amritsar now boasts of Sadda Pind, a village themed resort. One could plan a visit to these places based on the interest levels of the touring party. Amritsar is a fabulous Winter destination. An extension to Amritsar is a trip to Chandigarh (5 hours) and further to Dalhousie and Dharamshala. Amritsar on its own is perfect for 3 nights / 4 days.

Getting to Amritsar – Airlines Indigo, vistara and Spicejet fly direct from Mumbai. They also fly direct from New Delhi along with Air India and Jet Airways.

Trains – There are a total of 27 trains between New Delhi and Amritsar. The Journey takes a little over 6.5 hours and one has a choice between day and night time trains. Advance reservation can be done on the Indian railways booking portal.

Go ahead, pack your wollens and head to this fabulous urban destination.