A CITY DOWNED- BY MEN OR BY NATURE

Along with my family, I spent 3 days through the end of last year and the New Year day in the World renowned city of HAMPI in Karnataka State of India.  The group of monuments at Hampi has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Virupaksha Temple at Hampi, Karnataka, India
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Single store carved Nandi (the Bull) facing the Temple at a distance

The great City of Hampi, as is now known, was founded by the rulers of Vijayanagara Empire as their Capital during their rule from 1336 to 1565.  The City of Hampi was one of the largest cities of the world at that time. The City had half a million population and protected by seven concentric lines of fortifications and a huge army.   The city had numerous forts, temples, halls, market place, and other buildings and structures.

Alas, this one of the largest Cities of the world in its time was destroyed and pillaged in the 1565 War by Men against Men and turned the glowing City of Hampi into a vast area of ruins besides killing of thousands of people.

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Ruins of Achyutharaya Temple, Hampi, Karnataka, India

 

 

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Hampi Market Place in Achyutharaya Temple Complex

 

Today, this vast area of ruined monuments is a World Heritage site.  Thus a major progressive city was downed by Men of War.

In the modern times, the world is presently facing the New Corona virus pandemic.

The Metropolitan City of Mumbai in India and the New York City of U.S.A. are the two most progressive Cities in their own spheres in the world today. Mumbai (or Bombay as called earlier) is a densely populated City of Maharashtra State in India.  It is the largest Metropolitan City in India.  It is the financial and commercial capital of India.

We also know that New York City in the U.S. state of New York is a densely populated Mega city in the World.  It is described as the cultural, financial and media capital of the world.  The headquarters of the United Nations is located in the city.  New York is an important centre for international diplomacy.

And when all are worried that no small regional conflicts should escalate, there arose a tiniest of the organisms, which is referred to as ‘in-animate’ outside the body of a living organism or a host.  Once this organism found a host, it started multiplying and in its new incarnation, called the New Corona Virus or nCovid-19, started spreading like a wildfire across the world breaking all borders.  In its quest, it has thumped the two most populous cities of Mumbai in India and New York City in U.S.A situated at nearly two ends of the world with a vengeance unheard of. The two Mega Cities are reeling under the savage attack of the virus on the people, with most number of nCovid-19 infections and death in their respective countries. Thus, the two progressive Mega Cities situated thousands of miles apart have been downed simultaneously by the Nature’s fury through the tiniest “thing” referred to as the New Corona Virus or nCovid-19.

Men destroyed a progressive city by killing people and demolishing the buildings and structures; while a few centuries after, the Nature sends its own agents to down two modern progressive cities by striking the people who make or constitute these cities and shattering the economy.  It is difficult to fathom which is more damaging to the human beings, Men themselves or the angry Nature.  Though we cannot control the Nature’s fury, we may perhaps control and prevent destruction of cities by ourselves, the “Homo sapiens”.

RESTRICTIONS AROUND ANCIENT MONUMENTS – TIME RUNNING OUT FOR TOURISTS

In India, there are so many ancient and historical monuments which enjoy the UNESCO’s “World Heritage Tag” which gets central protection and preservation.   For protection of these monuments, fences, boundary walls, gated entries, etc. are laid down around many of such monuments.  For restricted and regulated entry of visitors, and earning revenues for maintenance of the monuments, ticketed entry has been introduced. There are other restrictions in the parks, promenades, etc. within and without the complexes of many of these monuments.

However, notwithstanding the good intention of these restrictions, ticketing entries at many of the world famous monuments, the “natural charm” of such monuments “gets eroded” to a significant extent.  No doubt, many of the tourists are immune to such problems while traveling, but invariably the beauty quotient will be greatly reduced, albeit in variable degrees depending upon the sensitivity of the tourists.  I remember an interesting incidence from a couple of decades ago.  A few of our relatives came on a visit to Delhi for the first time.  During that time, when there were fewer tourist places than now, but were much more accessible and nearly without any restrictions and in monuments like Qutub Minar in Delhi, one could go upto the top floor.  As it was hot summer month, we were afraid that they would feel the visit very uncomfortable.  On the other hand, while departing from Delhi, they told us that Delhi is very beautiful.  But our relatives from South and West visiting Delhi presently do not have much appreciation for Delhi and its monuments due to lack of free access to various barricaded and fenced places, compartmentalized residential colonies with boundary walls, various restrictions besides the notorious security concerns. I have personally experienced similar thing in the world famous Mahabalipuram during my last visit a few years ago.  The area around the Mahabalipuram Rathams and Shore Temple (monuments) was fenced with barbed wire with a makeshift Ticketing Counter completely marring the “rich extensiveness and natural beauty” of the area and the monuments.  The earlier charm of the open and freely accessible place has gone to dust to a great extent. Same is the case with some other monuments, including Taj Mahal,

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Perhaps the concerned Authorities could not think of better ways without fences and boundary walls to give so-called protection to these historic monuments.

