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.

Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati – Photo Essay

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.

Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad
The iconic quote by Gandhiji that inspires us to live true to our values and inspiration so that even our lives can be the message of what we truly value!
Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati
Hridayakunja – Gandhijis house. A very earthy, traditional Indian cottage. Clean and spartan.
Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati
An event was taking place when I went there. One of the older and prominent Gandhian had passed away a few days back. This was the prayer assembly for him.
Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati
Pigeons, mynas and squirrels create a nature-friendly environment. There were a lot of people when I went there and the prayer event as well, but on a quiet afternoon it can provide solitude
Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati
The lovely Sabarmati river promenade in the Gandhi Ashram. The river flowing placidly by the ashram gives the place a serene ambiance.
Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati
At the entrance.

 

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.

Solo at the Kumbh Mela – Notes for a Wonderful Experience

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,

  • Accommodation

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.

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 in the non-important dates. Quite manageable. I went to other ghat areas which were empty. A lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.
  • 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.
Kumbh Mela 2015
Babas heading towards Nashik. I asked them if I could click a picture and he was really happy. Smiled and chanted Radhe Radhe while I took the pic.

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.

Woman Solo Travel needs to become Commonplace, not a “Trend” #India

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.

Woman Solo Travel

Follow my solo adventure in Europe via twitter updates at #maproute or http://facebook.com/maproute.

What do you think about solo travel for women in India?

Guide to Matheran – Asia’s only vehicle-free hill station #Mumbai

For Mumbai-kars Matheran is a household word. At home, the talk of a short getaway from Mumbai usually starts with Lonavala or Matheran. So when my family decides to go to Matheran during a long weekend this Summer, I was quite skeptical. I presumed there would be crowds and I wasn’t sure it would really be much cooler than the utterly HOT & humid city. But since everyone was majorly excited I succumbed.

Surprise, surprise but Matheran was not just deliciously cool but quite low on tourist traffic. We got rooms easily at a well placed resort at decent rates – 1800/- per person, per night incl food – and the market wasn’t too crowded either. So I must say, I really enjoyed this Summer weekend in Matheran and as usual I could spend a lot more days here just gallivanting around. 😉

To the uninitiated who haven’t been to Matheran before (probably you aren’t from Mumbai… or are living seriously under a big rock in Mumbai) the charm of Matheran is in many experiences. Walking on the unpaved, hilly paths amidst lush forests. The natural laterite (red) mud that sticks to everything you are wearing and your shoes needing a serious wash when you get back. The entire town being a No-vehicle zone so your transport choices are either horses, hand carriages or your own feet. Being wary of the truly, aggressive monkeys all the time – they may just jump on you and snatch food from your hands – literally.

I find that apart from the Mumbaikars, there is surprisingly less chatter about people from afar visiting this place. Considering this is Asia’s only vehicle-free hill station, and so charming a place, I feel there needs to be a lot more buzz about it. Even for those of us who have frequented this place often, here are some interesting activities that help us see this quaint and charming hill station in a whole new light.

Get lost in the red Earth, forest roads

Matheran has a lot of ‘points’. Louisa point, Sunset point and so on. Go on a walking trail on your own… try reaching some of these points as you can. But don’t worry about getting lost in these trails. If you get a weekend that is not crowded, as I did, then you can really get lost in these woods. The sign boards are non-existent. So you may choose to wait at a crossroad for someone to come by, who can guide you or you can just pick a direction. This actually happened to us and was really fun. We went off in another direction for a while… but then realized this didn’t seem right, so turned back.

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Red earth roads amidst the forest. 🙂
Matheran Charlotte Lake
Matheran’s Charlotte Lake Near Louisa Point

Usually if you keep following a random track either you find yourself at some “point” or you find yourself back in the market, through some small red path that you had never noticed before. It is like all roads lead to the Matheran market 🙂

Spend a quiet evening in the Bazaar & Observe the local culture

As we had a quiet weekend with hardly any crowds, the bazaar was very enjoyable. I specifically tried out a few Maharashtrian dishes.

