The Khirsu Air

View from FRH Khirsu

View from FRH Khirsu

Living in cities for decades has led to acclimatization of our lungs to the right  but obnoxious mix of dust and diesel laden air. The two poor honeycombed twins lying in our body in their yearn to keep us alive, continue to perform drudgery of chugging along with whatever black soot air they can get in. In fact our body as whole gets accustomed to all this and forgets the meaning of fresh air.

Forest Rest House, Khirsu

Forest Rest House, Khirsu

This forced monotony of my body was broken recently at 6300 feet above sea level. I had reached the town of Khirsu, 20 km from the district headquarter of Pauri. Travelling all the way from Dehradun post lunch, we had reached quite late in the evening and by the time we checked in the forest rest house built 102 years ago, there was darkness around. However even in this darkness I could smell a different air. This air was unlike anything my lungs had been accustomed too. The woody smell of Deodar(Cedrus Deodara) and Oak(Quercus ellipsoidalis) was so fresh and so rejuvenating that I could think of doing nothing except deep-breathing in pure, fresh and full of life oxygen. It was an unique experience and I was just smiling with closed eyes at my luck to be there. I was feeling charged up and lighter. We retired to bed after an early dinner and decided to go for a walk in the early morning to get more of the feel of this great place.

The chirping af birds awoke me early in the morning without the help of my mobile alarm. I stepped out in the open varandah of guest house to see the huge trees of deodar, just in front of the lawn. The trees were huge  and were in likelihood, planted at the start of construction of primarily a wooden guest house, a century ago. The break of dawn also meant a reddish sky visible beautifully. The scenery was perfect picture postcard.

Dawn at Khirsu

Dawn at Khirsu

The birds too were out in lawn and few of them were perched at the roof of at the guest house. There were lot many sun birds in particular as these birds are seen normally at this time only.

The early riser

The early riser

I moved little away from the guest house and was amazed to see the Himalayas from a vantage point. The Chaukhamba peak was quite noticeable despite the morning haze in this pre-rain season. The view nevertheless was enchanting and sort of detoxifying.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas

I continued to walk along the road for some distance and from a turning corner of the hilly road, had a perfect view of  hilly stepped up fields. They looked perfectly pedicured and manured actually. I was really happy with my morning excursion now as in the short span of rising in the morning apart from filling my lungs with life rejuvenating fresh air, I had been able to witness the finest of hill scenery which was fresh and pristine in that fine morning. Khirsu is like those perfect scenic places where you can spend your entire life in most simple manner. If you could also write a book here, nothing better than that.

The Hill Fields

The Hill Fields

Ahilya Bai Ghats of Maheshwar

Ahilyabai Ghats

Ahilyabai Ghats

The ancient town of Maheshwar is situated on the banks of river Narmada. This present day small town(part of district Khargon in Madhya Pradeah) was once the capital city of Maratha Holkar Kings till 1818. The town was known as Mahishmati in ancient times and was capital city of Southern Avanti. King Sahashrarjun or king with 1000 arms, is said to have ruled from here in ancient times. Great Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar also ruled from Maheshwar for 30 years. The town presently is also famous for it’s Maheshawari Sarees.

View of Ghats from Fort

View of Ghats from Fort

I got a chance to visit the city on my recent trip to Madhya Pradesh with my friend and his family. As we reached Maheshwar in the evening, we decided first to visit the famed Ahilyabai ghats of Maheshwar. The path to ghats goes via many temples like Rajrajeshwar. We took steps downwards from there and reached the ghats soon. The ghats here are quite wide and you can relax by sitting on the ghats. The gentle breeze that blows towards ghats in the evening is really so soothing and de stressing that you will feel rejuvenated just by sitting there.DSC_5540

We decided to take a boat ride to glance closely towards the ghats in the lights of late evening. The sun had just gone down the horizon and the electric lights were just then put on. While I was looking at Ghats from boats, I found the ghats so enchanting and illuminating that I got hold of my camera and clicked few pictures to preserve those moments for ever. It was a bliss actually to be at Ahilyabai Ghats that evening.FullSizeRender_2 (5) DSC_5568

Inside a Jaunsari Village

Koti Kanasar Village

Koti Kanasar Village in Jaunsar

Approaching Chakrata from Dehradun, just as you cross river stream at Kalsi, you enter one of the scheduled tribal area of India, called as Jaunsar region. This region is home to Jaunsari tribes, who trace themselves to Pandavas. On a recent trip to Chakrata, we decided to see a Jaunsari village-Koti Kanasar, our selves. The village is set in a beautiful Himalyan surrounding and in present times has roads, electricity and other modern amenities.

EcoGuide Explaining

Eco-Guide Explaining

To get the real feel, we decided to do first trek down from FRK Kanasar to village located down below and then, did a village-walk with help of one Eco-tourism volunteer, Mr Negi. Few houses in the village were centuries old and we were really impressed by the neat functional designs of those houses. While the lower floors were used for live stocks etc, the upper ones were used for families. These houses built from locally available stones, earth and wood material have withstood the test of times for over a century.

A traditional Jaunsari House

A traditional Jaunsari House

Local House

Local House

The villagers living here are of course like all of us but traditions they follow are slightly different. In Jaunsar region, it is matriarchal society in many villages and wome practised polyandry also. The caste system is also stronger with Brahmans and Kshatriyas at the apex of social hierarchy. They believe in propitiating their local Gods and don’t mind spending  a big portion of their earnings in month long local religious festivals. The serving of wine and meat is almost mandatory. In village Koti-Kanasar, next year that is in 2016, Chalada Bhagwan in his microcosm avatar will visit and villagers will observe all rituals including vacating the best house for God to reside. During our walk we witnessed the local collective practices of spice grinding and clothes washing. We also witnessed the early flowering of apple trees.

Apple Flowering

Apple Flowering

To protect the unique identity of the region, the governments over the years have tried to protect the area and it’s inhabitants with reservations in jobs and education at par with scheduled tribes to all residents of 250 odd Gram Panchayats, irrespective of their local caste or status. Thus even Brahmans get reservations as STs if they are from Jaunsar region. There are restrictions also on purchase of land here by outsiders. This has helped to prevent undue intervention from outside and preservation of local culture and heritage. Our visit to village gave us an opportunity to interact with local villagers and boys and girls. Few of them were keen to get photographed and we obviously were happy to share frame with them.

