Fun things to know about Ladakh.

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Three months after I took a trip to Ladakh, I had a serious  case of nostalgia over the weekend. I have discovered that after any holiday, there are a few special things which stick around in my mind. The rest of the memories slowly, lazily, fade away leaving behind these interesting bits and pieces which turn into symbols of that holiday. Sort of, like watching the highlights of a cricket match and remembering only that exact ball and wicket that led to the win!

So also, in the case of our holiday to Ladakh, where well wishers fed us with stories about the difficult terrain and people dying because of the all too famous mountain sickness! When we actually reached, half scared half excited, it was an anticlimax. We found the place welcoming, beautiful, safe, chilly (which was welcome because it was blistering hot back home) and luckily, experienced very little ill health or wooziness!

Seven days disappeared before we knew it, and the land and its people embraced us so warmly that we felt a wee little bit Ladakhi at heart, by the time we returned. Though remote in a lot of ways and sans the most traditional (pun intended) forms of entertainment like malls, fast internet and cinemas, we happened to have most fun exploring Ladakh and learning her ways like….

Julley.

The ladakhi are known to be a very friendly race and the friendship starts with a “Julley”, which is a blanket term for  “Hi, Whats up?, How are you doing ?, How’s life ?” and anything else that falls into the category of a greeting. The meaning is circumstance based, rather than rigid. So simple, yet so beautiful. Importantly, easy for us toursists, who find it difficult to run our tongues around difficult, lispy tibetian words. Learn one word, and work miracles as a conversation starter! In a span of seven days, I said ‘Julley’ more times than I did ‘Namaste’ in the past year of my life! To the driver, our guide,the shopkeeper, the vendor on the road, my tour mates(till the novelty wore off) and to any stranger! No one found it strange and returned the greeting with grace and a warm smile!

This made me want to try harder to learn some more, and ended up with “Thuk che che”, which is thank you. Not much more! The people and the language make a nice contrast, as the language sounds harsh but the people look friendly!

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The unpredictable weather.

There is a saying in ladakhi which goes “Never trust a vendor’s promise, a girl’s mind and the ladakhi weather- all three change colors fast”. Though the feminist in me wants to snip off the “girl” part, I can mostly agree on the other two! Especially the weather! You never know what to wear when you tour Ladakh. I browsed through books and websites telling me what to carry, before I packed. Half of my luggage was filled with sweaters and caps of various sizes and shapes- one for little cold, one for moderate and one for really cold! Armed with this arsenal, I felt pretty confident that I could conquer the weather and its whimsies! Little did I know that the weather would beat me to it! What started off as a warm day suddenly turned very windy, and vice versa. Heck, just walking out from direct sunlight into the shade would lower the temperature by significant degrees! Well, to make the long story short, I landed up wearing atleast three layers of clothing and repeatedly peeling them off or putting them on – and looking a minimum of three sizes too big in all the photographs! I learnt the hard way that “layering” only looks good in fashion magazines and is not meant for mere mortals like us!

 

The funky Tees

Well, one of the most important assignments on any trip is the shopping for the extended family that we have left behind in the pursuit of satisfying our travel lust! Aargh,the apparent selfishness of this act makes me want to buy some more, to appease them and beg forgiveness!

T shirts with “My mom/brother/uncle…went to so and so place and only got me this t shirt” which were cute about a century ago, never much appealed to me. But Leh has something unique to offer in this respect. The market place is strewn with shops which actually embroider funky stuff on to t shirts of different sizes! Their savvies lie in the fact that they take orders by the day and deliver them the next, with the embroidery that you want! No prizes for guessing what I got for my entire family!

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Thanks Punegetaways for the click which I did not remember to take!

The jewellery.

Through the week, there was not one time that I saw people wearing anything made of gold. The traditional tibetian jewellery uses silver, wood, bronze and bark inlaid with semi precious stones, corals and beads. From roadside flea markets to shops which store the more valuable pieces, we saw some of the most exquisite craftmanship. Turquoise, which is found in the mountain ranges of Tibet- is one of the most common stone used- in the making of filigree ornaments, earrings, necklaces, and jewellery boxes with intricate inlay.

The experience of shopping in stores is also unique. Most traders are nostalgic Kashmiris, who have difficulty in adjusting their mindscape to the barrenness of Leh after growing up in the lush pastures of Kashmir. They work for six months of the tourist season and migrate back home for the winters.

Once the trader realizes that the buyer is serious, he offers hot kahwa and a chat, till the customer finishes deliberating. By the time you are through with the free kahwa, the hole in your pocket is threatening to grow to enormous proportions!

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The whole brouhaha about altitude sickness.

Exactly opposite to Voldemort and in equal proportion, is the scare about Mountain sickness. For the uninitiated,’ Acute mountain sickness’ is a syndrome caused by the thinning oxygen levels in the atmosphere when at high altitudes. The symptoms range anything from shortness of breath to no breath at all! It takes some amount of acclimatizing to withstand it.

Now, before we set foot into Ladakh, the travel company gave us so many pointers to start diuretics (as a preventive measure) that we started to wonder if the pharmaceutical company was working hand in glove with the travel one, to promote their product. Each one of us had atleast three strips of the drug!

Then came the pro travelers with horror stories of people dying on the trip.

Followed by the Leh airport authorities- who play the symptoms and warning signs of mountain sickness on a loop,religiously, on loudspeakers , in between flight announcements.

We almost developed psychological breathlessness, because we thought that we had live up to their expectations!

Jokes apart, yes, mountain sickness did exist. We got exhausted faster and found ourselves gasping for breath after climbing a single flight of stairs,but that was about it. Over two days, we managed to conquer most of it.

