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Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Bagan, A Cultural Capital

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The landscape of Bagan as viewed from the terrace of Htiliminlo temple is breathtaking. This scenery needs to be viewed at different times of the day to experience what was once the Cultural capital of Myanmar

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

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. Here we cruise on the Irrawady and arrive at the shores of Bagan, another reason why Myanmar is on the world tourist map.

After an early start to the day in Innwa followed by shore excursions, rest of the day was reserved for cruising downstream along the Irrawady river within the Mandalay region. It gave us a glimpse in to the daily life of people working in the water and along the shores of the river. Along the way, the cruise personnel kept us busy with activities like applying Tanaka on each other, different ways of tying a Longyi and of course a sumptuous high tea. The Longyi is a fantastic alternative to the trouser – During formal occassions let it down, during emergencies when one has to wade through water or slush, just lift it up and tie it around your waist. Its a fabulous utility attire. The same attire is called Lungi / Khaili and is worn extensively across the southern states of India.

Mid Day activities on board the Strand cruise to keep the guests busy plus give them an introduction to the daily lives of Myanmarese like tying the lawngyi and applying Tanaka.
Mid Day activities on board the Strand cruise to keep the guests busy plus give them an introduction to the daily lives of Myanmarese like tying the lawngyi and applying Tanaka.

The Kingdom of Bagan

Bagan’s glories stretched from the 9th to the 13th century under the Pagan Kingdom. The Kingdom is largely credited for unifying the various regions that make up the modern day Myanmar. During this period the Kingdom is said to have constructed over 10,000 religious monuments. These monuments also served as centre for studies and attracted Monks and Students from nearby countries. Given that the same period also saw influence of Hindu civilization stretch towards south east asian countries of Cambodia and Vietnam, Myanmar too must have benefited from the Trade, Economics and spiritual wisdom of Ancient India. 

Around 2000 of these temples remain. Earthquakes have been responsible for bringing down many of them. Lack of restoration expertise has led to shoddy reconstruction using modern materials. The price being paid – Inspite of such a rich past, Bagan is yet to get declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This, despite being a strong contender and thousands of tourists descending in to experience this heritage. 

