Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra – Behind The Scenes Story

It so happened that I planned my Jagannath Puri trip a week before the Rath Yatra which brings millions of devotees to this sleepy, coastal town in Orissa. If I had planned a week later, I would have really struggled with booking and high costs. To attend a festival like the Rath Yatra – which I would love to at some point – I would probably need to prepare earlier with regards accommodation.

I was able to see the preparations behind the Rath Yatra, and understand the Puri religious eco-system a bit better. It was exciting to visit the three Raths (chariots) being made on the wide public road outside the Jagannath Temple and note the daily progress in the work. Continue reading

Kumbh Mela: Ujjain Simhasth, May 2016, Photos

Quick trip to Ujjain for the Simhasth Kumbh Mela happened in early May. I had traveled to Nashik for my first Kumbh Mela experience in 2015 and I deliberately went on the non-Shahi snan days. I was concerned about the crowds and overall facilities.

This time for Ujjain I went impromptu on the 7-8th May weekend. I left on Friday 6th May by an overnight Volvo – a company called Ashok travels. Surprisingly it actually started on time and was quite decent. I reached Ujjain the next day, before noon. Continue reading

Social Implications of Solo Travel, India

When I started solo traveling in 2009, it all happened a bit impromptu. I had a basic plan in place, Mumbai – Goa – Bangalore (transit) – Mysore – Coimbatore (yoga ashram). I provided all accommodation details with contact numbers to my parents and that was pretty much it.

As I started doing this more often, the question arose about what to tell people – specifically relatives. Where do I keep disappearing sometimes for a whole month!? This was a time when solo traveling, especially women solo traveling hadn’t become the buzz word it is now. Many people close to me suggested that I tell people I am traveling with another girl friend, no one would really know the truth and it would look so much more normal.Continue reading

Delving deeper into Varanasi

Lately my heart is turning to Varanasi – that crazy, crazy city! I am cooking up plans to visit it again, just to have my thoughts clash about all the various trips I plan to make. It is a common dilemma I think, of travelers who aren’t on the road indefinitely. Don’t get me wrong I am not sad or feeling tied up, I am just very passionate about work as well. And I am really enjoying my work currently.

Varanasi was a city that really shocked the daylights out of me. I wish I could say it was the spiritual power (maybe it was subconsciously), but it was all the other madness that drove me nuts – tiny alleys, dirt and litter, injured animals, heat, mangled beggars, dirt, non-veg on ghats, long lines, crowd, did I say dirt? …… you get the point.

So what is the charm? Why do I want to go back and explore more? What’s intriguing me?

Culture. 

Yes, just one word – Culture. The layers and layers of ancient culture.

Temples: I am fascinated by the sheer range of temples you can find there. Right in the chowk outside Dashashwamedh ghat you have a Brihaspati (Jupiter) temple for example. There are temples of every god, goddess and their associates in Varanasi. This includes all 7 planets, Surya dev, 8 forms of Kaal Bhairava, different ethnic temples like Nepali Shiva temple and what not. I really want to explore different temples. Then the rituals within the temples, some can really creep the hell out of me – really, I have researched and I don’t want to write about it right now.

I want to follow many temple trails: Like explore the 8 kaal bhairava idols which are scattered across the city. Did you know that kaal bhairava is the guardian deity of Kashi? This is the deity the Kashi police worship. And there are 8 main police offices. While they don’t correspond to each of the 8 Kaal Bhairava idols but there are some intriguing associations between the Kaal Bhairava setup and the police setup. And both are guardians of the city on different levels. If you want to know more about my Kaal Bhairava research and where you can find the 8 idols – you will have to email me. I won’t be writing a public blog post on the same.

Varanasi
The Nepali Temple at Lalit Ghat. It was practically a treasure hunt we went on to find this temple. Enroute to lalit ghat we came across snake charmers and some random stall selling porn CDs. One local guy even made lude passes at us in an abandoned tunnel. It was a bit bizarre. The Ganga level was high hence the Ghats were not interconnected. We had to go from the lesser used pathways. Usually when the river is low enough one can walk to all the various ghats by the river itself. This was an interesting temple with intricate carvings. Since not a tourist attraction, it had a lovely ambiance and quiet around it. Nice place to meditate.

Music: From a Varanasi local I have understood that a common layperson in Varanasi has deep music knowledge. He can identify all the various Hindustani Classical taals. He can immediately make out when some taal is out of place and so on. Many temples in Varanasi are a place for musicians to get into intense jugalbandi with very adept commoners who enjoy the duel.

History: There are ruins of deities people still worship. So you may randomly walk by a ruined pillar type structure but if you know the stories of the place, then you will realize that people come and worship that pillar because it is actually part of a long lost idol. There are lot of such stories rife in Varanasi. People stories, Temple stories, History… lots of history.

Varanasi
What is going on here? Depending on the time of year, there is always some or the other traditional ritual going on in Kashi.