The trick is to drink a lot of water, pop in the diuretic and take as many toilet breaks as you want into basic but functional pit toilets, with your breath held and eyes closed ! A feat which you will no doubt learn over time! After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Ladakh in many ways, is not the ideal luxury destination for a break. It is harsh, barren and basic. But when the holiday includes fresh mountain air (though scantily), clear skies with a gazillion stars and the company of amazing friends, the whole holiday becomes priceless.

These are my memories from Ladakh. Have you learnt anything fun there?

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Picture perfect- a photo blog of Ladakh.

It’s been over a month since I went to Ladakh, but its spell does not seem to show signs of abating anytime soon. The minute I get some time on my own, I end up closing my eyes and reliving its beauty.Dragging the memories out from the crevices of my brain and savouring it, repeatedly,like a cow chewing cud! Ladakh is a phenomenally photogenic place. Even the most basic camera can capture frames so amazing that you end with a false sense of pride as a photographer. Sharing with you, a few of my favorite sights.

  1. The view of the Sangam.
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The sangam of the Indus and Zanskar.

The sight of the River Indus converging with the River Zanskar is breathtaking. The Indus coming from China,a bright turquoise green ribbon, abruptly merges with the muddy brown of the Zanskar. Every sangam that I have seen has been replete with a temple, priests and is invariably polluted. What makes this sangam special, is that it is free of all trappings. Absolutely. There is nothing around save a small building which doubles up as a canteen and a ticket counter for rafting.

  1. Each and every view during the one hour rafting.

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Though most people sign up for the more exciting and adventurous wild water rafting, I totally recommend the slower variety. Just gliding over the Zanskar listening to the rhythmic splish splash of the oars, gazing at the huge mountains, maneuvering the sharp turns between the crevices of the mountains and experiencing the otherwise absolute silence is an unforgettable experience.

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Gliding away along the Zanskar

 

  1. Nubra valley.
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The dunes of Nubra.
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An ice cold and picturesque stream in the heart of the valley.

Descending from the Khardungla Pass, is a place akin to the mythical Shangri-La. You are suddenly witness to a valley which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of natural treasures as well as manmade ones! The grey sand dunes of Nubra are home to the Bactrian camels (or the double humped ones) which were a part of the famous Silk Route.

The accommodation at Nubra is given in luxury tents. Having never camped before, this makes for an interesting experience, though the tents were actually more luxurious than many hotels! What makes the stay great is the view that greets you at any time of the day or night. The view of the huge hundred foot Buddha atop the mountains or the view of a million stars in the inky black of the night, it seems as though you are caught in some wonderful dream which you do not ever want to wake up from.

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My first experience of camping.

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  1. The Diskit monastery.

The travel brochures often show a picture of the Diskit monastery covered in snow. What they do not show is the fact that the monastery is perched atop a huge cliff edge,which seems near impossible to climb up on.And appears quite forbidding. As though the monks meant for us mere mortals, to stay away from its hallowed portals. Home to thousands of monks,it also gives a view of the huge Future Buddha who can be seen in his full splendor right across from its windows. What a sight it must be to wake up to!

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Wonder how they even built this place!
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To get things in perspective,the tiny Budha on top is actually a hundred foot tall, and the tiny yellow you spot across, is the beginning of the Diskit monastery!
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Another view of Diskit

Already, tourism in Ladakh has increased exponentially over the years. Unfortunately, the concept of responsible tourism has not. Hope people visiting this pristine land realize the importance of leaving it exactly the way it is, for others to enjoy its beauty!

Have a beautiful weekend.

Describing the indescribable- Pangong Tso

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There are times in our life, when we are left searching for words to fill in a near adequate description. And failing. Pangong Tso, is one such experience. Whether to call it a lake or an experience is confusion enough. No adjective is adequate enough to describe the sight of it or the over whelming feeling that goes with it. Yet, let me try my best to tempt everyone to get rid of any inhibitions and get going on the next flight to Leh, before you get too old to combat the altitude sickness!

Not a journey meant for the queasy or soft bummed, a five hour drive on one of the scariest and weirdest roads lead you to Pangong Tso (by the way, ‘tso’ is lake in Ladakhi- and I really love the way it sounds, so Tso it is!). Weirdest because, the landscape changes from one extreme to the other within the span of a few kilometers.

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You just get used to seeing endless barren brown mountains, when with the sudden flick of nature’s fingers, you see really rocky ones (the kind that scare you of an avalanche). This is followed by snow capped peaks near the Changla pass, which is then replaced by dusty ones which blow sand storms. Suddenly, from nowhere are green closed valleys with boggy streams, which are home to handsome, sleek stallions –right in the middle of nowhere leading to nowhere! The valley then turns into a grey sandy desert followed by another green stretch filled with half mongoose half dog like creatures called marmots!Phew!

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Marmots!

 

 

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Boggy streams, with the horses far away!

 

The weather is equally quirky- as if playing with us! One moment you are huddled in sweaters with the windows of the car drawn up to the next, when you are fanning yourself hard with the sleeve of your sweater and then suddenly you are wishing fervently that you have not left your windcheater behind in the hotel!

The only solace all through the journey is provided by the driver stopping over at a small joint for some very much needed and equally yummy honey ginger tea near the Paagal Naala bridge( apparently called so, owing to the difficulty in assessing  the moods of the stream!).

Just when you are resigned to watching the whole spectrum of browns around you-BAM-you are zapped with a sudden sparkle of vibrant blue visible from between the mountains. A blue that is so dazzling that it blinds- the first sight of Pangong between the mountains.

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Pangong means “High Grassland Lake” in Tibetian. Situated between three lands, India, China and Tibet, we get only one third of the lake which then flows into Chinese territory. The line of Control runs somewhere in between the 134 kilometer long lake which is almost five kilometers at its broadest and situated about 14270 feet above sea level.