Shwegugyi, ThatByinnyu, Dhammayangyi and HtiloMinlo temple

Shwegugyi means "the Golden Cave" in Myanmar. t was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140 A.D. There is a legend saying, that there was a huge block of brick about 12 feet high sprouted from the ground in response to the king's greatness of accumulated merit. So with the huge block of brick, formed the plinth in the formation of the temple. It was mentioned that the Shwegugyi was completed in 7 months and 7 days. (Courtesy : http://bagan.travelmyanmar.net)
Shwegugyi means “the Golden Cave” in Myanmar. t was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140 A.D. There is a legend saying, that there was a huge block of brick about 12 feet high sprouted from the ground in response to the king’s greatness of accumulated merit. So with the huge block of brick, formed the plinth in the formation of the temple. It was mentioned that the Shwegugyi was completed in 7 months and 7 days. (Courtesy : http://bagan.travelmyanmar.net)
Thatbyinnyu is Bagan's tallest temple at almost 200 ft. (or 61 m.; some indicate 217 ft. or 66 m.) and represents a transition from the Mon period to a new architectural style that would soon be followed at the Sulamani, the Gawdawpalin and at Htilominlo. Constructed during one of the high points of Bagan political power and during a period of re-dedication to Theravada Buddhism and religious scholarship, it reflected that era's innovative architectural and artistic creativity. Paul Strachan, the important Bagan scholar, calls Thatbyinnyu "an expression of the self-confident Burmese spirit of nationhood." (Courtesy : www.orientalarchitecture.com)
Thatbyinnyu is Bagan’s tallest temple at almost 200 ft. (or 61 m.; some indicate 217 ft. or 66 m.) and represents a transition from the Mon period to a new architectural style that would soon be followed at the Sulamani, the Gawdawpalin and at Htilominlo. Constructed during one of the high points of Bagan political power and during a period of re-dedication to Theravada Buddhism and religious scholarship, it reflected that era’s innovative architectural and artistic creativity. Paul Strachan, the important Bagan scholar, calls Thatbyinnyu “an expression of the self-confident Burmese spirit of nationhood.” (Courtesy : http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)
The Dhammayangyi (or Dhamma-yan-gyi) Pahto, extending approximately 255 feet (78 m) on each of its four sides, is Bagan's most massive shrine. As much as it is huge in its appearance, there is still considerable amount of controversy regarding the identity of its builder. Ghastly events are said to have been inflicted on its alleged builder who didnt exactly lead a life of virtue (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com)
The Dhammayangyi (or Dhamma-yan-gyi) Pahto, extending approximately 255 feet (78 m) on each of its four sides, is Bagan’s most massive shrine. As much as it is huge in its appearance, there is still considerable amount of controversy regarding the identity of its builder. Ghastly events are said to have been inflicted on its alleged builder who didnt exactly lead a life of virtue (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)
he Htilominlo Pahto was built by King Nandaungmya (r. 1211-c.1230 AD) early in his reign to commemorate his selection on this spot as crown prince from among five sons of the king. The white umbrella had tilted toward him, and he became his father's successor. (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com) Right in front of the Htilominlo is a narrow entrance which took us to a terrace from where we could get a panoramic view of Bagan's Temple landscape. The terracota structures set amidst greenery is a photographers' delight.
he Htilominlo Pahto was built by King Nandaungmya (r. 1211-c.1230 AD) early in his reign to commemorate his selection on this spot as crown prince from among five sons of the king. The white umbrella had tilted toward him, and he became his father’s successor. (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com) Right in front of the Htilominlo is a narrow entrance which took us to a terrace from where we could get a panoramic view of Bagan’s Temple landscape. The terracota structures set amidst greenery is a photographers’ delight.

The Ananda Phaya Temple, Shwezigon Zedi and Wetkyi-in Kubyauk-gyi Temple 

A strong influence of Indian Architecture from many temples of Bengal and Orissa is very clear.The Ananda Phaya Temple - Bagan. A strong influence of Indian Architecture from many temples of Bengal and Orissa is very clear.
The Ananda Phaya Temple – Bagan. A strong influence of Indian Architecture from many temples of Bengal and Orissa is very clear.
The Ananda temple was built in the year 1105. The Buddhist temple houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. The temple is said to be an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian style of architecture. The Archeological survey of India collaborated extensively with Myanmar and provided assistance for Structural Conservation and Chemical preservation of the Ananda Phaya Temple.
The Ananda temple was built in the year 1105. The Buddhist temple houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. The temple is said to be an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian style of architecture. The Archeological survey of India collaborated extensively with Myanmar and provided assistance for Structural Conservation and Chemical preservation of the Ananda Phaya Temple.
The Shwezigon Paya (pagoda, stupa or zedi), is one of the Bagan area's, and Myanmar's, most significant religious structures.It truly is a 'national' pagoda, since it served as a prototype for many later stupas built throughout Myanmar. The Shwezigon is also a major national center of worship. Pilgrims come from many parts of Myanmar for its festival held during the Burmese month of Nadaw (November/December) both because of its historic character and because of its religious significance for Burmese Buddhism. It is said to be one of the earliest symbols of the triumph of the purified 'Theravada Buddhism'. Courtesy - www.orientalarchitectures.com
The Shwezigon Paya (pagoda, stupa or zedi), is one of the Bagan area’s, and Myanmar’s, most significant religious structures.It truly is a ‘national’ pagoda, since it served as a prototype for many later stupas built throughout Myanmar. The Shwezigon is also a major national center of worship. Pilgrims come from many parts of Myanmar for its festival held during the Burmese month of Nadaw (November/December) both because of its historic character and because of its religious significance for Burmese Buddhism. It is said to be one of the earliest symbols of the triumph of the purified ‘Theravada Buddhism’. Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitectures.com
The Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan has a very simple representation of the Four sights that led Siddhartha, the Prince on his road to becoming Gautama. An old Man speaking about the consequences of aging, A sick man suffering from disease and pain, Sight of a Dead body and finally the sight of an ascetic who devoted himself to find out the cause for human suffering.
The Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan has a very simple representation of the Four sights that led Siddhartha, the Prince on his road to becoming Gautama. An old Man speaking about the consequences of aging, A sick man suffering from disease and pain, Sight of a Dead body and finally the sight of an ascetic who devoted himself to find out the cause for human suffering.
Wetkyi-In Kubyauk-gyi temple in Bagan, Myanmar
The interior of the Kubyauk-gyi is filled with numerous mural paintings, including an excellent representation of “The Temptation of Mara” behind the east-facing Buddha, and 544 jataka tales along the side walls and ambulatory. However, a number of the jataka plates are missing as they were plundered in 1899 by a German art thief, Th. H. Thomann, who inaugurated the grim tradition of modern-day looting to resell Bagan-era antiquities on the international market. Although Thomann and his team were caught by the local British authorities, a number of items reached Europe where they were acquired by Museum of Hamburg in 1906, though they have subsequently gone missing. Perhaps because of the heightened awareness surrounding art theft at Kubyauk-Gyi, the temple retains a full-time guard who also ensures that visitors refrain from photographing the murals. Although this a sensible precaution as flash photography easily damages Bagan-era pigment, the prohibition also extends to long-exposure photography using ambient light (Image and Text courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitectures.com). Some of these murals have been whitewashed and unravelling these Murals by getting done with the whitewash without damaging the Murals is proving to be an ordeal.

