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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all a successful Kailash Mansarovar Yatra 2017

The Mahakali of Andheri (E), Mumbai

The Mahakali of Andheri (E), Mumbai

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”.

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

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

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

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 3

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

IT BHU

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

Sarnath Deer Park
Sarnath

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

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

Varanasi Food Trail
Varanasi Food Trail

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

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

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

Varanasi Food Trail
Varanasi Food Trail

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

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 2

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 2

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

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

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

Images of the Ghats

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

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

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

The Boat ride on the Ganges and the Ghats

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

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Journey matters as much as the Destination….

The Journey matters as much as the Destination….

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The Kailash Manas piligrimage is the journey of a lifetime for people from all faiths – Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and a Tibetan religious sect called Bon’s. Located in the Transhimalayan region of Tibet, Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar pilgrimage is a tradition dating back to over 1000 years.

The traditional route from India takes the faithful through some rough but extremely beautiful and picturesque terrain of Uttarakhand and in to Tibet via the Lipulekh pass. Over 200 kms of this terrain still has to be traversed on foot; This includes 52 kms of circumambulating the Kailash Mountain. This is where one begins to realise the importance of the journey and what one undergoes in the process of reaching the destination, and most importantly returning safely. A journey of this nature provides a great opportunity to reflect.

  • Living with a group of people (40+) from diverse backgrounds for close to 30 days. With a common cause in front of all of us all barriers including language just evaporated and people just blended in. As the journey got tougher, even the so called obstinate came around
  • Over 10 – 12 hours spent trekking, End of day access to a satellite phone, Electricity for only 3 hours, no access to electronic devices and newspapers – All these led people in to each other’s arms; The word ‘Empathy’ was clearly understood by all

Climbing up to the Lipu Pass

  • Even though the organizing teams and paramilitary were conducting the pilgrimage, the group had to sort out things like finances, baggage, Medical and food all by itself. It sure is a tough ask getting volunteers for such activities that are deemed thankless, given that people have signed up for their personal reasons. Yet, it is possible to find committed folks who know where and how to get involved and switch off without getting too attached to the task. These folks keep the wheels turning without a hitch
  • In a span of 30 days the focus remains on completing every leg, every day successfully without any unforeseen event. In reality however we all know that this is rare. Group Liaison Officers along with volunteers have the responsibility of handling Accidents, Accidents leading to medical evacuations, psychological trauma arising from long stretches of trek and the fright of next day challenges getting bigger and of course death. All of this while ensuring that people start and reach a destination as per a plan. Staying the course without being emotionally ruffled and motivating the larger group is absolutely testing

stream crossing

  • As citizens cross borders they transcend in to becoming Ambassadors. Any improper conduct arising out of political messaging, rude behavior jeopardizes the entire group which is on a time bound mission. We faced an embarrassing situation and were held up by the political authorities for an inordinate period of time. The disciplinary teams had their task cut out and had to ensure that conduct remained uniform and any disagreements/frustrations were sorted out through private one-on-one discussions
  • Sub-contractors, temps and support staff play a huge role in successfully moving a group to and back to base camp. Even though rate cards and rule books have been written, one is always prepared for the unwritten, unsaid and subjective elements. During these times local wisdom always prevails and it is wise to keep eyes and ears open to the same

Kailash Parikrama

  • The journey is not complete till the return is as safely done as the onward journey. The route may be the same but the very thought of the finish line nearing can put anyone off course. If you descended you have to climb and vice versa. All along, nature has a way of helping the focused stay on course. Whether it is stamina, inner strength, religion, dynamics or faith – many routes to take when the goal is set

This amazing journey provided a lot of insights in to nature and people around us.

Yes, it mattered as much as the destination.