Saturday, 2 December 2017

Melancholy Musings at a Ghost Town


Gujarat teems with many surprises for a traveller. While the famous Rann Utsav lets you enjoy the serenity of a vast white desert, glistening under the full moon, Dholavira takes you timetravelling into the Bronze Age. Dholavira has the ruins of the glory years of Indus valley civilisation and bears proof of a highly advanced culture which flourished 3000 years before the birth of Christ.
Our journey to Dholavira started with a lot of research. We read plentiful about its history: how it was first discovered by J. P. Joshi, ex. D.G. of A.S.I, in 1967-1968 and about its status as the fifth largest of eight major Harappan sites. Dholavira holds a prestigious position among the other major Harappan sites discovered so far, such as, Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Ganeriwala, Rakhigarhi, Kalibangan, Rupnagar and Lothal.
We could not wait to step on that ground where ancient men and women lived their life and sweated to build, brick by brick, a civilisation whose progress in fields of architecture, city-planning, science and commerce we still aspire to imitate. Indus valley civilisation bears proof of its trade with Greece and Rome, and the garment, coins, seals found in Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro or Dholavira show evidence that the ancient residents of these cities were well-aware of the cultures of several far-away countries.
But all that's bookish knowledge! The experience of actually standing on the ochre soil of Dholavira is vastly different. We had imagined that we would go there to find a few ruined walls and would drop by at the museum to peer at the famous Harappan seals with carving of unicorns on them. But we were totally unprepared for the magical sensation that was waiting for us. It was 6 p.m. when we reached Dholavira. An orange sun was setting far into the horizon. We were standing outside main walls of the city. There was a deep step-well beside us. And as if by magic, we could visualize a scene: a prosperous town, teeming with people, busily milling around, buying, selling, chatting, gossiping, loving, living, while the sun sets far away, along the horizon, just as it is setting now, five thousand years later.

The city-planning of Dholavira 


Dholavira was surrounded by open stepwells, while the main city centre or the citadel sits inside the city-walls. They were built for storing fresh rain-water or to store water diverted from two nearby rivers. The ancient inhabitants of Dholavira built these well to combat the aridity of Kutch deserts, where several years may pass without rainfall. Dholavira had sixteen or more reservoirs of varying size.

Route map for Dholavira


Dholavira falls in the Kutch district of Western Gujarat. From Ahmedabad, it takes only 6 hours by car to reach Dholavira (369 kms). The smooth roads of Gujarat state highways make the roadtrip a pleasant experience. But it's much easier to start your journey for Dholavira from Ganddhidham, the distance between the two places being only 184 kms. From Gandhidham, it is only 3.5 hours away.

Route from Ahmedabad to Dholavira 



Route from Gandhidham to Dholavira



 Where to stay

The best option is putting up at Gandhidham. There are several options available, among which my personal favourite in Radisson Kandla, where you can enjoy five-star luxuries at affordable tariff.

Bidding adieu

Dholavira contains skeletons of the past. History is etched on the many stones, ruins and boulders scattered across the ancient town. The city which once buzzed with human activity, traded with mighty empires and boasted of a highly advanced culture is now no more. All that has remained of the rise and fall of this prosperous civilisation is a cluster of stones and some crumbling walls. As our car steered round, forming a cloud of dust behind us, I glanced back one last time: a melancholy night is descending slowly on the ghost town. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Agra: Digging deep in history

Agra Fort
Our plan to visit Agra was made in less than 15 minutes. Two bored souls, desperate to take a break, sat together one auspicious evening. One said, “I wish we could take leaves and go on a long vacation.” “We can’t. It’s time to wrap up projects at work. We can’t be on a long leave now,” thus spake the more pragmatic other. I was about to change the topic, when he added, “But, you know, we surely can go somewhere this weekend. A two-day break will do, won’t it?”
And we decided to go to Agra.
The next 15 minutes whizzed by in a blur. We looked up the route map; browsed through hotels; swore at the internet connection whenever it got slow, let out a round of lamentations which ultimately compelled Destiny to be a good girl and propitiate us and, voila, we chanced upon an incredible five star deal!
I did a short jig in the room. Such rare luck demands appropriate celebration.
Our next job was to download suitable music to play on the road and pack munchies. Next morning saw us happy souls getting into the car and driving towards Agra.
For someone like us, with a lust for the past and an appetite for the road, Agra is the perfect destination. Being only 5 hours away from Delhi, Agra is ideal for a weekend gateway. Now, people like us who have already visited Agra more than once surely need a revamped itinerary to lure us on. Of course the Delhi-Agra road was fascinating enough to inspire one to take the trip, but we needed to find something new in Agra, something besides the obvious attractions of Taj Mahal or Agra Fort.
So this time we decided to visit Mehtab Bagh (the little-known Moon Garden which in its ruined glory shows the finesse of Mughal garden-art), the palace of the Mughal Mary and Sikandra, where Emperor Akbar rests in eternal peace. But of course, can any conscientious traveller come back from Agra without paying a visit to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort? Not really! We planned to turn up at these two spots at the wee hour of dawn to enjoy an undisturbed rendezvous with the past.
Day 1
Mehtab Bagh