Seeing Pangong lake can turn an atheist into a staunch believer in God. I say this because, though most things appear to have a scientific backing, there are things which are so extra ordinary that they almost seem impossible.

Take for instance the fact that it is a SALT water lake! Apparently because there is no outlet for the water,  and so salt deposits have built up over the years.

Or the fact that though there are almost NO fish or aquatic creatures in the lake, there are hordes of Brahminy ducks, geese and sea gulls cackling around  looking extremely well fed and healthy! What do they even eat???

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Or the fact that the lake even got formed, because Ladakh gets almost no rain! So how did so much water happen to be?

And the best  lies in the changing colors of the lake which very much looks like the shade card of asian paints. Suddenly vibrant blue to suddenly green to turquoise and then a moody angry grey in a span of two hours –a visual feast.

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I can count atleast five shades of blue in this pic!

You suddenly realize that you are really miniscule in nature’s scheme of things, and begin to understand the vastness of the universe! Though there were a minimum of two hundred tourists around, there was such a sense of tranquility. The others seem so far away and no sound reaches you apart from the soft lapping of the crystal clear waters on the shore.

The only regret about the trip was that we could not stay back to see the sunrise or the sunset, which are supposed to be spectacular! And the fact that, at the beginning of the summer, the lake is still frozen enough that you can have dinner sitting on it (if you are willing to risk a frost bitten back side).

Nevertheless, Pangong Tso, seems as close to heaven as it gets…or probably is actually a small piece of heaven that God sent for us as a sample! Truly, the indescribable!

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A lesson in simplicity from the land of Julley-Leh.

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The first sight of the mountains from the plane-close enough to touch!

Nestled in the midst of a ring of mountains, belonging to the Kunlun region of the Greater Himalayas, is a land whose landscape and ethos are startling different from what we are.-Ladakh.Watching these people makes me feel a tad jealous- because they have mastered the art of living in the most barren and difficult of places without a complaint. Infact, with a smile and a julley(which is hello).

To say that the landscape is barren, would be an understatement. There are barely any trees or water bodies around. For around six months of the year, there is hardly anything to do, but bear the brunt of the weather. Children do not have school for almost four months, in lieu of the winter. Travel is tedious and fraught with the danger of avalanches and bad weather.

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But once you set foot into Leh, you are swept away by the magic that Ladakh is. I have always been a conformist –my idea of nature has been green, lush and abundant. Never in the wildest of my dreams had I imagined that I would include barren, rugged, and stark under the list marked beauty! But then, Ladakh does that to you.

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A place where monasteries dot craggy peaks, the sun shines blindingly bright and all you can see are mountains in varied hues of brown!

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Monasteries right on top of the mountains
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Higher than the monasteries are the living quarteres of the monks

Amidst all this, are the people who are so unassuming, simple and endearing. Going around, we found that there are no glamorous displays of wealth that we are so used to seeing around. All houses looked the same-boxed with wooden windows-basic and minimalistic.

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Most food is barley, cooked in different forms-as bread, stew and beer! Most people rely on tourism for their livelihood. There are no mobile networks for large stretches of land and hardly any hospitals around. But going by the happy pink cheeked faces, you would hardly guess that people lived in such hardship.

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We had the opportunity to visit a Ladakhi home for dinner. The hosts had kept their ancestral home intact-built of mud, stone and wood. The house was three storied, but mainly because of necessity. One floor for living, the one below for storing (you guessed right-barley) and the one above for praying! Apart from the rudimentary but sturdy apparatus for cooking, there was hardly any furniture around.

The only excess was seen in the prayer room which was filled with huge masks, head gear, cymbals and conches- as though the simplicity of their life was compensated for, by their extravagance in praying. Maybe because they have to live at the mercy of nature, they tend to invoke the Gods with as much vigour as possible.

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Apart from this world of difference, the basic concerns of the people seem the same. The lady of the house was taking in tourists to support her children’s education. Huddled in her living room, with hot cups of butter tea, we watched, as her daughter performed a traditional dance for us (albeit in her PJs).Her face glowed when we clapped and praised her child’s performance. She spoke about the long commute her children had to undertake to reach school, and how despite this, her daughter comes first in class.

Experiencing Ladakh does many things to you at a visceral level. You come back changed imperceptibly outside, rather deep inside. You learn to be comfortable with silence. You learn to accept life, as it is without frills and fancy. You learn to calm down. You lose the unnecessary sense of urgency cultivated with years of hurried living. Mostly, you learn a lesson in simplicity. That come what may, you can be happy with the bare minimum that life gives you, and the happy sound of Julley.

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Five special things about Gangtok.

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After the muggy heat of Kolkatta, the anticipation of climbing through the mountains for a glimpse of the Himalayas is tantalising. As a prelude to its beauty, we see beautiful tea estates just outside the airport of Bagdogra, the closest airport to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.

Twisty, winding, uphill roads and a slowly changing landscape from the flat plains crowded with villages, to the mountains awash with fresh rains and a chill wind, increase my anticipation. More so because, I have been told by trip advisor that the hotel that we have booked into, gives us a direct view of the “Kanchendzonga” , as she is called locally. I am waiting for an uninhibited view of the mighty mountain, which caught my fancy when I saw it in Darjeeling long long ago.

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Our visit to Gangtok, though a very short one left indelible memories. This was one of the first times that we had ventured into a North Eastern state, and had no idea of what to expect.Not only was our holiday enjoyable, we ended up learning very new things about the people and place, so different from us in culture, but still bound by a common country.

Five of the most unique things which made Gangtok special for me were:

1.The churpi.