The Jaunsari Boys

The Jaunsari Boys

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Boys With Us

The visit to village ended soon but not before kids had polished of some bowls of hot noodles prepared at a local village tea shop. The elders had  hot tea with buns. Sitting in that small shop, I was looking at distant mountains and was thinking that, what an amazing, diverse and incredible country, India is.

The visit to Koti-Kanasar ended with an interface with world’s thickest Deodar tree. The perimeter of this tree is 6.35 meters that is more than 20 feet and the tree is said to be more than 400 years old.

The Mammoth Deodar Tree

The Mammoth Deodar Tree

The Imagica and I-thrill at 43

final_imagica_compositeThe adrenalin pumping thrill rides of a theme park are not for faint-heart and for a 43+ years old like me. I learned this only recently, but only after screaming from the deepest depths of my throat during my maiden visit to the Adlabs Imagica theme park situated at Khalapar, along the scenic Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The theme park spread over 300 acres of rugged terrain was inaugurated in 2013 and boasts of the top of the class international standard rides available in India. On a recent trip to Pune, I was literally, duped into visiting this park. I was told by my kids, that this park, was only like few other adventure parks, I had been to, and that I was young enough to enjoy the fun rides. I had been to one such theme park; Esselword, near Mumbai, but that was 12 years ago, in 2003. I thought or I should admit, that I overestimated myself. The hubris in me, that I had the zing thing in me to enjoy rides at Imagica, caught me at the wrong foot. So, one fine morning I traveled all the way up to this place from Pune.

At Imagica

At Imagica

The first ride I drove into was, Nitro. It is a roller coaster ride on patterns of big amusement parks worldwide. It carries 24 pax at a time. I too sat in it. It started by trudging up the trolley slowly to a good height to gain momentum, but hell was let loose after that. It was running almost at the escape velocity. The pressure on my tummy and shoulders was unbearable, as the upside turning and twirling ride hangs you in air like anything, literally. I started to scream, to move away my mind from a sinking heart. While every body else, and kids in particular would have thought that I was enjoying, I was cursing myself for that self inflicted punishment. I did not want to learn Physics this way for sure. Don’t trust me? Just see the picture below.

Nitro Ride

Nitro Ride

I took a deep breath, after emerging alive out of this. I decided not to come any near, this ride in the remaining part of the day and cajoled my kids to other rides, which I thought, might be gentler. I reached out for ‘Dare To Drop’ ride after seeing few children doing it. It was again a big mistake. In this ride using big hydraulic machines they create pressure and then shoot you up and down like a half volley in a tennis match. I prayed God from that exalted height, believing God was closer to me at that great height and some how managed to land back safely. I was facing one unique problem in all these rides that, the safety gear and locking handles in all these rides were not for a wide-tummied mammal like me and I was almost pressing the locking handle too close to my body, to prevent slippage from those thrill spewing  machines. I had to still hold it tight close to me.

Dare To Drop Ride

Dare To Drop Ride

I decided to beat a hasty retreat from this ride too and landed now at Gold Rush Ride. This ride on the lines of Indiana Jones rides of Disneyland at Paris, was no less thrilling, and for me, no less threatening. I somehow managed to come out of this too, alive once more. I gulped few ounces of water and decided to go for kinder rides only. I reached out to queue for a very gentle looking ‘Tubby Takes Off’. It was appearing the smoothest, but kids preempting this kiddish ride broke away from the queue midway and galloped towards other riskier ones. I had to follow them.We now landed at ‘Rajasaurus Ride’.rajasaurus-river-adventure-is-a-clone-of-universals-jurassic-park-ride-big

The notice outside the ride was that, it was not for weak hearts and for persons with medical conditions. My problem was that, I could not say, no to my kids, or that I was a weak heart. Therefore, against my instincts, decided to follow my kids to the ride. This ride is about a journey in a boat, through the ancient inundated world when Dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes roamed the planet. The highlight of the ride was the final fall of the boat from a big height into water below. As, the boat got readied for fall, I inhaled as much Oxygen, as I could and closed my eyes too. The boat slided into the water with ferocity and I landed with a thud sound of the boat into the water.Adlabs Imagica - Rajasaurus River Adventure (1)

I was alive, still. I just thought of running away from the park, but my kids would not allow me that even. I was feeling hungry and exhausted, but the kids were not interested in any food. They wanted to make a kill with the rides alone. I was having a bad time really and a prisoner of circumstances really.

The Hostage Me

The Hostage Me

The next destination was the ‘Wild West Mine Ride’. The ride is combination of high quality video game plus edge of the seat movement through a motorized platform. The ride was a good fun and was the most gentle ride till now. I came out smiling from the ride, for the first time.IMG_5064

The smile on my face lasted only till I entered the ‘Deep Space Ride’. This ride gets you through the dark secrets of space in a darkened environment. To much of my horror, my son forced me to sit in the front row. I closed my eyes and once gain inhaled the maximum oxygen, I could. Once the ride started, I knew that it was my biggest mistake. This ride twisted my body and paunch in all possible ways and that I am still alive and sharing with you my ordeal, is a miracle only.

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Deep Space Ride

The next in line was the ‘Mr India’, or we should say, ‘Mr Mogambo’-the eponymous villain of Bollywood movie, Mr India. This ride was a smooth one as it was an interactive video gaming with a moving platform, on which we were seated. It created illusion of navigating through the Imagica park, during struggle  to save the children from the clutches of a sickening Mogambo.

Mr India Ride

Mr India Ride

I, then moved on to a well deserved lunch break. While usually it’s the children who would demand food in the parks, here I was one who was demanding food. They were enjoying for sure and wanted nothing to come in between. I smiled at their enthusiasm and at the amount of energy they had to run across all corners of the park, to enjoy one ride after another. A few rides were repeated and I had to be literally dragged in to few, by the kids. I refused point blank, though on one ride-Scream. This was the real scary ride and later I heard stories about too many persons vomiting on this ride every time it flew past to extreme.