Taj, seen from Mehtab Bagh
Mehtab Bagh

Shah Jahan built this garden during 1631 and 1635 A.D., as apart of hid grand mausoleum dedicated to his beloved wife.Romantic in its name, Mehtab Bagh or the Moon Garden was designed by Shah Jahan as an ideal place to enjoy the beauty of Taj Mahal on moonlit nights. To read about how we enjoyed ourselves in this shahi garden, read my article on Tripoto.

Day 2

Agra Fort

I am not a morning person, have never been one. But the next day saw me hopping off my bed at precisely 5:30 a.m. with a plan to see the morning sun touch the ancient fort.
Agra fort is a seat of history. The site was originally called Badalgarh. It had witnessed the rise and fall of many dynasties—from the Lodis to the Mughals. The design and architecture of the fort too had undergone many changes following the whims of its royal inhabitants. Ibrahim Lodi held this fort for 9 years, after the death of his father Sikander Lodi, who incidentally was the first to make Agra a centre of power. The fort still has several mosques and wells that were built during the Lodi period. But the glory days of the Lodi dynasty ended with the Battle of Panipat in 1526 when Babur defeated and killed Ibrahim Lodi and pioneered the march of the great Mughals in India. Humayun, Babur’s son, captured the Lodi fort and seized vast treasure which included the celebrated Koh-i-noor diamond.

In 1558, during Akbar’s reign, the fort got renovated with red sandstone, but only to be draped again in immaculate white marble as per the wish of its Shah Jahan, whose love for white marble found its finest expression in the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan built white marble palaces and mosques inside the Agra Fort called Moti Masjid, Nagina-Masjid and Mina Masjid. Agra Fort also saw him spending his last days looking over the Jamuna to the Taj Mahal, where his beloved wife slept in heavenly peace.

Standing inside the Musamman Burj (the octagonal white-marble tower, facing the Taj Mahal) in the purest golden light of a morning sun, one can almost see the old Emperor Shah Jahan’s melancholy face as he counts his last days in imprisonment. 
Agra fort tells a strange tale of love and hate. Aurangzeb’s hatred culminated in the imprisonment of his father, while the last days of the long-suffering Shah Jahan saw Jahanara nursing her dying father with an almost maternal love. One never knows if it’s a husband’s love for his deceased wife, or an artist’s love for his masterpiece that made Shah Jahan draw succour from the view of the Taj Mahal.  Seen from the fort, the misty Jamuna looks like the dim eyes of an old man. And in the distance stands the Taj Mahal, half visible through the morning fog, like a long-forgotten but eternal lovestory. The sun rises, its rays piercing through the filigree work of the marble arches and lighting up the place from where centuries ago Shah Jahan had departed to meet his bride at the other side of life.

Day 2

Fatehpur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri

After stuffing a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel ClarksShiraz, we headed for Fatehpur Sikri. It was a meagre 3 hrs. drive from Agra. The road between Agra and Fatehpur is smooth and wide, making the drive a pleasant experience.

Fatehpur Sikri, as everyone knows, used to be the capital of Emperor of Akbar between 1569 and 1585. In his attempt to glorify his religious mentor Salim Chisti, Akbar built this exquisite red-stone citadel and it is here that the foundations of Akbar’s secularist creed, Din-i-Ilahi, was laid. All that is common knowledge.  Having visited Fatehpur multiple times, we wanted to delve a little deeper, to dig out some more treasures of history. And we chanced upon not one but many: palaces of Mariam-uz-zamani and Birbal.
Inside Mariam-uz-Zamani's home
Yes, you have heard about Maryam’s palace before. Your guide has told you that the palace was dedicated to Akbar’s Christian wife Mariam. Wrong that was! The palace of Maryam was dedicated to none other than Akbar’s beloved wife Jodha Baai. Fatehpur Sikri does have a separate palace for Jodha Baai. Mariam or Mariam-us-zamani was the name Akbar gave to his wife after she became the mother pf Jahangir. Jodha Baai was honoured with the title Mariam-uz-Zamani which means "Mary of the Age" after she gave birth to their son. She herself used this name to issue official documents.
Where Tansen used to sing
Our second major attraction was standing on the dais where Tansen used to perform for the emperor. An amateur classical singer, I was thrilled to imagine the scene where the maestro sits singing mian-ki-todi or mian-ki-malhar—his own divine creations—and carrying his royal audience into a trance. The starry night-sky under which Tansen sat singing must have filled with the magical tune of his voice.