Or maybe the UNESCO would like to find better ways and issue guidelines to the authorities to preserve natural charm and inclusiveness of such monuments.  It may be appreciated that many of the monuments, temples, etc were constructed for public display, social and religious gathering of people.  In the absence of visitor appreciation, granting of UNESCO World Heritage tags become meaningless. 

AN INVIGORATING TRIP TO THEKKADY AND KUMARAKOM IN KERALA, INDIA

It was the pleasant month of January, 2019 in India.  We planned a trip to THEKKADY and KUMARAKOM in southern Indian State of KERALA, called the “God’s Own Country”.   While Thekkady has the world famous Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary; Kumarakom is famous for the Boating in backwater lake called the Vembanad Lake.

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On the Road from Palakkad to Thekkady

For our tour from Palakkad to Thekkady to Kumarakom to Alleppey beach to Kochi/Airport, we opted for a 5 nights 6 days travel Package from Keralataxis.com, Kochi by chauffer driven INNOVA car for our trip from Palakkad to Thekkady to Kumarakom to Ernakulam (via Alleppey) to Kochi Airport.

After breakfast, we started in the first morning from Palakkad to Thekkady. On the way, we took our lunch and while nearing our destination, we visited a private Spice Garden “Deepa World Spices and Ayurvedic Plantation” which was rich in spice and medicinal plants.

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Tea Garden on the Way to Thekkady

For a nominal fee, the guide explains the details, such as plant identification, usage of bark, roots, leaves and fruits of various spice and medicinal plants being grown in the Garden.  One can also buy the spices and rare Ayurvedic medicines from there.  Standing in the garden with dense foliage, the mild aroma and the purest air make one experience extraordinary vigour in oneself.  We reached our hotel, the Elephant Route Resort in the afternoon after spending about 7 hours in travel.

After refreshing, we witnessed the Kathakali dance show adjacent to the hotel for about 2 hours in the evening.  One could get the tickets for Elephant Rides, Kathakali show and the Kerala martial art, the Kalaripayattu at a cultural centre near the hotel.  After the show we had tea and snacks from a nearby stall and returned to our hotel rooms.  Later, we had our dinner in the Hotel dining hall.  The food was full of aroma and delicious.  We had a leisurely walk in the hotel courtyard before going to bed.

The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we proceeded for boating in the Periyar lake in the National Park.  The ticket counter of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation and the Forest Department, which operate all the activities in the Periyar National Park, was at a distance of only 150 meters from our hotel.  One can get tickets for Boating, Trekking, Rafting, Jeep Safari and other activities from there. The tickets also include an entrance fee for entry into the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.

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Boating Jetty at Periyar National Park

The Boating is for two hours. The Periyar National Park Authority bus took us from there to the inside of the National Park – about 2 kms from the hotel.  The buses reach at the Boating jetties about half-an-hour before the boating times inside the National Park.  About 20 people could be accommodated in the motor boat.  We could witness the vast expense of the lake flanked on either side by green hills.  One is filled with awe of nature when the driver shuts down the motor in the middle of the journey to cut the sound.  During the boat ride, we could see an Elephant herd drinking water at one of the banks of the lake. We could also see a herd of deer, bisons and migratory birds.

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Elephant Herd at Periyar Lake

The two hour boat ride was most energizing.  After the boating, the buses took us back to the Ticketing Office.  We had our lunch in the nearby restaurant and did some shopping for the spices, etc.   In the afternoon, we went to the Chellar Kovil Viewpoint at a distance of 8 Kms from City centre where there is lush green vegetation with a spice and medicinal garden with an observation tower with a telescope. Besides the spices and medicinal plants, there were several trees of a variety of fruits like Chikoo and Mudapples.  We could enjoy the picturesque view of hilly terrain, the farm fields down below in the plain with a temple in the middle, through the telescope. There is a waterfall nearby but it was dry during our visit.

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Elephant Ride at Elephant Point, Thekkady

Upon our return to the hotel, the younger members witnessed the Kalaripayattu show at the nearby cultural centre, while others enjoyed elephant bath/ride.

Next morning after breakfast, we vacated the hotel, and proceeded to Kumarakom at a distance of about 130 Kms.  All along the way there are tea gardens interspersed with rubber plantations and lush green forest cover.  After about an hour’s drive, we stopped at a place in Erumeli forest range and took some pictures in the uphill forest and then continued our journey. We took our lunch on the way and reached our hotel, the Lakesong Resort in Kumarakom.  The resort, located at the Vembanad lake front, was excellent and provided the facility of a complimentary boat ride on the lake.