Lacquerware in Myanmar

Myanmar is well known for its Lacquerware works. Transcends from trinkets, personal accessories to decorative pieces. A family business by name Bagan Lacquer House has a workshop where one can watch the craftsment at work and also an inhouse store to pick up a few items for personal use or gifting.

This is a Must see for all those visiting Bagan. Nominally priced there are numerous gifiting options. The process starts with the Inner shell being made with Bamboo followed by lacquering the interior and covering it with “Thayo” a made resin paste with lacquer and mixed ashes. This work is in general carried out with the hand (or with very fine gloves). When an application is made on the mould in bamboo, one must then dry it in an obscure and wet place. The duration of drying is of approximately a week. Once finished drying, the lacquers carefully are washed and sandpapered if necessary. This stage is important for the quality of the future lacquer. After the first drying, one carefully sandpapers the object, one washes it, then one passes by again, the second layer and one turns over to drying. The object thus makes several outward journey and return with the warehouse of drying. Each time it thus receives a new layer of lacquer. It is only on the last layer that one colours.Engraving is done with free hands, without model, entirely of memory, directly with naked hands, using a stylet and of a brush.
This is a Must see for all those visiting Bagan. Nominally priced there are numerous gifiting options. The process starts with the Inner shell being made with Bamboo followed by lacquering the interior and covering it with “Thayo” a made resin paste with lacquer and mixed ashes. This work is in general carried out with the hand (or with very fine gloves). When an application is made on the mould in bamboo, one must then dry it in an obscure and wet place. The duration of drying is of approximately a week. Once finished drying, the lacquers carefully are washed and sandpapered if necessary. This stage is important for the quality of the future lacquer. After the first drying, one carefully sandpapers the object, one washes it, then one passes by again, the second layer and one turns over to drying. The object thus makes several outward journey and return with the warehouse of drying. Each time it thus receives a new layer of lacquer. It is only on the last layer that one colours.Engraving is done with free hands, without model, entirely of memory, directly with naked hands, using a stylet and of a brush.

We end our cruise on The Strand in Bagan and fly out to experience the capital city of Yangon.

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.