Birbal's home

Day 3


Where the soul of a great emperor rests in eternal peace. An emperor who placed humanity above religion, love above difference. In this world where religious differences have only led to bloodshed, we need to learn tolerance from Akbar’s great mind. He was a warrior, to be sure. Desires for expansion that characterised the great Tamburlaine or Genghis Khan ran in the veins of Akbar too. Yet he was different. His was the mind of a poet who conquered only to embrace. He expanded territory as well as human communion. He loved and respected the Other, embraced difference: fell in love with a Rajput woman, found his best friend in a witty Hindu, got carried away by the divine voice of a Hindu singer.
We, the modern day secularists desperately looking for love and humanity, found a brief comfort in his mausoleum at Sikandra. The place is so green that it soothes the eye. Deer, black buck and many other animals roam freely here. The ceiling of the mausoleum is decorated with brilliant fresco painting. The inscriptions are from the Quran. Fittingly so for a man who understood the essence of Islam: peace.
The inner sanctum where the emperor lies in his eternal sleep is dark and quiet. Distanced from the clamours of outside world, peace remains supreme here.

Fresco inside Sikandra

 Returning from Agra to our daily life in Delhi feels unreal. The contrast is almost painful. It's a return from a glorious past to a very mundane present. But it's exactly this contrast that holds the charm for Agra. You never tire of going back to the place where an artist and lover made his love immortal, where a great conqueror freely bowed his head before the conquered's religion to acknowledge its richness. 


Monday, 18 September 2017

India and Its Ethnic Craft

Ethnic art can add a uniqueness to your home and your own personality. You evening dress, accessorized by a dokra neckpiece, gains an unmatched elegance, and you tastefulness gets appreciated.
There are many shops and handicrafts centres in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai where you can buy such ethnic art. But let alone the fact that these places sell handicraft items at quite a high price, you really don't get to experience the authentic feel of coming closer to the rural artists who give shape to these fantastic artworks and learn the secrets of their craft.
The cultural heritage of India is so rich, that to experience Indian art all its diversity, one actually needs to travel through all the nooks and crannies of the country. But that's surely a near impossible task, given the vastness of India! Instead you can take short trips to certain places in India to get a taste of the variety of regional handicrafts. Read my article at Tripoto to know how to experience the magic of Indian ethnic art at these exotic locations.

Driving into the Past: Weekend Destinations around Kolkata Which Will Let You Time-travel

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Life at Little Lhasa: McLeod Ganj

Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh
If you are lover of the mountains and are seeking to know Tibetan culture and cuisine at close quarters, McLeod Ganj should definitely feature in your bucket-list.
Mcleodganj or McLeod Ganj is a quiet hill town in the Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh. Bordered by Dhauladhar mountains, the town offers you undisturbed peace of mind. It derives its name 'Little Lhasa' from the fact that the majority population of McLeod Ganj is Tibetan.The town is the headquarter of Tibetan Government in Exile.

Reaching McLeod Ganj:

If you are travelling from Delhi, the best way to reach McLeod Ganj is to get on a Himsuta (the volvo run by Himachal Pradesh Road Transport department). The volvo starts from Kashmiri Gate around at 7:30 p.m. and reaches McLeod Ganj at 9;15 next morning.
Alternatively, you can board any train going from New Delhi to Jammu and get off at Pathankot. You'll find a lot of autos and cabs waiting outside the station.

Where to Stay at McLeod Ganj:

People at McLeod Ganj are extremely cordial and polite. If you are a woman traveller on a solo trip, you needn't worry at all about your personal safety in this pretty town. There are many good places around McLeod Ganj where you can put up for your stay. But it's best to stay a little away from the hustle and bustle of the main chowk to enjoy your Himalayan retreat fully. You can check out these places:
  • Pema Thang Guest House: For an experience of authentic Tibetan lifestyle, do check in. Not only the delicious food, but the friendly nature of the staff will ensure that you enjoy your stay to the fullest. Most of the hotel stuff are women, making the hotel extremely convenient for female travellers. The room tariff varies from INR 1,200 to 3,800
  • Hotel Bhagsu (HPTDC): This hotel, surrounded by tall pine trees, has the charm of an old-world circuit house. The wooden floor and the wall panels add to the feeling of a warm cozy corner. The lush green lawn surrounding the hotel is quite tempting. You can enjoy your morning tea, basking in the sun here. The room tariff ranges from 1,900 to 4,000 approx. 
  • Kunga Guest House: Check in here for a comfortable stay at affordable rate. All the rooms in this guest house has a private balcony offering a view of the Dhauladhar range.