Common People: From being musical maestros to knowing the most obscure global language – the Varanasi commoner will astound you. Being a tourist hub, here the common person may be a champ in languages like Japanese and Hebrew as it makes for a lucrative career. They are so comfortable that they can just have long conversations in that language.

Varanasi
The Ganga aarti that is really sought after can be a lovely experience but it is not ancient. It is in fact quite recent and from what I understand, it is a tourist attraction than anything else.

There are layers and layers of history, culture, stories that create a surreal ambiance in Varanasi. It is really the only place that gave me the feeling that in my 3 days there I had not even scratched the surface of things to explore in the city. This is a rare experience for me.

Solo Travel Hacks: Enjoy the Solitude

One of the common questions I get when I talk about solo traveling is ‘Do you feel lonely?’ or something on similar lines ‘how do you pass the whole day on your own?’. Here is my experience…

I don’t just Enjoy & Love Solitude. I NEED it!

I have always been someone who loves spending time alone. Solitude lets me be with my thoughts and lets me live the way I want to. In India people want to do things ‘together’ All the Time & it can be a very hard experience when you are different. Everyone – friends, family, colleagues – keep loading you with advice. When you choose to ignore the advice and do things your own way, they may even take offense. I don’t want to generalize international culture but specifically in the western world the culture tends to be more individualistic – where people often at young age strike out on their own. This is why you would notice that there is a lot of diversity there in terms of peoples lives – in education fields, social relations and so on.

When I started solo traveling 6 years back, it was not a trend. No woman around me was interested in solo traveling. Now things have changed and every other girl I meet wants to solo travel.

Given my need for solitude, Solo travel is an absolute treat for me. And I cherish all the moments I have on my own.

At times however, one may want to talk to someone or share some experiences with others. And for that there are many avenues,

Make Friends with People Around You

I have become quite adept at striking conversations with strangers around me. From taxi drivers to people in the lift to co-passengers in train. Anyway they are curious as to what I am doing solo so that is always one topic to talk about. Making friends lets you explore the place and people further.

Banganga, Mumbai
Cycle repairer at Banganga. I tried chit chatting with him but he was quite reticent. I then asked him whether I could click him… he asked, ‘What will you do with that?’ … I said I will put the picture on my blog… he was okay with it. 🙂

Solo Travel does not always mean Alone

The accommodation you chose makes a lot of difference. Female dorms can be a great place to meet other travelers and you can join them to explore the city. Staying at Home Stays lets you be part of a local family. Living at a commune or staying at ashrams add to your experiences in their own special way.

Coorg
My Coorg homestay…. met so many interesting people there & also enjoyed amazing solitude…. 🙂
Pongal
Part of traditional Pongal celebrations at Isha Yoga Center, Coimbatore

 

Make Group trips a Part of your Solo Travel

On a longer solo travel journey you can take up a few days of cycling or hiking trip with a group. This will break the solo monotony. Also in countries like India, roaming around alone in the countryside is often not feasible so these groups allow you to leave the urban areas and explore the wilderness.

Here are some groups I have been looking to go traveling with. Ideally it would be part of a longer solo travel trip.

Venugopal Swamy Temple, Mysore
I went with Isha Yatra on a 5 day trip around the Karnataka countryside, visiting temples and other spiritually powerful places. It was part of my one-month long solo Indian trip. With them I visited places I doubt I would otherwise like this Venugopal Swamy temple being re-made behind the KRS dam, Mysore. The temple was submerged when they made the dam, but they are lifting it out piece by piece and re-making it…

Activities to Meet Locals

You can also include heritage walks, workshops and such different activities in a place to meet the local people and just well – talk and socialize! Meeting friends of friends or far off relatives or Twitter/Facebook friends etc.. is another way to socialize in a way that really adds to your travels.

Work

Sounds tough to be working at some exciting travel place but if you want to travel for a longer time, you will need to think about how to fund it. Working while traveling lets you do both. This is one of the reasons I hardly even notice solo travel – lot of my time goes into working.

Intense Traveling

My solo cycling & camping adventure in Europe was a trip where I wasn’t working. I hardly felt it because considering this was the first time I went long distance cycling, camping, visited Europe – the newness of the trip totally made it intense enough to not miss anybody. It was such an unique and rare experience. A large part of the cycling trip I was just overwhelmed by the beauty and solitude.

Countryside
Long expanse of green fields stretching to the horizon. Barely seeing a person for kms of cycling. Berlin to Copenhagen

So if you plan a trip that is intense enough. A trip where you really want to experience/explore specific facets then it hardly matters that you are solo.

At the end of this post, I must tell you this,
I have never been bothered about the feeling of loneliness because solo-travel augments my love for this big, wide world we live on. This beautiful blue-with-specks-of-white planet we are living on. Solo travel lets me cut through all our smaller groups and affiliations in life and just be part of this whole cosmos.

It gives me THE strong realization that we are all living and breathing on this planet together.