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Innwa An Ancient capital

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A family out for their morning chores use traditional bullock carts for their travel. The graceful lady of the house presents a confident smile while cradling her little one; All this while the husband while watching the road is also keeping an eye on his family

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

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. We continue our exploration of Mandalay with a shore expedition to Innwa also called as Ava

Creating Travel Experiences in #Myanmar

As we wound up our excursion in Mingun, the Strand Cruise team helped us to our rooms, introduced us to the staff on board, amenities available and ensured that we got comfortable with the facilities. The ever smiling staff accompany you during excursions with a picnic basket containing refreshments, wet towels as it can get extremely sweaty after monsoons and during summers and upon return to the boat you just feel like gulping all the cold drinks on offer. The staff request you to place your sandals which are cleaned off the mud and delivered outside your room. Comfortable slippers are provided to walk around inside the cruise boat. 

After a long day in Mingun, we continued 35 kms along the Irrawady river and halt for the night on the banks of the Ancient Capital City of Innwa or Ava as it was called when it was the seat of the Burmese Empire. The empire lasted over 360 years between 1365 to 1842 on 5 separate occassions. 

Tourism has provided the residents of these towns a wonderful opportunity to talk about their country, listen and understand what Tourists expect and ensure they carry home wonderful stories. Out of the moored Cruise boat in the morning, we board Horse carts to take us through the narrow and rain washed streets of Innwa to various places of interest. While it may seem like a very uni-dimensional way to travel, Myanmar will slowly but surely bring in experiences even to the smallest of monuments / destinations. However this opportunity we got was to explore a raw country which had just opened up. No sanitised experiences as of now like in Singapore, Malaysia and other SE Asian counterparts.

Pagodas & Monasteries of Wingaba, Myint Mo Thaung and Lawka Dawtha Man Aung

Based on interactions with locals during his journeys in Burma, Robert Bruce Thurber in his book In the Land of the Pagodas (Paya as referred by the locals) gives the probable reason for many Pagodas lying in a state of repair. It is believed that no merit accrues to anyone who repairs a Pagoda, except those of great note, repair-merit going to the original build. We really dont know if this is now a business of the state or Myanmar has transcended these beliefs.  

Wingaba, a square shaped Monastery is a deviation from the standard spire shaped Pagodas one regularly finds. Looking in dire need of maintenance, the flat roof seems to have remnants of spires that have collapsed. Insides of the Monastery have stairs to provide access to the top
Wingaba, a square shaped Monastery is a deviation from the standard spire shaped Pagodas one regularly finds. Looking in dire need of maintenance, the flat roof seems to have remnants of spires that have collapsed. Insides of the Monastery have stairs to provide access to the top
The Myint Mo Thaung is a Circular shaped Pagoda or Paya as it is called locally, with a staircase on the outside leading to the top. Seems a simple climb from outside but tests your lungs first thing in the morning. Nevertheless, the views of the countryside from the top are stunning. The rains leave a marshy pathway to be negotiated carefully.
The Myint Mo Thaung is a Circular shaped Pagoda or Paya as it is called locally, with a staircase on the outside leading to the top. Seems a simple climb from outside but tests your lungs first thing in the morning. Nevertheless, the views of the countryside from the top are stunning. The rains leave a marshy pathway to be negotiated carefully.
The spired stupa is the Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda. The Pagoda encloses a small shrine with a statue of Buddha in a small building nearby. The Pagodas house relics but not always one is able to find original relics and house them. Many Pagodas have housed replica of the relics and have drawn the faithful.
The spired stupa is the Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda. The Pagoda encloses a small shrine with a statue of Buddha in a small building nearby. The Pagodas house relics but not always one is able to find original relics and house them. Many Pagodas have housed replica of the relics and have drawn the faithful.

The Yedanasini Temple

The temple in Innwa is in a state of ruin yet looks spectacular. The temple is said to have been build way back in the year 1820’s/1830’s. A major Earthquake in the year 1839 brought down the temple to its current state. 