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A Panaromic Sunset View over Vembanad Lake from Lakesong Resort, Kumarakom

We were just in time for the boat ride of about 90 minutes of breathtaking view of the vast lake and the surrounding thick green vegetation.  By the time the boat returned to the jetty, the sun was setting at the horizon.  From the lakefront garden of the Resort, we enjoyed the setting sun.  We took our afternoon tea/snack and dinner in the Dining Hall.  After dinner we spent sometime enjoying the nature and the music, as a large group of foreign tourists were having a music round with each member singing a song with beats, in the Resort garden facing the lakefront.

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A Group of Foreign Tourists Enjoying Music Round after Dinner at Lakesong Resort, Kumarakom
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Backwater Ride, Kumarakom

The next day our Hotel provided a paid BACKWATER RIDE of about 2 hours in the backwaters around the Kumarakom villages witnessing the village life around the backwaters and passing by the bird sanctuary on the way.  The boat ride was both enjoyable and informative.  After taking our lunch we spent the afternoon enjoying the rain and taking rest.

The next morning, after breakfast, we vacated the hotel and said goodbye to Kumarakom and proceeded to our next destination with a perceptible vigour and sweet memory of THEKKADY and KUMARAKOM.

 

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CHARIOT OF THE GODDESS – NOCHUR VILLAGE FESTIVAL OF KERALA, INDIA

My Native Village NOCHUR IN PALAKKAD DISTRICT OF KERALA is a small village with a small population of Tamil Brahmins among others.  The Village has two Temples – Lord Krishna and Goddess Shanti Durga Parmeswari or Nochur Bhagavathy.

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Lord Krishna Temple
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Nochur Bhagavathy Temple

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year, a Temple Chariot Festival, called  “Ratholsavamor “THERU” Festival in local language, with presiding deity as Goddess Bhagavathy, the consort of Shiva, is organized.  It is like the world famous “PURI RATH YATRA, but on a smaller scale.  A temple Chariot festival is symbolic of the Presiding Deity taking a round of the Village streets lined on both sides by houses to give her blessings to the people of the Village.

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A Street in Nochur Village

The NOCHUR Chariot festival usually takes place on the first Friday of Tamil month “Thai” or second Friday of the first month of the Malayalam Calendar, coinciding with the month of January.

Being based in Delhi, we are able to visit the Native village only occasionally once in a couple of years or so.  This year I had the opportunity to visit the Village along with my family at the time of the Chariot Festival.  The NOCHUR Chariot Festival is celebrated over a period of three days in a ritualistic way and cultural activities are also organized.  On the main festival day, the day starts with ritual of procession with the “Holy Pot” for water for the Goddess and vigorous beats of Panchavadyam, the playing of various drums and musical instruments, through the streets informing and inviting the people from each House for the Chariot festival.  Finally the procession collects water from the river in the Holy Pot for Goddess Bhagavathy and reaches the Moolasthanam, where the Goddess first appeared before being installed in the Temple.  Then the procession comes to the main temple.

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Deity of Goddess Bhagavathy
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Temple Rituals in Progress

Elaborate rituals are performed in temple after which Maha Deeparadhana is held.  The Deity is then taken out of the temple premises installed onto the Ratham (chariot) decorated with various kinds of flowers, leaves, fruits, etc.  The people pull the Ratham for a short distance.

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Chariot or Theru of Goddess Bhagavathy
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Chariot or Theru with Deity Installed

Thereafter, Annadanam or Feast from the temple as prasadam (offering) for Goddess Bhagavathy is served to the people.  Sadasadhayam or sweet porridge called Payasam of this Temple is very famous among the people who attend the festival.

In the evening, the grand procession of the beautifully decorated Ratham (Chariot) or Theru is pulled by people and taken around the village with the grand beats of the Panchavadyam, stopping now and then to enable the devotees to seek the blessing of the Goddess.

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Chariot Being Pulled

People vie for pulling the chariot through the streets as pulling the Chariot of the Goddess is considered as auspicious. The barriers of age, caste, creed and colour are broken and people from various sections of society come together to celebrate the occasion.  People from all the nearby villages also come to participate and seek blessings of the Goddess.  The procession takes about two –three hours to go through the whole village before terminating at the temple.

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The Lotus Pond ‘Tamara Kulam” in front of the Temple

Then a grand show of fire- works is organized in front of the Deity across the Temple Pond. Thereafter the Deity is taken off from the Chariot and taken into the Temple. Deeparadhana is performed and the Goddess is laid to rest before closing the Temple. Thus ends the grand Nochur Goddess Bhagavathy Chariot Festival.

THE TEMPLE CHARIOT FESTIVAL is a very important and highly significant “WAY OF CONNECTING PEOPLE AND BINDING THROUGH TRADITIONS” which helps in preservation of culture.   The Nochur Chariot Festival attracts the Natives of the Village with their kith and kin residing all around the world who arrive to participate in the Chariot Festivities.