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As we entered Gangtok, the first thing that struck me was the amazing capacity of the drivers (some as young as eighteen, but look younger still) who manouvered  with ease, huge vehicles, on almost ninety degree inclines. Narrow roads, which are two way streets and also double up as pedestrian walks, make for slightly scary viewing. Our driver, a sprightly eighteen year old revealed to us the secret of his alertness- apparantely, a weird kind of chew called Churpi. Made of yak milk, it can be chewed on for hours together, and works the way betel nut works for us, people down south! Unfortunately, the taste of it, is not something that you can get used to, and one tiny cube of churpi lasted me about two hours of trying to analyse the flavours and failing! I had to rest my poor mouth for atleast an hour from all the chewing!

2. The cleanliness

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Gangtok is a quaint town with a population of about a lakh of people. The whole town is built on the incline of a hill. Apart from being the only state which has adopted organic farming, it also appears to be a state which takes its cleanliness pretty seriously. Even the back alleys of the the town have barely any trash lying abandoned on the roads.

Where else would you find quaintly painted bus shelters, roads lined religiously with flowers and parks hidden in the middle of two mountain roads?

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3. The profusion of flowers.

Though Sikkim is famous for orchids, there are other flowers which bloom in gay abandon and look so pretty, that they almost look fake. None of the pictures have filters, and  though hard to believe, all the pics are of real flowers. Even the roads are lined with flower pots!

 

4. A new kind of market

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The M G market is the hub of most activity, situated at the center of the town. But, a chance discovery led us to the Lal Market – which is a huge shopping mall cum cinema cum vegetable market cum parking place. It seemed like everything under the sun including a whole floor dedicated to rows and rows of tailors who stitch up almost anything, was available! The grocery stores lined up an interesting array of stuff- rows of stringy spaghetti, churpi, different kinds of lentils, noodles and sweets lined up in neat rows.

5. The elusive Kanchenjunga

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Over the next few days, though we saw the Himalayas up close and personal, the Kanchenjunga remained elusive. Staring hard could only give me a faint glimpse of it, and in a flash even that would dissappear! When you wake up to the Himalayas every day, maybe, just maybe, you get so used to it that it ceases to be a wonder, but I really envied the people of Gangtok their view, if nothing else! If you get used to the view of the mountains, and find it non exciting, then watching the city at night is yet another experience you get to compensate for the loss. The whole hill looks lit up with fairy lights and smells of thukpa and momos being cooked. The warm smells of the food wafting from tiny windows of closely lined homes, the biting chill in the air and silence leaves you in a state of stupor that you never want to break! Ah, for the peace!

 

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A walk down the lanes of history – Kolkata

I have always loved history. Somehow, it has the power to enthrall, excite and make me humble all at once. I think the interest developed because we had a teacher in school who had immense talent for making history interesting. It wasn’t only about battle dates and mugging. It was more like watching a“Troy” or “Gladiator” or “Jodha Akbar”every day in school. Hence, I have always loved places which have history entwined in their existence, much more than shiny new skyscrapers and state of the art technology.

I had been to Kolkata; then Calcutta, when in school. The only images that stayed in my mind out of that trip were ones of intense heat, grime, people washing themselves nonchalantly on the roadside in the middle of busy midday traffic and hordes of people trampling over my feet in the temples. Little wonder then, that I was not so keen on Kolkata as a holiday destination.

Summer holidays bring out the wanderlust in me. It’s a time when I can take off and wander with a legitimate excuse that I need to take my kids out for a holiday. So this year, when we decided to see Sikkim, our transit halt had to be Kolkata. This time though,I was blown away- both by the heat and the place;).

If there was Satyajit Ray’s house at one corner of the street, Mirza Ghalib stayed at the other when he came to seek his pension. We saw the first newspaper printing press of India, the place where Ronald Ross first discovered the life cycle of the malarial parasite, the first office of the East India Company, The first supreme Court of India, the town hall where J C Bose displayed his experiments to the world, Swami Vivekananda’s room ,the Eden gardens and much more in just one day!

It was as if I was taking a walking tour through India’s turbulent past, albeit in much more calmer circumstances! Every road, every lane and every building reeked history. It looked as if the youngest building was almost a hundred years old. And had some great name associated with it!

There is a laid back vibe to the place, which is endearing. No one seems much bothered by the fact that there is so much history lying around.They just go about doing their work. It’s all so matter of fact.Like our driver who says “ Oh, we’ll just take the turn on the road near Netaji bhavan” kind. Takes you a moment to realize that the Netaji is Subhash Chandra Bose!

There is no way I can capture what I saw and imbibed in Kolkata in one blog post. There is so much I want to share about the place, which is an amazing amalgamation of history, mythology,revolution,sport and culture. Hence, I thought I will share my best six experiences of Kolkata.

  1. Visiting the Mother House.

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This is a given, as I have idolized Mother Teresa ever since I was a kid. Her ideology of offering “Death with Dignity” was a major influence on me wanting to get into a profession which involved caring for the diseased. When in school, I was a huge fan of the Tinkle comic. The address of Mother house was mentioned in one of the issues. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Mother Teresa indicating my desire to become a nurse (well, that was my first ambition!). It was written in the spirit of the summer holidays when I had nothing better to do and there was no cable tv, and I completely forgot about it, till one day a letter arrived for me from the Mother herself, encouraging me to take up the profession of caring! I was over the moon, and a mini celebrity for a while at home.

When I saw her spartan room with a writing desk and a small neatly made bed, I imagined her writing that letter to me sitting in that room! It was a transcendental experience.

We got to meet Sister Prema, who is in charge of Mother house now, after Sister Nirmala’s death. A nun from Germany, she gamely obliged when we asked for photographs with her. Definitely, the highlight of my day!

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  1. The Netaji Bhavan

During our struggle for independence,one of , if not the most controversial freedom fighters was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His death and the mystery surrounding it has always fascinated me. With the furore regarding the declassification of his files in  recent times, I was intrigued as to why he was so very important.

