Our little trip to the most scenic state – Himachal Pradesh

Old Manali
View from Old Manali

When I was in school, I would collect scenic postcards sent to my friends from their aunts, uncles, cousins holidaying or staying in distant countries, most of which came from Europe. The intention behind this was simple – to build a rich collection of sceneries  – seascapes, cityscapes, mountain-views – so I could paint them at leisure.

The scenes from the postcards somehow managed to turn into a pleasant memory deep in my mind, although, over the years of growing up and shifting homes, etc. I lost the postcards! But, our world has been blessed with Instagram now – every scenic picture (no matter what part of the globe) is just an insta click away!

Last December, me and the Mister happened to vacation at Himachal Pradesh, and the experience was uncannily similar to the postcard memories in my mind. Snow-capped mountains that reflected the colours of the sky – whites and blues during the day, pinks, yellows and vermilion hues at sunset. The deodar and pine trees helped add the earthy greens and browns to the picture-perfect views. No wonder then that the state of Himachal (Sanskrit name for snow-mountain) is also called as ‘Devbhumi‘ or ‘Abode of the Gods’.

Wherever we went, little homes and cottages dotted the hills, as the townsfolk went about lazily in their dreamy world, undeterred by the chilling weather, or bothered by travellers like us (especially me) starring at them in stark disbelief.

Here I was – chilled to the bone, praying to the Sun God and there they were – school kids with rose-blushed cheeks merrily dressed in their slick uniforms, men and women going about their everyday chores, with just a little in the name of warm clothing. The local fauna too – the dogs, goats, buffaloes, sheep and yaks roamed around like it was their business in the hills.

For a city-bred woman for whom adventure meant getting into a fast Mumbai local and being able to successfully alight (read: in one piece) at the desired destination, I knew I had a lot of learning (or rather unlearning) to do!

Solang Valley
On the way down Solang Valley

Our journey commenced from Old Manali – which we promptly reached in the early hours after a night’s travel in a bus from Delhi. (there are many state transport and private buses plying from Delhi to Manali from Kashmiri Gate).

Old Manali is the quaint hill town one would prefer to stay at, if the idea is to mingle around with the local folks or just observe their days and nights, and not to be confused with New Manali (only a few kms apart) marked with distinct tourist-y crowds – the loud, selfie-obsessed, littering-types. While Old Manali attracts the backpackers looking to connect with themselves, New Manali is for those Indian families looking to cross off their ‘Manali’ holiday from the list of 50 must-do Indian tourist spots.

Anyways, we stayed a few days in the guesthouses at Old Manali as we visited the must-see attractions during the day – Hadimba temple, Vashisht temple and hot water springs, Jogini waterfalls, and Mall Road. And, how can I forget Solang Valley – the most scenic place with adventure sports like paragliding, parachuting, skiing, etc.

The guesthouses in Old Manali offer a comfy stay with decent wi-fi, expect many foreigners, hippie joints, and cafes catering to all kinds of cuisine. A special mention needs to be made about The English Bakery that offers lovingly-baked cinnamon cakes, apple pies, carrot cakes, hot coffee and the likes.

Hadimba temple
Hadimba temple

I feel Manali has something to offer to all kinds of travellers – the seeker, the adventurous, and the shopaholic tourist. A 4000-year-old wooden temple still surviving, natural hot water springs (of which there are many in Himachal) all gel comfortably with the hundreds of shops selling everything from rainbow-coloured mittens and apple jam to dreamcatchers and woolen pokemon beanies. (There’s also hashish if one’s looking for earthly nirvana but the buying and selling of it is illegal!) Take your pick but don’t lose track of what you’re in Manali for!

Our days were slow. We watched local television channels or just wandered off the many trails in Old Manali, feeding our souls at the amazing line-up of cafes. From our guesthouse, I looked on at the surroundings. For every house built with a foundation of rocks and then strengthened up with the wood from the trees, there is a guesthouse beside.

A tea stall owner eagerly shared that nearly all families earn their living through tourism. Fact is – the whole of Himachal feeds off tourism. And, that has taken a toll on the valleys. The snowfall has delayed, adversely affecting the local farming, leading to a sad chain of events, those that are often marked by excessive tourism.

Still, it feels nice to watch life in its present form. Mornings started at around 10 with smoke bellowing out from every house, the wood-based boilers heated water for everybody in the family. Villagers gave their yaks and buffaloes a bath, while I mostly gave it a miss. All guesthouses have water heating and room heating devices but the moment you step away, you start chilling!

Old Manaki house
A house in Old Manali

Another memorable experience was at Vashisht temple with its natural hot water springs. There are separate bath wells for men and women, and wash basins too! (TIP: Carry a towel and a change of clothes in case you want to go skinny dipping in the hot water spring baths).

One of the days was dedicated to Solang valley, we took a local bus from Manali depot and reached in the early morning. It hadn’t begun snowing hence the winter sports had not been up. So ,we took the automatic ropeway right up the summit, to be welcomed by snow-capped peaks and revel in the bliss of nature’s beauty. The mighty Himalayan peaks stood yonder, while I looked on and on and on…

Returning down the ropeway, we saw that the valley was now jampacked with tourists – moms, dads, kids all dressed as paragliders. The paragliding activities did not start until late afternoon as the wind conditions weren’t right. By the time it did by 3 pm, there was a long queue of super excited tourists waiting to buy their tickets, and that included us too.

But, when the counter guy asked us to pay 6K in cash, the Mister was livid. We were already saving our cash for other travel expenses and it just wasn’t right, especially post Modi’s de-monetization call when most ATM’s in the country offered limited cash withdrawals. The Mister requested them to take card payment but they refused. Left with a tough choice, we let go our paragliding dreams:(

But, our journey down was a breathtaking one – we were blessed with heavenly views. We trekked down for an hour and then found a local bus to Manali.

The next day it was goodbye to Old Manali, we headed to the Jana falls, a scenic waterfall in Jana village near Naggar, a few kms from Old Manali. It is a popular picnic spot with great local food and some adventure activities. We stayed for a night in a tent with nothing but a bonfire and some 115 sheep for company!