The Scariest, Scream

The Scariest, Scream

While I was scared for myself, I was nonetheless happy at the exuberance of the kids, in reaching out to all rides. They were having a great time of their life. I had lost my hubris but was still smiling,  just for the one great day in the life of three noble souls. Coming out of the park, I did not let go the opportunity to be clicked in front of the alphabet logo of the Imagica. I smiled finally and came out of the park, in one piece.

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The Tiger and the Sardar!

 

 

04_wolfgang_weber_charging_tigerThe most sought after ‘thing’ for any tourist visiting Dudhwa national park or for that matter any other forest national park, is undoubtedly to sight a tiger in its natural surroundings. The park may have a wide range of flora and fauna and some of which may be even rarer to sight than a tiger. But what all eyes yearn for most, is the direct sight of the Jungle king, the Royal Bengal Tiger(Panthera Tigris Tigris) undoubtedly the most handsome, the most beautiful and the most graceful animal of the jungle. But it is also the most deadly of them all and if it decides to give you back a stare, you will know what is fear actually. Tiger being a shy animal, not many visitors to a national park can claim to have an audience with the king and out of those who had the luck of life time to sight a tiger outside zoos, not all have enjoyed it. In fact many have cursed themselves on being ‘lucky’ to see the tiger and few of them have had the embarrassment of the lifetime. Being posted as a SDM in the area of Dudhwa National Park, I have been privy to few such stories.

The Park Entrance

The Park Entrance

Dudhwa National Park spread over 490 sq km and located on Indo-Nepal border in district Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh is one of the prominent habitat of Royal Bengal Tiger in India. It is also famous for its one horned rhinoceros, swamp deer, crocodiles, Bengal Florican. It was declared as a national park in 1987, but the area around park is inhabited with no fenced boundaries. This leads to frequent man-animal conflicts. The tiger naturally being a shy animal avoids the humans, but over the years the tigers have been lesser shy and some times don’t think twice before giving a charge to those who crossed its way. It is said that after tigers of Sundarbans, the Dudhwa tiger is most ferocious and unforgiving.

One Horned Rhino at  Dudhwa

One Horned Rhino at Dudhwa

This story is about a lovely and innocent Sardar ji who had come to Dudhwa with desperate hopes of seeing nothing but a tiger. This gentleman from Delhi was on a three day trip to the park with his family. He had been here earlier too and had heard all sort of stories about ferocious tigers of Dudhwa, but his luck had eluded him at least as far as sighting of tiger was concerned. He had tried all sorts of means including elephant rides and jeep safaris in his umpteen efforts to see the tigers. In his desperation to see the tiger, he had followed the clues provided by nature guides and mahawats and even cooks of the park. In this visit too, on the penultimate day he was still without success. On one such evening returning after a jungle safari without seeing any tiger, he became aggressive and loud mouthed. He yelled at everybody and claimed that the park officials were misleading everybody and he was dead sure that there was no tiger in the park. He was furious and blamed every body of misleading the country and the nature lovers without actually having a single tiger inside the park.

The park officials were embarrassed by his outburst but they knew that the disappointment for the Sardar ji was too much and he was over reacting as his only focus in that vast rich jungle was on a tiger and that he could enjoy  nothing else. Out of frustration and embarrassment, the park officials present at the place decided to help him see the tiger next morning so that unwanted and baseless negative publicity of the park could be avoided. So using the information of kills by the tiger previous night they asked the mahawat in next morning safari with the family to try searching for tiger close to the kill. It’s a common knowledge that tiger takes time to completely devour its kill and returns back to kill to finish it off. This lovely sardarji was still not very hopeful, but decided to give it a last try before vowing to never come back to Dudhwa or in fact any tiger park in India.

Mahwat with Elephant

Mahawat with Elephant

It was an early morning and sun was still not out. There was a chill in this month of November in the morning. The family of sardar ji covered in jackets and mufflers and even monkey caps was at it again. The mahawat working on the insider information decided to follow the clue. The search continued and the mahawat inched closer to the area where the kill was supposed to be. The sardar ji  meanwhile continued to rue his decision to search for the tiger once more and continued to ridicule all and particularly the forest officials of Dudhwa for allegedly misleading every body. In the midst of this ridicule and disbelief and the subsequent travel program of the family by going back to Delhi, no body except mahawat was focusing on the area around and even Mahawat was getting irritated by the continuous chatter of the family on issues of chola-bhatura and Delhi’s traffic etc. The elephant though continued to walk with elan.

Royal Bengal Tiger

Royal Bengal Tiger

Just on the corner of one of the kutcha jungle road, the elephant stopped suddenly and moved its trunk to one side. Mahawat was alerted, but before anybody could guess anything there was a huge roar, as the tiger was sitting pretty on the corner of the road and had got disturbed by the activities of the elephant and its riders. It roared and roared well. This sound in jungle could freeze the blood of every living thing who is in close proximity of the wild beast.The sardar family was actually frozen, as they could not believe what was happening around them. They were actually shocked and their jaws were half open. They did not move even a nano mili-meter and even there eyes were stoned as they failed to drop their eyelids against all norms of reflex actions of the body. The tiger was in a bad mood with the turn of events and actually took a retreat of few stops seeing the elephant. But the very next moment he charged towards elephant. The elephant dug its heel and raised its trunk and trumpted loudly. The tiger had leaped almost up to the right shoulder blades of the elephant legs and just below the feet of sardar ji. This sight and the turn of events in last 10 seconds was too much to handle for the awestruck family and everybody except Sardar on the elephant started screaming. The Mahawat without removing his gaze from the eyes of the tiger whispered them to remain silent. The burly Sardar actually was silent or perhaps had forgotten to scream! He said nothing and with his jaws half open continued to watch the tiger with a stony silence. The tiger seeing a confident elephant and feeling the noise created by sudden turn of events decided to beat a retreat. It vanished soon in the jungle bushes nearby.

Tiger_Leaping_ERC

But there was a different sort of silence around Elephant. Nobody was speaking anything and Sardar ji had not spoken a word for many minutes. Seeing the entire family  panicking, Mahawat decided to go back. There was a pin drop silence and nobody in that deep jungle was there to disturb that either. While minutes ago every body was chirping and ridiculing the department for falsification on tiger census, now suddenly no body was saying any thing. Mahawat had been exposed to tiger charges earler and regained his calm and composure soon, but for the family it was a hell lot of experience. The elephanat trudged back to the rest house in about 20 minutes and stood beside the stepping platform for passengers to alight.

