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

Kali Temple of Kolkata, Shakti Peeth

Spent a relaxed 5 days in Kolkata last month. I have been to this city earlier but always with family as my close relatives stay here including my grand mom 🙂 This time I planned to spend time with family AND explore the intriguing Kolkata!

One of the first places that I wanted to take a look at was the Kali temple, as Kolkata is a city that intrigues with all sorts of dark stuffs. No, if that caught your interest – I didn’t majorly explore any “dark stuff”. But I did dig into some of the oldest temples in Kolkata. My interest in temples fundamentally lies in really old temples where I can sit and meditate for a while. I also like to understand the older traditions, rituals, culture, architecture and so on.

Kali Temple, Kalighat

Kali – Calcuttawali, this a saying I have often heard but never thought much of it until I started researching what to explore in Kolkata and realized that the entire region predominantly worships the Devi and there are some fairly significant Kali temples. This one at Kalighat is within Kolkata while another popular one is the Kali Temple @ Dakshineshwar near the Belur Math.Continue reading

Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra – Behind The Scenes Story

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

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

Kumbh Mela: Ujjain Simhasth, May 2016, Photos

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

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

Unexpectedly Awesome Places in India #2: Mysore Lakes

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

Unexpectedly Awesome places in India #1: Western Ghats

westernghatsIt 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.

WESTERN GHATS

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

Delving deeper into Varanasi

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

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

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

Culture. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Travel & My Extended Indian Family #2

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”

Solo travel
Europe on Bike 🙂
Oh yea just two big cities in a month!

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.

Hehe

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.

4) Anticipate:

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. 😉

Travelogue: My Kumbh Mela Story @ Trimbakeshwar, Nashik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Two: Explore Trimbakeshwar!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3: Ramkund & Tapovan, Nashik

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

Trimbakeshwar Temple
Trimbakeshwar Temple early morning

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

Kumbh Mela
Ram ghat, Nashik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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