(Travel is very convenient through local Himachal Transport buses from the depot at Mall Road market in Manali. The buses have specific timings so if you happen to miss one, there are private taxis available anytime.)

We were told that Jana waterfalls is lined with apple orchards and offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains, but unfortunately it wasn’t even close. It was not apple season and nor had it begun snowing – only dried branches jutted out from everywhere one could lay their eyes upon. In the name of a waterfall, there was just a trickle, perhaps we needed to trek up some more.

A giant hoarding with the picture of a majestic waterfall amidst lush greens and browns was the only testimony to the majestic beauty that it was… once upon a time! Our host later informed us over Whatsapp that the falls were transformed the next day when it began to snow heavily, and also sent the Mister some pictures as proof!

On our return to Naggar, we visited the Naggar castle, famous for its ‘Jab We Met’ song shoot starring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor. The architecture is a mix of Indian and European influences combining stone and wood for the king of Kullu, who had some really good taste in artifacts. Now owned by the Himachal Tourism Board, one can check out the heritage site for a mere 20 rupees for the entry ticket.

Naggar castle
Naggar castle

We took a local bus to Kullu and stayed for the night. The city is a bustling tourist spot and everywhere I looked, there were lights twinkling from the many hotels and guesthouses amidst the darkness of the night.

We did no sight-seeing at Kullu but left our hotel early morning to travel to Bhuntar and from there to Kasol. All around this journey, one has the blissful company of the majestic Parvati River. Here is a watercolor painting of the valley by Yours Truly, it isn’t a match to the real thing but it is my sincere ode to nature’s beauty:

Parvati Valley
An artistic ode to Parvati Valley

It was the 31st of December and Kasol was already teeming with lunatics – the New Year celebrations had to be grand. The hotels were expensive and the roads were jammed, causing state traffic cops to take matters into their hands. Also, we had to eat at a dhaba as other desired restaurants weren’t ready to accept card payment.

By afternoon, we decided to leave Kasol and instead head off to Manikaran, the pilgrimage site of both Hindus and Sikhs. Yes, the Mister and me are slightly pilgrim material too! But, the truth of the matter was our collective curiosity in the natural hot water springs at the Manikaran Sahib Gurudwara.

Manikaran gurudwara
Manikaran gurudwara

Fortunately, we found a helpful fellow traveller who was already staying at the gurudwara on our bus trip from Kasol to Manikaran. With his help, we found a decent guesthouse right adjacent to the gurudwara, and the best part was its private hot water pool.  One could lay there bare naked undisturbed for a maximum of 20 minutes, I must confess Yours Truly made the most of this facility:)

There are many stories to the origin of these hot water springs, one is about Goddess Parvati losing her jewels (mani) while taking a walk with Shiva, and Shesh nag, a serpent taking it away with him. Lord Shiva then does the tandav dance, compelling Sheshnag to retrieve the earrings from the belly of the earth, thus causing heat from the earth’s core to spring out in fury!

But, I liked another story – the story of Guru Nanak and his disciples who only eat food that is donated. Once they had visited Manikaran and were given loads of rice and flour, but alas, they could not cook it as there was no heat. One of them prayed to the almighty who then created these hot water springs. The temperature in the springs is said to be anywhere from 86 to 94 degrees, it helps cook the rice at the langar. One just places rice in a cloth bag and leaves it in the hot bubbling spring, and voila, its cooked!

We stayed for a few days at the gurudwara, sometimes eating at the langar, sometimes finding local eating joints outside serving Maggi. aloo & cauliflower parathas, veg pulao, etc. And, we did shopping for knickknacks, the place has a vibrant line of shops selling everything from Tibetan wooden plates and sandals to local woolen wear and toys.

January 1, 2017, we headed to Tosh, a remote hill town that isn’t so touristy (as yet)  leaving our luggage behind at the gurudwara, thanks to a facility where you can leave your luggage for a 100 rs a day. Travel is easy, we took a local bus to Barsheni from Manikaran and then trekked up the simple trail for an hour.

The most magical experience of my life happened on the way up to Tosh. As little droplets of rain fell from the sky, we were busy walking up, greedily relishing in the divine weather. Little did we know that these water drops will then convert to snowflakes by the time we were half way up!

It was amazing. The first day of the year. Soft flakes of snow falling gently all over us.

By the time we entered Tosh, it began snowing heavily and the whole place got a ghostly makeover. Guesthouses and cafes were made of wood and one of them happily let us in. After a hot, soul-warming cup of coffee around a fireplace, the Mister headed out in search of a decent guesthouse for the night. I stayed behind, delighting in the snowfall outside the door, and the fire inside.

Tosh
Tosh

The Mister returned with bad news. The loud crowds we’d avoided at Kasol had also made their way to Tosh to ring in the New Year as loudly as they possibly could. Most guesthouses had increased their prices and there was hashish in the air everywhere. We didn’t feel it safe to stay overnight with stoned gangs, and decided to return to Manikaran.

Destiny had other plans, though!

We made it downhill and were about to take the bus to Manikaran, when the Mister’s prying eyes fell upon a board that read ‘Pulga‘. He had just heard about this remote village that could be reached after an interesting trek. So, we thought it was a good idea to deviate and follow the road to Pulga in the dead of the evening. I say evening as it was equivalent to night with no power.

By this time, both my knees were frozen and had started aching, the left more than the right. Still, we made our way slowly along the only road we could see with our mobile flashlights on. When the path ended, we were lost and looking for someone to guide us. But, sundown is end of day for the villagers who all cosy up together in their warm homes.

We knocked at one of the doors, and were greeted with a helpful set of directions. “Just follow the yellow arrows,” they said. And so, we did. It was just that the way forward was uphill, narrow and paved with wet rocks and at times slippery snow. After a scary two hour journey, we reached the village at the top, where we found a very basic guesthouse. We sat by the fireplace as I tried to thaw my body, more so my left knee. By then, I was wobbling my way ahead.

