Corbett Prep

The year was 2009. Digital India and UPIs were a distant utopian dream. And all transactions had to be done in cash. So our first day in the vicinity of the Corbett National Park wasn’t spent gazing at the sylvan wonders of ancient forests and wild animals but walking the sunbaked streets of Ramnagar in the 45 degree heat looking for an ATM. It felt like a trial by fire one had to suffer to get a little peek at peace.

To make matters worse, every ATM I went to had some issue. The network would randomly disconnect leading to momentary panic or a weird red light would blink in the middle of entering your pin or the machine would just turn off while you were waiting for your cash or, of course, the most predominant malfunction of them all, it would just not have any money. Eventually, the one that did work was one that I was sure wouldn’t work, an unguarded Canara Bank ATM decorated with cobwebs in a grungy building.

Thankfully, we did not have to wander so far and wide in search of a driver to get us into the park. AR got in touch with PC, a self-proclaimed veteran of Corbett, who said he knew every nook and cranny of the jungle. His rates were more attractive than his pitch, a highly reasonable 2000 Rs. per day. He took us on a tour of the bureaucracies of the forest department, made us fill forms and pay fees, paperwork that might have taken us days to figure out if we were doing it by ourselves.

The Forest Rest House at Dhikala was the best place to stay, he said, and if we couldn’t get a bed there, we could try bribing the forest officer with a piece of chicken early in the morning. We thought he was joking and laughed it off. But PC wasn’t kidding. Early next morning at 5 am, when we were waiting in line to submit our forms to get our permits, PC asked me to hurry up and get some chicken because apparently his insider scoop had revealed that Dhikala was completely booked. Neither AR nor I were that desperate to stay in Dhikala and we did not want to jeopardize this trip with some silly act of bribery. So we had to disappoint PC who looked quite crestfallen when we gave him the news.

Every other establishment on the main street in Ramnagar appeared to have some direct or tertiary connection to the tiger tourism industry. You could casually wander into a roadside mobile store to recharge a prepaid card and find the guy asking you if you needed a gypsy. You could be eating in a restaurant and find the waiter wearing a tiger t-shirt wondering aloud if you wished to stay at a resort owned by his friend’s uncle where you could wallow in unimaginable luxuries.

Right before we were to leave into the Corbett jungles, I went to a local café to get a quick bite because I did not know when the next meal would come by. There were no customers here and the walls were decorated with humongous pictures of tigers demolishing all manner of prey. A big man with a big moustache sat behind the cashier’s desk and glared at me. There were no waiters about.

“I’d like to order some food please”, I said.

“Only dal roti chawal here”, said the big man.

“Okay, I’ll have that”, I said, disappointed that I couldn’t get a last meaty meal before heading to the jungles where such pleasures were forbidden.

“Did you take these pictures?”, I said.

“Yes”, he said, “I’m an award-winning photographer. If you go with me, you can also take award-winning photographs.”

“Go with you where? Aren’t you running this restaurant?”

“This is just a part-time business. I take whoever eats here on safaris. Do you want to go?”

“I would love to”, I said, “But my permits are already done and I’ve already paid a driver to take me and a friend.”

“That’s a pity”, he said, “If you come with me, you’re certain to see the tiger. I know its behaviour very well. I can smell it many miles away, which no one else here can.”

“There’s always a next time”, I said.

“There won’t be a next time if you don’t see a tiger. Most tourists get disappointed when they don’t see one and never come back.”

“I’ll definitely come back even if I don’t see a tiger.”

“Who are you going with?”

“We’ve hired this man named PC.”

He burst into a laughing fit.

“PC?”, he said, trying to bring himself under control, “You’re going with PC? Then you’ll never come back.”

“Why?”, I said.

“We have a nickname for PC. You can ask any operator here.”

“What nickname?”

“We call him barking deer.”

Another laughing fit.

“And what do they call you?”

“Tiger”, he said, beaming with pride.

Full marks for entrepreneurial zeal, I thought.

“I would love to continue this conversation but I’m getting late”, I said, “Thank you for the meal. I’ll definitely see you when I come back.”

“Tell barking deer Tiger said hi”, he said, bursting into another laughing fit.

Barking deer was waiting in his gypsy. It was a long ride to Gairal, he said, and we had to make it by noon. I told him about “Tiger” and asked him if what he said was true.

“Yes, he is a tiger”, he said, “And if you go with him he’ll also eat you up like a tiger. These people say anything to trick and fool tourists. I’m a straightforward man. I don’t give any guarantees. Maybe you’ll see a tiger, maybe not. Only a very few people who go in see one. It all depends on your luck. If your luck is good, you might see one right now.”

And on that note, off we rode into the legendary jungles of the Corbett National Park.

