One of the main purpose of these boats is to take tourists around the river to get a view of the town. It also serves as transport to certain areas… like a fort or the opposite bank if anyone wants to go. There are also not-so-fun reasons for boats – in case a small child dies then its body is not burnt. Instead a heavy rock/slab may be tied to it and the body is dropped into the river. So families of the baby may take the body this way to the usual spot and drop it in…. There may be other purposes of the boats as well… in Varanasi there is just too much to find out, as there is so much going on!
I couldn’t find a presiding deity at the Manikarnika Ghat. I was very curious as to the diety in this place… From my research I believe the Kaal Bhairava main idol was at Manikarnika Ghat – the ghat where the chitta (fire to burn dead bodies) has been going on non-stop for years. Later on due to a natural calamity the Kaal Bhairava idol was moved to the current new temple….
Opposite this sunken temple, was this other section which was sunken. Quite intriguing.
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 🙂
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
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!
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!
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?
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! 😉
Temples in Himachal were a surprise to me as they were not the usual Hindu temples of Shiva or Vishnu – Krishna/Rama or Hanuman I am used to. This where I first saw Shani Dev temples very common place. Dark black idols often women not allowed within the sanctum sanctorum – Shani dev.
In Manali we went to two temples which are in the city itself. Hadimba and Ghatochkach temples.
For those that are not aware of these two people – they are very well known characters of the Hindu scripture Mahabharata. Arjuna Bhima one of the five Pandavas, a renowned warrior married Hadimba. Hadimba was a Rakshasi or demon. Recent opinions suggest that Rakshasas might just have been a different sect of people. Arjuna Bhima married Hadimba and had a son Ghatochkach! This guy was a total cool dude, who really helped the Pandavas in Mahabharata war.
So I was already quite intrigued to see temples of these Rakshasas. 😉
Hadimba temple is a wooden structure in probably a traditional style in the area. Its also a bit odd, cause when I went inside the temple there is the idol and photos of gods and around it seems to be living quarter of the priest. I have seen such temples and they astonish me. An important Hanuman temple in Hampi was somewhat similar. The Priests room n temple are practically co-joined.
Anyway I visited this temple structure of Hadimba. Outside there were large horns of animals and even a skeleton face of an animal. Creepy? I thought the locals have a funny taste in ambiance of a temple.
Later when I went to Ghatochkach temple that is when I realised this was because of Animal Sacrifice being common practice in these temples! In fact Ghatochkach temple was basically just the base of a tree with a stone parapet around it. Open air – and hardly any yard around it. You could make out feathers and fur around it. A common place for animal sacrifices even today it seems. A big government board nearby said Animal Sacrifices can be done only in presence of committee members. Woooh…
Very recently a Himachal Pradesh court ruled to outlaw Animal Sacrifice in all Hindu temples in the state. Late in the coming considering it was so commonplace http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/02/india-court-bans-animal-sacrifice-hindu-temples
Yes might sound creepy especially to the faint hearted, but travellers would be intrigued. I know animal sacrifice is common ritual in Hinduism but always thought it would be done in some shady temples in remote locations. Not like this… open air temple in middle of village like Manali which is so popular. These two temples are common tourist attractions….
If you are interested in reading about interesting Temples, here Tarun Goel a traveller from Himachal writes about Brahma temples in Himachal.
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.
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.
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?
Went to the absolutely stunning Sikkim a few years back. It is also referred to as the Switzerland of India, but I am not sure Switzerland is so awesome!
This was a family trip and part of the group had been to most of the places in Sikkim, so they wanted to go specifically to a place called Gurudongmar Lake. This lake is at 10,000 ft! It was an adventurous trip with a bunch of Jain folks heading into the mountains. Most older folks had to forego dinner because all the places looked and felt like predominantly non-veggie! Youngsters including me had maggi where ever we went!
With a day of acclimatization in Gangtok which is very less…we headed up into the mountains. Generally people go to Yumthang and other places on the way. This way they see all those places and also get acclimatized, but since the other people didn’t have that much time, we headed straight to Gurudongmar.
After an overnight halt at a small town we headed onward to the lake, which is in completely snow clad terrain. It is also very close to the China border, so much so that you can actually see that side of the border – little igloo type mounds where Chinese soldiers might be keeping a watch. There is no demarcation of the border but its known to the locals. We finally couldn’t go to the lake itself as the whole road was snowed but we went very close. It was walking distance away however due to weather conditions we had to turn back!