The Yedanasini temple is probably among all the well photographed temples in Myanmar. Set amidst thick countryside vegetation, the brick monument stands out in contrast in terms of color values.
The Yedanasini temple is probably among all the well photographed temples in Myanmar. Set amidst thick countryside vegetation, the brick monument stands out in contrast in terms of color values.
The complex houses the remnants of a triad of Buddha statues in good condition. These images have graced the pages of many travel magazines.
The complex houses the remnants of a triad of Buddha statues in good condition. These images have graced the pages of many travel magazines.
Assembly halls with multiple bays, windows and columns are said to be thematically similar to Siamese assembly halls of Ayutthaya (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com)
Assembly halls with multiple bays, windows and columns are said to be thematically similar to Siamese assembly halls of Ayutthaya (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)

The Leader

The people of Myanmar have shown tremendous grit and have survived numerous crises as they transitioned from Freedom – Military Rule – Democracy. Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been at the forefront of this transition. Respect to her is played out at almost all the places that we travelled to.

Suu Kyi also referred to as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi apart from being a Pro-democracy leader who has led her country on the path of democracy is also a source of inspiration for her countrymen. Youngest daughter of Aung San who died aged 32, she has battled hard to ensure that her countrymen are able to savor the freedom that democracy offers. She currently holds the post of a State Councillor which is equivalent to the post of a Prime Minister.
Suu Kyi also referred to as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi apart from being a Pro-democracy leader who has led her country on the path of democracy is also a source of inspiration for her countrymen. Youngest daughter of Aung San who died aged 32, she has battled hard to ensure that her countrymen are able to savor the freedom that democracy offers. She currently holds the post of a State Councillor which is equivalent to the post of a Prime Minister.

Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery

Probably the best preserved monastery, one that survived the great earthquake of 1839 and subsequently got the attention it deserved towards re-building. This monastery is said to have been constructed by a queen for the Royal Priest. 

The monastery is a brick replica of typical wooden monasteries of that period. Constructed on a large base course / foundation with Masonry stairs, there are a total of 8 stairs leading to the shrine which is recognized by the Pyathat - a multi staged roof with an odd number of tiers. Within the monastery, there are living quarters for Monks along with a classroom; On the same level are the Royal Priests’ residence and Buddha’s image chambers.
The monastery is a brick replica of typical wooden monasteries of that period. Constructed on a large base course / foundation with Masonry stairs, there are a total of 8 stairs leading to the shrine which is recognized by the Pyathat – a multi staged roof with an odd number of tiers. Within the monastery, there are living quarters for Monks along with a classroom; On the same level are the Royal Priests’ residence and Buddha’s image chambers.
There are two sets of Perimeter corridors within the main Monastery. While walking through the corridors, it provides perfectly habitable weather with no requirement for any artificial lighting and ventilation. Today the monastery is no longer inhabited but is maintained in good condition. (Courtesy - www.orientalarchitecture.com)
There are two sets of Perimeter corridors within the main Monastery. While walking through the corridors, it provides perfectly habitable weather with no requirement for any artificial lighting and ventilation. Today the monastery is no longer inhabited but is maintained in good condition. (Courtesy – http://www.orientalarchitecture.com)
Chinthes are Leogryphs or Lion like creatures seen at the entrances of Pagodas and temples in Buddhist countries in the region. The chinthe is revered and loved by the Burmese people and is used symbolically on the royal thrones of Burma. Predating the use of coins for money, brass weights cast in the shape of mythical beasts like the chinthe were commonly used to measure standard quantities of staple items.The Chinthes seen here are at the entrance to the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery.
Chinthes are Leogryphs or Lion like creatures seen at the entrances of Pagodas and temples in Buddhist countries in the region. The chinthe is revered and loved by the Burmese people and is used symbolically on the royal thrones of Burma. Predating the use of coins for money, brass weights cast in the shape of mythical beasts like the chinthe were commonly used to measure standard quantities of staple items.The Chinthes seen here are at the entrance to the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery.

Moving on from Mandalay, our cruise set sail towards another ancient capital city of Bagan.

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.