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KANCHIPURAM, Tamil Nadu, India – THE GRANDEUR OF ARCHITECTURE, ART AND CULTURE

In the month of February, 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Kanchipuram in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu and spend about a week in the city.  I was well aware that Kanchipuram or Kanchi is an ancient City, about 72 kms south of Chennai (or Madras).  From Madras Airport, I travelled to Kanchipuram by the Cab arranged by my relative and it took about one and half hours to cover the distance. Kanchipuram has always been an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus being one of the seven ‘Tirthas’ (pilgrimage centres).  There are several medieval temples with spectacular architecture.  During the next one week, I along with my relatives visited the important temples to be seen here for its grandiose Dravidian architecture, colossal structure,   exquisite crafting, and beauty.   Surely I could not think of visiting more than one or two temples a day.  By choosing each day we visited (1) Kanchi Kamakshi Temple having the deity of Goddess Parvathi or the consort of Lord Shiva on the first evening.  It took about one and half hours to see around the temple and pay obeisance to the reigning deity; (2) next morning visited Vaikunta Perumal Temple (i.e. Vishnu temple), the most ancient temple.  There I enjoyed the marvelous view of pillared corridors around the sanctum and 3 tier Shikhara or Tower; and in the evening went by auto-rickshaw to (3) Varadaraja Perumal Temple (Vishnu temple).  In the evening lighting the temple gopuram (Tower) looked remarkable and could be viewed across the city.  In late evening, there was a

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Varadaraja Perumal Temple, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

a procession of deity’s smaller image called ‘Utsava Murti’ on a palanquin in the wide fore-court of the temple; (4) On the 3rd day morning, went to Ekambeshwarar Temple (Shiva temple), at the Northwest of town.  I could see its huge stone tower dominating the skyline as the highest, largest and most impressive temple in town.   Featuring huge

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High Gopuram or Gatehouse of Ekambeshwarar Temple, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

quantities of carved stonework, it is one of the most important Shiva temples. The inner sanctum protects a mango tree which is said to be 3500 years old, embodying the four Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures) and bearing fruits of four different tastes each season. Certain part of the temple seemed to be closed to visitors, but the central building was quite imposing. It took about 2 hours to come out of the temple.

In the evening we went around the city on a shopping spree. Modern Kanchipuram is a major weaving centre and visitors will be able to buy hand-woven silk at wholesale rates. By the way, I may mention that Kanchipuram Silk Sarees have received the Geographical Indication tag in the year 2005, the first product in India to do so. One can shop around and bargain for silk sarees, scarves, stoles, or fabric to take home.

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A View of the small Shrines in the Compound Wall and part of Shikhara or Vimana of Kanchipuram Kailasanathar Temple

But the high point of my visit to the City was yet to come, which was Kailasanathar temple that I longed to see as I have heard a lot about it from my relatives in the City.  On the fourth day, we went by a private Cab to (5) Kailasanathar Temple (Shiva temple) which is said to be the most ancient temple in Tamil Nadu built during 685 to 705 A.D.  during the reign of Pallava Kings in Tamil Nadu. This temple is located on the banks of the Vedavathi River in a rustic suburb far away from the hustle bustle of the city. After visiting a couple of temples on the way, we reached the Kailasanathar temple around noon. It was a sunny day and the heat was somewhat unbearable.  Walking barefoot, as

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An image of Small Shrine with different figures in Kailasanathar Temple

per the practice and tradition in the Hindu temples, was quite difficult. On entering the main gate, an imposing Tower or gopuram at entrance of the temple complex, I could see that the exquisite Dravidian architecture of Kailasanather temple is much different from other temples in the state of Tamil Nadu which I had visited.  It has a colossal structure made of sandstone on a granite base.  Its sanctum sanctorum contains 16 sided Shivalinga made in black granite. The temple has fifty eight small shrines in all which are built into the niches of the massive compound wall that encloses the main shrine and all along the circum-ambulatory path.  This pathway is a significant one with narrow passage for certain length through which one needs to nearly crouch or crawl.  It is said that this pathway represents the entering the paradise or attaining ‘moksha’ or salvation.  With a Shikhara or Tower  called VIMANA rising in the centre, the temple’s layout is simple and similar to other temples in Tamil Nadu.   The vast complex contains intricate carvings all around making the visitor spellbound.  There is a huge statue of Nandi or Shiva’s vehicle in the front. When we were coming out of the temple, we met a group of German tourists entering through the main gate.  We had a short talk with a couple of the tourists.  They looked quite amazed on the sight of the massive sculptured temple, which could be seen from the entrance itself.  As the temple was about to be closed for the morning session, they had to rush into the temple.  It took about one and quarter hours to come out after somewhat hurried visit, it being the closing time of the temple. There is a large lawn with green grass in front and around the temple where one could sit and relax.  But as it was hot in the mid-day, we could not stay there for long.