Why visit McLeod Ganj 

1. To unwind in the lap of nature

And to experience the Himalayas in all its grandness. From dawn to dusk, the mountains will mesmerise you with its different beauties at different points of time. Take a walk along the slightly uphill way towards Dharamkot in the morning. The coolness of the misty morning air will suffice to purge you of all the cares of modern life. Nothing feels more heavenly than to sit awhile in a shanty chaai store beside a ravine, sipping hot masala tea, and watch the morning mist rise from the ground upward, like fairies departing from earth after a night's stroll. 
At sunset, the vast sky, girdled by mountain peaks, take on an unearthly charm: the snow-capped mountains become the colour palette in the hands of a master painter. Enjoy a cold drink of apple cider while witnessing the colour of mountains and sky change from light pink to blood red to dark magenta, till the stars begin to appear on a cloudless nightsky.

2. To taste adventure sports: Trek to Triund

If you are a first-timer at trekking, Triund is ideal for you. It's a relatively short and easy trek. Nestled among the Dhauladhar mountains, Triund offers a grand view of the mountain range on one side and the Kangra valley on the other. A popular trekking spot, every year Triund is visited by a host of trekker both from Indian cities and abroad.  
The trek to Triund is pretty easy through a straight forward route. Sure exhaustion there will be. As the path gets rockier, it may seem a difficult task to hold your breath and continue uphill. Don't worry. Rest for a while at any of the roadside teashops. The view of the mountains around will inspire you to push on a little more, just to see where the path leads to. The destination really becomes less important, when you find yourself enchanted by the beauty of nature around you.
Climbing uphill to Triund

It's absolute bliss when you reach Triund at long last. You are exhausted after your trek, but catch your breath now, 'cause you are now face to face with a beauty that only nature can create. The place perfectly matches the pastoral descriptions found in poetry---vast stretches of green, with mountains bordering the valley from all sides. Clouds float freely before you; you can touch them; they leave dewy mist in your hair. The sky seems to clear, so close, as if you can touch it.

Tips for your trek:

  • Your trek to Triund should start as early as possible, since night falls quite quickly in the mountains. As a result, climbing down the mountainous path may prove dangerous. Although there are arrangements available in Triund to spend the night under the starts, at the top of the hill, it's not advisable to stay back there if you don't have prior booking for a tent. 
  • Avoid a heavy breakfast. A full stomach will make your uphill walk all the more difficult. Instead pack small portions of nutritious food with you—like boiled eggs, dry and fresh fruits, health bars, etc.—to munch on.
  • Carry a lot of water. The strain of trek will make you sweat a lot, even if the temperature is quiet low. You sure don't want yourself to be dehydrated soon.
  • Wear light clothing. Don't make the mistake of putting on heavy jackets, even though you might feel a little chill at the start of the trek. 


3. To live a Tibetan life

 McLeod Ganj is famous all the world over as the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama. People from across the globe come here to pay homage to His Holiness. From the main chowk, if you walk down the Temple Road, you will hit the Dalai Lama Temple. The temple is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism and also has a museum showcasing the history of Tibetan people: their struggle to preserve Tibetan way of life against oppressive forces, their sacrifices and hardships.
Tibetan religious scripture; inside Tibetan Museum, McLeod Ganj
History of the Tibetan People Told through Photographs; at Tibetan Museum
The Dalai Temple lets you witness magnificent pieces of Tibetan art. The murals painted on the walls of the temple are brilliant works of art. Besides, the Temple sits cozily in the lap of mountains. Meditate sitting on the inner ground of the temple, along with Buddist monks, to experience inner peace. The calmness of the Temple premises, broken only by the sound of revolving prayer wheels, soothes you.
Monks at Prayer; inside Dalai Lama Temple