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Ramnagar

S had to report back to duty at the TRH. So although we would have loved to stay longer at his rustic abode, we had to make a move after a couple of days of tramping up and down the hills. His village was one of those tranquil idylls with no road connectivity. The roadhead where we could catch a bus or share jeep to Almora was in Dhaulachina, a trek of a few miles through the forest.

This would have been fine if we were walking freely with our daypacks. But both A and particularly I were loaded with luggage. A didn’t have a problem because he carried one heavy rucksack that had all his belongings. But I had about 20 kilos of extra baggage full of books scored at Mr. Arora’s bookstore in Dehradun and these items were packed in an unwieldy sling bag.

S volunteered to carry one of the bags for me but the proud idiot that I was, I steadfastly refused the offer. As a result, I found myself stopping every 5 minutes to gasp for breath and drink water. The undulating terrain, the ton of luggage and my general lack of fitness took a weary toll. At one point, A and S had a lead of over 2 kilometers over me and I was going so slowly that S had the time to run back home for an errand and find me just a 100 meters ahead on his way back.

It all made S a very angry man. He snatched the sling bag from my hands and ran ahead and beckoned me to walk faster because he had to get back to work in 3 hours and the walk was long and we might even miss our transport if we didn’t hurry up. The sling bag and the books was a particular target of S’s fury. Who brings books on a trip to the hills, he yelled. That too, so many of them. He had never seen me reading any of them, so what was the purpose of lugging so many along? They would have been more useful to set up a fire at night when it got cold. And why the hell was I carrying a sling bag? Had I never traveled before?

When we reached the roadhead, we bid goodbye to S and promised to return to stay with him some day. “Don’t bring this bag next time”, he said, wagging a finger in my face. You live and you learn.

We had time to kill before a tempo or a sumo or a milk van or a bus would take us to Almora. So a simple lunch of dal, roti, veggies was consumed at a grungy dhaba run by an elderly gentleman. Two labourers sat in a corner sipping cups of chai. They were from Nepal and had been working on a tourist resort on a hillside above Dhaulachina for 4 months. “Life must be very hard for you guys”, I said, still as clumsy and awkward with conversation as ever. “Not at all”, one of them replied, “This is good work and we don’t ever want to go back.” “What about your family?”, I said. “They’ll be fine. They’re probably happier that we are here. When we make enough money and buy a house, we’ll bring them here.”

At that note of big dreams and high hopes, a sumo with two vacant seats at the back arrived to take us to Almora. Both A and I had been to the town so many times in the month that we had no desire to spend any more time there. But we hadn’t checked our emails or the internet for a while, so we made a pitstop at a local cybercafe near Bansal Hotel before deciding how to make a push to our next destination.

We knew we were going to the Corbett National Park but we hadn’t figured out how to manage expenses on what would certainly be an expensive trip. We had left messages on the indiamike forums looking for people who might like to join us to share costs and got a message from just one person, a businessman from Delhi, who said he had already been to Corbett just two weeks before but would have loved to join us not out of interest but out of pity but couldn’t even if he wished to because he had other plans.

So after some samosa chaat and chai at Bansal Hotel, we scrambled down the steep stairs that led to the lower main road to catch a jeep to Haldwani. It was dark by the time we reached the town and I was hoping to rest up in a hotel because it had already been quite a hectic day with the hike and traveling and internet surfing and if left to my languid self, I would have done each of these activities on separate days. But A was a hardier traveler and he wished to push on to Ramnagar the same night and to Corbett NP early next morning.

His arguments were persuasive. Why would anyone want to spend a night in Haldwani?, he said. I don’t know, I said with a shrug, new town, maybe there’s a market, good food somewhere but even as I was saying these words, I knew my reasoning made very little sense. So we had a hasty meal of dal, roti, sabzi at a local dhaba and rushed to catch the first bus to Ramnagar we could.

We didn’t really have to rush because there was a bus to Ramnagar running every half an hour. It wasn’t a particularly crowded bus either, which made me wonder why so many buses ran between the two towns. Nevertheless, we got front seats and it was a comfortable ride on flat tarmacked roads of the plains, which after a couple of months of winding Himalayan terrain, felt like we were cruising on a Boeing.

Ramnagar isn’t the town one would expect at the edge of the most famed tiger reserve in the world. It was worn around the edges like many small roadhead towns were, with blaring horns, busy bazaars, general cluttered mayhem all around. We trudged through the chaos looking for a place to crash and found a windowless room in a dank little hotel for 500 Rs. It had been a tiring day and we crashed as soon as we got to the hotel and resolved to wake up at 5 am the next morning to figure out how to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracies and snag a room inside the famed Corbett Reserve.