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Glories of Mingun

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The Mahamuni of Mingun

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. We took The Strand cruise boat got us across the shore towards Mingun. Here we set out to explore on a Trishaw. Myanmar is a Theravada Buddhist country with over 90% of its population practicing the religion. Practitioners of the Theravada Buddhist school of thought claim to adhere most closely to the original doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are the other countries where the Theravada Buddhism prevails. In a Buddhist countries, Pagodas are unmissable. A temple complex, Pagodas have been used to house relics or remains of saints and Kings. They also served as seats of learning and as a resting place for mendicants. Kings built numerous pagodas to earn the goodwill and blessings of the saints who were part of the kingdom or were passing by.

The Mahamuni

We set out to get an understanding of how these play a role in peoples lives. Starting with the Mahamuni Pagoda. Built in 1785, the pagoda is very reverend to the locals as it is said to be hosting a living expression of representing Buddha’s life. The king of Arakan is said to have hosted Buddha and his 500 disciples when he was on tour and the Buddha agreed to have his image crafted by the king. The Mahamuni’s face is washed daily by priests and also has his teeth brushed. The towel used to wipe the face is later handed over to the devotees to keep in their homes

The richly decorated interiors of The Mahamuni Pagoda. The Yellow paint already gives a feeling of the Pagoda glistening in gold. The impressive work on the arches in the corridor and the Jade stone walls are to be observed for their richeness. THe devout are seen in plenty and many come in with their travel bags enroute to their destinations.
The richly decorated interiors of The Mahamuni Pagoda. The Yellow paint already gives a feeling of the Pagoda glistening in gold. The impressive work on the arches in the corridor and the Jade stone walls are to be observed for their richeness. THe devout are seen in plenty and many come in with their travel bags enroute to their destinations.
Devotees get close to the Mahamuni and humbly submit their offerings usually in the form of gold leaves that are applied on the supporting pedestal along with a silent prayers.
Devotees get close to the Mahamuni and humbly submit their offerings usually in the form of gold leaves that are applied on the supporting pedestal along with a silent prayers.
The Myanmarese place their faith in the living entity that is the Mahamuni. The crown is adorned with precious stones etched in gold. Rest of the Mahamuni's structure is enriched with Gold Leaves
The Myanmarese place their faith in the living entity that is the Mahamuni. The crown is adorned with precious stones etched in gold. Rest of the Mahamuni’s structure is enriched with Gold Leaves

One of the interesting things about Myanmar is about the Gold Leaf. This forms the main offerings at all the Pagodas. Sharing a video from the archives of the Smithsonian Channel showcasing the making of the Gold Leaf.

The Gold Leaf Making factory. Kind courtesy – Smithsonian Channel

Bagaya Kyaung Monastery

Teakwood is native to Myanmar. The water reistant nature of Teak makes it an ideal material suitable for furnitures, ship building and as we have seen in the case of U-Bein, even for bridges. In Mandalay however you should be able to visit the Bagaya Kyaung Monastery that has been completely built in Teak. Said to have been built in 1834, the monastery has over 267 columns, all resting over stone pedestals. going by the carvings in the Monastery, the Craftsment would have found Teak as an excellent medium for expressing their skills.  

The Majesticity of the Bagaya Kyaung monastery has been achieved with the simplest of materials - Wood. Even after two centuries, the monasteries do not seem ravaged by time. One takes of their shoes before entering the Monastery. There are many quiet places around for a 21 minute meditation session.
The Majesticity of the Bagaya Kyaung monastery has been achieved with the simplest of materials – Wood. Even after two centuries, the monasteries do not seem ravaged by time. One takes of their shoes before entering the Monastery. There are many quiet places around for a 21 minute meditation session.
The main shrine is in the auspicious East-West direction. Large parts of the monastery are served by ample natural light and excellent cross ventilation. Figurines representing door keepers to the shrine can be seen along with frescos which detail Buddha's life.
The main shrine is in the auspicious East-West direction. Large parts of the monastery are served by ample natural light and excellent cross ventilation. Figurines representing door keepers to the shrine can be seen along with frescos which detail Buddha’s life.