Throughout its history, Kanchipuram remained as a centre of learning for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.  It is also a modern centre of learning with Deemed Universities, several schools (including night schools), colleges including medical colleges, engineering colleges besides several other institutions.  In this culturally great City, I have witnessed astounding temple festivities, music and dance festivals organized at different places.  Here I could see the colourful silk sarees worn in the traditional way by ladies, young and old alike with jasmine flowers inserted in their hair locks. These beautifully attired ladies participate actively with enthusiasm in the temple festivities and other cultural events.  Here I found the people lead the simple but joyful and contended life.

Weather wise, Kanchipuram is not as humid as Chennai (Madras). But walking in summer can be exhausting. Anyway, mornings and evenings are pleasant and the best times for photography. December to February is the best months to visit the city for those who are not used to Indian summer.

While leaving the City the next morning by Train to Chennai (or Madras), I assured myself that I would visit Kanchipuram again to see the temples, specifically Kailasanathar temple thoroughly and leisurely to imbibe its magnificence.

Note:

Weather wise, Kanchipuram is not as humid as Chennai (Madras). But walking in summer can be exhausting. Anyway, mornings and evenings are pleasant and the best times for photography.

For visiting each of the above five temples,  it takes about one and half to two hours, that is, about half a day for each of these temples.

Conveyance is no problem. One can take auto-rickshaw, cabs, etc from any part of the City to visit these temples.

 

 

 

 

 

THE WAR CEMETERY, KOHIMA, INDIA – A SYMBOL OF THE WAR OF THE EMPIRES.

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Nature’s beauty on the way from Dimapur to Kohima

Even today people in the rest of India have the general misconception that the north eastern State of Nagaland bordering Myanmar, is ruled by the fierce headhunting Naga Tribes who  fights off intruders.  But today the State of Nagaland with its beautiful and dazzling green hills and valleys is only a shadow of fiery and feisty past.  Much of the State is now considerably developed with some tribal pockets limited to the northern part of the State living in their traditional way.

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A Model of the Houses of different Tribes/Areas

I had an opportunity to visit Nagaland in the month of May, 2018.    It was one of those official visits to Nagaland.  We arrived by flight in Dimapur, the largest city and the gateway to the State of Nagaland.   During the three day visit to Nagaland we found the people friendly and helpful.   We did not encounter any dangerous or even unpleasant situation while interacting with the people.  On a fine day in mid-May, after finishing our official work in Dimapur, I was travelling with my colleagues from Dimapur to Kohima about 72 Kms away by road.  The road was nice flat one, however, as 4-lane widening of the road was underway, much part of the road was very rough.  The condition was made more difficult due to previous night’s rain in the area which made the way muddy, potholed and slippery right up to Kohima.  However, all along the way the beautiful green hills and the Barak river along the highway were presenting an enchanting view. It took about three and half hours to reach Kohima Secretariat, where we had an official meeting.    After finishing our official work, before starting our return journey to Dimapur, we paid a visit to the famous War Cemetery of Kohima.

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Panoramic view of Kohima City from the Kohima Museum

The Kohima War Cemetery situated on the Kohima ridge is not just one of the war cemeteries in the country or elsewhere.   This very War Cemetery symbolizes the famous Battle for Kohima between the two Empires, that of British and Japanese empire during the World War II.  This Battle for Kohima was quite unique, which may not have any parallel elsewhere.   This battle was fought between the Commonwealth forces and Japanese forces, and the Indian soldiers fought from both sides.   The Japanese forces were led by the great Indian freedom fighter,   Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose with his Azad Hind Fouj of Indian soldiers.   The British, who were ruling India, also had Indian soldiers to fight from their side.   Thus, this battle was fought by Indian soldiers from opposing sides, and interestingly and ironically, they were fighting for their common motherland.  While the former, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fouj were fighting to free India from foreign occupation, the latter was defending the country.  No doubt, being well equipped and well supplied, the British forces pushed back the Japanese forces with heavy damage on both sides.  The immense damage could be assessed from the recorded more than 4000 soldiers of the Commonwealth forces declared killed, missing or wounded.  The other side also must have suffered similar casualties.  The Indian soldiers, who were killed fighting the War of the two Empires, laid down their lives for their same motherland, India.

 

 

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Kohima War Cemetery

This is the memorial of more than 1420 soldiers belonging to the Commonwealth forces including 330 Indian soldiers as their final resting place.  The memorial also includes the 900 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated here.  But those of the Azad Hind Fouj who laid their lives for liberating their country from the British rule, unfortunately do

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Kohima War Cemetery –  the memorials

not have any such memorial.  That makes Kohima War Cemetery in Nagaland a unique Memorial as every Indian visitor to this place would also pay their respect to all the Indian soldiers, irrespective of the opposing forces they sided with.

