Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

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

Map of SOuth east Asia 900 CE showing various kingdoms
THe region of Kambuja had deep connects with India between the 6th/7th century right up to the 12th/13th century. Not only Kambuja, Monstates(present day Myanmar), Champa (central and south vietnam), Annam (North Vietnam), Java and Malaya regions too benefited from Indian influence – all without use of force or economic coercion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two bas relief's showcasing the trinity brahma, vishnu and siva
Top above, Siva and Parvati on Nandi; Vishnu reclined on sesha with Brahma emerging from his navel. Below – Lord vishnu, Brahma and lakshmi on a lotus at Vishnu’s feet

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

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

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

4 images of lingams and snanadronis at various places on the river bed
Not only the presence of lingas on the river bed, there are a number of Snanadronis without their lingams. Snanadronis are sculpted structures which drain the water flowing over the lingam

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

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

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

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

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

4 images of a rainforest stream, waterfall, a chamelon and tree mushrooms
The downstream area of Kbal spean is full of vibrance. Cataracts, reptiles, mushrooms and beautiful Rain forests dot the landscape

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

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

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

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 3 Heritage street, Guru ka Langar and Jallianwala Bagh

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 3     Heritage street, Guru ka Langar and Jallianwala Bagh

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 observations 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.

A walk through the Heritage street starts right from the town hall, crossing the installations of parliament, Dr BR Ambedkar, The statue of Ranjit singh ji, crossing the Jallianwala Bagh right up to the gates of the Harmandir sahib.

Town Hall Red sandstone building, replica of parliament building of India, bust of Dr Ambedkar and Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji statue
A walk on the Heritage street begins from the Town Hall, crossing the replica installation of the Parliament of India, bust of Dr. B.R Ambedkar and the grand intersection with the mounted statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji

The Heritage street is teeming with visitors at all hours. The place gets a magical feel once the lights come on in the evening.

Heritage street, Amritsar
Portion of Heritage street from Darbar Sahib right up to Jallianwala Bagh. Teeming with life.

Multinational eateries, Indian coffee shops, local dress material sellers, sellers of trinkets and souvenirs, shops selling spices and local delicacies, juices, lassi all vie for your attention.

Heritage street at twilight
The Heritage street now has ample room for people to move around, benches to rest and most importantly numerous selfie points

You will notice that there are no overhead electric cables; They have all been channeled underground. All the shops sport uniform facades and the signboards too have been kept identical. The place looks sanitized and seems to have moved away significantly from its original self. However, given the considerable amount of footfalls in the area, this is a welcome change.

A large square or Piazza
Numerous places to rest and take selfies

The local body, during its revamp of this precinct has now brought out a streamlined package of art, culture, political homage, history and devotion. Maintenance via the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Movement) can bring in increased footfalls and the resulting opportunity.

Bhangra and Gidda performers
Bronze replicas of Bhagra and Gidda by women performers on Heritage street is a beautiful introduction to the Art and Culture of Punjab

Jallianwala bagh was cruelest of the many ghastly acts perpetrated during the British regime. Punjab was under extreme martial law during this period of 1919 led by the extremely oppressive and repressive Lt Gen Michael O’Dwyer. An estimated 6000 to 10,000 protestors were pummeled with over 1500 rounds of fire. Estimated that over 1000 died and many more grievously wounded. The inhuman nature of the regime was such that even the wounded were not tended to and were left to bleed and die. The monument is a painful reminder of sacrifices made by the thousands for the sake of the country.

Images from Jallianwala bagh of the eternal flame, memorial monument and a bullet ridden brick wall
The Jallianwala Bagh memorial. One reaches the garden after walking through the narrow lane which is the only access. The bullet ridden holes and the eternal flame

The Langar is a revolutionary concept and a long standing tradition in place since the time of Guru Nanak Ji since 1521. It was started as an effort to feed hungry travelers and bridge communities divided by caste by ensuring that everyone eats together in front of the almighty. Wholesome vegetarian food is served throughout the year 24 hours a day. Before the food is served, a prayer (Ardas) is recited over the completed preparations and it is blessed with the passing through of a sacred knife (Kirpan).