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Well, as an answer to my questions, and to add fuel my craving for the romantic, we saw the Netaji Bhavan, aka Subhash Chandra Bose’s home before he fled from India. The two floors of his house have been preserved intact. The bed chambers of the two brothers with their slippers, umbrellas and pristine white dhotis lying just so,give you goosebumps. The museum contains documents and photographs of his times. I was surprised to know that he was extremely widely traveled and hobnobbed with most dignitaries of those times. The British Government’s letter which gave permission for his assassination by two British officers and his escape route from the house in his car have been well depicted. With his speeches playing in the background, and seeing the house intact as it were in those days, would definitely bring out the patriot in any one of us!

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  1. A ride along the River Hoogly

Thanks to road repair work, we took the boat (called the Bhutbhuti)to ferry us from  Belur Math to the Dakshineshwar temple. This, in fact turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. I would go so far as to recommend it, even if the road was functioning well! It was a half hour ride, watching the people on the river bank go about their business of living, taking bath right in the open, praying, smoking beedies and swimming. Seeing the room in which Swami Vivekananda lived on one bank of the river and the small room in which Ramakrishna Paramahamsa stayed at the other is inspiring.With the Howrah bridge in the background, many temples dotting the shoreline, the wind in your hair and sudden splashes of the waters of Hoogly, it is a great experience!

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  1. The institute of Tropical medicine.

I had recently read The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, and so this place came alive for me. In small letters , on the side walls are names of bigwigs including Ronald Ross. This was the place where the life cycle of the malarial parasite was discovered and where Robert Koch discovered that the bacteria causing cholera was comma shaped!

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  1. A stroll along Park Street

Any holiday of mine is incomplete without good food and books. Everyone from the hotel staff to our tour guide to the driver to a passerby recommended Park street for food.The street is a vision at night. There are hotels from one end to the other, starting with “Trincas”, a bar where the famous Usha Uthup started her career. The street is brightly lit, the atmosphere is festive,and  each time any door opens onto the street, heavenly aromas of food waft through and tempt you to go in. Huge long waiting lines outside each restaurant are the only hitch. But you will definitely not mind as each bylane has an amazing array of street foods like puchkas, kathi rolls and biryanis. There are famous places for savory deserts as well like Flurys, Mio Amore etc.

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And the icing on the cake is the Oxford book house, which has a café on the second floor where you can browse and watch the world going by while sipping on a cuppa. Must do for all food and book lovers!

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There were many more things to do and see, but as I had not anticipated falling in love with Kolkata, I had kept very little time to spend. Back home, I’m repenting it and eagerly awaiting my next visit to the City Of Joy!

 

 

Six fun ways to explore Coorg with kids.

 

Solo travel seems to be the flavor of the season. Unfortunately, a lot of us have caught the bus, or rather realized that there is a bus, a little too late. At this point of time, the craving to just  take a long walk without a purpose, daydream and travel according to my own whims and fancies is as irresistible, as is close to impossible.

Almost all the books that I have read recently, a lot of blogs and newspapers give accounts of people who travel and explore places and generally enjoy being by themselves, coming back rejuvenated. The introvert in me gets mighty excited at this prospect because, I really really enjoy being by myself. But the pragmatic side of me knows that probably this kind of travel is only possible for me when my kids outgrow me and when my work responsibilities are lessened.

In a world of uncertainties and with my level of impatience, waiting so long to travel and see the world seems like a gross waste of time. Hence, to take the road often traveled, I planned to travel bag and baggage,with my kids and enjoy them, myself and the place all together. A tall order,but no harm trying.

Our first such sojourn this year was to Coorg over the weekend.

I had been to Coorg fifteen years ago and had fallen in love with the place. And as I had explored it then quite a fair bit, it felt easier to plan and navigate this time round. For the uninitiated, Kodagu or Coorg is a district in Karnataka, famous for coffee, spices and the natural beauty. The district has about five principal towns by name of Madikeri, Kushalnagar, Somwarpet, Gonikoppal and Virajpet, all at close quarters to each other.

Coorg, is usually considered a honeymooner’s,coffee lover’s and  backpacker’s paradise. Despite not fitting into any of the above categories this time around, we enjoyed ourselves far too much. Definitely, we made it our own family paradise!

Though we stayed surrounded by a forest and coffee plantations,this is how we made it one:

  1. Harangi backwaters:

We planned our stay in a jungle resort in Kushalnagar, right on the banks of the backwaters of the Harangi river. The only problem with this being the commute for the last stretch of the road, which was quite bumpy. But the resort was such a pleasure. Well maintained, and clean food being the basic two necessities for the kids, it fit the bill perfectly.

The resort provided boating and kayaking facilities in the backwaters, and a great play area for small children. For the older ones, there are huge playgrounds created by the receding waters of the Harangi, which served as badminton and volleyball courts.

Meals in the garden, watching the birds and the vegetation scored over Doremon, in their novelty value, hence, making my job of feeding my younger one easier and their tummies fuller.

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a view of the backwaters early in the morning
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a bed of soft green ahead of the waters.

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  1. Dubare elephant camp.

Situated about 15 kms away from Kushalnagar,is an elephant camp on the banks of the River Cauvery. Owing to the amount of people who visit it, it has developed a touristy feel with junk food stalls and others selling locally made handicrafts. Nevertheless, nothing can take away the happiness of seeing and touching the huge, but seemingly gentle beasts swaying their trunks gracefully about.

Alongside this, there are other things to do in Dubare, like still water rafting (as a compensation for those mothers with kids less than five, who are not allowed to be on the riskier but more fun version of white water rafting). The vast expanse of green all around, cranes abound and the rhythmic sway of the oars create a tranquil atmosphere.