So while at times I include activities that let me socialize and talk with people, I never really feel alone. I just enjoy my solitude while being a part of the Whole Wide World.

Travelogue: My Kumbh Mela Story @ Trimbakeshwar, Nashik

The 3 lovely days I spent at the Kumbh Mela in Trimbakeshwar, Nashik were a truly unique experience. I was thinking of going with a few friends but they were busy with some work, so went on my own. Usually I travel solo but for the Kumbh Mela I was a bit concerned. Not concerned about safety, but Indian religious activities are not very supportive of single people. For eg: None of the older religious ashrams would give a room to a single person – guy or girl.

The auto driver I was chatting with said that there have been couple of stories where single people came to stay and they committed suicide. So everyone is scared to give rooms to single people. I hear such stories at many different places – I don’t know how true they are. What is sure is that most older religious organizations won’t give you a room if you are a solo traveller.

So as I got off the government bus at Trimbakeshwar in pouring rains and cold winds, I knew finding accommodation would be a challenge so I had already looked up a Kumbh Camp with a female dormitory online and had confirmed vacancy. So I was walking in the general direction of that camp and in a very short while I was completely drenched. All of a sudden from behind comes a voice like that of an old friend,

Voice: Which standard are you studying in? (in Marathi)
Me: Ehhh… huh?
The couple: You are in college or school?
Me: I have a business in Mumbai
The Couple: Ohh which business
Me: Online Marketing
Husband: My wife is also looking for a job
Me: Uhh…. So are you getting a job? Or no? (Addressing the wife)

This was a couple from Mumbai. The husband was a police officer who had come down to Nashik for duty as part of a 10,000 strong force called in for Kumbh management. The conversation then turned into a banter about how the husband refused to help his wife train and get a job in the Police too. I chipped in my advise to the husband that “yes, you should train her, after all she is your wife” 😉

These kind of crazy things happen while traveling. Then the couple suggested me some places to stay. A Gajanan ashram. They probably didn’t know that these ashram types don’t give accommodation to single people. I later checked out the Gajanan ashram – which is a lovely place to stay with a clean bhojnalaya but No Solo Travellers Please! If going with family this may be a really good option, it is right opposite the city bus stand.

Trimbakeshwar
Temple at Gajanan Ashram.
Maharashtrian Breakfast
12 INR for Poha and Tea breakfast at Gajanan ashram bhojnalaya, Trimbakeshwar

So onwards – I thought of checking out other ashrams just in case they have a different policy for the Kumbh. Surely single foreigners have come down to witness this religious fare! Anyway visited Swami Samarth ashram – they promptly told me they were full and confirmed to me that no ashram will take in single traveller. He also said that female dorm is probably quite unsafe, better you take a hotel in the town.

Used to these kind of conversations I just trudged along – more than completely drenched but so excited – I was at the Kumbh Mela!

As I was walking two saffron clad babas came my way and one of them welcomed me to join them. I had no idea why. He started a conversation,

Where are you from?
Mumbai
Traveling alone?
yep
Our akhada is also from Mumbai. In Nalasopara (or something). What do you want to see here?
Err…. Temple
Which temple?
Jyotirlinga
Acha … our swami from so n so akhada is also going to the temple. You can just join us. You won’t have to stand in Q n all. We have cars. Indica, Alto…
Err…. Currently I am going elsewhere…
Arey don’t worry. It is all safe. You stay with our Maas n other ladies. It is no problem.
Err… I am going on my way now… will contact you later
Ok. What is your number?
Err… (gave number)

Some more banter and I left the fellow.
Later the baba gave me 25 missed calls that day. I messaged and told him ‘Don’t call me’. He didn’t reply to the message but the next day he gave me another 8 missed calls.
I have absolutely no idea what that was about.

I had a good laugh on it with my dorm roomies. Yes, I reached the dorm and it was good – a lot more basic than I anticipated but manageable and really safe. Overall a better experience in many ways to a private room in a hotel. Staying with the other women in the dorm added to my Kumbh experience. They were attending the nearby Swami Nithyananda Shibir and I got to know quite a bit about that path by the end of the 3 days. Listening to these people reminded me of my days when I stayed at an ashram too. The conversations within different spiritual paths are very similar, just different jargon. I went with them for Dinner to the Gajanan ashram bhojnalaya. Very clean and hygienic place.

Day Two: Explore Trimbakeshwar!

The next day I explored Trimbakeshwar! It is a really small town, and I enjoyed strolling around. The management had done a really good job and most places were clean. The crowds were only at some spots – around the temple and main Kushavrat ghat. The other lanes and places were not crowded at all.

This is how crowded it got. Quiet manageable & I went to other ghat areas which were quite empty. So would be a lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.
This is how crowded it got. Quiet manageable & I went to other ghat areas which were quite empty. So would be a lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.

I went and saw another Ahilya ghat, which was completely empty but so picturesque with the western ghats in the background. Lovely place to take a dip on a non-important day.