The night spent at Pulga was supposed to be a quiet one, but alas, the New Year lunatics had managed to infiltrate this remote village too. The gangs of boys and girls screamed till the wee hours of the morning of January 2, egged on by all the chillum they were smoking. The mercury was at negative, it snowed the whole night as we lay awake shivering.

The sun is also lazy in this part of the world. It takes a lot of time (read 11 am) to finally shine through and the ice starts to melt. We make our way back to Manikaran or let’s just say we dragged ourselves, and this time, we returned in under 40 minutes. a trip that had taken us nearly 2 hours to climb in the wet darkness!

We spend a lazy day at the gurudwara, and still have another day to go before it is time to board a bus to Delhi. So, we decide to visit Malana, a remote village along Parvati valley. A shared cab to Jari that takes one to Malana entry point, is just the beginning of the narrow trek to the isolated village. It is a fairly easy climb but at the fag end of our two-week journey, one nearly broken knee and a wobbly walk, I had quickly lost my zeal to trek uphill.

Still, we went ahead, as I did not want to give up after having made it so far. The other leg was compensating for the one with the injured knee. In a few hours, that leg too gave up. We were only 20 minutes away from the village but Yours Truly was supremely in pain, and gasping for dear life, I decided to give up 🙁

We trekked down quietly, again with the painful knee and a sense of dejection. We took the same way back to return to Manikaran where I made full use of the 20 minutes in the hot water pool in our guesthouse. I watched the movie ‘Mask’ on TV, where the antics of Jim Carrey kept me at bay. The Mister brought us some specially cooked chicken dish with steaming hot rice and the day was made.

The next day was a lazy one strolling around the gurudwara, getting our hot water fix (that magically healed my knee pain) and indulging in some last-minute shopping, before we took the noon bus to Delhi. The bus trip is amazing in the day but by night, you are a little fatigued. We finally reached Delhi and then made our way back to Pune, laden with sweet memories, extra shopping bags and one broken knee:)

TIPS / NOTES:

  • Most images are courtesy the Mister, you can check out his Instagram for more. The rest are by Yours Truly.
  • The initial itinerary was designed by a dear friend of the Mister, that helped a lot in planning and tweaking our journey for the best. So, do plan carefully as Himachal is full of tempting places.
  • Take a torch, extra batteries, first aid and don’t forget to wear good boots to protect your feet from the snow.
  • Plan your itinerary based on what you want from the trip – ‘adventure’, ‘soul-seeking’, ‘just to chill out’ or ‘plain pilgrimage’. Don’t attempt all of it, like we did, and end up with heavy baggage and broken knees.
  • Look at the season. April to September is the best time to visit Himachal in my opinion, but me and the Mister do not have this luxury. Our holiday is restricted to December, and December it is that our hearts and minds can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday routine.
  • Talk to the locals, they are friendly folks and who knows if someone might let you stay with them too!

The journey of a lifetime… begins in a tree house!

The Canopy machan
The Canopy machan

The Wise have often said, “a couple that travels the world together, will always live together.” I and the Mister are like chalk and cheese, and it’s only by divine miracle that we are still married to each other. When I say, ‘trekking’, he’ll blurt out, ‘sleeping’ and then emphasize with a yawn. When I say, ‘kulfi, he’ll say, ‘ice cream’. When I say, ‘chai’, it has to be ‘coffee’… you get the drift. The idea is to agree to always disagree.

It so happened this month that we both agreed to make a small trip to celebrate a BIG occasion – yes, the Mister & I completed five years of this roller-coaster of a journey called ‘marriage’ on the 6th of May this year. Monday, the 2nd of May it finally dawned on us that Friday would mark our fifth wedding anniversary. And that it was a hot summer weekend too!

Although I’m sure I’m the soul that deserves an award for putting up with him for five years, he believes he should be given a bravery trophy for sticking by me all these years. Whatever our beliefs are, deep inside we knew we had to make it big. None of our close friends or family expected the two of us to stick together for so long, yet we did it and how! The celebration had to be a very special one indeed!

We live in Pune and the sun is not so kind in this month. We did not want to travel too far and feel all dehydrated and exhausted for our getaway celebration. We also did not want to increase our travel budget via domestic airlines. Our best bet would have to be a cooler hill station nearby – perhaps Lonavla, Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani or our favourite, the quaint old Matheran.

We opted for ‘The Machan’ – a serene tree house resort 17 kms from Lonavla and 80 kms from Pune. And, much to our surprise, we got a 25% summer discount for booking in May. So that’s a Yay!

The morning of Friday the 6th was a busy one, we finished with the packing and tried to wrap up our work for the day, as we needed to push off early. We got into an Alibhag bus from Shivaji Nagar bus stand at sharp 12 noon, and reached Lonavla at 1:45 pm after a slow, not-so-bumpy ride in that rickety bus. Then we headed to Annapurna Pure Veg located right at Lonavla market for an amazing lunch – masala papad, roti, naan, bindi masala, veg pulav and glasses of chilled lassi to wash it down with.

It was hot, sweaty but the excitement of staying in a tree house got me all energized. Every moment was tugging at me badly like a perseverant kid pulling his mom’s saree pallu. We were to stay at the Sunset machan for day 1 and the Canopy machan for day 2, as we were a bit late in planning for our anniversary celebration.

Sunset machan verandah
Sunset machan verandah

The most popular machan is the Sunset machan and everybody wants that, why you ask…you’ll know soon from the pictures. It is the best machan ever: you can lie in a giant bathtub on the wooden verandah, watching the sun set amid the mountain peaks, while surrounded by trees all around you. Or you can laze around in the lounge chair beside. The feature image of the canopy machan is what I clicked when on our nature trail around the acres of trees in the evening.

So, we got into an autorickshaw from Lonavla and reached the resort in about half an hour. We checked into our machan – the Sunset 1 and knew in our hearts that this must be in the list of ‘Top 10 holiday getaways for nature lovers in India’ or at least in ’50 Best Holidays In A Tree House’. As you can imagine, I immediately got into the bathtub though it was sunny at 3 pm.

