Jibhi: A Month in the Mountains

misty town Jibhi

This Himalayan trip was easily one of my best – a week in the astounding desert of Spiti and then over a month in Jibhi – a beautiful, lush green mountain town at 7,000 ft. The idea was simple, leave the metropolis madness called Mumbai behind and be closer to nature. And so it happened.

The Offbeat Shimla Manali Route via Seraj Valley and Jibhi

There are three Shimla to Manali routes – 1) the offbeat one via Seraj Valley, on which lies Jibhi, 2) the popular one via Mandi and 3) the longer one via Spiti valley.

There may also be a fourth route with a longer westwards circuit near Mandi.

Jibhi is off the usual Indian tourist route. But surprisingly it is very much on the Israeli tourist route. I found it surprising but probably the proximity to the popular Kasol valley is the reason. I chatted with three Israeli travellers in the Kshatra cafe of Jibhi and it was an eye opener. They told me that Israel has alway considered India a close ally and they love the culture not because it is cheap (inexpensive), but because it deeply resonates with them. Oh and two of them had come to spend their honeymoon in India – that shows how much they love this country! And both did Yoga. The third guy had done multiple vipassana programs. So… wow! Far cry from the stereotyped image of Israelis holed up in cheap room of an Indian town basically for the opium.

This trip to Jibhi was filled with interesting conversations and revelations. I made friendships that have lasted beyond the place and time. Still in touch with many of them, met a few later on elsewhere and looking forward to meeting them again!Continue reading

Wandering In The Himalayas : 50 Days In Spiti, Jibhi and Shimla

serolsar lake

What is it about ‘a month’ of time, that makes it really exciting to spend ‘a month’ in a place? Wandering in the Himalayas for a month had been on my mind since a long time. Now that it has happened, I am thinking of spending a few more months next time around. 😀 I think a year seems more of consequence as it allows us to see the place in all its seasons and festivals.

Lesser Known Places in the Himachal

This June – July 2017, I spent over a month and half in the Himalayas. I covered a lovely, fairly offbeat route in the mountains. And there are many of you out there who are looking to move outside of the tourist circuit. Well, kudos on looking around for different places to explore. It simply doesn’t make sense to keep to tourist hot spots, especially with the problems of high prices, ecological sustainability, crowds, noise and so on. But keeping these problems of the tourist hot spots in mind, it becomes our responsibility that when we move off the tourist track, we ensure that we don’t become a cause of these problems ourselves. We will definitely impact the places we land up in as travellers. But the question is how will we impact them?Continue reading

Reflections: The People Of The Himachal Villages

Small friendly gestures, quick laughs, a fleeting romance in the heart or a simple, resonating conversation on the road. Cherished by travellers, these interactions are unexpected and what makes them more special is that they are between complete strangers. You may not know the person’s name, background or any details at all. And yet those moments of camaraderie, love, respect are usually a part and parcel of our travel life. Something we look forward to, expect and love. They often get us through doubts. Re-instill our faith in the world. And sometimes even help us out in sticky situations.

But how little we know about these people. Being on the road we keep moving on, lots of questions but only the moving terrain around us answers them.

Being here in the Himachali mountain town for a month, I had time to find some answers about the people, the culture, economic situation and other random bits like making tea with jaggery (yumm!). And yet, a month is hardly a long time especially for an introvert like me. So I find myself only more curious with more questions. But also some insight about village life and these people.Continue reading

Spiti Valley: Meeting High Himalayas, Travel Guide

Spiti Valley High Mountains

योगीश्वराय महादेवाय त्रयंबकाय त्रिपुरान्तकाय
त्रिकाग्नि कालाय कालाग्नि रुद्राय नीलकण्ठाय मृत्युञ्जयाय सर्वेश्वराय सदाशिवाय
महादेवाय नमः महादेवाय नमः महादेवाय नमः

I have explored various parts of the Himalayas in India. The chardham in Uttarakhand, gardens and lakes of Kashmir, Buddhist ambience of Sikkim, amazing hospitality of Himachalis – the diversity and mountain environment make a rich experience. I have also been to high altitude places a few times but it was only in Spiti that I truly got acquainted with the ‘high’ Himalayas.