Matheran MAharashtrian Cuisine
A plate of Maharashtrian Misal. Quite spicy! Other dishes to try out are poha, sabu dana wada/khichdi, usal…

What I had not noticed on my earlier visits was that, there were so many religions hodgepodged into that little market. There is a big Hindu temple and quite nearby is a Mosque. Then down the lane is a Jain temple. There is also a Parsi market. I found it all very interesting…

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A vegetable market named after a Parsi lady in the main Matheran market. T
Matheran Mosque
A mosque in the Matheran market

Another piece of culture in Matheran are the chappal sellers. Apparently these chappal sellers of Matheran used to make leather chappals as their family craft and these chappals were well known. Now however no one wants to pay for them… every one wants the cheaper outside chappals. Also there are way too many chappal shops in that market – that can’t be good.

So observing and listening to the people can really bring up so many stories of peoples lives.

Find out Local stories

The market place as I described earlier is chock full of interesting matters. Strike a conversation with the locals and find out some stories! Knowing the stories, legends, realities and myths of a place can helps us know and understand it better.

Here is one such story that I found out,

Matheran Pisarnath temple
The Pisarnath Shiva Temple

The Matheran market is called ‘Pisarnath market’ after the local deity Pisarnath. People from all over the area come frequently and worship at this Shiva temple. It is the village deity. The temple is located at Louisa point, on the banks of Charlotte lake. As the story goes, a person was roaming around the forests of Matheran and he came across a natural linga – often known as swayambhu or self-forming linga under a grove of Pisar (Marathi name) trees. So he started taking care of that linga and worshiping it. Slowly this deity became popular amongst the other people in the village. I guess due to some miracles and such that may have ensued, people started believing in this deity.

Go Chikki-tasting

In the shops of Matheran you will forget that Chikki is typically made of Jaggery and Groundnut.  There is a whole gamut of Chikkis here – different colours, different texture, different flavours and a wide variety of ingredients. So go to these shops and try out a few. 🙂

Matheran Chikki Tasting Matheran Chikki

Matheran Chikki
Some of these Chikkis can be really hard to break!

Try out a new Look

Travel is a chance to be a whole new person. Matheran somehow always incites me to try a new look. There are a whole bunch of hats and caps available. Even horse riding attire and gear is available and commonly worn by people who are seriously into horse riding. So try out a new look!

Hiking & trekking

There are many trekking routes in Matheran. I have personally never trekked as usually I am there with family but you can search around. There is a trekking route from Neral to Matheran – I have wanted to do this for a while, but not got a chance yet.

Long walks and hikes as I also mentioned earlier are easily possible. You can take any of the forest paths and keep walking… even after frequent visits there will be more paths to discover. 🙂

I asked another traveller from Mumbai, Deepika Gumaste to share some of her thoughts about Matheran. She visited Matheran quite recently, just one weekend before me in fact. 🙂

Having been born and brought up in Mumbai, there are a lot of weekend places I have traveled to. One that always scared me was Matheran, only because of the notorious “too touristy” tag that it has earned over the years. But eventually, I took the leap of faith, just because I had exhausted all my weekender options and it turns out that Matheran is fun, if tried in some other way than the usual ones, otherwise it’s just too crowded and not enjoyable. The best season to visit Matheran off course is the rainy season, but because I wanted to do something different, I went there before the onset of monsoons. The touristy greens were yet brown and prudish. I hiked from Dasturi to Matheran. All along the healthy horses, rustle of dried leaves and the toy train keep you great company. – Deepika

Thanks for your thoughts Deepika! Matheran is definitely a lot of fun, especially when doing something a bit different!

How to get there?

So to get to this awesome-schmosome place, you need to get to Neral. A little town about 2 hrs from Mumbai. Local Central Line trains are easily and frequently available from Mumbai & I guess Pune also. I have never traveled here from Pune.  Once you reach Neral you can get the iconic toy train – but you need to book well in time otherwise it may get full. I have been in the toy train few times before, but it gets too packed, so I rather prefer taking a car or hiking up. There is a also a trekking route that takes you from Neral to Matheran.