The alarm rang at 5 am but neither of us woke up.

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Binsar, May 2009

Anyone who’s been to a National Park in India would know that they tend to be somewhat pricey, especially when you’re traveling like I was, on a budget that’s unlikely to buy you even a shoestring. So I teamed up with A, the fellow solo vagabonder I met on the trek to Pindari, to journey into some of Kumaon’s famed wildernesses.

Binsar National Park, helpfully situated on a hill on the outskirts of Almora, would be our first escapade. As far as we knew, there was only one place to stay within the park, the Tourist Rest House run by KMVN. There were two ways to get there. First, take a bus, get off on the highway and walk 10 miles uphill. Two, hire a cab, go all the way up without putting a foot in the forest. Having walked for a week in the wilderness to Pindari, neither of us were in any mood for option one. So option two it was.

The rates for the rooms at the Binsar TRH were as high as its altitude. For a couple of dirt-baggers like A and I, it was way out of our league. Nevertheless, since we had ventured so far and the way back was both a bit long and depressing, we made an exception, even if just for a night. We got a taste of what people who spent all that money were getting in return, which was, to be perfectly honest, not very much. The room was somewhat spacious and reasonably clean but essentially it served the same purpose as our 300 Rs. rooms in various towns did, put a roof over our heads and give us a place to pee and shit in.

Anyway, A made the best of an expensive situation. He got his laptop out, put on some jazz and blues, ordered some beer and food. He wondered if I liked this sort of music. I didn’t but the pathological liar that I was, I tried to fake my way out of the situation by namedropping some artists I claimed I liked, B B King, Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Miles Davis etc. (I knew the names but had heard very little of the music). But when he asked if I knew which songs were playing, I got caught out because I couldn’t identify even the most popular jazz/blues classics.

It would have been a bit of a waste to come all the way up here and not explore the ornithological treasures that lay hidden in the jungles around because it was, after all, first and foremost, a bird sanctuary. So we hired a guide through the reception who woke us up at the unearthly hour of 5.30 am for a stroll up the steep slopes of the oak and pine forests.

To A’s delight and my profound displeasure, S was an extremely enthusiastic guide who knew his birds. Whenever he heard a bird call, he rushed up the hill and urged us to run up with him. A, being fit and healthy, had no trouble doing this. But I, being borderline obese, huffed and puffed up and by the time I got up, the bird would have flown.

A was also way more efficient with organizing information. While I depended solely on my memory to remember all the birds I saw (the reason why I couldn’t remember half of them when I sat down to write a list later that night in my notebook), A had brought a pen along and had scribbled their names on his entire arm.

We saw a lot of birds. We saw birds I never knew existed in colours I had never seen before. The Eurasian Jay, the Blue Whistling Thrush, the Green Backed Tit, the Grey Canary-headed Flycatcher, the Oriental Turtledove among a couple of dozen others. But of them all, S’s favorite bird would become my favorite too, a tiny creature with a red belly that loved to perch high up on a tree and you had to squint very hard to see, the Scarlet Minivet.

On our way back to the TRH, we felt a bit unhappy about having to check out after breakfast. The adrenaline rush after seeing so many birds scrambling up and down the hills was so high that we (and especially A) wanted more of it. Hearing us whine so much, S had enough of it and invited us to stay with him in his house for a few days.

So we packed our backs and scrambled down to his rustic wood and stone house built in traditional Kumaoni architecture in a village on a hillside populated with steep terraced rice fields. It was a lovely setting redolent with birdsong and barking dogs. Chilling on the wooden verandahs, we could glimpse distant birds on treetops with S’s binoculars. This also gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with the man.

A girl from Brazil had spent 25 days at his guest house, he said. She knew more about birds than he did. He felt envious because she truly loved the forest and the birds while he learnt about them only because it was his profession. Given a choice, he would have done something else. But there was nothing else to do. The school in his village barely gave him any education to compete for good jobs with people in big cities. Many of his childhood friends were in cities like Delhi and Mumbai looking for work but some came back failing to make money and wasted away their lives in the village. He was lucky enough to know someone who taught him to identify birds and make a bit of money doing it. If he wasn’t doing this, he would be in one of the labour markets in the towns and cities putting his body on the line.

There was nothing in the forest, he said. It might be romantic for people like us but for him, it was a means to an end. He would rather someone cut some of it down and build a resort or something so people like his friends who had failed to find work in urban India could find some sustenance.

So why didn’t he teach his friends how to identify birds and help them make a living out of this?

It wasn’t easy to learn how to do this, he said. He was taught from a very young age and it was a lot of hard work. And there were already many guides doing this work, more guides than there were tourists. Work was available only for 4 months a year. So there was no point in teaching hundreds of others. It would be easier for them to find a job as a driver or a woodcutter or pick kidajadi (magic herbs) for the Chinese.