Right in the middle, the boatman allows a stop at a place where the kids can jump into the water for a small swim  and enjoy themselves. There are also places in between where you can cross the expanse of the water jumping over boulders and play in the water. (I’m told this is only possible in the summer and winters when the water levels are low).

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  1. Trekking up the Bhramagiri hill.

The word trek here, is what I am using quite loosely. Near the Talacauvery (the birthplace of River Cauvery), is a hill Brahmagiri, which offers an amazing view of the mountain range around it. You only have to huff and puff a few hundred steps to reach the top. Carrying a small picnic hamper, plonking yourselves right on top of the world and having a bite, all the while watching the clouds pass next to you is a lovely experience. The top of the mountain gives you a view of three states , one on each side- Karnatka, Tamilnadu and Kerala(Though all you can see is mountains and lush green, making you wonder as to the farce of man made boundaries!).

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Picnic with views like this atop the Bhramagiri
  1. Spice farms.

Being born and brought up in a city makes for a slight amount of ignorance regarding the place of origin of many of the things that we confidently stuff into our mouths. Like the kid who thought that milk came from the closest milk booth and all that. Tucked away in an expanse of green, we saw a small board reading “The Indian institute of Spice research”. It appeared desolate, but on getting in, we met up with a research student who was doing work on growing vanilla. He showed us around huge plantations of spices right behind the building. Brown fragrant vanilla beans, bright yellow nutmegs with a burst of red within, peppercorns looking like a small bunch of grapes… It felt really good. Bye bye, spice dumbness!

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  1. Cycling through the coffee plantations.

They say that you know a place only when you know its by lanes. Cycling through the small roads of the coffee plantations, stopping over every time we saw something new was great. With almost zero traffic, we could stop to watch every bright colored unnamed flower, coffee beans, small bugs and spiders. Houses with chillies spread out to dry, curious dogs looking at us and birds calling out ever so often into the silence, make for a great experience. Quite safe for young kids, as there is almost no traffic. Most resorts offer cycles, hence you can enquire beforehand, instead of lugging your own around. The only risk here is the condition of the bicycle. Make sure you find out ones with the best brakes!

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unnamed berries between the plantations
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the dew finds beautiful places to settle on.
  1. The honey farms.

This was one thing which I wanted to  show my kids, but had unfortunately disappeared this time. On the way to Bhagamandala, on our last trip, we found a small dilapidated museum and a honeybee farm. The museum was dusty and had a weird smell, but was manned by an enthusiastic old guy who explained to us in great detail the history and the progress in the area of making honey. The museum was home to many artifacts and boxes in which the bees are kept. This time, however, the museum was not to be found. Have any of you seen it??

All of the above were really short trips saving us a lot of time to laze, relax and sleep of all the week’s tiredness.

As a mother, it was important for me that my children enjoy their trip too. And we realized that it did not matter whether the tv was on, or that we did not have internet for most part or that there were no amusement parks around, our weekend in Coorg was one of the most memorable ones in the recent past.

Cycling in Pondicherry

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There are certain memories in life which stay with you vivid and clear. You remember even the smallest details of the memory as distinctly as if it just happened. Oxford, UK was one such memory. I was hardly eleven at that time, but it still made an enormous impact. The majestic stone buildings with ivy climbing on to the walls, the mild chill in the air, people casually walking into cafes with satchels slung on their backs, neat tidy rows of houses which looked similar to each other,just as though they had stepped off the rack of a toy store, cobbled roads, and CYCLISTS.

In India, the only people whom I knew cycled were us school kids, and people who could not afford a better means of transport! That cycling would be a preferred vehicle of choice for professors, students who actually owned cars to ferry them back to their hometown and even really old people, was something I could not fathom.The way they locked their cycles with chains to the parking place oh so casually impressed me. And to know that they called their cycles “bikes”,a word, which in India meant a motor cycle, made it sound ever so cool!

We generally outgrow most of the fetishes of our childhood as we mature, or so I believe. My love for cycling was something which stubbornly but secretly stuck on. Secretly because, generally and practically speaking in most towns of cities in India, we do not encounter doctors or bank managers or teachers or chartered accountants whiz away on their cycles for work. I am not saying this as a snob. It is just reality. And staying right across from the place where I work takes away from me, the freedom to rebel against this cliche!  On occasion, I have also had his fear of being branded as a “weird” shrink(I do worry about my practice, you see) if I did go against the norm! I also do not live in a place like Bengaluru, where cycling in super stylish cycling gear complete with a helmet and radium piping, would be considered cool. I would be stared at on the road, as if I were a two headed alien who had suddenly landed on this earth!

Hence, sadly,my love for the bicycle remained in the closet for long into my adulthood. I would vow to myself that, when I went to Amsterdam, I would cycle to my hearts content( maybe, going to Amsterdam would be so expensive that I could only afford to cycle across!).

Till, I went to Pondicherry. It was surprising to see cycling still existed as a prominent means of transport for both the young and the old, saree wearing aunty to an expat!

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Even more exited to hear of a cycling tour of Pondicherry, offered by Sita Cultural center which is a one stop shop for everything you want to do.From scuba diving to bollywood dancing to cooking lessons, this hole in the wall, blue, building which I failed to find despite whizzing by it thrice, is a hub for all adventure.

cycle tour

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And so my adventure started at 6 in the morning with my guide Manisha and a cycle.

To start the day cycling into the small gullies of Pondicherry was not on my agenda when I went, but I really ended up enjoying my sojourn. Pondicherry is divided into a tamil quarter, a french quarter and a muslim quarter. I have no idea what the last quarter of the whole comprises of!Maybe the christian quarter(just to round off the national integration part).