If you take a vehicle it takes you up to Dasturi. From Dasturi you need to buy a ticket into Matheran and then you can take a hand-carriage or horse to Matheran. I suggest you just walk it up from Dasturi to Matheran – it is a lovely 20 mins walk through the lush green forests, near the toy train tracks. Just take care not to carry foods openly – cause it is sure to attract the monkeys.

If you have taken the toy train, then it will drop you right at Matheran town so no awesome walk from Dasturi to Matheran for you. 😉

Matheran Toy Train
Matheran Toy train….
Matheran dasturi
Lush greens enroute Dasturi
Matheran, Dasturi
Towards Matheran….

And don’t forget….

The laterite red Earth of Matheran will inevitably leave its marks on you 😉 Every time we return from an outing to Matheran – all the clothes and shoes are rounded up and washed separately from anything else because they leak Red dirt. So pack clothes that let you enjoy with out worrying about spoiling them.

Also the monkeys were really aggressive. So keep foods inside the bag at all times. You won’t know when they are near and will grab it from your hand.

🙂

Viva Matheran!

Srirangapatna – the Fort Town & Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka

Re-looking at our history is one of the things I love about traveling. So many little nuances of places strike you when you are actually there. Like I may not have imagined the pride of the Hoysala kingdom without going to the Belur & Halebeedu temples. Imagine finding ruins of Kishkindha from Ramayana stories in present village of Anegundi near Hampi!

So, when I first went to Mysore, I was very excited because it was Tipu Sultan’s city. I had grown up watching Tipu Sultan on television and remember his valour and courage against the British tyranny, and how he finally got betrayed. Yes, TV ends up influencing way too much. Anyway much later I realised that Mysore was actually ruled by the Wodeyars – who apparently were fairly good rulers, even though they were allies of the British? While Tipu Sultan’s main city would be Srirangapatna just 15 km away! The whole history of Mysore & and its surrounding areas is worth a good read and I still don’t understand half of it. Apparently the true kings – the Wodeyars were just puppets during Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan’s reign? But again like I said need to read more on this.

When I went to Mysore for their famous Dasara (or Dussera festival) celebrations in 2013, I took the chance to visit Srirangapatna. This was one tiring day – I was on my feet for over 10 hours, by the time I reached back to my hostel I could not stand anymore and just collapsed on the bed, truly!

Srirangapatna
Just as I enter Srirangapatna…..

Srirangapatna is unique as a ‘Fort City’. This means that the entire city was built inside a fort… so as you enter you are first greeted by Fort walls, canons and other old military fortifications. Even the ruins of these fortifications are quite impressive. The area inside is decent, clean and green albeit a little confusing as there are some ruins and then some newly made constructions so I am not clear what is what.

Srirangapatna
See there are some ruins *i think* and then there is some new fangled stuff… and yea I know the picture is completely over exposed.

Sorry for the photo over exposure. Often as I am traveling I just stop clicking pictures as I am absorbed in the place….. this is one such trip – most pictures haven’t been clicked and the ones that are, are over-exposed. 😉

So I will actually source pictures from elsewhere so you get an idea about the place.

Surprisingly I was first greeted by a Jain temple. I always find it fascinating to find Jain temples in various unsuspecting corners of the country. So I visited it, drank water, cleaned my feet and looked around. It was an interesting architecture, different from the usual Jain temples. A mix of south Indian architecture and Jainism stuff.  Here you can take a look at some of the pictures here – if you know about Jain culture then you will be able to get the very South Indian flavour of this temple.

Further in the city we come to the famous Ranganathswamy temple, this is a Vishnu temple. I looked at it from outside, but I had enough of temples so I gave it a skip. I walked around the town a bit and it is a lovely, quiet little place. Every now and then there are some ruins with placards stating this was so-n-so spot in the reign of Tipu Sultan. There are some wells, and place where his body is found and royal garden and so on.

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Interestingly there were two very ancient temples I came to. There were many old people sitting outside – like a typical small town situation where the village elder men come and sit in a spot – gossiping and chit chatting. So I asked them how old is this temple? Most of them didn’t know English…. only one guy knew a bit so he rumbled a lot in Kannada and then went like “800” years.  Hehe. I checked online and it seems no one has written about these temples maybe cause they were pretty derelict.