The family members alighted one by one but Sardarji did not budge. His wife little flummoxed by the body language of his husband asked him to get down from elephant, but he still did not move. He then gestured to his wife to come closer.  She was confused but decided to listen to him. Sardar told his wife to get a big towel there only as he needed one to cover him. But why the towel? Sardar ji refused to say any more explanation and repeated his demand. Sardar ji looked around too just to confirm that no one around had listened to his hushed request. Finally wife frustrated by inscrutable things walked over to rest house and came back with a towel.

Sardar ji now using that towel rose from the elephant and covered his derriere quickly and after stepping on the platform virtually ran towards the room. Mahawat waiting for Sardar to get down was perplexed. Then he looked back at the mattresses for the elephant where Sardar ji was sitting. He almost shouted in disbelief as the wily Sardar had actually spoiled his mat placed on the elephant. Sardar ji had pissed on the elephant in fear and it was too much as the thick layer of duri and the mattress had got soaked in the urine of this adult Sardar ji. He turned his head to scream at the Sardar but he was no where to see. What a turn of event?. The Sardar ji who was cursing every body for last three days, for falsification of tiger census and misleading every body, had pissed on the sight of a charging tiger! Mahawat was shocked. The family too which earlier had echoed the criticism of Sardar was clueless. They did not have a word to say and wanted to run vanish like Sardar ji. They too, took a slower retreat and vanished into the rooms. The Mahawat was now cursing his luck for hosting such nature lovers. He was also cursing himself as he would have to now get the mattress washed and dried up in winters. Every body who was around took sometime to understand, but when they did, the chuckle and the laughter was then incessant. The loudest laugh finally was from the jungle staff. The tiger too must be smiling somewhere for sure!

 

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Agashiye, the food paradise of Gujarat

Agashiye, House Of M G

Agashiye, House Of M G

The quest for food is the fundamental one and as a frequent traveler, I have been exposed to huge range of foods from many parts of India. Only a few of them have been as memorable as one I had at Agashiye. It is one of the restaurants of the heritage hotel House of M G, situated just opposite to world famous Sidi Saiyyad Mosque in the walled city of Ahmedabad. The restaurant is housed in 1924 built haveli of Seth Mangal Das Giridhar Das who was one of the wealthy supporter of Gandhi during freedom struggle. It has now been converted into an heritage hotel. The restaurant Agashiye on the terrace of this building serves authentic vegetarian Gujarati food, and it does that in style.

Last week while visiting Ahmedabad, I went there along with my sister’s family to have dinner. After paying at the counter on ground floor we were ushered by a topi clad boy in a lift to the terrace of the heritage hotel. As you step outside the lift you feel a charming fragrance of incense sticks (which are manufactured in house by them in two fragrances, Pakeezah and Tulasi). You then move to the left to reach at the welcome area where a statue of a lying Ganesh is placed besides a water body. To the left of this you notice few wooden park  benches where we were seated first.

Lying Ganesh at the Agashiye Courtyard

Lying Ganesh at the Agashiye Courtyard

My group of four included my niece, sister and Jijaji (my sister’s husband). We sat on the benches and were served with a refreshing sharbat first. It was made from cucumber, pudina and some salt and sugar. It is a traditional Gujarati welcome appetiser drink. The sharbat tasted good and rejuvenated us. Next we were served batata vada(stuffed potato filled in the gram flour coating) and some Dhokala type dish, with sweet and green chutneys. Feeling hungry we polished off some good portion of them quickly. After some time we were escorted to our next slot of food paradise. Here the food is prepared in all visible arena and you find a large number of boys and men in neat white kurtas and a Gandhi topi to serve you. We were seated at a wooden sofas with a table for four. The cloth napkins at the table were topped with a red rose each, which being desi (indigenous variety), were smelling sweetly.

Our hands were washed with lukewarm water being poured on them and chilamchi just below, gathered the used-water to be thrown away. The big plates were laid on the table and were silver coated. There were many small bowls and betel or paan leaf too. On being asked they told that the thalis are silver coated and since they served a many chutneys and pickles as part of Gujarati cuisine, the betel leaves were used to place chutneys and pickles on them to avoid spotting of thalis. This also enhanced the taste and presentation of food. It was really a nice thali view!.

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The Agashiye Thali

 

The serving boys soon came to our table and poured in many types of cooked vegetables in our big thalis. The katoris(bowls) were still empty. The next boy came up with his hand held multi-service bowls to fill all katoris with pulses and kadhi and sweet milk preparations. Our thali was full now but there was no respite and the boys kept on pouring papad, chutneys, pickles, halwa and what not. The last one came with ghee laden chapatis and bhakhari( the smallish chapatti made with coarse grain flour). These bhakhari were to be eaten with Lahsun(garlic) ki chutney and the fresh butter. After pondering for a while about wherefrom to start, I started with bhakharis first. It really tasted well and with spiced support of garlic ki chutney and with fresh butter, I felt the tinge and the flavour both. Then we moved on to polish of various vegetables and kadhi etc. The kadhi in Gujarati tradition was sweetened. As a person of North Indian food habits, I did not like sweetened Kadhi and moved on to relish halwa and other specialties of the day. The service boys were unrelenting in serving us all of the dishes in big proportions. In between we also tasted some great chutneys and papad etc. We were really in a food paradise.

The tables around us were too filled up with people and everybody was virtually engrossed in their respective food tasks. The variety was too huge to handle and there fore I reclined backward on my sofa cum chair to get some fresh air into my lungs, which were feeling a little out of breath. The service boy came again to help with with chhaachh or buttermilk and said that would take care of even over eating. But it was not just over eating, it was over stuffing actually like the passengers squeezed in Vaishali Express to Bihar. I gulped in one whole glass of buttermilk and decided to clear my thali. I did that in few minutes and then realized service boy was back to my table gain with Kichadi(preapred by mixing rice with pulses) to be eaten with dollops of Ghee! In nort India Khichadi in itself is a light meal and now here we were supposed to eat that after the meal. I took some portion of it after constant persuasion from the waiter and by the time it was finished, my tummy was almost bursting at its seam, wherever these seams are. However, there was no respite still as now a sweet dish in form of traditional Kesar-Pista ice cream, churned in an earthen pot for hours, was served to us. I finished it too so as to douse at least some stomach fire stoked by spicy Gujarati food.