And this is what I saw

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Large houses built in Chettinad style with embroidery like wooden  panels adorning them. These were houses of Soldas, the Muslim tamils who worked in the Portugese army. They were given a dual citizenship, based on which most of the descendants are now staying in Europe, and come only in the month of July for trading in spice. Rest of the time, the houses are restored and maintained as they were hundreds of years ago!

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That the buildings in Pondicherry are colour coded. For example, the Aurobindo institutes are grey in color, the Government buildings are yellow, the French buildings are orange and the like.

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For the film buffs,this is the house where the crew of “The life of Pi” stayed during the shoot.

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An artist’s depiction of how to make the best of waste! Made out of plastic bottles he found in the trash.He also apparently made a sculpture of a huge boat with people depicting how the city was saved during the tsunami.

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Courtyards with a beautiful mix of French style architecture and the very Indian rangoli blending smoothly with each other

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Temples on the roadside with fierce looking Goddesses, not yet open for the day’s prayers

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The beautiful sunrise, yet again.

Huge cathedrals, mosques and temples residing in harmony, with devotees quietly going about their business.

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A bakery with fresh morning produce.

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Fisherman's wharf.

I enjoyed myself so much, that ending the ride was saddening. But as the saying goes, "When you want something badly enough, the universe conspires to give it to you”, I discovered a cycling club back home.So despite the lack of coffee shops, designer gear and Victorian buildings,now, every weekend I relive the memories of my childhood, cycling early in the morning with the wind gushing on my face and drinking tea from the dhaba on the roadside. Fair enough deal, if I could say so!

A little bite of France and a big gulp of the sea -Pondicherry

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I remember reading a quote by Kurt Vonnegut which said “Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God”. I did not even know who Kurt Vonnegut was, at that point of time (though I did google him and found out that he was an American writer!), but the quote somehow stuck in my mind.

I was sure, given my obsessive traits, that such travel was never going to be a part of my existence. After all, super planning was my forte.

Cut to October this year, after six months of working myself to the point of exhaustion, the craving to take a break was immense. With unexplained logic, I decided that Pondicherry would be the place to refuel me. I knew there was not much there to entertain my kids, and that it was really far off to go (around 400 odd miles from where I live), just to put up my feet and rest! The idea was so uncharacteristic of me, that people around kept asking me if I had a conference there or would be meeting my friends, perhaps!

Slow, lingering holidays were hardly a part of my previous agenda in life. Off late, I have been reading books like “Falling off the map” by Pico Iyer and have been an ardent follower of Shivya Nath, who writes a  travel blog “The shooting star”, which may have subconsciously influenced me to visit a place, just because!Or maybe it was just sheer exhaustion which made me travel without anything specific to do, but be!

And Pondi ( as I now call it fondly) did live up to all my expectations and more.

Revisiting forgotten pleasures of watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee for hours, waking up to watching the sea in front of you, listening to the waves when you sleep at night and gorge on cuisines as diverse as the fiery Chettinad and subtle French make being in Pondicherry a divine experience!

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Whenever I used to read about Pondicherry or see pictures, it would seem to me as if the city had a quaint, old world charm to it. In reality, the city is sharply divided into a bustling, crowded,typical Tamil neighborhood and a smallish French quarter, which is rather racistly called “White town”.Strange though it was,within five short days, I got used to seeing a Tamilian lady speak fluent French and Frenchman haggle for veggies in a liberally accented Tamil!

Needless to say, all the tourist attractions and the hotels are located in the French Quarter. Most of the hotels are restored homes of the French governors and other officials, and hence stately,huge and grand.

view of the hotel foyer- complete with a fountain and wrought iron chairs
view of the hotel foyer- complete with a fountain and wrought iron chairs

The hotel which we stayed, was on the Promenade road, just across the beach. Every window we opened gave us a magnificent view of the beach, and this was perhaps the best part of the trip. I have never been a big fan of the sticky, salty ocean, but this experience transformed me! Just watching the magnificent sunrise ( sunsets are not visible on the sea, as we were on the east coast!)was enough soul food.

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watching the sea as i wake up

One of the best things about the Promenade Road is that it is home to most of the attractions that are to be seen! The Gandhi statue surrounded by intricately carved pillars (which were apparently scoured from a fort conquered by by Shivaji, in Gingee, Tamilnadu- never knew Shivaji travelled that far), the French war memorial, the old eighteenth century light house, the Cathedral of Immaculate conception,the half sunken pier and the Aurobindo ashram institutions  all are neatly placed one next to the other on the road, making it easy to tick off the things on our to do list in the span of a day! The rest of the stay hence, was used to explore and laze!

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the long stretch of promenade road
the long stretch of promenade road
The war memorial
The war memorial

The road is off limits to traffic from 6 in the evening to 7 next morning owing to the amount of people who throng the beach every evening! The road is brightly lit through the night and boasts of a cafe which is open twenty four seven to feed any hungry visitors! Waking in the middle of the night and looking out of our hotel window gave me a glimpse of the road which was still teeming with people at 3 AM!

coffee and sea at Le cafe
coffee and sea at Le cafe

The French quarter is picture perfect. The worst camera would probably still give the best picture! Every building is clickable and vibrantly colored! And one in almost five buildings is a cafe serving mouth watering food!

neat picture perfect buildings in the French quarter
neat picture perfect buildings in the French quarter

Back after the holiday, I was reading a blog on Pondicherry, when I realized that there were quite a few touristy places that we had not visited. Any other time, it would have made me squirm at the lost opportunity, but somehow, this time, it felt okay.