 

 

Kashmir – the place where the heavens descend

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Dal Lake – the Pride of Kashmir – the afternoon panorama

It is a human nature to find some diversion from the hectic and monotonous life day after day for some time.  We get mentally rather than physically fatigued doing a chorus for long.  To top it, those who live in big cities experience hectic life as if in a race along with air, water and sound pollution; and they don’t find time even to eat and sleep properly.   My family of four which includes my wife, two daughters and me living in the Delhi NCR are no different.  And so, we had wanted to go out and escape from the hectic life of polluted Delhi, on a weekend trip to somewhere to spend the days leisurely, joyfully and playfully.   As a consequence of deliberation spreading over a few days and scanning minute details and weather conditions of plethora of places in the country in the winter of December-January, we decided to visit Kashmir Valley.  There were three reasons for this – one it was winter and my family longed for enjoying snow as my daughters have not seen snow; secondly, we wanted to see beauty of Kashmir in winter; and thirdly when there will be less crowd and winter games could be enjoyed in full.

Then our next stage of planning started.  After going through scores of travel itinerary of weekend package tours, we finally chose the one which included Srinagar and Gulmarg in Kashmir in the winter.  The package was a 3 night 4 days consisting of both ways air travel, 3 night hotel stay, to-and-fro airport-hotel transfers and sight- seeing of Srinagar and trip to Gulmarg by Chauffeur driven AC coach.

And wow! The morning of the 31st day of December 2017! It was promising to be a rainy day in Delhi and when we took a Cab to the IGI Airport, Delhi, I became anxious of the flight being delayed. My fear was not unfounded.  In winter, Delhi weather plays a truant with intermittent fog cover, and a rainy day acts as a catalyst. In midway my fear proved true as we received the airline’s message of revised flight time. By the time we reached the Airport roughly about 35 Kms away from our House, we saw the place enveloped in a blanket of wintry fog.  We prayed that there should not be further postponement of our flight, but to no avail.  It was reported that the Jammu Airport, the change-over stop, was also having bad weather.  We spent the time by window shopping in the shops in the Lobby, scanning through books, designer clothes, handbags, electronic utilities and eating lunch arranged through the Airline and drinking coffee and soft drinks. Our morning 10:25 hours flight ultimately took off at around 14:00 hours in the afternoon to Jammu.  At Jammu, the situation was not good either.  By the time, our flight took off from Jammu Airport and landed at Srinagar Airport, the Sun was already kissing the horizon. But unlike Delhi-Jammu flight, this flight gave the passengers unexpected joy.  Midway to Srinagar, we could witness the mountain ranges which are called the Pir Panjal range with shining white tops not far below.  We could not hold ourselves from snapping video of the overwhelming beauty down under.  The view of the vast expanse of the mountain range was having mesmerizing effect invariably on everyone. The mountain ranges were running parallel one after the other with their shining tops, as if undulating carpet spread over a vast area which only the Nature could do. When we landed at Srinagar, we were still intoxicated by the sheer beauty of the mountains we had witnessed from up in the air.  Thus we landed at Srinagar Airport around 5 hours behind scheduled arrival, viz 12:55 PM.

And our Chauffeur, a gentleman in his late-fifties, gave a detailed audio account of the Kashmir Valley; its people; their practices and the places of importance; the weather and necessary attire to wear at different times to enjoy the sub-zero temperatures and sunshine.  By the time he dropped us in our Hotel not far from the famous Dal Lake after a drive of more than 45 minutes, I felt as if I belong to this place. But, of course, it is my 3rd sojourn to the Valley, the first two being on official duty with colleagues.  When we entered the Hotel lobby, it was already dark and extreme cold with sub-zero temperature outside.   We received a warm reception from the Hotel staff.  Once the formalities completed, we burst into our rooms which were cozy and with necessary facilities.  Only a few families were staying in the Hotel.  There was only time to freshen up and take our dinner in the Dining Hall.  Taking dinner in the Dining Hall, rather than in our rooms, has its own advantages.  We could experience slight chill on entering the Hall, the staff

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Hotel Solar Residency, Srinagar

would put on the heating system giving us graded warmth by the time our dinner is served.  Unexpectedly, we found all the dishes were quite delicious and so we had a sumptuous dinner on the first evening.  After finishing our dinner we spent some time in the lobby.  The executives manning the Reception cautioned us against venturing out of the hotel as it was extremely cold out there.  Respecting their advisory, we returned to our room after spending some time in the lobby.  We saw that even other residents who were in the lobby did not step out of the hotel.  When we were leisurely sitting in our room and discussed our experience, we found that our day was quite wonderful and full of anxiety, adventure, joy and was a fantastic day.