The next to follow were many little glass bottles having digestives of various types like tamarind, zeera pills, ginger etc. I tasted few. The next in line was paan (betel leaves). These were locked with cloves and were served with amla (gooseberry). I was told that amla was digestive and coupled with paan leaves, it really benefited us a lot. I had it too. The taste of paan with many condiments in it was really good. The amla was half boiled in salted water and eaten just before paan (betel), helped to be a palate cleanser actually.

Paan with Gooseberry

Paan with Gooseberry

 

Still next in the menu was coffee, which I decided to give a miss, as so much had gone into stomach and in so many tastes and colours that I found it little too much un-justice to my poor stomach. I decided to leave before I was threatened by any more recipes. All of us left the place heavier by at least 2 kg each. There is little wonder that Gandhi ji in his eleven vratas for a meaningful and soulful life prescribed, aswad as one of important discipline, literally meaning only eating irrespective of taste as much as was required for the body. We broke the rule that day to enjoy the gastronomical delights of Agashiye and enjoyed every bit of it. It’s really worth it.

At Agashiye with my group

At Agashiye with my group

Kashmir and ‘Kuch Light sa Non Veg ‘!

The Paddy Green Kashmir Valley

The Paddy Green Kashmir Valley

It all happened in the summer of 2011 on a rather spontaneously planned trip with friends to the valley of Kashmir. The plains were simmering under the fierce summer heat of June and the promise of some relief in mother natures lap tempted all of us to hit the deck. Raja, Dabbu and I, had a ‘Dil Chahata Hai’ type trip in mind. Inspired by beautiful descriptions of this paradise on Earth heard over the years, we decided to explore Kashmir in right earnest . We wanted to enjoy everything Kashmir offered particularly its great landscape and the authentic Kashmiri food. Our first halt was at a military base in Udhampur that offered some fine hospitality topped with free flowing scotch. Next morning we left for Srinagar and reached ‘Peera’ by lunch time. It’s a small town on Jammu- Srinagar highway and was suggested to us by our hosts last night to relish mouth watering Razama- Chawal. Laced with dollops of desi ghee, this was really a treat to have. In fact realising that we would not be doing the return journey on this route, we over ate and happily too. The entry into the Kashmir valley after passing through Khooni Darrawas an amazing experience. The Kashmir valley is one of the biggest valley I have seen and one can speed more than 100 Kmph for a considerable stretch before you reach Srinagar ! With paddy green fields on both sides of NH 1A, I can vouch that Jahangir was a true connoisseur of beauty ! Kashmir is unbelievably beautiful. It’s bliss. I can also say that the entire world populace can be broadly classified into two categories, first those who have seen the Kashmir and second, those who have not! Reaching Srinagar by evening, we  were now in the first lucky lot.

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In Raja’s (left) Company

The real action started here in the valley.  One of our friends, Raja, is really fond of non-vegetarian food. He had been on many trips with me and was apparently physically fitter than the most. He loves to play, see places, enjoy life and if time still is there, to teach his students. A ‘Raja’ in true sense of terms. Right from the start of journey, he had fixed his priorities and had stock full of booze as well. The previous night ably led by Raja, we had enjoyed drinks and food at the officers’ mess and now as soon as we checked  into our hotel at Srinagar, Raja started to enjoy the evening in right spirit(read high spirits, pun intended). Though none of us is a saint, he perhaps had a little too much of the sparkling liquids. Once full, Raja decided to lead us from front and we moved out on to Dal facing main road in Srinagar  in search for authentic Kashmiri food. Nestled in the arms of Himalayas, Kashmir is heaven especially during summers and many tourists, besides us, knew this and when Indian tourists decide to see a place en mass, it’s a scene to watch ! At 10:00 pm at night, in insurgency hit Kashmir, there was a queue at a famous restaurant and a mandatory waiting period of more than 30 minutes ! We could not believe this actually. After waiting for some time we decided to get our Kashmiri food packed. Raja agreed to this offer as he could have some more scotch in the room with Gushtaba and Rogan Josh with Kashmiri pulao. We came back to our rooms. The food was soul stirringly delicious, Gustava in particular. We still can’t forget the fragrance of spices used in the food. Raja too had it all and then we retired to bed.

The Gulmarg Snow Heights, Raja and I

The Gulmarg Snow Heights, Raja and I

Next morning our dear friend Raja was little uncomfortable. He had a little too many visits to the lavatory. Then he emptied few sachets of time tested Eno to tide over this mini crisis linked perhaps to over eating and somewhat over drinking. We still got readied ourselves for our trip to Gulmarg and for the first time on our food-fueled journey, had a ‘light’ breakfast. The 52 kms trip to Gulmarg was characterized by great views along the way. This popular skiing resort at an elevation of around 9000 feet was a favorite of Jahangir too.  But Raja, fatigued by the road journey, had started to feel nausea. The gain in heights was also creating problems for him. We reached at the base of snow covered hills and though there was again a huge queue, we decided to go on board the second highest Gondola rope way in the world. We reached at the top and were mesmerized by the breathtaking views of snow covered hills. It was more beautiful and alluring than shown in recently released movie, Haider. Here while Dabbu, realizing the steep snowy ascent decided not to move up the snowed hills, I moved on to take some pictures. It was a tough trek. Drawing upon all the available oxygen in air, I over pushed myself to reach the top and behold the surreal majesty of the Great Himalayan Range. To my utter surprise I found Raja trailing behind me, as he too wanted to take some pictures with snow in the backdrop. Raja was panting though. We took some pictures. But Raja could not pull it off for long and decided to beat an early retreat. I got some pictures clicked and walked down carefully. When I reached down to the base, Raja was having some bad nausea and an upset stomach. We waited for him to recover a bit and started moving back to Srinagar. We were a little worried by now as we had spent just two nights in J&K and as per original plan had almost a week more for Kashmir and Leh.