I had carved out my own experiences. I had explored the by lanes and alleys with an old battered cycle and knew the best place to eat street food! I experienced riding a bike on the scary, honky,busy roads with my daughter and watching rows of glaring neon signs and really really huge jewelry shops(each one the size of any respectable mall!).

neon neon everywhere
neon neon everywhere

I had unearthed stores which sold old vintage furniture, a convent  where destitute women made exquisitely embroidered clothes, discovered a never before seen insect and watching my kids’ excitement, taken a selfie with my son and a hundred year old banyan tree and read peacefully for hours while watching the sea!

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With Pondicherry,I think I have discovered my love of soaking up the feel of the place with my seemingly bizzare travel plan!

my partners in crime - a red vespa and an old cycle with hardly any brakes!
my partners in crime – a red vespa and an old cycle with hardly any brakes!

Myths are my thing!

The entry into Sirigere
The entry into Sirigere

Off late, I have been reading a lot of books on spirituality and mysticism. Probably, this is why I got thinking about how and why myths, legends, tales of kingdoms bygone are generated. Are these true stories? Or did they grow as tales of strength and valor passing from generation to generation,peppered with liberal doses of imagination of the people who had no better past times than story telling? Or were they trying to glorify these stories just to get a proxy ego boost? Somewhat like, “Though I have not done anything great, wait till you hear about my ancestors!”. The glory of past achievements trickling down into their blood, giving them the confidence to carry out with their mundane existence.

Which ever way it goes, the best part about these stories are that, they are interesting to listen to. And if you are like me, in a way that anything history and mysterious fascinates you, they can lead you into the past of your imagination so many hundreds of years ago, when levitating sages and magic potions were probably as common as roadside cows now!

I first had this feeling when I visited Hampi, in Hospete. The ruins of the Vijayanagara Kingdom, the plains, the rocky mountains, the silence and the fact that most of the city is so well preserved, make it easy for you to suddenly imagine those times when they would sell gold in bushels on roadsides, the swish of the King’s silks as he entered the Vittala temple and generally,the grandeur of those times.

The same with the fort in Chitradurga, where one look at “Obavvana Kindi”(the crevice in the wall of the fort named after Obavva ) is enough to push me into a world where Hyder Ali’s treacherous plan was spoiled by a soldier’s wife with a wooden pestle.

Recently, this feeling caught me when we went to an almost unheard of place called Sirigere, about 30 kms from where I live. What started as a long drive in the rains became a lesson in history and mythology.

Sirigere looks like any common village in the heart of malnad, with one road,a couple of houses,and a temple on the top of a hill.But what sparked my interest was this board:

The board which reads"Pandavas prayed here"
The board which reads”Pandavas prayed here”

Which reads, “This is the place where the Pandavas(yes, the same ones from the mahabharat), prayed”. Trudging up the hill, we found a makeshift temple and an over enthusiastic priest. The temple consisted of a mound covered in red with a trident and some rudrakshis wound around it and another mound next to it.

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In front of the temple on top of the hill
In front of the temple on top of the hill

The priest explained that we were actually standing on the top of a temple which had been buried underground. He showed us a closed trap door entrance to the temple underground, which was not accessible to visitors, as they had seen and caught a lot of them trying to steal into the tunnel in search of treasure! (Only if it were so easy!). He claimed that this was indeed the place where the pandavas prayed last before their exile ended. And that there was a whole sect of people replete with a swamiji (Godman), who had grown on and into that belief.

A stream from up the hill finding its way out of a cow's mouth!
A stream from up the hill finding its way out of a cow’s mouth!

He pointed to the other mound and said that this was the place that the swami took his Samadhi. In other words where he died. But the concept of this again, is part spooky and part exciting to me. Taking samadhi means that the seer would have known by divine intervention that his time on earth was coming to an end. At which point he would crawl inside a cave on a self imposed fast and meditate for days on end. There would be a lamp placed at the mouth of the cave, with instructions that, once the lamp extinguishes(which meant that the swami’s soul would have left his body), the cave would be sealed.  I had recently also seen Sri Shankaracharya’s samadhi in a cave of a hill in Kashmir! Again, this is impossible for me to imagine, but apparently happened quite often!History or fantasy?

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Parrots in abundance
Parrots in abundance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We become instantly suspicious about the fact that we can be in a place so famous and deep in history which no one has heard about, when he comes out with yet another explanation.” If we let the Archaeological Department into this secret, they would most certainly dig out the temple from underground and spoil its aura. Why do we need a scientific body to prove something that we know as true and believe. Hence all this secrecy!” Put that way, it makes a weird kind of sense. Who are we to burst the bubble, if it is giving solace to so many??

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He went on to show us the weapons which were apparently used by the pandavas, hands us a visiting card of the temple, complete with a website, which some techie from Bangalore(who is also a devotee) has created with a detailed description of the miracles which have happened in the temple and tells us about a cave right on top of the hill in which Arjuna meditated, and is off bounds to visitors(but not to him) due to the divine energy it radiates.

 

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Dazed and part unbelieving,we clamber down in the rain.One part of me wants to believe that I have indeed been living close to a very important, magical, mysterious,mythologically significant place.The fantasizer in me is glowing, and how!The rational side, plays spoilsport though. I wonder how the pandavas strayed so far from their course, in exile. Then again, fourteen years is a really long while. And they did not have GPS for sure!

I had once met a scholar who told me that most of the stories of bravery and valor recorded as history in our textbooks and the like had actually never happened in that exact same way. The people existed, and so did their brave spirit, but the story was, in fact blown out of proportion to impress upon the lay people, the strength of spirit! Being the emotional country that we are, any talk of changing the story would erupt into a fight or convert into threats for the scholar!

Hence, our myths and legends have stayed. And grown. And enticed me into their mystery. Fleetingly making me forget that there is a line between fact and fantasy. And that sadly,most times we need to boringly stay with the facts. For the rest of the time, there is places like Sirigere!