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.

Jaipur – BucketList for Next Visit

Third day at Jaipur and now I will be pushing off to another nearby destination. It has been an interesting 3 days and this city has lots to be explored! I have poignantly realized that my travel style is slow, relaxed and I just like taking my time with things… I spent a few hours each at the Jantar Mantar & Hawa Mahal. Even the Albert Hall I just sat around absorbing the place as I loved the architecture and feel of it. No major agenda but as I am planning for the next stop on this short journey, I decided to jot down a quick bucket-list which I can refer to next time I am here.

Maybe it will also help you the reader in case you are off to Jaipur at some point of time. Without further ado,

1) Galtaji & Sun Temple: I am totally intrigued by these two temples which are supposed to be close to each other. They give me a sense of being offbeat hence maybe more authentic. Also I have always been curious about seeing sun temples as they are so rare. The Galtaji temple also sounds interesting.

2) Temple Walk in the Old City: I went on a exploration walk in Bhuleshwar area in Mumbai which turned out to be chalkful of some very intriguing temples. I am getting a similar feeling of the old city of Jaipur, every little distance there seems to be a temple – some have long lines outside them, some with old architecture, some just small and quaint. Would be worth I think to go see the various temples one day understanding their history and so on…

3) Authentic Cuisine: I should have managed to have some authentic stuff in these three days, but like I said I am a slow explorer. I did have some freshly made kachoris but apart from that hardly tasted any local cuisine. Some lassi-walas here are supposed to be really famous – and no they don’t serve bhaang is what I have been told. There are also some small dhaabas in the old city – maybe they would give tasty fare. More research needs to be done here. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

4) Naharagarh & Amer Forts: Yes I didn’t do either of them. Note to remember: Behind Amer there are some wells – Panna Meera & near Naharagarh there are royal tombs which should be worth a visit.

Are there any other places I should add to this list?

Will blog about what all I did in Jaipur soon! 🙂

@ Jaipur Hawa Mahal
@ Jaipur Hawa Mahal

A Little bit about Kite Flying, Makar Sankranti – India’s Harvest Festival

Its the start of the harvest season. Summer will soon be arriving and India explodes into a number of festivals all around the same day – January 14th or the Winter Solstice! Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Makar Sankranti in Maharashtra & other states, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Lohri in Punjab, Bhogali Bihu in Assam and so many more festivals on this occasion. After all India is an agrarian country & harvest festival gets its due.

Being a Gujarati, Uttarayan is all about flying kites. I will call myself a pro kite flyer because it hardly ever gets tested & because compared to all my urban friends, I am. 😀

I haven’t flown kites in years. Its always a tricky business first finding a empty expanse of sky in an urban metro and the right kind of wind that aids kite-flying. Once the kite starts flying its a lot of fun. It can be very harmful to birds however, the thread line or ‘manja’ that we use to maneuver the kite is treated with little broken pieces of glass to make it very sharp and sturdy.  In fact, a sign of good kite flying are, numerous scars in the nooks and crannies of your fingers. Despite precautions like tapes and gloves, inevitably the thread will slice through all of it and cut your fingers. In the fun of the game the pain gets forgotten. Similarly the thread cuts through any birds it comes across and that is so sad, cause these birds don’t know that its no-fly day on Makar Sankranti! There are also rare cases where, unsuspecting kids get their throats cut by the kite thread. Yes there are dangers to these celebrations.

Makar Sankranti
Manja being prepared – sharp as glass and colorful for the celebrations (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Truly though you should try your hand at kite flying, its brilliant. Feeling the wind tugging your kite high up in the sky through the furious & sharp manja in your hands – is really a thrilling lesson in aerodynamics!

One of the major highlights of kite-flying is supposed to be when your kite manja and another manja get entangled with each other somewhere up in the sky. The sharper manja and skilled flyer will cut the other manja clean. This is like a competition and the one to win yells some very typical things like ‘kai po che or lappet’ in Gujarati. Hehe

Sadly I haven’t experienced enough of these fights to became a pro at them. I have gotten into such competitions only two or three times. The first few times I didn’t even realise it happened – cause the manja is way up in the sky – you can’t ‘see’ the two lines come together. You need to feel that slight tug in the manja in your hand. The third time I felt the tug but I had no idea what to do. Either you have to pull the manja down furiously so that is slices through the other manja or you leave it lose so the wind furiously carries it forward thus increasing its speed and deadliness. You need to judge the wind situation well and have to respond in a split second or you will be left with a limp thread in your hand with your kite cut off from it!

Looking forward to a Makar Sankranti where I can be part of some serious kiting! Let’s see when I can make it to some appropriate place probably in Gujarat and to really see the dozens of kites dotting the skies.

At night the tradition is to send out lamps into the sky. Light lamps sent out into the sky over kite ropes, I want to see those as well! This just became another bucketlist post 😀

Some pictures from a few years back. At Hamara Footpath – a street school, we took the street kids for a kite flying session at the nearby beach. No serious flying because the wind wasn’t great, the manja was a kiddy version and just too many excited kids running about 🙂

Great fun!