I had the opportunity to partake of two rotis, dhal, kheer and a cup of tea. Absolutely no dogma that one has to visit the Darbar sahib before visiting the langar. The mind does not rest till the stomach is taken care of.

Community dining hall, meal of roti, dhal and kheer followed by a glass of tea
The Guru Ka Langar Dining Hall. A modest meal of 2 rotis, Maa ki Dhal / lentils and delicious Kheer. A cup of tea

One activity that was hugely satisfying to take part in is the washing of the plates and cups used by fellow devotees and visitors. This is a voluntary activity that almost every visitor performs within the langar complex. They come in silently, pick up a scrub and go about the task of soaping the utensils. Once completed, other volunteers come to pick them up and carry them over for a wash in fresh water. Other volunteers are busy wiping the clean plates dry, women peeling garlic and many more rendering yeoman service within the kitchen and the dining hall.

Volunteers washing used plates, peeling garlic and cutting vegetables. Plates neatly stacked for distribution
Volunteers washing used plates, peeling garlic and cutting vegetables. Plates neatly stacked for distribution

A final walk around the Darbar Sahib complex presents you with various monuments and memorial slabs erected to remember difficult moments in Sikh History, Operation Blue Star being one which my generation has read about. The sentiments are there to read and silently absorb the enormity of the event and the impact that it has had on the history of this country. One thing i walk out with is that for the Sikh, country is the foremost and they rever deeply the land in which they live.

Coming up in part 4 a survey of the food scene in Amritsar and a visit to the Atari (Indian side) – Wagah (Pakistan side) border.

 

 

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 2 Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple)

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 2     Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple)

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.

The Darbar Sahib well known as The Golden Temple is among the holiest of Sikh Gurudwaras (Gateway to the Guru). Moving beyond text books, calendar pages, i yearned for a visit. As a first timer visiting the Golden Temple, I felt a child like enthusiasm. The Gurudwara complex welcomes you from all four cardinal directions indicating acceptability of one and all. My driver guide parked his vehicle at the parking lot just before the Heritage street. The grand statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji is a prominent assembly and a selfie point. One walks from here, follows directions leading to the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple).

Statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji at the junction of Heritage street and Town Hall road
Maharajah Ranjit Singh Sandhawalia (November 13, 1780 – June 27, 1839), also known as “Sher-e-Punjab” (“The Lion of Punjab”), became the first Sikh Emperor after uniting the 11 Sikh Kingdoms of Punjab on the foundations of the Khalsa and under the banner of Sarkar-i-Khalsa, from 1799-1839.

There is a free Footwear safekeeping area. The volunteers hand over a numbered token to help you retrieve the footwear after your visit. There is a steady flow of water near the entrance footsteps. Visitors must compulsorily cleanse their feet before entering the Gurudwara complex. You are watched by the sentries at the gates to ensure that this mandatory act is completed.

Chowk Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) entrance to the Darbar Sahib / Golden Temple
The entrance from the eastern side is from Chowk Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower). To the left is the shoe safekeeping area followed by a feet wash before entry

The moment you enter the complex, the Darbar Sahib glows in the crystal clear waters of the Amrit sarovar. There is no specific direction in which one needs to move before walking to Darbar Sahib. I headed straight to Darshani Deorhi, the doors leading to the bridge connecting to the Darbar Sahib. The glittering entrance has intricately carved marble walls with semi precious stones, a chandelier and wooden doors which were presented to Maharaja Ranjit Singh way back in the year 1800.

Entrance to the Golden Temple Pathway
Darshni Deori, entrance to the bridge connecting to the Darbar Sahib

There is absolute orderliness and decorum amongst the devotees. On special occasions and holidays one can expect a wait of atleast an hour before reaching Har Ki Pauri (entrance to Darbar Sahib; steps of the almighty). Elders and children are willingly given the right of way. Gurbani (Hymns from the central texts of Sikhs – The Guru Granth Sahib) recitals are played on the speakers and engage the visitors and devotees. Tireless groups of volunteers keep the bridge and surroundings clean with water and a mop.