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The Sankaracharya Hill

The next morning, i.e. 1st of January, 2018 a New Year day, after our complimentary breakfast at the hotel restaurant, our Chauffeur drove us to the Sankaracharya Temple overlooking the famous Dal Lake, first thing in the morning. The Sankaracharya Temple is named after Adi Sankaracharya who visited the place and did meditation and composed the famous and much revered Soundarya Lahari.  The temple is situated on the top of Sankaracharya Hill on the Zabarwan Mountains in Srinagar at a height of 1100 feet above the City and is dedicated to Lord Shiva.  The temple has a spectacular history and equally grand architecture of various regions amalgamated together over centuries dating back to 200 BC, and beyond according to some sayings.  The entrance to the hill is guarded by the Indian Army and cars are not permitted after 5.00 P.M.  However, the temple timing is 8.00 AM to 8.00 PM.  The vehicles are terminated before the Stairs to the

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The view of the City from Sankaracharya Hill

Hill top.  At this point everyone has to go through security check and one cannot carry phones, leather items, cameras, etc, beyond this point.  From here one has to climb 243 steep stone steps to reach the hill top.  Aged persons, asthma and cardiac patients should take adequate precaution and embark on the journey to the Sankaracharya Hill after taking proper medicines.  Besides, they can take rest after every few steps at flat platform like spaces and stabilize their breath before proceeding further.  This is necessary as the climb is tiring even to an average person and one has to again climb another about 10-15 steps to the temple after reaching the hill top.  But the climbing itself is an adventurous experience and provide gorgeous view all along the climb and on the hill top.  From here one can have a panoramic and magnificent view of the Valley below and the surrounding snow clad distant hill ranges all around. For visiting Hill shrine, it takes about 2-3 hours.

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A picturesque beauty at the Chashme Shahi

From here the next place along the right bank of Dal Lake is Chasme Shahi (the royal spring), one of the three Mughal gardens,  built around a spring in 1632 by the Governor of Mughal Emporer Shah Jahan for one of the Princes.  This is situated near the Raj Bhawan on the Zabarwan range overlooking the Dal Lake.  The focus of the garden is the spring which flows in terraced hill sections – an aqueduct, waterfall and fountains.  The architecture of this smallest garden among the three Mughal gardens is quite charming and the water of the spring is believed to be of some medicinal properties.  We did not have any bottle or container to collect the water and test the veracity of its medicinal properties, if any.  However, going up and down the garden along the channeled water surely must have given us certain health benefits, though imperceptible.  I believe feeling joyous and vivacious itself is a beneficial effect on our health.

At this point, we had our lunch before proceeding to the other two Mughal gardens on the same side of Dal Lake.  First was the world famous Shalimar garden or Shalimar Bagh which is the second largest of the three Mughal gardens in Kashmir.  This garden, on the outskirts of Srinagar city, is linked through a channel to the northeast of Dal Lake on its right bank.  This is said to be built by Mughal Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan in 1619.  The garden has three terraces fitted with fountains and gives a panoramic view with lines of chinar (sycamore) and cypress trees.  The central main feeder channel, known as the Shah Nahar is the main axis of the garden and runs from a higher elevation through the three terraces.  It is said that during Mughal period the three terraces served three different purposes and had specific structures for the Royals. However, now many of these structures are not there.  The garden is known for chini khanas or arched niches behind garden waterfalls.  Presently the niches have pots of flowering plants and are said to reflect their colours behind the cascading water.  However, being mid winter, we could not witness much flowers.  The trees towering above the garden have all shed their leaves leaving the branches bare which cast its own charm on the visitors.  The layout of the garden and the architecture, i.e. whatever is remaining is marvelous.  In the wintry morning the garden seemed as if it has shed its ornamental and extraneous clothing to reveal its true beauty.

The next garden visited is Nishat Bagh (or garden of joy), the largest Mughal garden in the Kashmir Valley.  It is also a terraced garden and said to have as many as twelve terraces representing the Zodiac signs with certain modifications with numerous fountains. And it is said to have started from the shore of the Dal Lake and running upto the façade at the hill end.  Now the garden appears a broad cascade of terraces dotted with avenues of chinar trees and cypress trees.  It is said the lowest terrace has merged with the approach road in recent times.  It seemed much similar to the Shalimar Bagh with its water channels and other features like chinar, cypress, flowering plants and general architecture with minor differences.  On coming out of the garden, we realized that we had spent more than two hours in the two gardens.

All the above three gardens, Chasme Shahi, Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh have ticketed entry.

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A point in Dal Lake covered by Shikara

After coming out of the Mughal gardens, we had Shikara ride in the Dal Lake. The one hour ride in the vast lake rejuvenated our souls and by the time we came out of the water, we felt quite relaxed after the day tour.  While returning to our Hotel, we did shopping in the market alongside the Dal Lake and had our evening tea and snacks.  We preferred to have dinner in our Hotel itself.