There was pin drop silence except for the cicadas playing spoilsport for most of the day. It seems summers are mating time for these insects that make a horrible sound by rubbing their legs, and there were millions of them.

Being inside a tree house with the tops of trees for company, is an altogether heavenly experience. I felt like a high flying eagle at times and also a monkey at times, which I most often do, machan or not!

We went out for buffet dinner at the fireside, though the heart was still in my little wooden house. Dinner was what you’d expect at a decent Indian restaurant, and finding the same here was super cool. Then it was back to our machan and back to sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor and just gazing at the view outside. The Mister had already had his time in the bathtub with some wine and pristne nature for company.

I had indulged in some doodling, then some reading and then stopped everything to just ‘get lost’ in the view. the night was dedicated to star gazing. Whenever the clouds parted, you could see a black blanket embedded with a million million glittering stars. I was lucky to see fireflies flitting away beside me, and began to feel like a magician. A monkey magician, if you may!

machan view
A view from Canopy machan

The complimentary breakfast is a never ending spread: there’s  french toast, pancakes, baked beans, boiled eggs, masala omlette, as well as mini idlis, medu vadas, uttapams and tea, coffee or juice. For the health conscious, there were fruits too. Lunch was at the fireside too, it was a shorter version of dinner, very few of us guests had come to have our lunch in the company of the hot sun.

the good life
the good life

All the food and the heavy dose of nature proved bad for me. I began to get attached to the place, where I was just a weekend guest. Anyways, the stay in the Canopy machan was good too – the antique brass switches, the lamps salvaged from a ship and everything wooden was there too, but no giant bathtub in the verandah.

The Mister made himself comfortable in the wooden rocking bench in the verandah instead. There is also a hammock, but the sun was shining right on top. I waited for the evening to set in, but lying in a hammock in a machan makes you sleep like a baby. I got up and began jumping around my machan like a monkey!

The Mister went for a full body Ayurvedic spa massage, there are other types too, while I lazed around in the bench and promised myself not to cry when we leave this place the next day. Shortly after, we went for a nature trail that ended at sunset point, on the trail we saw special trees and medicinal plants as well as poisonous plants.

A tree called Anjan actually stores pure water in its stem, leaves and branches after distilling it from the ground water. Standing around a bunch of Anjan trees makes you feel like standing beside a natural cooler!

We checked out a little while after our breakfast where we ate like kings and queens. The return journey was a quiet one, the autorickshaw guy sent another driver of his, we reached Lonavla in no time, and got a bus to Deccan in Pune. Lunch was at KFC in Deccan and then back home to Kothrud. Our 5th wedding anniversary has indeed been a memorable one, despite the last minute planning.

The journey of a lifetime… begins with a wedding or maybe in a tree house!

For all of you who’ve completed at least a year of marriage, the Mister & I wish you many lifetimes together so you continue to fight over tea and coffee like us, and make your yatra a memorable one!

3 days in Varanasi but a journey of a lifetime

Varanasi jolted us from the illusion we called as ‘digital age’. Every corner street has a cyber cafe, but the famed Banarasi silk sarees were still being painstakingly woven through wooden looms. We were fortunate enough to experience one such beautiful cream-red silk saree being woven in a loom at the Sarnath Art Gallery in Sarnath city, 12 kms from Varanasi; the gallery houses handicrafts, sarees, blankets, carpets, sculptures and more made by the ‘Poor Labourers Buddhist Society’.

We ended up buying three sarees here, not only as a gesture of support but also because they were very pretty. Every silk thread was made of 108 silk threads that the weaver artfully inserted into the holes in the wooden loom, weaving and designing gold silk motifs on the way – paisleys, roses, flowers, leaves all weaved with the help of mathematical calculations and the will to create the perfect Banarasi saree.

Banarasi silk saree weaving
A weaver at work, Banarasi silk sarees

How we ended up at the Sarnath Art Gallery is also an interesting story, will reveal more of it in my Sarnath adventures below.

People visit Varanasi for a number of reasons: the most prominent of all being religious. Also called as the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. In fact, Guru Nanak Dev had visited the city during Shivrathri in 1507, a trip that played a significant role in founding Sikhism. But, the Mister and me visited as tourists, pilgrimage can be pushed for old age!

Varanasi is such an ancient city that it’s been called by many names over the ages. The present name comes from the two tributaries of Ganga – Varuna and Asi that bound the city. Ancient name Kashi was used by the pilgrims from the Buddhist days, and has been mentioned in the Rigved and Puranas as well. Legend has it that Lord Shiva founded the city, calling it his royal palace.

The Mister and me had pre-decided that our three days in the city will not be hurried ones, having us jump from one tourist must-see, must-do to another. We wanted to soak in the city, its culture, its people.

For a city built around the banks of the Ganga, Varanasi has 84 ghats, many of which are private. Our guest house was at the Assi ghat facing the mighty Ganga, with the Ramnagar fort looking hazily at us from the right. We started with a walk across the ghats, after casually browsing through the Ravidas Park nearby.

The first half was spent walking, sitting, clicking pictures till Harishchandra ghat, the ghat for Hindu cremations after Manikarnika, the ghat dedicated only to cremations. These are the two ghats where cremation will ensure the soul is truly free. There’s amazing cups of ‘lebu cha’ or ‘lemon tea’ to be had while you are on Assi ghat: small cup Rs.5 and big cup Rs. 10. You can also watch out for the fishermen with their varied techniques, to catch fish along the banks. People taking morning boat rides are also a beautiful sight to see.

Ghats buildings
A few of the random ghats for the beautiful architecture

But, there is everyday life also mingling with the ancient and cultured city. Along the steps of the ghats are strewn numerous washed clothes left to dry. Men are taking baths too, the water was foamy near them. The Ganga takes it all – effluents, washing soaps, clay lamps, human and animal waste, and possibly some of their sins too.

