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
One of my first Lighthouse visits was the Kaup Beach Lighthouse near Udupi in Konkan Karnataka. I took a local bus from Udupi going towards Mangalore and got down at the small town. There was this Mariamma temple opposite the bus stand,
It is odd that this blog of mine hardly has anything about Mysore, considering that it was my favourite city to visit for years… so it is only fitting to write about it now in my Unexpectedly Awesome place series. In the first post I wrote about the Western Ghats and here I will write about the Mysore Lakes – the two most unexpectedly awesome spots in Mysore.
Everyone has heard of Mysore, so I am sure you would have too. 🙂
Usually people talk about visiting the Mysore Palace or the Vrindavan Gardens. But there’s more,Continue reading
It is fascinating to visit a place and find it unexpectedly awesome! Old thoughts, old expectations, understanding of the land, all get questioned. A new respect and appreciation for beauty grows in my heart every time I come across such a place. So here is a series of posts on the lesser known places which turned out to be one of the best places I have visited.
The ‘Ghats’ had always been an unpleasant word for me as it meant hours spent in a vehicle that keeps going around hilly bends in the road leading to nausea and motion sickness. Now a days that I am traveling out of passion this motion sickness has become much more bearable, as I am so excited about the place I am going to.
Yet I had not particularly noticed them – the brilliant Western Ghats. The beauty of these Ghats hit me to the core only at this secluded spot in the forest at Dandeli,Continue reading
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier I wrote about How I manage solo traveling with happy parents. Parents typically tend to be worry warts regards their off-springs, especially their single child. Such is the case with my parents too. So a combination of assuring explanations and spending time helps keep them calm and satisfied. I am also in touch with them during my trips which helps them remain relaxed.
With extended family the situation changes. They simply do not get the time nor mind share that my parents (and other near family) get.
Small detour here especially for any non-Indians reading this blog to understand the context of this Great Big Indian Family. When I say extended family I mean all my mother & father’s siblings, their kids. Grand-parents and their sibling’s families. It also includes a lot of other branches of family, for eg, the in-law family of my married cousins. It also includes a much wider range of relatives who become part via grapevine. So quite a huge number of people.
Obviously not a lot of time or thought will be given to all of them when I plan a trip. So typically, they will come to know of the trip once I have embarked or they would be informed earlier on but without any explanations. So this leads to all sorts of reactions.
“Don’t take unnecessary risks & don’t waste time”
I got a phone call from my aunt who lectured me about why my cycling trip was not a good idea. This was after I had briefly told them that I am planning to go to Europe and cycle for most part of my trip. And cycling is much slower which means I will be visiting only two cities. It was a very brisk manner of telling them my travel plans and no wonder I got the customary cautionary phone call from them. I had anticipated it.
With my parents I had taken the conversation much slower. I first introduced them to the idea of ‘Slow Travel’ and how I loved it. Later on I eased them into the European Cycling Culture & Camping bit and then told them what I was thinking about my Europe trip. It was a very planned way to let my parents understand why I was doing this. Also why it is totally safe. Because it is important that they are okay with the whole trip idea. Surprisingly though, they thought so highly of Europe that they were really excited about it and didn’t need much coaxing. 🙂
My extended family of course didn’t get any such planned speeches. With them it was more of “Ohh, yes I am going to Europe and plan to cycle most of the time”
Typically the conversation would go like,
“Yes, I am planning to go to Europe for a month or so”
“So which all cities are you going to?”
“Two – Berlin & Copenhagen and other smaller towns”
“Two??!! What will you do in these two cities for such a long time?”
“Well, I plan to cycle from one to the other, so that is why just two.”
Shit has hit the fan 😉
“What?! how can you do that?” “How far are these cities?” “Where will you stay at night” “It is typical of you to think such a mad idea” “I don’t know anyone who has done such a thing” …… and it went on.
But anyway after a bit of time the excitement got to them as well. Because obviously no one in family had done something like this, let alone a solo girl. So for this trip by public demand I made a Whatsapp group with everyone in it. And I kept them all updated as I got a chance with random updates from the road. It was something they all really enjoyed. Many of them said they felt like they had traveled European countryside with me 🙂
So this Europe trip was a different level of involvement with my extended family. And probably now that I have been understood to be a different genre of traveller I guess they will respond to my travels differently.
The thing that helps me a lot is that my parents are totally okay with what I am doing at the end of day. It is true that at times they will say “Oh we have no say into what she does” but the fact is they are quite okay with it. So most of the times when my extended family raises questions, my parents usually just go like “Oh, kids now a days do what ever they like and why should anybody impose on them? They are smart enough to decide what they want” This really saves my ass, cause usually no relative goes beyond this.
Only one time I remember I had a relative who really gave me a big lecture. He was clearly a very dominant type and despite me taking his “lot of advice” in jest he just kept going on in front of the whole family – how I need to get married and stop traveling. Solo traveling is so risky. It was one time I felt bummed. So I came back to Mumbai and organized a travel meetup. 4 of us met at Bandra and once again I was back in the element. 😀
So a lot of crazy incidents with extended family. At times relatives would think that I had run away from home… it is difficult for them to conceptualize that I just like traveling solo.
