Journeysmatter

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Tag Archives: Hindu

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.

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.

Experiencing Varanasi……Part 2

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

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

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

Images of the Ghats

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

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

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

The Boat ride on the Ganges and the Ghats

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

Experiencing Varanasi…..Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Journey matters as much as the Destination….

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The Rakshastal

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

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

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

Climbing up to the Lipu Pass

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

stream crossing

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

Kailash Parikrama

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

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

Yes, it mattered as much as the destination.