The Ganga
The Ganga

When our feet began to complain a few ghats from Harishchandra ghat, we climbed up the steps to enter the city streets. Very congested roads with shops, establishments and more on each side. There’s food, handicrafts, woollen wear, silk sarees and an assortment of Indian languages being spoken in the streets. And, watch out, these are two way streets meant for the buffaloes, bikes, three-wheelers and you the pedestrian!

The Mister bought short kurthas in cotton and khadi fabric, while I bought a woollen poncho at one of these shops. We somehow survived our way out to the main road. We ate at the local hotels where the kitchens are on the outside. Rice, roti/puri, sabzi, dal, pickle and jalebis. I bought some glass bangles and an embroidered chappal too, off the streets.

Top left: kachori-sabzi and jalebi, Top right: laung laata, Bottom left: Dahi wada, Bottom right: Puri sabzi
Top left: kachori-sabzi and jalebi, Top right: a sweet – laung laata, Bottom left: Dahi wada, Bottom right: Puri sabzi

We returned to Assi ghat, our guest house, atop one of the cycle rickshaws that form the main transport in the old part of the city, while devouring more cups of lebu cha and bhuja. This is a snack made from puffed rice, several types of grains mixed with a special type of spicy chutney, and not to be confused with jhaal-muri of the Bengalis.

Bhuja is made right in front of you, the maker carefully measures each portion of rice, daals, and heats them along with a salt-sand mixture. Then he filters out the puffed things through a sieve. Now it goes to another guy who adds the spices and the chutney, shakes it all up in a small vessel and gives it to you in a paper bag. This process is repeated for any quantity you buy: rs 10, rs 20 or more!

While on our way back, I learnt there is nothing non-vegetarian served anywhere, except for one place that was selling chicken tandooris. Streets are teeming with paan dukaans, our regular ‘Calcutta meetha’ was replaced with Banarasi paan, a must-have if you are a connoisseur of good paan. The Mister explained that the khattha and chuna used is just perfect for a juicy paan, post lunch. Besides, there is an option to have ‘gulkhand khattha‘ too, the rose adding the royal essence. Here, people were eating one or two, and also taking back with them packets of paan to be eaten with friends (or alone) for the rest of the day!

Making of bhuja and paan
Making of bhuja and paan

The temperature was down to 13-14 degrees C as we made our way out from Assi again, to experience the famed ‘Ganga Aarti’ in the evening. The ritual begins at around 6 pm and goes on for an hour or more, in between of which you only experience a show of lights, camphor vapour and the magic of Hindu religious rituals.

Day one involved absorbing the city and embracing it fully. In the beginning, I was shocked when our auto-rickshaw driver slowed his vehicle at regular intervals just to spit. I was equally shocked that every time anybody opened their mouth to speak, they would first spit some paan on the side. Basically, spitting in public was not considered offensive at all!

***

Day two began with a walk to BHU (Banaras Hindu University), one of the biggest residential universities in the world, after having breakfast at ‘Pehalwan Lassi Bhandar’ close to Ravidas Gate. I must have had the yummiest kachori-sabzi here that Varanasi had to offer. A plate of hot golden jalebis is a must for the sweet-toothed ones like me. Then, how can one forget thick white lassi topped with fresh rabri and served in a clay pot?

Lassi, Malaiyo, Thandai
Lassi, Malaiyo, Thandai

There’s something new we discovered, don’t know any other place that serves it. It is available only in winter as it requires thick milk to be laid out in the sun, at that particular temperature to form a frothy, creamy, all natural dessert, served in a clay pot. It’s called ‘malaiyo’, meaning ‘of malai/cream’. We had two cups but the heart wanted more.

The BHU has many centres of research; students both girls and boys wore woollen jackets over their uniforms, cycles seemed to be the mode of transport for many of them. We headed to the mini Kashi Vishwanath temple within the campus and basked in the beauty of the natural surroundings and the architecture of the temple.

We returned to Assi to rest for a while, while we bought some street jewellery, woollen wear on our way back. The evening was reserved for the Ganga aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat, the main ghat where the rituals are more elaborate and crowd-pulling. We headed to the Dashaswamedh from Assi via a sharing boat at around 5:45 pm. The lighted ghats shone like jewels while we made our way through the crescent-shaped bank in a boat.

The ghats in the evening
The ghats in the evening

Dashaswamedh is a sight in the evening. Five priests stand on wooden stools facing the Ganga and perform a series of rituals. The Ganga Aarti at Assi ghat is also the same, only the scale is smaller.

***

Day three was dedicated to Sarnath museum. After having breakfast at our favourite ‘Pehelwan Lassi Bhandar’, we headed out in an auto-rickshaw to Sarnath, 12 kms from Varanasi, armed with well-meaning advice to ‘not visit’ the city at all!

But, visit we did and it was a special trip. A guide appeared from no where, and offered to show us around for Rs 20, we were not keen on having a human walk around with us in the historical place, and push us from one place to another. But, he was hellbent and later we learnt why.

First we visited the Thai temple – Wat Sarnath, which is part temple and part meditation place for Buddhists. There’s another temple, probably a Sri Lankan one nearby, both temples show the four important stages in Gautama Buddha’s life – Birth at Lumbini in Nepal, Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, First sermon at Sarnath and Death at Kushinagar, Gorakhpur. There’s the Sri Digambar Jain temple too; Sarnath is the birthplace of the Eleventh Thirthankara of Jainism.

Deer at Sarnath
Deer at Sarnath

Sarnath, also called ‘Mrigadava’ meaning ‘deer jungle’, was a densely forested place teeming with deer when Buddha came here. Now, the deer can be seen through an enclosure at one side. Our guide knew quite a lot of things, he has been trained at the Buddhist school nearby, although he isn’t a Buddhist himself.

Our guide then took us to the Sarnath Art Gallery and showed us the handloom, I was given the privilege to touch the silk threads and feel its fineness as it makes its journey into a beautiful silk brocade saree. He left us to shop there, but returned promptly to guide us to other places. We had bought three sarees and a wooden Buddha in the meditative posture.

Sarnath, in its peak, was a major centre for monks and Buddhism flourished in the city. Today the site is in ruins, after being invaded by Turkish Muslims in the 12th century. They looted the site for building materials, while taking away a very significant part of history.