The next day was scheduled for visited Gulmarg.  Gulmarg is a popular hill station and skiing destination in the Baramula district of Jammu & Kashmir.  As usual, we started after breakfast in the Hotel to Gulmarg in the morning.  Gulmarg is located about 60 Kms

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The Gulmarg Gandola ride to Kongdoori

in the south-west of Srinagar in the Pir Panjal ranges of Western Himalayas. It takes about 2 to 2 ½ hours to reach Gulmarg via Tanmarg by road.  Our Chauffeur stopped at Tanmarg where he advised to hire a guide and warm clothing and gum boots and to freshen up.   We had tea and light snacks there before proceeding further.  Our driver told us that from Tanmarg it is about 10 Kms uphill to Gulmarg.  We witnessed awesome and picturesque beauty of the valley below all along the climb, stopping to click photos through Mobile phone cameras from some vantage points on the way.  Our guide, a college student in his early twenties, was explaining about various places, Gulmarg, skiing places, Gandola ride (the rope-way) to reach the skiing destinations.

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The Kongdoori mountains, Gulmarg

Gulmarg town is a saucer shaped place covered with snow from the snowfall of 4-5 days before our arrival.  But still there was enough snow in the area.  First we went for the first stage Gandola ride to Kongdoori at a height of 10100 feet or 3080 metres.  Our guide brought us tickets from the ticket counter.  The view of the natural meadows covered with snow show enclosed parks and forests of green pine and trees down below along the rope-way.  Kongdoori, a lofty mountain adjoining the Apharwat peak, is a bowl shaped area and is famous for skiing and snowboarding and snow scooters and is a popular tourist attraction and a skier’s paradise.  It was thick snow in Kongdoori where our daughters enjoyed snow scooters through the mountain to its peak, while we elders enjoyed walking on the soft snow and our young guide was helping the tourists to the snow scooters, skiing and the like.  On return of our daughters roughly after an hour, we had our lunch in makeshift restaurant set up at the place and took our return Gandola to Gulmarg town.  At Gulmarg town we enjoyed snowboarding for an hour or so where our guide showed us different points of interest.  in Gulmarg we saw young Kashmiri boys and men are mostly attached with the tourist industry.   Their tourist friendly and courteous behaviour along with their unparalleled camaraderie are appreciable.  Undoubtedly, the youths make your visit adventurous and enjoyable.  In the afternoon, when we started return journey to Srinagar, the chilly wind started blowing.   On our way back, we returned the warm clothing at Tanmarg, paid off our young and very helpful guide, freshened ourselves and had evening tea and snacks.  By the time we reached our Hotel it was getting dark and weather was chilly.

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Lobby, Srinagar Airport

The last morning, i.e. 3rd January, 2018 after breakfast, our driver drove us from our Hotel and dropped at Srinagar Airport in 40 minutes, nearly two and half  hours before scheduled departure of the flight which was at 1.30 P.M.  We thanked our Gentleman Driver who has been a friend, guide, and assistant to us throughout the tour.  The airport area was being guarded by the Army and there are security checks of the vehicle at a number of places at the entrance road.  At the Airport also there is a thorough security check, it being a sensitive Airport.  Therefore, one should reach airport 2-3 hours in advance.  In case one needs, there are shops in the Airport lounge, where one could buy different dry fruits, souvenirs and other items.   Again, because of bad weather at Jammu and Delhi, our flight departed much behind schedule at Srinagar and Jammu Airports so much so that we became apprehensive of cancellation of the flights which would have caused us immense inconvenience and uncertainty as we were on a package tour.  At last, to our great relief, our flight departed from Jammu Airport in the evening and we reached Delhi nearly 5 hrs behind schedule.  When we took a cab and reached our home, it was around 10 P.M.   Thus, we got everything in our weekend tour to Kashmir, the anxiety, adventure, and a great enjoyable and wonderful tour.

For the wonderful experience we are thankful to (i) the ‘MakeMyTrip.com’ online portal who arranged the Package tour with the bookings of flights, hotel, and chauffeur driven AC cab; (ii) Hotel Solar Residency, Srinagar and its staff who were very cooperative and served delicious food; (iii) the Chauffeur of the Cab who was both guide and driver and was quite friendly and courteous: (iii) the young Guide at Tanmarg who helped us for the Gulmarg adventure; and (iv) the young and teenage snowboarding helpers for their immense help.

NOTE:  (1)  The to and fro air travel from Delhi to Srinagar was by Spicejet airline.  The package cost was about Rs.75,000/- which included to and fro air tickets, hotel stay for 3 nights with complimentary breakfast, airport – hotel transport, chauffeur driven AC cab for Srinagar and for visiting Gulmarg.  Entry tickets to the Mughal Gardens and Shikara ride in Srinagar and the Gandola ride and charges for the Guide, warm clothing/ boots and snow sports, in Gulmarg etc are not included and were paid by us on the sight.

(2)  The max-min temperatures in Srinagar during the period ranged between +6 to -6/7 degree Celsius, that too when there was no snow fall in the City, till we left.

(3)  One should have enough leverage of time while preparing itinerary to visit Kashmir in winter by any mode of travel due to uncertain weather conditions which may change in no time, halting your travel.

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