So that was fun. I visited that one temple, also No photography. There were many little forks in the road… so I realised there was a lot to explore in this quiet town. Moreover, there are also many areas to explore on the other side of town …. this is on the other side of the highway. I didn’t go there, instead I went to a bird sanctuary!

Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary is just a few kms away.

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Srirangapatna to Ranganathittu is a fairly easy bus ride. You can get many buses from the Srirangapatna bus stop which drops you at a bus stop which is 15-20 mins from the bird sanctuary. You need to walk from this stop to the sanctuary gates. Some people may take rickshaws from here. I didn’t bother… I like walking. The road passes right by the river and hence quite green.

Ranganathittu
Quiet waters….. some local people were also walking but most people arrive in cars or rickshaws

I wasn’t sure how it might be going alone, as this was my first bird sanctuary on my own. The ticket guy seemed a bit amused when I just walked in (as most people came in vehicles) and asked for one ticket. 😉

Overall, I had a great time here. The place is lush green and cool. There are many nice spots to just sit and enjoy. Probably due to Dasara there were quite a few people here even though it was October, off season for the sanctuary. The best time visit here is March to May. But I love nature and the green environment of the bird sanctuary. There is cafe which serves odd, Indian version of a lot of interesting dishes 😉

There is also a kids area for them to play around. The highlight is a boat ride which takes us closer to the bird and crocodile areas. So we pretty much saw lots and lots of one type of water bird, mainly these white ones,

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A full colony of these white Ibis…..
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More white Ibis on trees….
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The full flock shot of the White Ibis. 😉 There were two – three such flocks that I could see… the actual bird sanctuary of course goes in much deeper….

We also saw crocodiles up close, basking in the sun. It was quite fun… as I have never seen so many of them, just comfortably basking in front of us. The boat took us very close to one of them… was fun…

Ranganathittu
They keep their mouths open to dry out….

 

So after spending a while here… I headed back to Srirangapatna. But here many of the places were closed as it was already evening. The town started getting quite deserted as tourists head back. I seem to have missed out seeing quiet a few of the places here in this sleepy town – so another trip is mandated. 😉

I am anyway a slow traveler, and like visiting places impromptu, I miss out on some good places because of that, but then I end up seeing and experiencing other stuff so I guess that is fine. I also end up spending quite a bit of time on nice spots… like I spent almost 4 hrs in Ranganathittu… part of it just sitting around and observing the the foliage, the birds, animals and the play of nature. 🙂

But there are many places I didn’t explore here…. in fact I could write a whole bucket list of those places.

1) Triveni Sangam: Holy rivers – Kaveri, Kabini & Hemavati confluence is just somewhere around Srirangapatnam

2) Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, Gol Gumbaz – and many other ruins. There were sign boards at the highway… so I guess I would explore the other side of town too.

3) Roam around the city a bit more and explore the various forks in the road I saw. If possible connect with a local to tell me more about it…

Have you been to Srirangapatna? If you haven’t I do recommend it when you are in the area… it is quite enchanting. Ranganathittu – I suggest go in the right season… because people who, really want to ‘see’ a lot of things for their trips to be worthwhile, might not really enjoy here in off season.

A Quick Jaunt to Chikmagalur, Coffee Land of Karnataka

To whomever I mentioned “I went to Chikmagalur”, they all had heard of it before. Could be the Coffee, as Chikamaglur is often known as the Coffee land of Karnataka. My first impressions of this town was – small, quaint and spacious. Broad roads (as per India), small 2-3 story buildings and beyond these buildings I could spot an undulating hilly landscape. Most importantly while Mumbai was sizzling in the summer, this place was quite pleasant.

Coffee Plantations

The hills around Chikmagalur are surrounded by Coffee plantations. Most plantations here are huge over a few hundred acres for sure. Long walks and even treks can be a real joy. These plantations keep animals like cows, goats, dogs and such, they have wood-burning boiler geysers bringing you hot water, activities like drying pepper or beans is usually on – so overall we feel like we are in a place very different from our usual urban lifestyle.
The fresh air, water and food add to the charm that these natural homepads offer.