Dhamek Stupa Sarnath
Dhamek Stupa, top: site, bottom: ancient engravings on the stupa

Much of the excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India shows a beautifully structured city with stone-carved sculptures of the Buddha and Boddhisattvas. All these finds are now in the Sarnath Archaeological Museum, carefully documented and preserved for those who believe ‘history repeats itself’. There’s rich history to be found from 3rd century BCE to 12th century AD of Sarnath. Although photography isn’t allowed at the museum, the stone sculptures will remain in your mind.

The Lion Capital from the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath has also been found and restored in the Sarnath museum. The Dhamek Stupa is at 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter, no wonder it was impossible for the Turks to break it. There are many such Stupas in the city, our guide says Buddhist monks face the stupa while in meditation. A stupa is a solid dome structure build in layers of bricks.

An 80.9 feet high Buddha statue was built in layers by a Bangalore architect recently. The base takes you through the four important stages in the Buddha’s life through replicas of the place. Do make a note of his mudras or sacred hand gestures.

Buddha postures Sarnath
Little Siddhartha Gautama in Baal mudra at birth, Bhumisparsha Mudra at Bodh Gaya, Dharmachakra Mudra at first sermon in Sarnath,

Apparently, the Buddha inspired people to do great things, one small layer at a time!

We returned to Assi in Varanasi, bodily tired but mentally enriched with what human civilization had and lost over the ages. We did not eat anything, a glass of lemonade sufficed us.

The second half we decided to visit the main Kashi Vishwanath temple near Dashaswamedh. Kashi Vishwanath temple has an interesting survival story. It has been destroyed and re-constructed a number of times in history; the last structure was demolished by Aurangzeb, who constructed the Gyanvapi Mosque on its site. The current structure was built on an adjacent site by the Maratha monarch, Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.

The temple has three domes made of pure gold, and is heavily protected by police teams. You cannot take your bags, wallets or mobile phones inside, everything must be kept in lockers. The temple does not provide lockers, but one can hire a free locker in the numerous small shops nearby. In return, one needs to buy flowers and other offerings to the god.

Our journey was never a religious one, and also we didn’t want to be late to check out the cremations at the Manikarnika ghat. Looking at the crowds and estimating our time here, we knew we had to take a call. Both the Mister and me decided to walk into the ghats and watch corpses being burnt instead!

I looked from far, the Mister went closer. He saw half burnt bodies, an endless stock of firewood, men ensuring that corpses burnt nicely while casual mourners watched in silence. I clicked one picture, reluctantly. They say the funeral pyres at Manikarnika have been burning ceaselessly, since the first ever cremation ages ago!

We walked across the Lalita Ghat and then to the Dr. Rajendra Prasad ghat adjacent to Dashaswamedh. The Ganga aarti had started at the Dr. Rajendra Prasad ghat, and it wasn’t much different from the other evening aartis. This time the Mister and me sat right in the front and experienced the whole series.

We returned to Assi in a cycle rickshaw, while breathing in the cold Varanasi air. The Mister had his last Banarasi paan, while our cycle guy was also treated to his favourite paan. Nobody said a word, we didn’t return to our guest house, we stopped at the Assi ghat instead.

We sat on the steps and hoped to turn back the clock. But alas, life only moves forward!

Mary and her 3 little lambs
Mary and her 3 little lambs

A good while later, we walked to our guest house and returned to our reality, thanks to the Wifi setup there. I checked my inbox, whatsapped a few images, listened to Bengali numbers on gaana app, while the Mister went about photo-blogging his Varanasi travel diaries on Instagram. All we were left with were hashtags – #varanasi, #traveldiaries, #instatravel but they meant so much more now.

Happy 2016 to all my readers! May peace be with you 🙂

A train journey to the spiritual capital of India

It was just last month, one exhaustive weekday that the Mister and me figured the only way out to give our brains a detox is to go on a vacation. The last time we went on a vacation was four years ago: our honeymoon to Coorg, the Scotland of India. Our British rulers preferred exotic western equivalents to the scenic beauty that was India…sigh! Before British, Coorg was known as ‘Kodava Nadu’ but for the stiff British tongues, we have a city name that’s quicker to pronounce than to visit!

Before I deviate further, let’s go back to the brain detox, the vacation we both deserved but hadn’t earned until now. Then we took a call – a unanimous call to take out a little from the savings for bad times. (Startup life is unpredictable that way)

But, where do we go? They say, “The journey is the reward,” so it does not really matter whether you choose to visit one of the “50 places to see before I die” or not. The Mister suggested Varanasi; I was lazy, exhausted, and too mind-toxicated to suggest otherwise.

We were able to reserve our seats too; Divine Providence was at work, otherwise getting reserved seats 20 days prior is next to impossible. Varanasi, also called Banaras, ancient name Kashi (It’s strange how a cute, short city name evolved to a longer one in this digital age).

So, that’s where we are headed to – in the Varanasi Express starting from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Kurla, Mumbai and going straight to Varanasi Junction – a 27-hour journey across the two states of Maharashta and Uttar Pradesh, not very friendly states, yet the two share a symbiotic relationship with each other both in economics and state politics.

The wait for it to arrive. #varanasi #indianrailways #traveldiaries2015

A photo posted by Prasant Naidu (@prasantnaidu) on

The train journey started after midnight, 12:35 am to be precise. And let us all join to clap our hands for the Indian Railways. Our Varanasi Express engines began rolling at sharp 12:35 am. It was way past my bedtime but the excitement kept me awake. We were finally on a holiday!

Varanasi is a temple town. Hindus visit the city at least once in their lifetime, the river Ganga – the most sacred of all rivers in India – flows through the city. An annual trip to Kashi to bathe in the Ganga was the “one must thing to do before I die” for many Hindus. Today it’s a tourist destination – the ghats teem with more foreigners than Indians but that’s a great sign.