McLeod Ganj is a little piece of Tibet in itself. The Temple Road is peppered with small shanty stores that sell beautiful Tibetan turquoise jewellery and hand-embroidered Tibetan dress. You can buy souvenirs like Tibetan prayer mat, incense or notepads made from handmade paper.
There are many quaint restaurants along both the Temple Road and the road leading to Dharamkot, where you can enjoy a hearty Tibetan meal of Balep and yak meat stew or a bowl of steaming thukpa.
Credit: Pixabay

Credit: Pixabay
For that matter, actually, McLeod Ganj offers a great variety of cuisines. Foreigners travelling from different countries have all brought their special cultures and cuisines to McLeod Ganj, making the small town a hub of multiculturalism. From Israeli to Italian, continental to Indian-with-a-twist, all types of food can be found in McLeod Ganj. Talking of food, let's move on to our next point:

4. To tickle your taste buds in a whole new way

If you're a foodie and seek to explore newer varieties of food, then McLeod Ganj has a lot to offer you. 
  • After finishing your night-long bus journey from Delhi to McLeod Ganj, gorge on a sumptuous English/ American breakfast at The Four Seasons' Cafe. It's located just inside the main chowk, precisely the point where you will hop off the bus. The decor of the restaurant has a old word charm, that complements the breakfast platter made of toast, grilled tomato, fried bacon and egg.
  • Too fond of Indian cuisine are you? Then head to Temple Road and find yourself inside The MoonPeak Cafe. They serve Indian food with an innovative twist. Try their mango chicken or watermelon curry (yes, you've heard right). They are quirky, without compromising on the side of taste.
  • Nick's Italian Kitchen. Located on the way to Dharamkot, this place serves awesome baked goodies. Starting from waffles with honey to tarts, you name it and they have it. Enjoy your fruit pancake while sipping cold coffee and enjoying the view of Hanuman Tibba from their terrace.
  • Along the Temple Road, stands Pema Thang, the home of authentic Tibetan food. The ever-smiling staff here will always be ready to present the most delicious Tibetan dish before you. Do request them to explain the recipe of the items whose names perhaps will seem a bit unfamiliar to you. They will be happy to familiarize you with their culture and cuisine. There's a Tibetan spa adjacent to the restaurant. You may pamper yourself here after a wholesome meal at Pema Thang.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Bishnupur, Where History is Etched on Terracota

Bishnupur, famous for Baluchari sarees and terracotta artwork, throbs with history. Its terracotta temples are not only proofs of human craftsmanship at its best, but are embodiment of history. The red earth walls of the temples are alive with many stories: tales of invasion and settlement, of blurring borders and interlaced cultures, of royal glory and humdrum life.

Bishnupur, a town in Bankura, West Bengal, is a pleasant 5 hour drive away from Kolkata. The red earth town has a certain majesty about it. When you cross the Garh Darwaza (literally, the Fort Entrance), the main gateway to Bishnupur, you can see in your mind's eye the parade of kings and nawabs and marauding mobs passing through this gate to enter the ancient city.
The apocryphal history of Bishnupur dates back to the 4th Century Gupta dynasty. Legend has it that the land was then ruled by local Hindu kings who paid tribute to the great Samudragupta. Another, more popular, version holds the Malla kings to be the founders of the town. This seems to be more believable, as it is indeed the terracotta temples, built by the Vaishnavaite Malla kings, that give the town its primary marker of identity.
When we, a party of four urban Bengalis, headed for Bishnupur on a mild January morning in 2017, little did we know that we would chance upon history, alive and throbbing with vitality. Everyway one turns in Bishnupur, one stumbles upon tales of the past—fabulous and wistful—strewn languidly on one's path.


Dal madal cannon:

The historical monuments of Bishnupur narrate stories of conqueror-conquered relationships, but all presented in such fantastic ways that it's hard to separate fact from fiction.
Take the story of Dal madal cannon for instance.
The 3.8 metre long cannon is a mighty proof of the Malla kings' victory over Maratha bargis (a group of Maratha marauders who plundered the rural areas of the western part of eighteenth-century Bengal, giving rise to many folk songs and tales about their destructive potential).
However, the notice put up by the Archeological Survey of India curiously records a rather mythical story of divine intervention. It says that according to popular belief, it is the family deity Madanmohan (another name of Vishnu) who fired the cannon and assisted King Gopal Singha in his battle against the bargi leader Bhaskar Rao. The Vaishnavite royal family and the city are thus both saved.
Such stories make one wonder about the nature of representation. The eighteen century, that saw the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the formal emergence of British colonialism in Bengal, seems too modern an era to be a fit scene for cosmic battles. As another version of the Dal madal myth says, it is the trusted General of the king's army who rubbed blue paint all over his body to camouflage himself in the dark and fired the cannon unnoticed by the bargis. It is thought that this blue colour on his body later came to be seen as the mythic body-colour of Vishnu, who has came down on Earth to save his devotees against the invaders. Yet, so strong had been the belief in divine interference that this more plausible story is easily pushed into oblivion. Because, who can deny that the story of Madanmohan's contribution serves to glorify the ruling king's Vaishanite faith to a great extent. And in an era, when Islamic culture and religion was threatening to undermine Hinduism on one hand and the rigid casteism of Hindu society was only compelling low-castes to convert to Islam, it was crucial for the Malla kings to emphasise the benevolent nature of their altenative religion.