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The coffee plantation staff quarters. Often they have parties and the distance music can be heard in our rooms.

 

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Walking in a coffee plantation…..

 

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The place we stayed at took care of all of our meals. At times we had local delicacies while other times Knorr packet soups. For family travels this is a good setup as everyone enjoys. Every evening we had dinner around the campfire. My niece and I had a nice time dancing around it as well. Travel memories. 🙂

You haven’t been to a campfire if you haven’t danced, sang songs, fanned dying embers to get sparks and done a whole lot of other fun.

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Only thing to check with regards home stay is the distance from Chikmagalur town. Our homestay was 30 – 45 mins away. So depending on your length of stay – keep at least couple of days to just stay in the plantation and experience that place. If you are going for outings everyday then taking a place so far out doesn’t seem to be the right choice. May as well stay somewhere in town.

Nearby Places

The reason I was excited even for a two day trip into Karnataka was because I have explored many of the places and this would be a way to explore some more adjoining areas. Some of the main attractions near Chikmagalur are,

Halebeedu & Belur

The sites of two well-known Hoysala temples. Belur is 20 kms from Chikmagalur. Halebeedu is another 17 kms from Belur. So a comfortable day journey. I had already been to both these places. This was my second visit to Belur, we didn’t go to Halebeedu. If you are looking to go to just one of them, because of time constraints then I suggest go to Halebeedu because it has a garden, lake and two Nandi idols which are in the top 10 biggest in the world.

Halebeedu’s temple carvings might also be more interesting to many people because it depicts the Mahabharata scenes – some of which you can decipher yourself. The main attraction in both these temples according to me is the intricacy of carvings. How they have managed such intricacy so many years ago, in such minute detail is mind boggling.

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A lot of people swear that the guides are a must to truly understand the magnificence of these temples. I have taken a guided tour in both places and honestly, found their way of giving the ‘lecture’ very uninspiring, but that is just me. I am usually looking to understand places much more deeply. I also like it when the guide narrates everything as a story, the way it happened rather than history class. I hope they have some well made audio tours installed in these places soon.

Shravan Belagola
This is a sacred place for Hindu and Jains alike. On top of a small 20-min-climb hill, there is a huge Bahubali idol. Many Hindus know him as Gomateshwar. He is the second son of Rishabha – the first Jain tirthankar.

Horenadu
This is another Hindu religious place near Chikmagalur. Someone had actually recommended this place to me. Though I have not been here yet… but it maybe worth checking out. There is a famous Annapoorneshwari Temple here. Apparently, there is a 4000 year old Kannada dialect inscription on this temple’s back wall. It says that in the Future there would be flying machines and these would disturb human peace. So if we know some local stories and such then these religious places can be very interesting.

There are some other hill stations also nearby. These can be checked out.

The highlight for me about the excursion from Chikmagalur to Belur was this picnic in an open spot.

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View from our Picnic spot
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Family enjoying their lunch 🙂

A farmer came to enquire as to what we were doing, quite a dilapidated looking fellow (as per me, an urban creature)…. and he was well versed in English. 🙂 Surprise. Surprise.

The surroundings are very picturesque and green. Reminded me a bit about Hampi….

I went from Mumbai to Mangaluru in overnight konkan railway. That train ride was also very eventful and enjoyable. Have a lot of pictures to share in a next post. I reached Mangaluru early in the morning at about 10ish. Mangaluru to Chikmagaluru I took a local bus ride. It is about 5-6 hours journey, there is quite a bit of Western ghats enroute and the bus connections are a bit flaky. So be prepared to really enjoy the local and very budget transportation. 🙂

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The magnificient Western Ghats on my way to Chikmagaluru from Mangaluru. Clicked from the local bus I was traveling in.

You can also just take a car. That is what the others in my family did. They were coming from Bangalore. The time taken from Bangalore & Mangalore is pretty much the same.

All in all, a lovely place to visit. Staying in the plantations for a few days can really relax and rejuvenate.

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. 🙂