Kite Flying with Kids
Kiddy Manjas
Kite Flying with Kids
Gimme a kite please!
Kite Flying with Kids
Kites!
Kite Flying with Kids
Finally one kite a-flying!
Kite Flying with Kids
This kite is too big for me!
Kite Flying with Kids
Pro kite flyer (me) in action 😀

Bucketlist: Tour the Lighthouses of India

What do you think of Lighthouses? Do they transport you to some mystical, adventurous & raucous age-old ship voyage with sailors swearing at each other but with a die-hard exploration spirit blooming in their hearts? Ships, wrecks, explorers, discovery of new lands, exotic stuff, tribals, talking parrots or have I just read too many books which fantasize sea voyages? Currently reading the Moby Dick so quite possibly that is the influence!

My favorite beach in Goa is the Miramar. Yea, hardly anyone ever mentions it as their favorite. Bang in the middle of the city, I love the hustle bustle on it. Making the beach even more magical – the far off lighthouse one can see, its beam of light moving to and fro across the dark blue expanse of the ocean!

I went to the Kapu lighthouse earlier this year. An offbeat little place near Udupi in Karnataka. It was amazing! I couldn’t go up the lighthouse as it was closed then but I was wondering why I hadn’t been to more lighthouses in my life! 🙂

So here is me, wishing a Lighthouse Tour across India – going to remote places of the country just to see the lighthouse! And what all will I see while on my journey there! 🙂

Indira Point

The lighthouse at Indira Point, the southern most tip of India. It’s actually about a days sea travel from Port Blair – this would be an interesting journey with amazing flora and fauna on the way!

Looks so adventurous! (Pic Source)

Indira Point Lighthouse

Pirotin Islands, Gujarat

Just came to know about this island lighthouse from another traveler. The surrounding area is a Marine National Park! Imagine that. Sounds exciting!

Fort Aguada, Goa

So I guess the lighthouse I see from the Miramar beach would be the Aguada Fort Lighthouse. Looks like an interesting spot, located within a fort – would be great to go there know about the history. What battles were fought at these forts, which side versus whom? Would definitely like to visit sometime!

Mumbai

Closer to home there is a lighthouse that can be seen from one of the extremities of Girgaum, Chowpatty beach in Mumbai. Considering I live right nearby I actually spotted it only a month or so back, when I was at the right place, at the right time to see the bright beam start up! Its located close to Navy Nagar area, though I doubt we would be allowed to visit. I read about plans to open up many more across Mumbai for visitors – would be great to see them all! 🙂

Still lots more to see, I just found a whole list on Wikipedia – did someone say the world is small? Cause there is just too much for me to cover!! Maybe one of the next long trips I head off to will try and see some more of these enchanting lighthouses!

Have you been to or plan to go on a lighthouse visit? In fact do you even find lighthouses enchanting? Tell me!

Leaving you with a pic of the Kapu Lighthouse, Karnataka,

Lighthouses India
Strong & Proud

Volunteer Travel across India

Just the other day I was wondering what NGOs I could connect with for some volunteer travel in exotic place like Spiti. Would require quite a bit of Google searching to identify the genuine ones that would work for me. Now my work is simplified by this smashing presentation by the folks at India Untravelled & The Alternative.
Much thanks their way.

BTW they also have #untravel twitter chats every Thursday. These are quite interesting, sadly I hardly find myself free at the time, buts its something you can check out.

BucketList: 3 Travel Groups I want to Travel with

I have been following these groups for a while now, eyeing their trips. Sadly my schedule hasn’t synced with any of their trips yet. Still this is why we have bucketlists, to list stuff we want to do so here goes,

1. Bisons Ride Hard
The Bullet group of Mumbai. I was very suprisingly pinged by this group on Twitter. Surprising because I don’t ride a bike. I want to ride a bike, that is a different thing and as I keep telling everyone I do have a license to ride a two wheeler but I never have. These folks take pillion riders which I thought was totally cool. No worrying about knowing how to ride a bike or even whether I am cool enough to be a Biker, I can just sit behind one and have the fun. :p
http://bisonsridehard.com/

2. Cycling and More
After biking its turn for cycling. Cycling I can do, its probably one of the first things I learned as a kid. Not sure whether I have the stamina for long cycle rides but I love cycling, hands down. I keep ogling at all the rides these people announce and even inquired the rates for couple of them. Sadly never been able to go.. lets see when.
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cycling-and-More/111005605627193

3. India Untravelled
Started by Shivya who is a major solo traveller, I find their trips very interesting. I even signed up for one of the trips, paid the money and everything but sadly caught viral flu just a few days before. Awesome-ly she refunded me my money. Still waiting for when I can finally go with them on some interesting expedition.
http://indiauntravelled.com/

So yea, this is me the solo traveler writing about travel groups I would like to go with. 🙂
I am sure there are still more really cool groups that offer intriguing trips in reasonable bucks. Let me know of any that you think are really good!

 

Miles to go before I sleep...  ;) Somewhere in Kashmir
Miles to go before I sleep… 😉
Somewhere in Kashmir