The week before, Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe was at Varanasi – news being he had come to sign the deal to make India’s first bullet train – Modi’s most ambitious project after becoming PM. While Abe and Modi were at the city and the ghats to experience the Ganga Aarti, the entire area was cleaned up of its mess. (read relocation of beggars and hawkers).

Abe, in all probability, has studied the city’s structure and plans on building a mini-Banaras back in Japan. That will save a lot of Yen and shift tourists to Japan. Japan also has signed an MoU with India in 2014, to clean the Ganga.

Our Varanasi Express crossed many important places, I’ll remember them by the food we had there. Wada, samosa, bhajiya, idli-wada, jalebi, kachori and more. And how can one forget the assortment of teas, Indian Railways is never short of tea. The rail network – the world’s largest – carries trains across the length and breadth of India to 7112 stations, but there is a cup of tea for everyone!

Shaam ka nasta #instatravel #instafood #indianrailways #traveldiaries2015 A photo posted by Prasant Naidu (@prasantnaidu) on

How food changes with every Indian state. The best part of travelling with #indianrailways #instafood #traveldiaries2015

A photo posted by Prasant Naidu (@prasantnaidu) on

My co-passengers have been keeping themselves busy; eating seems to be India’s national pastime. We eat almost everything that’s coming our way in the train, and also not letting go of any speciality at the stations we halted at. Whether we are hungry or not, isn’t the question. Every age-group sports a pot belly!

But, what’s a journey without food, and what’s a country without its politics – my co-passengers are reading newspapers, magazines, news apps, while discussing food, state politics and new business ideas. After Modi’s clarion call to ‘Make in India’, nearly every corner street is making plans to make something in India.

While urban India is keen on starting up new app-driven marketplaces, the larger agri-based India is looking at making what else – new snack food ideas! One elderly man was advising a man, a few years younger than him, to get into the manufacturing of rice puffs; all it takes is a handful of rice to make many packets of puff snacks, little costs and lots of profit.

And when there’s food, there will be guests, uninvited of course! I’m talking about cockroaches, but they weren’t there, thanks to the housekeeping staff. The teams did regular rounds of the entire train, back and forth, mopping and cleaning no matter how many times you drop tea or visit the loo, the berth’s were clean and also smelt fresh. After sunset, mosquito repellents were sprayed at the corners. Everybody slept most of the time.

Ready for a quick afternoon nap #indianrailways #traveldiaries2015 #traveldiaries A photo posted by Prasant Naidu (@prasantnaidu) on

Morning Varanasi #varanasi #traveldiaries2015 #instatravel #instapic #varanasidiaries #varanasilife

A photo posted by Prasant Naidu (@prasantnaidu) on

By 4:00 am the day after, we reached Varanasi Junction. The temperature was 10 degrees Celsius – super cold for Puneites like me where even winter months have the mercury levels at not less than 16 degrees Celcius. I borrowed the Mister’s jacket and prayed for a miracle – like the Sun God blessing me with some warm sunshine – but hard luck!

The pest repellents had become ineffective by now. Baby cockroaches had invaded my berth – they were all over the place now. The seats were a mess too. White bedsheets and brown woolen blankets, empty mineral water bottles and cranky kids. My mind was too frozen to mind.

The train emptied at the junction. Strangely, there was discipline. Passengers alighted one after the other, no soul was in a hurry, their bodies were equally frozen. Besides, there was no gold medal to be won.

After whiling away two hours in the waiting room, we dragged our frozen bodies out at 6:00 am to the 10 degree cold city. We managed to get a decent bargain with the auto-rickshaw guy to our guest house – the Yoga House near Assi Ghat, facing the Ganga.

Our Banaras travel begins now, though the train journey had come to an end. Like all train journeys we’ve made so far, it will remain in our memories.

All images courtesy the Mister…do follow @prasantnaidu on Instagram for more pictures capturing our Varanasi journey.

Bangalore New Year and some fishy tales

The mister and me were bored. Out performing each other with the help of Fruit Ninja and other highly competitive mobile games, was getting too mainstream. We wanted to ‘do something.’ Having arrived in Bangalore one morning for a surprise visit to my in-laws boomeranged. The surprise was on us; there was no one to welcome or hug or make us feel wanted, as both ma and pa in law were away completing chores on the last day of2013.

After the epic train journey that we had had in Udayan Express, this was just what we needed. We had the keys to the apartment, so we snuggled in and made ourselves at home. Soon we were planning on doing something, but what exactly could one do after having endured 20 hours in a train? We ended up watching ‘Captain Phillips’ starring our common favourite ‘Tom Hanks’.

Our folks arrived home in the evening and received a grand surprise. The day ended with talks, debates and ‘why did you not inform us’ with the company of some good food and loads of hugs.

The next day was 1st of January 2014. We again decided to ‘do something’.

Bangalore is the city of gardens; you’re always stepping into one garden or the other. But, Bangalore is also the city of museums, rich cultural history, temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras each with their architectural wonder and more.

800px-Cubbon_Park_W
Cubbon Park, Source: Wikipedia

We decided to enhance our knowledge of flora, while in the city. So Cubbon Park it would be with a visit to the aquarium adjacent to it. Located in the heart of the city, one cannot have missed the Cubbon Park while travelling anywhere in Bangalore. Starting off with 100 acres, the park was extended to around 300 acres because everybody likes a little more greenery. 300 acres is equal to 1.2 square kilometres by the way, so that’s a lot of flora watching. Named after Sir Mark Cubbon, the longest serving commissioner of Mysore, the park has a variety of bamboos, imported ornamental trees, a toy train and many historical monuments.

It is New Year day and the whole of Bangalore had made similar plans. After having braved the traffic jams and changing two buses, we arrived at Cubbon Park to realise that sightseeing 300 acres of flora with nearly 300 thousand people is not a fun way to start off 2014.

So we started with the aquarium located at the entrance gate to the park. The Bangalore Aquarium, as it is called, is the second largest in the country. Surprisingly, it wasn’t crowded so I could have all the fun with the fishes. I was all excited like a kid who visits an aquarium for the first time.