Trimbakeshwar
Ahilya ghat, amidst the beautiful western ghat hills. The rains made it all the more ethereal!

From there I walked to the Panchayati Nirvana Akhada. Yes, I had put that whole missed-call-baba incident away. So I visited this akhada and another baba this one completely coated with ash and dreadlocks welcomed me. He invited me to some food and water in the bhojnalaya if I wished. He explained it was because all guests are always welcomed, Atithi devo bhav. This was a good time for me to ask lots of questions to him about his path and all but my mind went blank – this is a very common phenomenon with me. Some other baba in some other place had told me this happens when people with a higher level of awareness are near. Maybe. I don’t know.

I visited their temple. Nice, quiet place with many other babas with long hair sitting around. It was all very intriguing. I have had previous such interactions but otherwise just the fact that these ash smeared babas with dreadlocks are actually well educated and speak impeccably can be a huge surprise by itself.

Trimbakeshwar
Visiting the Panchayati Nirvana Akhada Bada Udasin – Temple
Kumbh Mela
Well managed, clean streets of Trimbakeshwar
Trimbakeshwar, Nashik
A mosque nestled amongst the trees

Finally headed back to my dorm to see what the others were upto. There one lady who had taken up bhramacharya as a trial (her path had that option) had some work. So my dorm friend and me helped her out with her work. I asked her about various aspects of bhramacharya. Does the organization pay the expenses of people who take up “trial bhramacharya”. What happens if a committed sanyasi quits & so on. I find these details about different paths very interesting.

That evening roomie and me decided to visit the temple. As we figured the temple line was small at the time. The police outside said it would take about 1 n half hour. We were in for a shock because the line seen from outside was about 1 and a half hour but there was a whole other section inside which was way longer. So we ended up standing for over 4 hours in the line! Finally we made it inside just when the temple aarti was starting. It was a truly enchanting experience because that temple is really incredible and with the aarti going on, it was an enthralling experience.

What really touched me was that standing in such a packed area in a line with people from completely different backgrounds could have been an unpleasant experience. But somehow we all bonded with each other. There were some conversations and smiles and empathy passed around. By the time we reached the temple sanctum sanctorum it was a close knit group. This meant so much to me. While it was difficult the long line and wait – it really didn’t feel that much at all. In other circumstances I would have gotten claustrophobic and left midway but to experience such a situation with love and kindness – I attribute this to the Trimbakeshwar Temple energy!

Kumbh Mela
Long line to enter the temple. If you go early morning till about 8am the lines are a lot less!
Trimbakeshwar Temple
The lovely Trimbakeshwar Temple!

We exited the temple only around 10pm, had a quick dinner and wrapped up for the day.

Day 3: Ramkund & Tapovan, Nashik

My dorm roomies left early next morning. I went to the temple for another visit, early at 6.30am. At this time there was only a 1 hour waiting. Again an ethereal morning spent in this beautiful temple. I even got to sit in the garbhagriha for a few moments. So powerful.

Trimbakeshwar Temple
Trimbakeshwar Temple early morning

After that, I wanted to attend the Swami Ramdev Shibir which took place everyday from 5.00 to 7.30am. But it was too late for that. So I took the government bus back to Nashik to explore the ghat there called – Ramkund.
This Kumbh Mela is unique because it gets split up. The shaivites are at Trimbakeshwar with the incredible temple but smaller ghats. The Vaishnavites are at Ram kund – a huge ghat and many other temples. Having thoroughly enjoyed my time at Trimbakeshwar, I now wanted to see the Nashik part.

Kumbh Mela
Ram ghat, Nashik

There were some people at Ramkund taking dips and doing pooja, but considering that the ghat is really huge it was mostly empty. At about 11am the loud speakers on Ram kund crackled on and they started reciting the Bhagvad Gita in Hindi. It was lovely to sit by the Godavari river and ponder on the Bhagvad Gita. Only the river was quite dirty but overall everything was way better than I expected.

Ram Ghat, Nashik
Hanuman idol at Ram Ghat, Nashik
Kumbh Mela, Nashik
A mural depicting the story behind Kumbh Mela. The Asuras & Devas churning the ocean for a pot of Amrit or elixir

From there I headed to Tapovan. Apparently there were “many temples” to visit there. I didn’t really see any temples but strolled around in the park which is supposed to be the remnants of an historically important ‘Dandakaranya’ forest. This is where Rama, Sita and Lakshman spent time in their vanvaas. There is a confluence point of Godavari with river Kapila here. Sadly it was utterly filthy.

Tapovan, Nashik
Panoramic view. From the left flows the Kapila while Godavari meets it from the right. It is a nice place and river confluences are interesting to explore. Too much filth though.
2015-09-22 11.34.17
A pooja going on at the Tapovan Godavari-Kapila sangam point

The vaishnav akhadas camped in the Tapovan area but I didn’t see much of their camp. Maybe it was somewhere else. There was another ghat area here at Tapovan. So taking a dip in Nashik would be a much more relaxed experience. They had really prepared well for this big event.