Bridge connecting to Har Ki Pauri
Har Ki Pauri or Footsteps of the almighty is just before one enters the Darbar Sahib or The Golden Temple

Once inside the Darbar Sahib, one can go up one level, listen to Gurbani hymns, pay respects to the eternal living Guru, The Guru Granth Sahib. There is no ushering but sentries to ensure orderliness with respect to entry and exit. Even with a huge stream of devotees and visitors, there is absolute calm within Darbar sahib.

A pious ceremony is conducted every morning and late evening. At the end of a day, the palanquin containing the Guru Granth Sahib (Palki Sahib) is carried to the Akal Takht and is got back to the Darbar sahib in the early hours. This procession is said to attract huge crowds not withstanding the early / late hours when it is conducted.

History – The excavation for the Amrit sarovar (Holy tank of Nectar) began in 1577 during the lifetime of the 4th Guru, Ram Das based on instructions of the 3rd Guru, Amar Das. The final excavation of the tank was completed in the year 1588 by the 5th Guru, Arjan ji.  The temple construction was completed in the year 1601. First edition of The Guru Granth Sahib was installed in 1604. The first caretaker or granthi was Baba Budha ji. One can visit the old tree where the Baba used to rest and supervise the construction of the temple. A lot of the walls, domes and doors were overlaid with gold during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji.

The Darbar Sahib has been witness to conflicts throughout history and has stood as a rock and served as a rallying point for sikhs. Legendary sikhs have risen from time to time to restore the honor and dignity of the Darbar Sahib after every desecration.

Visitors then walk to the Karah Parshad distribution center (A sacred food) to partake of the offering distributed by the sevadars. I also watched devotees return their quota of parshad at another counter and partake of only what is handed back to them.

Water fountain/water distribution center quenches ones thirst on a hot summer day. Volunteers tirelessly hand out steel bowls full of water to refresh oneself. Pause to catch a glimpse of the Darbar Sahib amid a few sips of water.

The water distribution center at Darbar Sahib for Devotees and visitors
The water distribution center at Darbar Sahib for Devotees and visitors

Devotees perform sevas as a thanksgiving in various forms one of them being the cleaning of the complex as a family

The Akhal Takht is the highest temporal seat of Sikhism founded in 1606 by the sixth Guru Hargobind Sahib. He wore two swords – Miri & Piri symbolizing Religion and Governance at this place. Two towers across the Akal Takht symbolize Miri & Piri. Historical weapons pertaining to Gurus and Sikh soldiers are displayed at the Akal Takht.

Akhal Takhat and Miri Piri
Akhal Takhat the temporal seat of Sikhism is a must visit. The significance of Miri and Piri in Sikhism should be read by all visitors

The political cum military power of the sikhs may be regarded as a reaction against the intolerance and bigotry of the muslim rulers leading to the oppression of the Hindus. Before founding of Sikhism, Punjab was trampled upon for over 500 years by invaders from central Asia. The people of punjab endured maximum suffering as hordes passed through it to the rich plains of the Ganga or to the south. Various army units that were raised have dedicated a slab of marble to commemorate their raising. These can be seen while heading towards the exit of the temple complex.

Dedication by the Armed Forces
A whole lot of marble slabs dedicated by various companies of Armed Forces praying for their safety and well being.

The Journey within the Golden Temple complex continues with a meal at the Guru Da Langar and a walk on the Heritage street.

Getting There : Amritsar is a 7 hour journey by road covering over 450 kms. It is well connected by direct flights between Mumbai and Delhi. Plenty of trains run between Amritsar and other important cities of India namely New Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Mumbai

Text Sources:

  1. Sikhism by R.C Majumdar part of the series on The Mughals

 

 

 

 

 

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.