Raja in centre and Dabbu on Right.

Raja in centre and Dabbu on Right.

On reaching back to our hotel in Srinagar, Raja immediately dashed to his medicine bag and, in true Indian self medication style, popped in as many medicines as he could. He flung himself into the bed and pulled over a blanket, covering himself up to his head with just a little peep in window to get fresh breath. Dabbu and I too retired for some rest after tea. By late evening, I was ready to roll again and so was Dabbu. He had probably started catching a cold but was still fit enough to see the markets and go out for dinner. Raja however was still asleep. We nudged him. He moved a bit and said he wasn’t feeling well enough take food let alone a walk beside the Dal Lake. We felt a little worried but did not want to miss the evening stroll or the dinner. Raja too had not eaten anything since morning. We knew that his stomach was upset and the rarity of oxygen at these heights was taking a toll on him.

Gulmarg Gondola

Gulmarg Gondola

As a middle path, we asked him what he’d like to have for diner, which could then be brought to the room. He just murmured to us that may be, we could get him some “light food” as he was not feeling well. The next question from us was” which light dishes will you like to have?” The options possible were like Daal- Chawal type or may be some fruits. We also suggested out of our sincerity that he could have some bread so that his stomach may get some rest. Raja listened to us patiently with his blanket still on up to his face. He repeated his suggestion of some “light food” again. He did not disclose any cuisine or specific preferences still. We were little perplexed. Dabbu and I were putting up some conjectures, but none clicked. Now much exasperated, we just asked him to specify. He now murmured something which we could not believe. Shocked, we pushed him to repeat. He repeated, “kuch light sa non veg!”. What ? Light sa non veg for dinner  for on the bed Raja? We were shocked. It was the most unexpected request from a person lying in the bed and who had had more visits to the  loo by now than to the panoramic views of the Dal lake ! This man was down and out for a considerable period of time and was having fever since morning and had gulped sachets altogether of all flavors of Eno and a dozen different medicines with lightning frequency and now “light sa non veg?”  Can Non Vegetarian food be light? We had known our friend for no less than 22 years. But my God, kuch light sa non veg in these conditions and for him! Phew! After few seconds we all started laughing but my friend in bed was not in a position to even laugh freely lest  he might get spasms and the resultant visit  to the lavatory again. He just smiled faintly and closed his eyes. Dabbu and I were aghast and left the room with a sense of piquant bemusement.

The Remedy?

The Remedy?

We strolled in the market and kept on discussing his choices for “light sa non veg!”. After strolling besides Dal Lake for a while, we reached a decent looking restaurant. We asked the man at the counter, to suggest some ‘light’ non veg options they had at the restaurant ?” He saw us top to down and with a smile. He said, “Are you serious?” We realized pretty quickly that we were looking funny with our demands. Now I took charge and decided to call a spade a spade. I asked him to pack up whatever best non veg he had. In no time he packed Gushtaba and  Rogan josh and murg mussallam. We paid the bill and came back to the room. Raja was still there in bed. We announced our arrival and asked him to join at the table for dinner. He nodded but asked if he could be given his light non veg at bed itself. We complied. He checked the recipes and without uttering a word, polished off a decent amount of non veg food but not before washing it all down with a patiala peg of scotch. Dabbu and I were shocked even more. We looked at the whole sequence of affairs with bewilderment and having no clues about what was happening, retired to bed.

The Raja's Choice!

The Raja’s Choice!

Next morning, we had to proceed to Kargil en route to Leh. Raja was in some trouble but he seemed to amble along with slight effort. That was a little unexpected but something that gave us significant relief and a sense of puzzled wonder. Either the medicines or last nights dishes were working some incomprehensible magic. Our wonderment however lasted only so long. As the journey progressed, we realised that Raja had bitten more than he could chew! Our next few days therefore were spent in clinics and hospitals in the remotest Himalyan reaches including the war famous Kargil ! He  was treated by all including some very beautiful Kashmiri lady doctors. Their treatment perhaps alleviated his agony. Though he never complained, in that short period of acute ailing, his bum-injection-count rose exponentially enough to beat his life time tally. He even got hospitalized for high altitude sickness, first in Kargil and then in the tourist ward of Sonum Norbu Memorial Hospital at Leh! We eventually had to plan and execute an entire rescue operation to get Raja’s health back on track but that is a story for another time. This was an unique experience  altogether but was certainly enjoyable in the hindsight! Raja’s die hard love for “kuch light sa non vegetarian food” eventually made our visit more memorable than we could have ever planned ! I would like to know, if you have ever encountered a similar uncontrollable urge to satisfy your palate against all odds and if yes, how has that really turned out for you?

 

Kargil en route to Leh

Kargil en route to Leh

The Khajuraho Call

Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Talked usually in a hushed voice in India, the village Khajuraho in central  state of India, Madhya Pradesh is a place associated with India’s ancient maturity and comfort in talking about sex and its various aspects through the exquisite and impressive temple architecture. My desire to visit the place had been fired by scores of stories which highlighted the erotic art there as the world class and as a place where many tourists particularly foreigner women tourists were settling married with tourist guides, auto rickshaw drivers and sculptors and what not. The discussions about the place in the peer groups always raised crossed smiles. It was also declared as a place unworthy of a visit for the kids as if you needed to be of more than 18 years to watch the 11th century temple art ! It was simply classified as the adult thing with all the connotations attached.

So i waited to see it perhaps too long. I actually visited Khajuraho when i had crossed the age of almost 43 in  mid august. This became possible also because this quest to see the things was shared by 3 more of of my friends, youngest of whom was 38 years ! Just one of us, had been there before. After getting suitable holidays we decided to do a 2 day trip to the place. We started from Lucknow in the morning at 8:30 am in the morning, so as to reach in time in the evening. A SUV was hired for a comfortable journey. The experienced ones of us took positions on comfortable seats in order of their joining the vehicle. I was the last to join the vehicle and was placed precariously on the middle seat in the 2nd row. In shared vehicles’ journeys this placement of co passengers in different perceived grade of seats is always an amusing experience. Many in so called good seats avoid on the way even a mandatory visit to the loo and if forced to would do it like an Olympian or at least Asian Games sprinter to run back to their posh seats. We too witnessed few such runs !