So here are some tips with regards managing the Extended Indian Family with regards Solo Travel,
1) MAKe it Cool with your Parents & Near Family:
These folks are important and ones who care most about you. Spend the time, make effort as needed to keep them cool about it. Once they are cool about it they will support you in face of other relatives
2) Update Extended Family:
I have added a lot of my extended family to this blog newsletter – so they get emails about new blogs. In fact they may be reading this.. “Hellos – extended family!” Also now with all of us being connected on Facebook – they see my travel updates there as well. This sort of keeps them on the same page. So I would always suggest that if you plan to solo travel seriously, don’t lie to your extended family, instead be transparent and authentic. Start a blog or even write a column in the paper and keep them on the same page. Writing a newspaper column will also give you pseudo celeb status 😉
3) Meet other Travellers:
Sometimes like I shared above, you might feel bummed out because relatives keep advising you that it is too risky, you will never get married and so on. The best thing is to meet your travel friends and talk. It will help. You won’t feel isolated when you have like minded people around you.
Relatives depending on their age and personality will be a certain way. Learn to anticipate with out being prejudiced. For eg: I know that when I share my travel adventures with many of the older relatives (and some friends) they will naturally keep giving me safety precautions. It is the first reaction. So once I anticipate this, it gets easy.
5) There is a Time to Lie:
So yea, I always advise being transparent over lying, but there is a time to lie. With really old relatives or major worry-warts – I just lie to them blatantly because I know if I told them the truth they will not be able to sleep. They will go pretty much, literally crazy until I don’t even know, maybe I would have to cancel my trip or something. It is sort of funny because my solo travel interviews and such have come in the Gujarati newspaper and they have read it but that they are able to digest. Just the idea of me going off on my own though, they will just not be able to accept.
So recently I heard that the antidote to Fear is Understanding. So help your extended family understand why you are doing what you are doing. Typically you may not have the time to explain to all of them, well just send them a blog article. Hell, just send them some of my blog articles if that works. 😉
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.
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?
Our akhada is also from Mumbai. In Nalasopara (or something). What do you want to see here?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today October 2nd, 2015 is the 146th birth anniversay of Mahatma Gandhi. Here is a quick photo post on my visit to the Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati, Ahmedabad earlier this year. This was Gandhijis home from 1917 to 1930 and a central hub of the Indian freedom struggle
I had been wanting to visit this place for a while and was so glad to get a chance. Surprisingly the ashram was a lot on the lines of what I had imagined – quiet, serene and earthy.
Spend an afternoon here. Gandhiji is an iconic Indian. What he achieved via non-violence is remarkable. Looking into his thoughts and life stories can be inspirational.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Solo traveling has now become a
trend. While there are some serious solo women sharing their travel experiences, there is also a lot of frivolity.
I started solo traveling over 5 years back and now hardly see it as such a big challenge. It is like in the 1980s “working women” were a trend, now it’s commonplace and passé. Yes there are still challenges as women globally get lower pay than their men counterparts, but that is a different thing. At least it is not something new, where a girl would go like, “ooh you know what? I am a woman and I work”. At least not in the reasonably urban areas. I know of conventional households that still don’t allow it but they are a rarity and not with the times.
I understand that solo travel is not so easy for people… But I have traveled a lot and I think it is time for the women to stop being silly. Be serious, do some solo travel and get out of the phase of ” Ooh I am a woman and I travel alone”.
Yes, there are challenges for women solo travelling, let’s understand them, discuss them and explore ways to address them.
I am currently seeing girls, who are either in a teenager rebel zone or they are wannabes or just being frivolous and keep on going on about how solo travel is awesome – BUT they have NO solo travel experience at all.
A lot of people also don’t seem to understand the meaning of “solo travel”. Solo travel = traveling on your own. While you may hook up with other folks on the road, you are fundamentally on your own. There are also women (and men) who consider traveling in a group of ” new” people like a trekking group or so on as solo travel – but it isn’t. Good to see someone else who also has written on a similar matter – what is solo travel
I understand that some of these women may be serious about solo travel – but aren’t getting band width. Also sometimes just doing a very small portion of the trip on their own can be a pre-cursor to a proper solo travel. But then just do a weekend trip. And if it simply isn’t happening then it is probably not important for them.
So, yes I hope that the scenario improves and solo travel for women in India becomes passé. Like every other woman is solo traveling. So then we can talk about some of the real experiences and difficulties of solo travel.
I am currently in Berlin, Germany and now pushing my solo travel adventures to a different level.
One of the first things I thought of as a Europe trip seemed on cards – let’s push the limits on solo experience. This was the first world and at least here *hopefully* I wouldn’t have to all the time plan on the basis of basic safety.