This was a trip where I spent 4 days completely in over 10000 ft. Snow clad peaks became common sight. To the extent that after 3 days, we even stopped clicking pics all the time, because every where we looked was a picture worthy, totally fantastic view.Continue reading

TriMandir – Adalaj, Ahmedabad

Trimandir in Twilight
Trimandir backview from the ashram side

Trimandir on the outskirts of Ahmedabad has three major deities – Simandhar swami, Shiva and Vishnu. Yes, Simandhar swami is from the Jain religion. Along with him there are a number of other Jain idols too – Mahavira, Parshavanath, Rushabh, Ajitnath and Padmaprabhu. Not sure how these Jinas from the Jain 24 + 20 tirthankars have been chosen. Traditionally in Jain temples the idols are chosen on basis of some astrological calculations done by Pujaris, as far as I know. Not sure if same method has been used here. 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

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 in Uttar Pradesh: Vrindavan – Agra – Varanasi

You may recall I had earlier written about how the hospitality and caring culture of Himachal Pradesh SHOCKED me. It was my first experience of random strangers going completely out of their way to help and make me – solo on the road – feel at home! I am remembering that experience as I write this article. So unusual and intriguing it is to find friendliness, awesomeness and helping hands when I am randomly traveling on my own. You would think that by now I would start getting used to it, but not really.

I went on a short 1 week trip in September, 2014 to Vrindavan – Agra – Varanasi. As I was planning for it, I decided to be extra cautious as this is Uttar Pradesh. Many of these north Indian states like Utter Pradesh and Bihar are quite infamous as an uncouth culture. e-Commerce sites like Flipkart don’t deliver high value products here because there have been cases where the courier delivery boy is kidnapped or his delivery is robbed at gun point! Yeah, this is true story.

So anyway I felt confident enough because I have been solo traveling for a while… and now I can travel even UP. I was in for a real surprise……. pleasantly,

The people turned out to be Sweet. Yea, that is the word I would use. From a conversation with a cycle rickshaw chachu (uncle) about how he should buy a motorcycle and stop cycling in Agra to the most helpful airport attendant at Varanasi airport – I met some amazingly helpful, friendly and sweet people in this land of red stained teeth and paan.

I spent half a day in Vrindavan, with a private car and driver. Generally I don’t take a private car – as I usually travel budget and because I think public transport is safer. But this transpired because,

I was traveling in train from Mumbai to Mathura. As usual the people around me started with ‘You are alone…where you are going and yadi yadi yada…..’. Most of the times unless I feel suspicious, I tell the truth. So I plunged into “Yes, I travel alone… I want to see the world and experience the culture and all so I just took off on my own… blah blah… I am really keen to see the ghats of Varanasi….. ” So once they got over the unusual-ness of the situation- they all pitched in with what all I should do in Mathura, once I get off this train. One of the uncles actually was getting down with me at Mathura so he insisted that I should take a private taxi… and he even picked out a ‘proper’ person for me and bargained a good rate.

Earlier I may have been very wary and not gone with this uncle. But I have experienced a lot of such cultures where the people will take charge and ensure I have a good time like I am their daughter. So I kept my eyes and ears open … saw the taxi guy was legit, took his card and all. Asked the driver for the car number which I sent out as SMS in front of him. So all the various formalities taken care off…. had a good time driving around Mathura and Vrindavan with this local chap.

The driver was decent. I went to couple of usual temples around this holy twin-towns – Mathura & Vrindavan. Nice experience. The Banke Bihari temple especially had a real charm – with a quaint little post office inside. Rows of sadhu-beggars kept begging with ‘Ram-Ram’ and priests from nearby temples asked for offerings. Calls of “Shanivaar, shani ka dhaar” – offer to Shani dev! Sweets shops were many, and I kept wondering whether to try out some delicacies. It was actually more like what I expected Varanasi to be.

I visited Prem Puri ashram because apparently it is a wonder to see. I found it so-so. Most disturbing is that they have included the idol of their leader as part of the Krishna- Radha-Hanuman team. I have major issues with this and especially considering their leader and disciples are accused (and some found guilty) of Rape I am not even inclined to research their path.

Vrindavan, Prem Puri
Made from marble imported all the way from Italy… whadever…

 

Krishna, Vrindavan
A big complex, lot of space and a picturesque white marble temple. If only the organization had a better rep. The leader has many rape cases on him.. while some of their followers are actually convicted for molestation.

The Iskcon temple on the other hand I thought was decent. Some old lady tried to sell me some books but that is common here. Always trying to convert people – most of these paths. But overall I trust this path… when I go to the temples I feel some good energy and like to do their chanting dance. Hare Rama- Hare Rama – Rama – Hare Hare…

Iskcon, Vrindavan
This is the samadhi structure of Prabhupada – the Iskcon leader. The main temple of Krishna / Rama n all is further inside.

This is the temple where their founder Prabhupada’s samadhi is. I sat there for a bit. Some bhajans were going on there too as in the main temple shrine. A monk tried talking to me here… which I would have enjoyed but I have a karmic response to monks trying to chat with me. I tend to ignore or simple not respond to them. Anyway… that is a whole different story.

Most of these temples have a very interesting canteen. Lot of sweetmeats and foods. So if you go there, do try out some of the foods, sweet-stuff and drinks.

I then went off the beaten path on a little search for a Shaktipeeth. Apparently there is a Mahadev Bhuteshwar Mandir which is a shaktipeeth but I was not able to find it. I searched around, finally made my way to an old looking, slightly dilapidated temple which was part of a chawl type housing complex. They however told me that this is the Bhudev mandir, but this was not the shaktipeeth. They also told me “Hold on to your spectacles otherwise the monkeys will flick them away” :p

Apparently another temple I had already passed was the Shaktipeeth. So much for that. But this search led me to some not so touristy areas and small lanes as well. I enjoyed getting a little inside view of this town.

Then we headed off to Agra. The people here were the biggest surprise for me and probably this is the craziest-somewhat-romantic encounter I have had here,

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Agra Fort – Apparently you get the best view of Taj Mahal from this fort.

 

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Welcome to the Taj Mahal…. 🙂

The car dropped me off outside Taj Mahal. Here a lot of rickshaw folks and other ‘guides’ were approaching me which I clearly shrugged off. But there was one good, authoritative chap who befriended me. This guy was the Thekedaar of one of the rickshaw stands. Not entirely clearly what that means but basically he has some kind of authority and clout in the area. His language showed some education and academic sense.

Not sure, maybe he just took a liking to me as I was a solo traveler but he started showing me around. I was little wary of this guy… but then his help was very useful. Usually all tourists & travelers are dropped off at the West Gate of Taj Mahal. Because of this, there is a VERY long line there….. I would have had to stand there for 45 mins or so… but thankfully due to this Thekedaar fellow I got to know about the East gate which is just 5 mins walk from the West Gate!

I bought my Taj Mahal audio guide (I love audio guides) from the West Gate ticket area – which he didn’t like. He wanted to give me a personal tour of the place. Then we went off to the East gate through a market like area. I asked this guy many questions to fathom the local culture and also to gauge whether he was a drug peddler or a kidnapper or some such nefarious sort. At East gate, as he had suggested there was absolutely no line. I was able to buy my entry ticket and enter in a few minutes. Apparently this Thekedaar fellow wouldn’t enter from here but he would catch up with me inside.

I never did meet him inside because I saw no reason to and I really wanted to explore Taj on my own. But this fellow – gave me almost a VIP entry into Taj Mahal. I had told him first thing itself that I am not interested in paying him or any such thing so not entirely sure what the guy wanted. Some traveler friends suggested that they are usually looking out for romantic adventures with the female travelers. First experience of such a kind… and it was not really unpleasant. As long as a decent, well spoken person genuinely helps and befriends me.. then it is a nice encounter… and maybe someone else may even have a nice, memorable romantic encounter with him. I anyway wasn’t enticed… but as you might imagine this was a whole different experience for me.

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Taj Mahal… just the way it looks in the pictures :p

 

Taj Mahal
How do I take a shot with out the public? ^-^

 

Anyway I didn’t meet him after that. After exiting the Taj, the Rickshaw people kept asking me where I wanted to go. Finally asked one chap ‘How much will it be…’ and he said 15 Rupees. This was crazy, because 15 is so dirt cheap, I would not even bargain! Guess there is lot of poverty here, because all the rickshaw drivers I found in Agra would be more than happy to charge 15/- and would wait for 30 mins just for 5/-

Crazy. Sweet. Inexpensive

Yamuna, Taj Mahal
Serene Yamuna front behind the Taj… .

 

Taj Mahal
Standing at the Taj and clicking the entrance Gate

 

Later in the day I had to take a train from Agra to Varanasi. Stay warned this route is very unreliable for newbies. Many of the trains are very, very late by over 4 hours! So it is very important to research out the better trains like the Ajmer – Sealdah express. My train happened to be one which got delayed by 4 hours, so I was at Agra station at 8 pm without a train connection. I basically hung around the station masters office and kept requesting him… highlighting the fact that I just need one ticket – I am an abla naari (helpless lady) ;D

Finally at 9pm (yea hung around there for an hour or so…) he called me to the other platform and gave me a 2 AC ticket. I was so happy.. .and it was a nice train. Would reach Varanasi next day early in the morning. 🙂

I managed to do my yoga in the train and then even got a veg thali for dinner. 🙂

This was the first time I have managed to get a ticket last minute like this through the station master and pay ‘extra’ and all that. So quite happy with myself. You should know that the Agra – Varanasi railway line is notorious. Trains can be crazy late. Also they often have 100 waitlist which gets confirmed. So just take the best train – like Ajmer- Sealdah express – and book Waitlist. Usually it will get confirmed.

Outside Varanasi
Early morning. Just a bit from Mughal Serai town near Varanasi. Lovely fields and okay weather.

Varanasi gave me a whole different kind of shock… but the people there were also quite sweet.

Agra & Vrindavan both turned out to be really quaint towns, I would like to spend more time here. Vrindavan especially, as there would be many ancient temples to explore and possibly has a lot of stories.

More than that, my entire time in these towns (and Varanasi) really broke down stereotypes about Uttar Pradesh. Solo in Uttar Pradesh and it was completely fine – as good as any other place in India. Women can solo travel here – and pretty well at that. These towns Mathura-Agra-Varanasi are all touristy places so I would also like to go a bit internal to not so touristy places and experience the culture there… but I am hopeful that it would also be pleasant. 🙂

I will write more stories from here including people encounters in Varanasi soon, so stay tuned. 🙂

Take a visual tour of the Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, Rajasthan

Had a great time roaming around in the Hawa Mahal of Jaipur. I spent practically the whole afternoon there (which explains why I have a whole bucketlist of places left to visit) .

I took the audio guide. When it is well made I really enjoy the audio guides in India. I listen to it slowly while meandering through the monument. It really helps give a feel of the place with the background music and historic stories.

Have tried to capture that feel with this presentation…. enjoy this visual tour of the Hawa Mahal…

I was trying to make it a 100 slides… but didn’t have that much patience. Did 29. 😉

Tip: Watch fullscreen & imagine yourself there in that era!

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.