This was my first encounter with snow! 🙂
Sikkim is truly wonderful. I loved this Himalayan stretch than any other! The monasteries, fields, mountains are just magnificient. Gangtok as a hill station is also lovely. Its bazaaar street is quaint with enjoyable music playing in the evenings and enough little benches for everyone to sit on. There are some very good quiet tea shops where you can have some hot herbal tea and enjoy the scenic view of the hill town! Enchanting place!
Sikkim is also very well managed by its government. I inquired with the drivers and local people, almost every small village had electricity, computers, TVs with cable and mobile connectivity. Decent literacy. The government has also been quite proactive in adopting eco-friendly policies of development. Plastic bags are completely banned here.
Chandigarh was the stop over for my trip to the Himachal Pradesh, April 2013. It was a good stop over. India’s planned city does come across as planned. The buildings are shorter with a height limit, the roads are really wide, lots of gardens, sectors that are well defined but confusing for outsiders and a lot of other salient aspects. These set it apart from your usual Indian city that usually resembles a jumble.
The organized sectorial layout is evident from the plane,
So many colorful trees – yellow, purple, orange… wow! First time I saw Spring season!
Rock garden which was quite interesting……
and also quite claustrophobic at times, so people scared of confined spaces – Don’t go because its a 1 hour walk and there are exits only at the two ends. So in the middle if you want turn back its a damn long walk……
The whole fort like structure was made of odd stuff. Not always rock even socket/plug waste, gunny bags, broken tiles and what not! It was interesting but also a little bewildering…. what was the guy who made it upto?
Loved the adult swings in the ‘courtyard’ of Rock Garden
The rose garden is worth its name! Lovely, varied splashes of color, huge blooms, fragrant air…
Chandigarh is the city of gardens, scooch over Bangalore! 🙂
A friend of mine has a quaint little restaurant + home stay called Cafe 42 in Sangla. Sangla is near the eastern borders of Himachal Pradesh hence quite close to Uttarakhand. There were no floods but very heavy rainfall for many days, leading to a power blackout for more than 7 days. Many roads have been washed out, there have been land slides here and some people have lost their property but no one is reported to have died.
She charged her phone in the market where there was an inverter. Here are some of the pics she sent me via Whatsapp (hence the low res)
Am in touch with her, she may go to the main bazaar area in Sangla and take pics there. If so will update here.
The Sangla town seems to be in an OK shape compared to other places in the valley and Kinnaur area of Himachal which seems to be worse hit.
I will quickly jot type some of these tips I had in mind when I was in McLeodganj. Once I come back to Mumbai I get so caught up with things that I barely write half of what I want to about places I have visited. So here goes,
Visit the Bookstores
I devour books. Reading 2/3 books in a week is normal for me along with all the work and stuff. So when I saw a quaint little bookstore with a Tibetan lady sitting inside I decided its time for a look. Due to the large number of international travelers coming and staying here the book collection was a brilliant hodgepodge of books from around the world! There are also multi-lingual books in German, French, Spanish… I saw some very good Japanese books like The Maid by TsuTsui Yasutaka. I also saw some real life stories about Tibetan Refuges. I wanted to pick up so many books and fill my whole rucksack in that shop! 🙂
The bookshop I went to: BookWorm, Hotel Bhagsu Road. Tel: 01892 221465
I also visited a couple of other shops and they also had an intriguing collection of books!
Try out authentic Tibetan/Chinese/Japanese cuisine
I probably don’t need to say Visit the Cafes but you should definitely visit some who serve authentic Tibetan cuisine. Many also serve some typical dishes of Japan/China/Taiwan etc.. which we don’t get in our famous Chinese restaurant chains like Mainland China & Five Spice 😉
One such I would highly recommend is Common Ground. It has lovely ambiance and reading collection. This is where I first discovered Osamu Tezuka’s – Buddha Manga Series! The food choices are brilliant. I kept having steamed rice and veggies because finally I was getting no onion/garlic food. Beside the steamed rice was so delicious. I could have gobbled it up on its own!
Explore the Little Roads – Circumambulation around Tsuglag Khang Temple
There is a small road to circumambulate the main Buddhist Temple & Dalai Lama complex. I don’t think too many people know about it. Enroute there are benches to sit on and see the Dharamshala valley view and also some other smaller Buddhist temples. It is a 15 minutes enjoyable walk.