Jorbangla and Shyamrai temples:

History of Bishnupur tells us of many clashes between warring cultures and religions. Yet, on the terracotta temple walls one finds evidence of a seamless merging of diverse ways of life. Mythic flora and fauna, events from the royal life and religious stories are etched on the walls of Shyamrai temple or Jor-Bangla temple. But suddenly, in the midst of such fabulous sagas, one notices a block which has a parade of Mughal soldiers carved on it; right below that there sits a British sahib dressed awkwardly in the garment of a nawab; beside them a rural farmer walks homeward with a calm expression on his face. It's all a happy confusion—the royal and the commonplace, the mythic and the humdrum, the ruling Mughal, the fresh-off-the-boat British colonialist—all cohabit on the terracotta temple-walls.
Jor Bangla Temple Wall: proof of Islamic presence
One almost guesses at a well-planned strategy on the part of the Kings who built these temples. The temples might be symbols of the Vaishnavite kings' devotion to a patron deity, but their architecture
also shows a loyalty to the overarching supremacy of the religious other. Or it can simply be a testimony to the artist's attempt at bringing the contemporary flavour into his art, who knows?
Interestingly, while for most of the temples in India, the artists' identity remains shrouded in anonymity, there is an inscription on the wall of Shyamrai temple immortalizing the name of its medieval artist. The toil and imagination of a common man have reigned supreme over the glorious king who had merely funded the establishment of the temple.


Laal Bandh

This artificial lake in Bishnupur is infamous as a cite of paranormal activities.
The great Malla king Raghunath Singha dug up this artificial lake as a gift to his Persian paramour Laal Bai, a celebrated classical dancer. Significantly, it was this Raghunath Singha who had built the major Vishnu temples of Bishnupur in the seventeenth century. But in his private affair he dared to move beyond his religious identity and fall in love with a woman of another faith.
But, the public domain has hardly ever favoured one's individual choices.
Laal Bai was brutally killed by the king's Hindu wife: she, along with the son she has born to Raghunath Singh, was drowned in Lal Bandh. The lake that was a gift from her beloved became the site of her death.
Even now, the locals say, the desperate final cries of Laal Bai can be heard over the lake, rending the stillness of a moonless night.
Standing before Laal Bandh, one still feels a chill. No, it's not the blood curdling feeling of encountering the supernatural. Rather it comes from the realization that so long ago, in times of staunch religious conservatism, a Persian girl dared to find love on an unaccustomed earth, did not hesitate to bear the child of a man who didn't share her language, culture or religion, and dreamt of making a home of her own in Bengal.
The unheard cry that still echoes in the wind laments the our continued inability to rise above petty differences and realize the full potential of love.
Laal Bandh

Other places to visit in Bishnupur

  • Chinnamasta Mandir 
  • Mukutmanipur
  • Kanishnka Saree Emporium, where you can see the artists of the famous Baluchari saree at work
  • Town Museum

Heading home

Bishnupur fascinates one with many proofs of multiculturalism. One comes back from the town richer. It tells the history of India in a nutshell: it is a history of many arrivals and departures, of cultures clashing and intermingling with each other, of the coexistence of liberalism and conservatism and of a human bond that transcends all barriers.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Pilgrims' Lack of Progress or Sceptics' Guide to Rishikesh

Our trip to Rishikesh began with confusion.
I said, 'We would have a gala girls' night out there. Sitting around the bonfire at the riverside camp; humming a soft tune; strumming the guitar with some new-found friend; a drink in hand...'
'Ahem', she interrupted. 'Rishikesh is alcohol free. You can't have beer or vodka there. If you want it so bad, you have to carry it with us. We are going by bus and that too from office, so...'
'Grilling juicy chicken breasts in the bonfire...' i continued my daydreaming.
'And non-veg is available nowhere in Rishikesh. So maybe a less grand plan will do.'
My heart sank.
I am a foodie and an idle fellow and non-veg is my life. If ever i taste vegetarian food by mistake, i promptly wash my sin by taking a dip in the Holy River.
After scaling my expectations down a little, we set out on our trip to Rishikesh.
At Rishikesh