Mingun Pahtodawgyi

This one reminded me of Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India. Construction of this enormous “unfinished” pagoda began in the year 1791 to house a replica of a Buddha tooth relic. Massive earthquakes in 1821 and 1839 are said to have led to abandonement of construction. The pagoda currently has only only limited use as a place of worship

What looks like a massive granary is actually an unfinished Pagoda. It is not as frequented as a place of worship. One can just stand and look at PahtoDawgyi and imagine what could have been. It is massive and if it was completed could have been a structure to rival the pyramids. Alas, time decided to tell other stories.
What looks like a massive granary is actually an unfinished Pagoda. It is not as frequented as a place of worship. One can just stand and look at PahtoDawgyi and imagine what could have been. It is massive and if it was completed could have been a structure to rival the pyramids. Alas, time decided to tell other stories.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

Mount Meru is said to be the axis Mundi or at he center of the Buddhist cosmos. The Hsinbyume Pagoda is said to have been built in the early part of the 19th century and is said to represent Mount Meru. The White Pagoda has seven concentric terraces that represent the seven rivers and mountain ranges encircling Mount Meru. The Pagoda is named after a princess who died in childbirth in 1812. Climb up to the shrine for prayers and fantastic views of the Irrawady river. 

The first sight of the Hsinbumye is absolutely spectacular. By the time one reaches Hsinbumye you are already expecting another gold peaked Pagoda; A spotless white Pagoda is an absolute delight. The story behind the Pagoda is heart wrenching.
The first sight of the Hsinbumye is absolutely spectacular. By the time one reaches Hsinbumye you are already expecting another gold peaked Pagoda; A spotless white Pagoda is an absolute delight. The story behind the Pagoda is heart wrenching.
The Hsinbyume is said to resemble Mt Meru, the axis of the universe that is attained after one crosses the 7 seas seen here in a beautiful representation. The climb up is short and each step is about a foot higher than the other. It is well worth the effort to climb up to the top.
The Hsinbyume is said to resemble Mt Meru, the axis of the universe that is attained after one crosses the 7 seas seen here in a beautiful representation. The climb up is short and each step is about a foot higher than the other. It is well worth the effort to climb up to the top.
Clear views of the Irrawady river and the nearby Pahtodawgyi pagoda can be seen from atop the Pagoda.
Clear views of the Irrawady river and the nearby Pahtodawgyi pagoda can be seen from atop the Pagoda.

The Rockstar of Mingun

On our way from Pahtodawgyi to Hsinbyume, we came across this Rockstar of a lady who had set up a Cheroot stall just outside her home and served as the best ambassador/endorser for her product. Cheroots are popular truncated cigars made from a choice blend of tobacco, bark, stems, roots and sundry leaves wrapped in a corn husk tied with a red silk thread. More popular than smoking cheroot is chewing of Betelnut.

The lady had Tanaka paste all over her and was probably enjoying her post lunch Cheroot. She was also hawking them. Houses are built on stilts probably to escape from flooding and reptiles.
The lady had Tanaka paste all over her and was probably enjoying her post lunch Cheroot. She was also hawking them. Houses are built on stilts probably to escape from flooding and reptiles.

Our next stop as part of the cruise was Innwa, another former kingdom of Myanmar with its own set of stories to tell. Mandalay and Mingun ended Day 1 of the Cruise.

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 Southern, All Nippon, Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai 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.

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.

 

 

The Mahakali of Andheri (E), Mumbai

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

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

Durga Puja invite and schedule of events starting from Mahalaya

The beautifully done invite for the Durga puja festival

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

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

The Celebrations

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

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

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

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

Intricate work done on the idols mesmerizes you

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

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

The Pandal and Bhog

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

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

The buzzing food counters at the pandal

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

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

The Bhog at Mahakali

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

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 3

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The Sarnath deer Park

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

IT BHU

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

Sarnath Deer Park

Sarnath

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

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

Varanasi Food Trail

Varanasi Food Trail

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

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

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

Varanasi Food Trail

Varanasi Food Trail

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