2015-09-21 09.12.01
The only real ‘baba’ photo I took. I am a really reticent photographer. And I asked their permission before clicking, they were happy to oblige. 🙂

Having overall gotten an idea of the Kumbh Mela I took my leave of the place and headed back to Mumbai. I am really looking forward to being part of another one, probably the next one that is happening in 2016 in Ujjain & Haridwar. Now I will gladly plan to go during the important shahi snan days too. I just hope it will be as well managed.

In case you are planning to go to a kumbh mela and are looking for tips, this other blog I have written especially for solo travellers would help.

Solo at the Kumbh Mela – Notes for a Wonderful Experience

Planning to be solo at the Kumbh Mela can be a daunting task for many as it conjures up images of huge crowds, religious frenzy and a truly eclectic bunch of people from rural folks to ash smeared sadhus. I was hesitant at first, but I really enjoyed my 3 solo days at the Kumbh Mela 2015, Trimbakeshwar and Nashik.

With a few precautions the Kumbh Mela can be a really enjoyable time to deepen your experience of the religious ethos of India. There are certain places where stories inevitably happen and this is one such place. Here are my quick notes on difficulties you can face especially if you are traveling solo,

  • Accommodation

Especially for women this is always an important question. Where would you stay? Sadly most religious organizations do not allot rooms to single people – guy or girl. These don’t include the newer organizations, just the older religious ones. So while these ashrams tend to be really satvic (positive) and inexpensive they may not be an option. If you have some contact in the organization then definitely try and get a room through them.

Kumbh Mela Camps – there are many such camps which have private rooms or separate male & female dormitories. I stayed at the Prayag Kumbh camp. They have a female dormitory with 10 beds in one room with 2 attached bathrooms. These are makeshift camps so are very basic, but I was impressed by the dedicated staff and safety.

Private accommodations – depending on the city you can explore AirBnB, home stays and hotel options. Typically hotels would be over priced but home stays maybe a good option.

Book Early: This can ensure lower rates and vacancy. Last minute booking on important bathing dates can be very tricky especially if you are single. Having said that however, I have heard from many people that at the Kumbh Mela arrangements happen – you may find a nice family who takes you in or you may end up with some of the babas or maas in their akhada. This is a place where things just happen. So if you feel crazy, just Go.

Stay Area: Try to get your accommodation as centrally located as possible because activities start from crack of dawn to late night. If you are far off from the mela then getting out at 4 in the morning and making your way here may not be feasible. On important days a lot of roads maybe blocked and you may just have to walk a lot so a centrally located accommodation is really worth it.

  • Choose your Days Right: Are you comfortable with the crowds? On main bathing days lakhs of people arrive at the Kumbh for the holy dip. The roads may be blocked to vehicles and everything would be a lot more dirtier. Accommodations would be brimming full and things are just way more chaotic. If this is your first trip, I suggest go on non-important days. The people are lesser and you can take your time to explore.

If you have more days in hand, then keep a few advance days before the important days so that you get an idea of the place.

This is how crowded it got. Quiet manageable & I went to other ghat areas which were quite empty. So would be a lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.
This is how crowded it got in the non-important dates. Quite manageable. I went to other ghat areas which were empty. A lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.
  • Attire: Generally Indian clothes for women are encouraged. This is to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention from rural men and also as some temples may have rules about covering your head and so on. I found the environment in Trimbakeshwar very chilled and I was wearing a cotton full pant and a short kurti – which is completely ok. I carried a dupatta (scarf) for my head but never had to use it. Now most small towns in India have women wearing jeans and t-shirts, so wearing full pants and short kurti tops should be fine as long as you can carry it well. So don’t be too worried about the clothing, just keep the pants full and top with at least half sleeves and a good neck line.

You may want to take a dip in the holy water so remember to carry clothes accordingly.

  • Be Wary & Yet Open: It is a tricky balance but be wary – being alone may make you a more vulnerable target from scamsters but most of the times people are just unusually helpful. I still find it surprising when people go all out to help me. So be wary but be open to people as they help you out. In a place like Kumbh Mela things are so unusual at times, that it maybe tough to gauge how to behave. Just go with the flow and remember to enjoy the craziness. Generally follow your instinct and maintain basic safety precautions – don’t consume stuff from strangers & enter closed / non-public places only with trusted people.
  • Be part of it rather than a photographer: Tourists often have the incessant habit of clicking pictures all the time. This makes it difficult to absorb and experience the event. The people taking dips are indulging in a very personal experience as these places are very powerful energy centres. So be considerate and careful about how you click your pictures. Ask people for permission, they may pose for a photo or they may refuse. It will avoid unpleasant situations where people get offended.
Kumbh Mela 2015
Babas heading towards Nashik. I asked them if I could click a picture and he was really happy. Smiled and chanted Radhe Radhe while I took the pic.