Rishikesh is a seat of Hinduism. A small town located in the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayas, it has innumerable myths associated with it. According to one legend, an ancient Hindu saint Raibhya Rishi practised rigorous penance on the banks of Ganga and as a reward to the saint’s tenacity, Lord Vishnu appeared before him in his incarnation of Lord Hrishikesh. Thus the place got its name.
The town abounds in temples, ashramas, yoga centres, spiritual healing centres and attracts a lot of people seeking to understand the essence of Hinduism.
We wanted none of that.
People visiting Rishikesh fall neatly into two broad categories:
  1. Pious Hindus seeking salvation through a dip in the Ganga.
      2. Foreigners at a loss in the midst of crowd, con men and cows.
We belonged to neither of these groups.
My friend and i formed a team of two, desperately looking for a break. In our heart of hearts, we knew we don't possess a religious temperament, far from it.
Hence each did her own research on alternative activities to do in Rishikesh.
And found nothing suitable.
There was rafting, yes.
But we had to find some other plans to occupy ourselves for 2 whole days.
Clueless, we landed in Rishikesh. Our first impression of the town was not very impressive. There were throngs of people everywhere, and like any other temple town, Rishikesh has no dearth of the Holy Cow and her Holy Excrement.
We thought it was all a mistake, this trip.
We did not like the town (for some reason unknown, both of us had imagined Rishikesh to be a quiet hilly town where we would cycle around at our own sweet will).
We had nothing to seek there, except perhaps some quiet.
We had nothing to do there.
Yep, it did seem like a huge mistake.
With some luck, we found a nice hotel, with a wide view of Ganga from our bedroom.
We went quite mad with exultation.
The town appeared to be not so bad after all!
City-bred and used to being locked inside tall glass towers for the greater part of our day, my friend and i could not believe our luck to find ourselves in a place where we don't even have to step out to have a full view of the roaring river. (One can easily guess my excitement at the prospect of sitting tight indoors and enjoy the view!)
The hotel was near Laxman Jhula. We spotted a few very good hotels/cafes there and ate well.
In the evening the good-natured hotel staff advised us to watch the evening aarti at Tribeni Ghat. But we didn't feel motivated enough to push through another crowd.

Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, but why no Sita Jhula:

With this question bothering us, we started out the next day on our way to Laxman Jhula. Legend has it that Laxman, the younger brother of Lord Ram, had built this bridge with jute ropes to cross Ganga. Imagine, these brothers, who down south could easily cross an entire ocean simply stepping on a few floating stones, still needed a bridge like us lesser mortals to cross a river in north India! North India, i tell you, doesn't encourage nonconformity, no sir! Here even gods had to build and use a bridge like normal people. Taking shortcuts like hopping on magical stones is looked down upon as unmanly.
Plus, here he had to build the bridge all by himself. Perhaps that's how he found out that it's a backbreaking job even for divine beings and coaxed some poor monkeys to build the bridge while going to Sri Lanka. Obviously, the humans, being way too smart, must have turned down their offer of job.
Laxman Jhula in its present shape is made of iron and steel and affords a breathtaking view of the majestic river. Ganga here is boundless, full of waves, and similar in no ways to her narrow and polluted avatar we find in Bengal. Standing on Laxman Jhula, looking down at the roaring waters, dotted with colourful rafting crafts, with our hair blown by slightly salty wind, we finally started relishing our trip.
From there, we headed to Ram Jhula. My friend asked on our way, 'Why isn't there a Sita Jhula around?' 'Come on,' i said, 'princesses don't do such buiding-the-bridge-for-fun activities. She could easily go under the ground. Perhaps she had some private, underground routes to cross rivers and stuff. She just needed to give a call to Mother Earth. Sweating in the sun to build/supervise the building was way too much for her. Hey, she didn't even let fire ruin her make-up.'
But my friend is made of sterner stuff. All the way to Ram Jhula, i had to listen to a discourse on patriarchy, its continuity and history's attempt to push women into oblivion. Haay Ram!

Ram Jhula:

Ram Jhula seemed humble in comparison to Laxman Jhula. Interestingly, here in Rishikesh, poor Laxman had finally succeeded in beating his limelight-hogging elder brother. Laxman Jhula is by far the most famous spot in Rishikesh. Ram Jhula is smaller in stature and less popular.