The road to Khajuraho from Lucknow passes through once been Manchester of India, the city of Kanpur. Its one of the most congested cities in India and passage through it was first major road block. Also many construction activities were going on in Unnao and inside the Kanpur City. We negotiated through the traffic of Kanpur and used the snail pace by picking up some freshly baked salted groundnuts. Our next city on route was the Bundelkhand town of Hamirpur. It is situated between the picturesque banks of river Yamuna and Betwa with both the rivers flowing on the other edges of city at a distance of hardly 3 km. The water of these rivers in these patches is cleaner than many rivers in India. The monsoon though meant the rivers were flowing full to their banks in an impressive monsoon hued greenish backdrop. We had a tea break on the road side tarpaulin shaded tea shop. The tea in these shops is prepared right in front of you and except some questionable wash of glasses there are no regrets in these really low priced shops. The smokers in the group had a quick kick and had few customary dash to reoccupy the advantage seats before halting for a delayed lunch at the city of Mahoba. This district famous for once the impregnable fort of Kalinjar and is now famous for cash rich stone quarrying. Our local host in Mahoba an ex school mate of a group member was posted there and arranged for food and for all and drinks for the die hard. Those who wanted to exchange old stories of college times took longer over drinks and we left a little late for last leg of around 100 kms to Khajuraho.

The journey from Mahoba onward became tough due to poor road conditions and unfortunately we chose the shorter but full of potholed road route. It  took around 3 hours to reach the village town of Khajuraho and checked in straight into hotel Ramada. This reasonably priced hotel has impressive look from outside but lack of maintenance and off season had caused a decay in overall ambiance of the hotel. As we were little late in the evening and were exhausted, we decided to take some rest before enjoying the evening together. The evening party of the group started early and after cheering up ourselves with the blue value scotch  courtesy the old friend, had some decent food. We discussed a lot about the progress of our lives as friends in last 20 years before retiring to the bed. The plan was to retire early as one of the group member had to join back to his duties a day before than planned originally.

The next morning we readied for the included in the room tariff breakfast and before venturing out. If you were a tourist in any part of the world and want to utilize the day ahead it is always better to have a king size breakfast, which we did actually. The town of Khajuraho is on international tourist map and despite being a small town has an airport and many luxurious hotels including from Taj and Raddisson group. The town and civic amenities though need a refurbishment seriously. The ring road to the temple was under construction and can put off tourists easily. The temple group of Khajuraho is in the mid of the town and the most famous western group of temples are situated in a cluster surrounded by a stone  wall to offer protection. The temples were built between 10th and 11th century AD by over a period of 100 odd years by Chandela rulers. Of them notably king Yashovarman and Dhanga contributed a lot. The temples and their beauty finds mention in the travel diaries of Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta and Arabic traveller Al Baruni. They were destroyed a bit during multiple raids by Mohammedan invaders. The weathering over centuries and negligence in maintenance before being declared as world heritage site by UNESCO have caused considerable damage to this this great treasure.

Western Group Of Temples

Western Group Of Temples

We hired a guide here who gave in detail nuances about the architecture and the socio-economic condition of the times narrated through architecture. Since the temple construction spawns over 100 years the difference in treatment in various temples is noticeable by the difference in the styling of sculpture of human bodies and other figurines. The later temples like Kandariya-  Mahadeva got carved really well. The temples of  Vishwanath and Laxman are particularly beautiful. So is one of the rare of this size sculpture of Varaha in the temple complex. The temples here apart from the normal well carved sculptures of God and Goddesses also depict the daily life of the court and courtiers and also normal human beings. The sculpture of a lady dressing up after a bath and a lady doing a make up with a mirror held in her left hand with her neck slightly tilted to left is so mesmerizing as the lady was actually in front of you. Likewise for a lady who was writing a letter to his lover. The daily chores of life like picking out a thorn from the foot palm by a vaidya etc are so neatly done that they appear like happening right in front of you.

A lady Doing Make-Up

A lady Doing Make-Up

The sculptures on various sexual poses of a man and woman are also done marvelously. The way the bodies of men and women are entwined in various poses are outstanding. The sculpture without being vulgar depict various aspects of sexual life and practices of that time. The sculptors have taken examples from the daily life and felt free to depict what they were wanted to in a temple complex. One possible reason could have been the practices of Tantrik Cult at that time which believed in renunciation through attainment and also to put sex as a healthy and obvious part of human life. The Konark Temple in eastern state of Orissa too have few of such sculptures but those in Khajuraho are in plenty the top class actually. But it is also very clear that the erotic sculpture is a very small part of temple architecture of Khajuraho though that is publicized most for obvious reasons.

Erotic Art at Khajuraho

Erotic Art at Khajuraho

Weather on the day of our visit was also very favorable with a very beautiful background of a blue sky with clouds strewn here and there. It was truly mesmerizing. The elaborate visit to the temple site needs a full day at least, in western group of temples alone. Then there is a eastern group of temples also but the most famous and rather best maintained are in western group.

Ganesha

Ganesha

Our visit to temple was limited to half day as we had to return to Lucknow by late evening. We packed off ourselves after having cold drinks etc to beat the heat. Taking lessons from our previous day journey we took a different route which was longish but certainly better. We had a quick lunch of Baigan  Bharta and Arhar Daal this time at a  local Dhaba with hot tandoori rotis. It was really fresh food and since served hot, tasted great. We carried on our journey and with few members of the group replenishing themselves again with chilled drinks again at Kanpur. On the way the discussions on Khajuraho and its myriad dimensions continued till few of us starting snoring on a full stomach after meals. The race to save the posh seats had by now receded and each was in a somber mood sensing the end of a great journey of a 11th century marvel by old friends together. Every moment of this long due visit was worth cherishing for all of us and has contributed a lot in our standing of life as it is.