I don’t know how to describe this but the second largest aquarium in the country had me disappointed. Some of the tanks were empty, while some of them had their labels torn. Most of the fishes have lived in these artificial environments for so many years that they do not have a motive left to explore it anymore. They don’t bother to swim across the next manmade underwater cave to meet with their friends.

But, there was one enthusiastic guy that I fell in love with. He went up and down his little tank frantically looking for something – worms perhaps. Or maybe he has a story of a lost love. Maybe she was taken to another tank, we would never know.

Sadly, his label was pulled off so I might not be able to identify his species. To the discerning fish buff, the bulging eyes are a clear giveaway though. Here’s a little video shoot of the smarty:

We then decided to skip the Cubbon Park for another day when it is less crowded.

The second day of the year, we visited the Lal Baug botanical garden spread across 240 acres in the southern part of the city. Both of these were being managed by the horticulture department of the state who are fairly good at their jobs. The floral clock works but the aquarium is defunct. For a nature enthusiast especially of flora, the garden is a treasure house.

Most of the trees are more than a hundred years old and being near them makes you feel like a child under the care of loving elders. I can’t describe the contentment we returned with. It will always remain like a beautiful memory within us.

Butterfly garden Bangalore
Butterfly garden, Bangalore

So the Google search for ‘exciting places to visit in bangalore’ served us well indeed! Hope you too visit places in your city and discover the beauty hidden in its hustle and bustle.

The last epic train journey of 2013

indian-railway-electric-engine-at-khandala

India is a densely populated country. I bet you know that and have a very own personal experience to vouch for, for if you’re living in this country other than the remotest towns lying strewn across the bosom of the Himalayas, you sure have been magically transported from point A to point B through the Great Indian Railway Network at least once in your life.

I live in the Queen of the Deccan, Pune – the twin city of the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, and often travel by trains. I’m travelling on one right now – the Pune-Bangalore Udayan Express and do not have many better things to do, other than observe this cacophony called co-passengers. This is my last train journey of 2013 and it seems to be as epic as the ones before.

Trains form the lifeline of this country. With over a billion and another 270 million people travelling across the length and breadth of this country, the Indian Railways sure deserves a pat on its back, or rather it’s amazing maze of rails that work in clockwork precision. Thanks to the British rule, this is one system that works at sigma level 4 to 6, depending on the assorted group of passengers it is dealing with.

Right now my Udayan Express is dealing with an assortment of passengers from all corners of Pune. The noon sun isn’t kind either. The Express train has just overcome a massive panic attack. Passengers have invaded it from each of its doors and windows. And most of them haven’t even bothered to reserve their seats. But, that goes because in India just about anything goes.

The ticket checker is working hard to ensure this. After securing a cancelled seat for his daughter, he goes about allotting vacant seats to the hundreds of distressed souls moving helter skelter inside the express train. (It doesn’t move like one though!) And by the way, I also learnt that TCs have a special quota reserved for their sons and daughters. And, there are free meals for them too!

There’s more going on –

There are guys selling ‘thanda pani bottles’ (read empty mineral water bottles refilled at the railway drinking water tap). Remember – anything goes? This isn’t adulteration; it’s called ‘innovation’ and it is a thriving business in a tropical country like ours.

Some guys making the rounds are selling everything from safety pins to recycled tea/coffee/meals to metal chains for anchoring your luggage to your seat. They want to make the most sales in these 20 hours, by whatever means possible, even if it means scaring you enough to buy it.

Even more interesting to observe are my co-passengers. There’s a party of colourful people returning from a wedding. I know because the women’s palms are smothered with intricate mehendi designs, and the men are carrying in all the booty. For starters, there are endless boxes of fragile porcelain, just what the doctor prescribed to carry on a jam packed passenger train.

The cartons say ‘Handle with care’ and the party has been fighting tooth and nail to handle them with care. There are tea cups, saucers and a teapot in one box. There are dinner plates, bowls, and casseroles in another. I read the branded labels on the other carton boxes  – XYZ air freshener, LMN microwave, PQR cooking range, UVW cooler and EFG something something . If all this was not enough, there is a carton of possibly fifty 200 gm packets of unopened potato wafers too. Some poor soul has been fleeced at the wedding.

Plus there has been a scene at the wedding; I can tell for sure. One of the young lad has a bandage across his wrists and is also making gigantic efforts at standing on his feet. Nobody is bothered a teeny bit though.

And then there is the ‘distinctive’ ubiquitous fragrance of the Indian Railways emanating from each and every nook and cranny of the express. Food mixed with poop or is that pee, I don’t know nor do I care. The family beside with the know-it-all mom, the errand-boy dad, their darling daughter and her super irritating little toddler, are also adding their distinctive smells to it. A floral perfumed hand spray goes foosh foosh on each of their palms every one hour. The combination is lethal. My olfactory senses have been deadened by now.

And, let’s not talk about my auditory senses. The darling daughter with her high-pitched voice has successfully managed to out-perform the many wheels chugging along the rails. Her know-it-all mom has been giving her a piece of advice on ‘how you should not disturb your co-passengers’ while being completely oblivious of the noise pollution she has been spreading around. The only adult male has visibly surrendered to these female forces. Life goes on as they discuss what’s wrong with the State Railway Minister.

Evening has arrived and we are now waiting at the Gulbarga train station, the letters of the language are rounded now; we’ve crossed Maharashtra and are now at Karnataka. The telecom service providers are always happy to welcome passengers in roaming, aren’t they? All of us receive welcome SMS’s from our delighted service providers.

Talking about my co-passengers, there’s also a trio of boys who are dead bored. I guess they could do with a real Temple Run 2 kinda adventure right now. They’ve been talking all the time and wondering what the hell am I typing away on my laptop!

I am thankful to this last moment tatkal quota ticket the agent could get us in the sleeper class, because nowhere else could I have had experienced such an epic journey at the end of the year. I consider myself the chosen one. In fact the mister and me are equal in status of being the chosen ones.

Here’s to more epic train journeys in 2014. Cheers!

Image courtesy: Amit Kulkarni