There are quite a few of these interesting little roads. Near the Common Ground cafe the dirt road goes up all the way to Dharamkot village. Its a lot more prettier than the tarred car road. There are also small road via trees and back steps which are mostly used by the Buddhist monks and such. So when I was chatting with a Buddhist nun, she took me via some back road through trees to Dharamkot. Then she showed me this other dirt road.
These are the few tips I would give you while visiting McL. There are also some of the usual tips which you will find elsewhere as well,
Talk to Tibetan folks. Lot of them are refugees with hardcore stories.
There are some really good Italian places like McLLo & Jimmy’s Kitchen.
I have heard that the Tibetan trinkets are better bought in the city where its cheaper. I am not sure about this though because I find them to be quite expensive in the cities as well.
To discuss Buddhism – the Library is a good place.
There are a lot of shops which offer workshops in their business like Making Silver Jewellery.
There are also Tibetan language classes, discussion groups and other interesting activities. You can see the notices for these on the wall near the TsuglagKhang gate.
Documentaries are screened at the Tibetan museum, which is located within the TK Complex
Apparently every once a week monks meet to have debates as part of their spiritual growth at TK. This would be an interesting watch.
If you have traveled to McLeo.. do add any more tips you have in comments! 🙂
Dharamshala. Dalai Lama. Tibetan Story. That was my whole pull to visit Himachal Pradesh. Actually it hardly mattered to me that it was Himachal Pradesh. Anyway all these states kind of get blurred when you are on the road. So there I was – unsuspecting I landed at the bus stop at Mandi.
The local buses looked good so I thought I will take those to my next stop Rewalsar. All of a sudden I was swarmed with 2/3 men – “Kahaan Jaa Rahe Ho?” (where do you want to go?) I figured they must be rickshaw or private taxi guys so gave them one of my unfriendly looks. Again they are asking.. so I told them and very surprisingly they all just pointed out the right bus to me and told me to take that. Not just that: One of the fellows then ran ahead and told the bus conductor of that bus “Madam (or sister or something) Rewalsar jaa rahin hain. Unko barabar pahooncha dena” (Madam is going to Rewalsar, see that she reaches properly). Then very helpfully .. sit madam, sit.
This was very weird for me. I was not sure what is going on. Why are they so helpful. I remained very alert to any foul play. Instead of foul play I noticed that the conductor is so helpful even to the local people. If some old lady is waiting for bus then he will get down and help her up.
Whenever the bus stops at a crowded bus stop the conductor will get down, he will shout “Palampur” (or where ever the bus is going). Not just that: He will even go around asking individual groups or if he sees any old person hesitating because the bus is very crowded he will coax them. Telling them “I am there na” just climb up.
Once the bus reaches the destination the conductor helps take the luggage off the racks, especially if it is too heavy.
I sat on a Dharamshala bus. Then I told the conductor I want to go McLeodganj will I get another bus? Pat he replies “Why you are worrying. Once you have sat in this bus, you should think you have reached McLeodganj already” It was amazing so much so that I was getting a serious culture shock.
It was not that they are not busy. As I mentioned these buses are often so crowded. Yet, the involvement and intensity the conductors have was so amazing. He was like family member for all the passengers.
I was trekking up the hill to the Padmasambhava Cave in Rewalsar and the road I took passed through lots of houses. Most of them had small terraced wheat farms. Very picturesque. Couple of times I got confused because I was not sure which road fork to take. From somewhere I heard “Kidhar jaana hain?” (where do you want to go?) I turned and saw one lady peeping at me around her door. I just asked her and she guided me. Another house had kept a pot of water for any passerby to drink. For a moment I considered it might be drugged to kidnap people – because I am from Mumbai!! – anyway I drank it and it was not drugged. It felt really good.
Almost at the top I was so exhausted that I was just ruminating around but one lady from nearby thought I wasn’t sure about the route. So she pointed out the way to me and encouraged me. “Its just a little more!”. So many times I kept thinking that those people would ask me for money after helping me out.. but no one ever did.
So you see… I got culture shock. I have actually traveled in local buses and visited smaller towns in Karnataka/ Tamil Nadu but I have never been pushed so out of my comfort zone by the people. When I finally reached McLeodganj with its very-Tibetan flavor… I found myself missing the Himachali people.