Me at Khajuraho

Me at Khajuraho

The Surkunda Devi Temple near Dhanolti, Uttarakhand

My visit to Surkunda devi temple was due since 2004. I had visited the temple in 2003 to pray the Goddess to bestow upon me the peace and relief from worldly pain. The promise to visit Maa again was therefore due from 2004 as things settled exactly as prayed. However that was easier said than done. Kabir aptly writes, ” dukh me sumiran sab kare sukh mein kare na koya, sukh me sumiran jo karen to dukh kahe ko hoya.”  So the dilly dallying continued for next 10 years. It ended last week when honestly speaking I could not go to the charming Valley of Flowers. The Valley of flowers situated in Uttarakhand at the height of around 10000 feet in west Himalaya is a part of Nanda Devi National  Park and is known for its unbelievable display of colorful range of flowers. Due to still under construction roads in the final patches and running short of 2 days for a decent plan, I settled for the visit to Maa Surkunda Devi Temple near popular hill station Dhanolti. So in third week of september 2014, proceeding from the state capital Dehradun along with my Jija ji , I reached the forest rest house Dhanolti in the late evening around 7 pm. The forest rest house in Dhanolti is a pre independence structure with typical hill station rest house features. The views from the rest house are amazing though on one side of it an imposing guest house of GMVN has come up and has somewhat dwarfed the beautiful but small guest house. We had  the coffee at the glass house  built in 1997 in the courtyard of the FRH and went ahead for an evening stroll on the road. The road in this hilly town gets deserted with the sunset as the most shopkeepers retire to their villages situated in the hills nearby. The frequent sighting of Leopard on the slopes and sometimes on the roads of Dhanolti also hastens an early shutdown of the town. We too did not go much further and decided to beat an early retreat. The food at the rest house was ready rather early. The temperatures were around 16 degree and to enjoy the great weather in true spirit we set for few drinks together and enjoyed the the devadar enthused ambience. It appeared as if the reed diffuser with the natural essence of Devdaar was placed right inside of our dining room. I retired to bed around 10 pm and went in to sleep quickly. Next morning we started early. The way to the temple was really full of fresh morning energy. This time infact in any part of the world gives you a booster dose of energy and you feel like a blessed human being brimming with positive energy. The temperatures were around 10 degree. The temple devoted to the Shakti swaroop is situated in the Kaddukhal village of Tahsil Dhanolti of district Dehradun at an altitude around 10000 feet. It is just 6 kms from the beautiful and picturesque Devdaar trees infested small town of Dhanolti. It is 24 kms from popular hill station of Mussorrie also called as the queen of hills. Situated at the height of 7500 feet the temperature here are best in summers and on lower side in winters.  The snowfall occurs every year almost mandatorily. The small village of Kaddukhal is on the road to Chamba and almost 19 kms before the town of Chamba. The village serves as the base camp of the 2.5 kms track to the temple. A small bus stop cum taxi stand is on the foot steps of the temple and is also lined by few shops selling prasad for the devotees going to the temple. After purchasing the prasad at the start(its not available on the temple trek in the lean season at least), I proceeded to a 2.5 km track. The start of the trek on hills usually makes you realize in first 100 meters itself that your lungs were made only for your ascending steps in a maximum one floor house. The panting for breath which starts so soon gets unique sounds out of your nostrils as if you are a horse who has put in non stop 100 km sprint to be there. The realization of your limits actually humbles you a lot and your worship of the Goddess starts right there. It also does not help when you find locals sprinting ahead of you as a Bajaj Pulsar motorcycle racing ahead in style from a rickety hero cycle ! My panting kept on increasing for next 500 mts as after that I got a level patch i could walk as a human. Interestingly the road to the temple was rather decent as compared to what it was during my first visit in 2003. It had railings too in steep patches and few steel benches too donated by few worshipers who had got painted and full postal addresses etc as if to receive a vote of thanks from you via speed post.

The Valley View

The Valley View

The trek upwards also has facility of mules for those who can not expand their lungs like a Shaktiman. Interestingly the mule services is strategically placed after the first 500 meters in all religious places i have visited in India. Actually they are perfectly placed right at the places where they know that the pilgrim would surrender rather too meekly after a deep realization of their flat lungs ! To my agony the mule service in the week of pitra-piksha preceding the onset of Shardiya Navratra was not vailable in that wee hour of the morning. I had no option but to continue my journey with heavy feet and with chant of the Goddess without whose help there was no chance to ascend the hills. As I progressed the music played on the top of the hills started getting closer to me and with a lot of sweating and resultant lightening of the cloth i kept on going. Though the journey was not so long as happens in Vaishno Devi and like places there was not even a single shop on the way that could facilitate some lime water or some energizer etc for the hapless souls. I kept on trudging and finally reached the top of the hills in approx 70 minutes.

The entrance gate of the temple at village Kaddukhal

The entrance gate of the temple at village Kaddukhal

The locals, I was told don’t take more than 20 minutes to do the same. After placing my shoes in designated palaces i washed by feet and hands and reached the temple. The temple much to my pleasant surprise was renovated or you can say rebuilt actually in last few years as while earlier there stood a traditional small temple building, now there was a beautifully done temple complex on the patterns of an admixture of Hindu and Tibetan style of architecture as visible in the photographs attached. The temple was painted in yellow and red and had a carpeted area inside for the devotees with a Girbha-Griha for the traditional old idol of Maa Surkunda. On entry to all temples or religious places which are reached by after considerable efforts and pain like trekking, one feels a sense of immense emancipation. A deep breath there fills your lungs with pure bliss. You thank almighty and realize that he wanted to see whether you will take enough pains to come and meet him. You feel elated and recharged as if you were fresh like a flower and closest to the almighty. It was a bliss. I bowed before the Goddess and prayed from the deep of my heart. I thanked her for her blessings and sought her blessings for life further to come. The Pujari offered us the holy water and consecrated the prasad bought by us from the foothills. I felt blessed. Coming out of the main temple I went for breaking raw coconut and after offering to holy trident there had some coconut kernel. It was an enchanting view outside with the clouds setting on the temple and covering it almost completing. The valley too was partially covered with clouds. I took some photographs of the scenery and after enjoying breathtaking views started the return journey. The journey back was obviously less treacherous and it took almost half the time. Reaching down rather comfortably we thanked Goddess for her kindness and finally packed ourselves in the vehicle and went back to our halt at Dhanolti for our next destination. Thus ended a great journey due upon me for last 10 years. Jitendra DSC_3578 Continue reading “The Surkunda Devi Temple near Dhanolti, Uttarakhand”