These are really all the precautions you need to take. Ideally book a good accommodation months in advance and then just get ready to enjoy your experience there. Chat with people, share your stories, ask questions and immerse yourself!

When you are solo you don’t have to worry about getting lost in the crowd. You could lose yourself but that can be a wonderful thing.

Manikarnika, The Burning Ghat – Varanasi

Having become Time itself, I destroy the world here, O Goddess! ~Shiva, Padma Purana 1.33.14

As I said Varanasi has been one of the most intriguing trips I have made. Never have I felt a city so full of going ons. Just inane, often crazy, some brilliant, other bizarre going ons. Just going on. Like Life. Just going on.

Manikarnika Ghat is a place you must visit, but it is not for the faint-hearted. It is probably the most ancient ‘chitta’ – fire to burn dead bodies and it has been going on non-stop at this Ghat for years & years….

Varanasi is a sacred and holy place to cremate your dead. Hindus from all over the country and maybe even the world are bringing their dead near and dear ones to Kashi, Manikarnika Ghat, to burn them here.

Piles of wood greet you at this ghat. The traditional Hindu burning methods here is to make a squarish pile of wood, logs stacked in a Jenga pattern. The dead body which is brought in by families and near ones is first dipped into the Ganga then put onto the fire for burning it to dust & ashes. There are certain sect of people who tend to these chittas and rituals at this ghat. From what I have read, the care-taking is passed on from generation to generation. Also these sects are considered to be lowly untouchables… I find it surprising though because after all this place is considered as epitome of spiritual energy….This never ending chitta (fire).

At a time there could be anywhere from 4 to 40 dead bodies being burned. Some covered partly, some fully covered and even adorned with ritualistic material.

Sometimes after the burning, some body parts are still left. They maybe swept into the river by the caretakers. Maybe to make space for the next chitta. These half burnt parts of the body don’t sink into the river, they just float around the river. You may be walking the surreal ghat, and might see this mutilated, half burnt body part floating nearby.

Yes, it is not for the faint-hearted.

As the body part floats and dwindles into the flow and ebb of the sacred river. Pious men and women are taking their holy dips in this river. Gentle boats and even noisy barges are making rounds of the river with tourists, devotees and people with other purposes.

Manikarnika Submerged Shiva Temple
Submerged Shiva Temple

Manikarnika or The Burning Ghat is just one of the many ghats of Varanasi. It is the main ghat where bodies are burnt. If you walk a little ways beyond the burning ghat area, you will come to the submerged temple. If you have perused photos of Varanasi then this submerged temple photo is conspicuous.

Manikarnika Submerged Temple
This temple sank into the river due to weight of the ghat… at least thats what I could find out…

Opposite this submerged temple is another section of construction which has sunk into the ground. No excavations and archaeology…. the city just grows on top of these over the years. Even now the city exudes a sense of ancient plans, purposes and mysticism. A lot of the original constructions are entirely changed, removed or crumbled and the city just grows over it.

Manikarnika Ghat
A sunken palace maybe?

Strictly speaking the submerged temple is on Scindia ghat, while the burning grounds is Jalasi ghat. So what is Manikarnika – any why is it synonymous with these other stuff? There is a small kund just close to the submerged temple. Dirty, filthy, green with moss and filled with garbage. When I saw it, it was so decrepit that I ignored it. This kund is called Manikarnika – apparently Shiva’s earrings fell into this kund when it was made. Hence it is called Mani(bead)Karni(ear)ka. The ghat is famous as Manikarnika. Since the burning grounds and submerged temples are totally adjacent to this kund… they are all referred often as Manikarnika.
Why is the kund so badly kept? I have no idea….

Manikarnika Ghat
Oh yea cows are every where in Banaras! You can see the Tarakeshwar Temple Shikhara rising up and in the distance you the smoke from a pyre on the burning ghat terrace.

I was very curious to find out the deity at Manikarnika/Jalasi. I saw a descrepit Tarakeshwara temple here. Tarakeshwar is a form of Shiva, relevant here at the cremation place as the dead cross from life into death. I couldn’t really see any other deity temples here at the ghat itself. There seemed to be a chamber if I went down to the burning ghat itself – maybe there is a deity there. I didn’t go to see, so can’t say.

In bold writing on one of these ancient structures with crude red were the words “Killer of Cows should be hanged”. Care and love for animals? Maybe, but mostly religious fervor and superstitions are rampant. I saw many of the animals including cows in deplorable conditions. Heard some very poignant and ghastly story of a cow who was injured in an accident, just left right there on the road, to die! Many days the cow suffered. Killing it would have been a mercy. The stink and unhygienic mess from the cows fluids and bleeding also just left out there…

A crazy, crazy place.

If you walk up towards the city through the various lanes from this ghat, there are many temples. Including one of Devi Manikarnika. The area around this ghat is the middle core of the city. It is also called Siddha Kshetra – a place where a lot of the popular temples are.