Ram Jhula

But the river remained as beautiful!
The banks of Ram Jhula were dotted with peaceful ashramas and banprastha grihas (retirement retreats), overlooking the river. The ghats, calm and spotlessly clean, didn't seem to be part of the same town. One can simply sit on these ghats and enjoy an uninterrupted view of Ganga.
Somewhere near Ram Jhula

It was close to sunset and the slanting rays falling on the rippling water created a mystical effect. The river looked like liquid silver—dancing, sparkling, mesmerizing.

It felt like we could spend hours sitting there, listening to the stories the ancient river has to say.

Beatles' Ashram:

Our next stop was the famous Beatles' Ashram. It's an easy 15-minutes walk from Ram Jhula. This place originally was called Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. But in 1968, the Beatles came to Rishikesh and stayed in this ashram for several weeks. They sought spiritual wisdom and apparently attained it here. A major part of Beatles' album The White Album (released on 22 November 1968) was conceived here.
To us, the place was holy. The ashram has 12 caves where allegedly the Beatles stayed. The inner walls of these caves were painted with awesome graffiti. While some believe that the graffiti were done by the Beatles themselves, some others opine that in 2016, a group of 4 professional artists did all the paintings. 

The place gave us goosebumps.
On our way back, we spotted a quaint cafe where we stopped to have lime soda. The sign there promised that the cafe offered good food, music and 'good vibration'.
 We had goosebumps, again!

Day 2—Rafting:

I haven't got much to tell here. My friend went ahead to do the rafting and cliff-jumping. I had to stay back at the hotel with an injured arm. From what i gathered from her the experience was exhilarating. Here's a photo i stole from her archives:
From there, we visited the surreal Beatles Cafe and had a sumptuous meal.

Time to head home:

The trip that looked so unpromising at the start seemed to finish in a jiffy. Before we knew, it was time for us to pack our stuff and head back to Delhi. 
Rishikesh, we realized, holds many surprises for agnostics like us. The majesty of the river enthralls. It has different meanings for different peoples—in some it arouses devotion, in others it appeals to a sense of beauty—each meaning is valid in its own right. As pilgrims we didn't make much progress, but as traveller we enjoyed every bit of the trip. To us, it was the cordiality of the local people, the soothing calm of the riverside cafes, and the excitement of rafting that made Rishikesh so special!


How to reach Rishikesh

  1. The best way to reach Rishikesh is to hop on a Uttarakhand Roadways volvo. It takes only 5 hours from Delhi to Rishikesh, and the journey is so comfortable that you will reach Rishikesh before you knew.
  2.  The ride costs INR 798 per person.
  3. The volvos start from Kashmere Gate, New Delhi at convenient times:
  4. The bus is fabulous, and offers free WiFi (yes, you heard me right). 

 Where to stay in Rishikesh

  1. Once at Rishikesh, try to put up at the hotels around Laxman Jhula. The area has a cosmopolitan vibe and houses a host of riverside cafes, where you can enjoy good food and spend a blissful time.
  2. My personal favourite is Hotel Ganesha Inn. The room tariff is pretty reasonable; the rooms are excellent, offering a splendid view of the river. 
  3. They arrange rafting trips for their guests; no need to look around for a reliable rafting troop.
  4.  The hotel staff is polite, always ready to help you with everything. As we had a late night bus to catch while coming back from Rishikesh, the manager personally took charge and arranged for an auto, so that we can reach the terminus, without worrying about our safety.
  5. A word of caution: there are many home-stays in Rishikesh, promising "mountain view" and calmness, being away from the bustling city. Do not sign up for them
We initially put up in one such place, which we had booked from Delhi. The place is literally far from the main centre, meaning that for only to feed yourself, you have to travel at least twice for 30 minutes to reach the main point which is Laxman Jhula. Now if you are spending only 2 days in a town, you surely wouldn't want to spend minimum 2 hours everyday going up and down a dusty road only to have your lunch and dinner!
Plus, the place we chose was right beside a garbage heap. Perhaps, by "mountain view", they meant view of the mountain of accumulated trash.
Just don't fall for the cozy pictures you get to see in their websites.

Where to eat in Rishikesh 

  1. Our vote goes for the 60s Cafe, popularly known as the Beatles Cafe. It has an outside sitting area, where you can spend quality time enjoying the river breeze. Their menu offers a combination of Indian, Chinese and continental food. Do try their Beatles Special Paratha.
  2. Germany Bakery is another favourite of ours, fond of baked goodies as we are. Here you can gorge on yummy fruit pancakes, cheesecakes, heavenly fruit salads. 
  3. Check out more available options here: