Journeysmatter

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Category Archives: religion

#Kumbh 2019 – An unique and unforgettable experience – 1

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

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

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

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

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

The Kumbh Tent City

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

Heading to the Triveni Sangam

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

The Bath at Triveni Sangam OR Confluence of Three rivers

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

Getting to Prayagraj

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

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

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

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Sights and Sounds of Yangon – The Circular Railway

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The Yangon Circular Railway May

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. In Part 2 of this blog series we explored the township of Mingun in the Mandalay region. In Part 3, we continued our exploration of Mandalay with a shore expedition to Innwa also called as Ava. Part 4 saw us visiting the cultural city of Bagan. Later, we started soaking in the sights and sounds of Yangon. In The first part of our Yangon Series, we visited the colonial era precincts on a wet day. Later, in the second part, we had the opportunity of visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda and Temple of the Reclining Buddha. As we prepared to bid goodbye to this wonderful and energetic country, we took a ride on The Circular Railway and it was a perfect way to bring the curtains down on this lovely travel experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Myanmar

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

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

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

The Myanmar Journey concludes here for now

Yangon – Sights & Sounds 2

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The Shwedagon Pagoda at Twilight

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

The Shwedagon Pagoda

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

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

Describing the Shwedagon Pagoda

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

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

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

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

The Singu Min Bell

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

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

Chauk htat gyi temple of The Reclining Buddha

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

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

Getting to Myanmar

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Banteay Srei, #Cambodia

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THe Banteay Srei Temple

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

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

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

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

Banteay Srei entrance, Walkway, moat and sandstone ruins

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

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

The Plan view of Banteay Srei Temple

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

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

Two Monkey or Va-Nara resembling door keepers

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

Stories galore

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

Ravana shaking Mount Kailash

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

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

Ravana shaking Mount Kailash where Lord Siva and Parvati are seated

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

Krishna killing Kamsa

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

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

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

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

Kamadeva readying to fire an arrow towards Lord Siva

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

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

Dancing Siva or Nataraja and Karaikal Ammaiyar

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

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

Indra on Airavath

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

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

Indra creating rain to put out the fire started by Agni

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

Lord Siva with his consort and Yama

Lord Siva with his consort Parvati on his faithful Nandi

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

Lord Yama on a Buffalo

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

A crucial point in the epic Ramayana where Rama vanquishes Vali

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

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

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

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

Nandi and two snanadronis

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

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

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

Content Credits

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

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

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

 

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

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

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

Map of SOuth east Asia 900 CE showing various kingdoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Way to Kbal Spean where nature mesmerizes you

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

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

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

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

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

Images of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lingas on the river bed and representation of Shakti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guru ka Langar Community washing of utensils

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)

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View of The Golden Temple and the Amrit Sarovar

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