Perused a lot of literature on Kashi, some old books, even translated version of vernacular ones. The stories in this place are miraculous and deeply intriguing. In this tapestry of criss-crossing religious threads there are some really intriguing gems twinkling about. As a traveller it can be a soul stirring experience to traverse here.

Kashi, Varanasi, Banaras – It’s All Crazy!

She Said: “You have been to Kashi, how was it?”

He Said: “It’s just like any other dusty Indian town”

I have been officially solo traveling since March 2009. There were other trips I made much earlier where I was predominantly solo exploring….but today, a week after returning from Varanasi I consider this trip a milestone. This most holy city of India is completely crazy.

In my last few travel trips I was feeling a lack of purpose. What are my travels achieving? What should I be doing in a new place? Are my travel experiences getting repetitive? So when I chose to travel to Kashi, it was a carefully thought out one. I really needed something that would not allow me to be the same old me.

So, the trip was very fascinating and yes, it did throw me out of my comfort zone and I had to adapt. The key however, in such places is to go out of the comfort zone to an extent and then return back to comfort. Otherwise it just gets plain freaky.

Here is what my first impressions of the place were and probably will be yours too, so go prepared 🙂

Filthy

Yes, any Indian city is filthy. Not like this though. It is really filthy. I remember not being too happy about Haridwar or Pushkar when I went there. Compared to Varanasi they are 5 star hotel clean! :p

Animal Madness

The cows! They are everywhere! And cows also includes big bulls with horns. Sometimes these cows/bulls are injured. I inquired about any animal NGO there and the response was not at all encouraging. In fact I heard a very freaky story about an injured cow that was hit by a scooter and it just sat on the road, in pain for days, before dying.

Obviously these animals just shit around and no one really cleans it up. Additionally the people want to feed the Gomata (Mother Cow, cows are considered holy in India). So they will just offer them a whole bunch of foods. A lot of which just falls onto the road as garbage. Sometimes they may actually throw the food down in a bid to feed the cow. So adds to the filth and craziness.

Monkeys: Quite rapscallion bunch of primates. One actually jumped on me when I was in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Yea, so quite aggressive bunch of monkeys. Ingeniously the authorities got some trained Langurs from somewhere. These guys are trained to shoo off the pesky monkeys away from the temple and other areas. An innovative way at dealing with the monkey problem!

Kashi Monkey Problem
Trained Langur was a center of curiosity with the local people. These have been deployed by the authorities to keep pesky monkeys away….

Stray Dogs: These are mostly docile in the day, but during the night they get pretty wild. Fighting each other, ganging up and growling at late night strollers and so on. It is interesting to know that one of the main deities of Kashi is Kaal Bhairava. The animal associated with him are stray & wild dogs. So these dogs are also sacred. God knows, there must be some people feeding/doing pooja of these dogs.

While these animals cause chaos and mess for people, the fact is that I think they are the ones that receive the most ill-treatment in the name of “religious rituals” and just general lack of any proper facilities for them.

Saffron Robed Beggars

Quite a difficult thing for me to see, but saffron clad men were just plain begging. Sure in Mumbai the usual beggars would say “I need to feed my kid, give me money”, “spare a few bucks for me” while over here these guys will stretch out their hands and say “Shiva, Shiva” or “Radhe Krishna” … whatever. It was very odd for me. I mean yes, I know a lot of babas and all are fake, just wanting money but I have not seen them Beg.

The religious racket is supposed to be more refined than this. You are supposed to play out your role of being Gods man and ask for money ‘Only for Gods work’. People give money out of faith and piety. Then the money can be used for any sort of debauchery. That is the game of the fake babas. But these guys were just sitting on the filthy roads and begging. So that was crap.

Often along with these beggars are lepers with oozing wounds, mutilated women and handicap people.

Narrow, Narrow Lanes

2 can walk abreast. That is the size of most of the lanes around the Ghats. Yes, that is tiny, closed and claustrophobic. All of it is dirty and often big cows/bulls roaming around. It is so crazy, I tell you!

Climate

Heat: I went there in September last week. That is a very hot time. Summer I guess will be hotter. I thought an AC room would be more than enough to deal with the heat, but not really. I have never sweated out so many buckets before. I think it led to a serious mineral/vitamin deficiency cause after returning I feel very fatigued! More over I had heat related rash type of things on my skin too. This is not at all normal for me, I am usually quite resilient to heat stuff. So I guess the heat is pretty bad!

So prepare for the heat! If you go in Winters then it would be really cold. So prepare for the cold.

Water Level:  This is another thing to consider while planning your trip. The water level of Ganga being high is not cool because then the ghats get very cramped up and small. Usually one can just walk from one ghat to another by the riverside! Either due to rains or randomly sometimes the water rises up. While I was there, the water level had just randomly risen very high. All the Ghats were isolated, so that was a bummer. I love walking around the ghats!

This also meant that I had to make my way to the various ghats from the inner claustrophobic alleyways, which can be tricky but fun too.

Vegetarian? Not Necessarily! 

Non-Veg food is easily available around the city. It is also available very close to the ghats! It is ridiculous in my opinion. Kashi is supposed to be THE religious, spiritual city in India & hence the World. Haridwar & Pushkar both are completely Veg cities then how can Kashi not be Veg!

A spanish traveller I met there told me that a few years back it was not so easily available but now it was common! I just point to plain bad maintenance.

Hey PM – what happened to your Clean Varanasi project huh?

Queue

This was the biggest bummer I found! One of the things I love doing is just finding some ancient temple and meditating there. I said “Meditate” not “Stand in a 45 min long Queue in a cramped alleyway”. Lot of the main temples – Kashi Vishwanath & Kaal Bhairava – that I planned to sit in had long queues. Apparently these queues are just increasing as more and more people pour into this city. These queues also mean that I can only spend a few seconds in the garbha griha i.e. where the main deity is. Overall there wasn’t much place to sit in. Anyway by the time I reached in I was not at all wanting to sit and meditate.

Heat. Crowd. Queue. Cramped. Religious Fervor.

So yeah, the first two days I was at Varanasi I freaked out! At the end of the two days I just had to catch some locals and grill them about all these various things to get idea of what the crap is what! After that anyway I realized a very simple thing was needed to enjoy this place – Screw the popular places, go for the other awesome ones. And in Varanasi there are many other such places! So that is when I had a really good time in Kashi! And I did find a few temples, away from the crazy crowds to sit and meditate in 🙂

The best part was that amidst all this maddening and insane shit, I lost myself somewhere. And that is exactly what I needed. I believe this is because even now, after a lot of degradation and ruin there is spiritual energy and ancient memories in that place. So I will writing more posts about a lot of things from quaint temples, people stories, rituals things, many other things I came across in the city. So stay tuned for that stuff.

Don’t get turned off from all this stuff, just prepare for a Wild Ride! 😉

Brahma temple #Pushkar Rajasthan

Being one of the only Brahma temples around the world is very intriguing as it is, but that is not all that is unique to this temple! The whole story that led to Brahma – one of the three main deities of Hinduism, not being worshiped in the world also has its roots in Pushkar!

As the story goes, Brahma was doing a big pooja at the Pushkar lake to protect the world from all that is unrighteous and such…. At a crucial juncture of this pooja he needed his consort, but sadly Savitri could not be present there. So he married another Gurjar girl, Gayatri. Gurjars were the rulers of the Rajasthan & Gujarat areas in the ancient times. Gayatri played the role and the pooja was completed.
Savitri arrived on the scene and she let all hell lose…… She cursed Brahma that he would not be worshiped anywhere in the world and also some of the other Gods who were present there to help with the Pooja. Later she cooled off a bit as all us feminine deities do… and she said Brahma may be worshiped in a few places like Pushkar.

So as you visit the Brahma temple do notice the little idol of Gayatri besides Brahma the 4 faced!

This temple is an ancient one, maybe as old as 2,000 years! In terms of structure it does look like the older ones in many ways… but it was a bit too cluttered for me.

Firstly the biggest sacrilege to me was that every single marble in the sanctum sanctorium had the donors name inscribed on it. It is just so weird… everywhere you look names – many in capitals, addresses, obituaries and what not! I think this is a north Indian trend, as I saw many such temples in Himachal Pradesh as well… but I just thought that the ambiance of this rare Brahma Temple would have been better maintained.

Further marring the ambiance was just so much clutter around the temple – all around there was stuff. Small little lingas or idols of other deities. Despite there being structural space, there was just no space for me to just sit there for a while. This is surprising for me, because one of the things I have noticed in ancient temples is that they have huge verandahs where one can just sit and meditate.

Maybe I take the temple ambiance a bit more personally, because I have spent quite some time volunteering at another temple.

Secondly, since I went in complete off-season which is a topic for a whole another blog post, I expected the temple to be somewhat emptier and relaxed. It was not so. Hitherto, I had not realized how big a religious center Pushkar is. The influx of locals every day made me realize that it is a very eminent spot.

I also went to see the gaushalas or cow sheds, which are quite interestingly called “Brahmas cows”. Reminded me of “Apollos Horses” in Percy Jackson books…. So these Brahmas cow sheds were not that well maintained. I couldn’t see the cows themselves as they were out….

I did manage to sit and meditate for a while… the meditation had a very interesting flavour to it. So I felt the place was something different and maybe powerful.

Perspective

The Brahma temple had a profound effect on me. My normal psyche is naturally influenced by the Hindu culture, which gives all importance to Vishnu & Shiva. Brahma despite being the creator gets relegated to the side always… because there is no worshiping or temple culture or sects for him. Yet, Brahma is as much a part of the Trinity as the other two. Being at this temple, this ‘Brahma spot’ strengthened the presence of Brahma in my mind and psyche and that was profound.

Brahma Temple, Pushkar
kinda filled, busy all the time. Flickr Credit: guy_incognito