Then something caught his eye and he galloped down the stairs in excitement. Perched on a dead trunk of a tree miles away was a Verditer Flycatcher. It was barely a dot in the distance but S could spot and identify it with his naked eye. This sighting spurred us on another venture up the forest in search of more avian life. We saw the Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush, more Eurasian Jays, a Long Tail Broadbill and more flycatchers.

On the way back, we had to clamber up the steep terraced rice fields until we came to a spot where local village boys were playing cricket. A and I did not join because the games looked fairly serious and every time the ball went any distance, someone had to gallop down the rice terraces to fetch it. S looked quite the batsman and had no mercy for the fielders as he clobbered the bowling with flashy slogs to all parts of the mountains.

All that exertion made us terribly hungry. We waited patiently for S’s mother and sister to finish cooking meals for the family. It was simple fare, dal, roti, rice, a vegetable garnished with local herbs, but it was more wholesome and delectable than the expensive food we had at the tourist resort the night before.

There was nothing to do after dinner. A didn’t feel like taking out his laptop. I didn’t feel like going to sleep. So we sat quietly in the dark of the night outside, trembling in the chilly air and staring at a million stars above. The best things in life did come cheap, we thought.

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And we’re back… maybe

A few months ago, perhaps fueled by covid 19 induced insecurities (both mental and financial), I made an impulsive announcement about shutting down this site/blog/whatever it is. But then, on the brink of the expiration of the domain, I felt a painful pang about letting go of something I’ve put some degree of time and effort over the years, regardless of the meagre rewards they might have brought.

So, I don’t know what this is going to lead to. More posts, less posts, no posts but for the time being, the site is up and alive. One thing I do hope for is fewer kneejerk “content” like the previous post. I haven’t traveled in the last 2 years, so if I do end up writing something for the blog, it’ll be recounting old memories of old travels.

Let’s see where this goes and what happens.

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And that’s a wrap…

This blog began like my travels began, on an impulse. It was my fifth year on the road and my third month living in a dirt cheap apartment in Benaulim in Goa. I was having my usual G&T at my usual bunghole bar where I was a familiar enough face for the usual waiters to know what I wanted. I was sitting alone, so I took out the book I was reading, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, his follow up to The Great Railway Bazaar and as I was reading a somewhat cringey passage about his “adventures” in the “offbeat” slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, I got triggered.

I began wondering if I could do what he’s doing. Sure, he was a good writer but I wasn’t terrible at putting a few sentences together either and I sure won’t do cliched shit like slum tourism or going to meet famous writers in famous cities. I also had been through shit (this is not going to be a very literary post) like breaking my ankle ligaments in Varanasi, getting stuck in a flood in Ayutthaya, being stranded for 2 weeks with no money in a remote isolated region in Ladakh, breaking all the bones in my left arm in a nasty travel accident and getting a surgery in a Laos-Chinese Friendship hospital in Laos, falling in and out of love numerous times, crazy conversations with crazy people etc. etc. I also had 5 years worth of travel notes that had been ever accumulating in dusty unread diaries.

So yeah, I had stuff to write about and I thought I should do it immediately. And I did. I took a train back to Mumbai, sat with my friend and business partner drinking expensive coffee and hot chocolate in cafes and we bought the domain and a theme. I wanted the blog to be different from the usual travel blog, all text, no pictures, more literary (so it could turn into a book later) and less click-baity than your standard successful travel blog that makes a lot of money. In hindsight, that would have been a good idea if I had stuck to it.

But eventually, the blog turned out to be very similar to how my mind worked i.e. cluttered, messy, disorganized, impatient, sporadic. Because I had traveled for so long and to so many places, I thought I would do a non-linear arrangement of events and places. Then a few months on, when I didn’t see much readership or engagement, I switched to posting only pictures. This brought more traffic and eventually, when I married pictures to posts, it led to an even higher readership. When I dumbed down my posts, making them less about the stories and more about “content”, the blog did even better. The only posts of mine which ever ranked on google (on pages 10-20) were lists of restaurants I ate at in popular tourist towns.

This was soul-destroying. So I would go back to writing about my stories from the road. But then no one would read and I would let the blog stagnate for a year. Once in a while, I would remember this site existed and I would try rejuvenating it with a rapid flurry of posts, generally a mix of pictures, writing and click-baity nonsense, then get exhausted and let it die again.

The posts I genuinely enjoyed writing were the all-text-no-pics freewheeling travel stories but they began extracting a mental toll when people wouldn’t read them. I had to learn the hard way that creation is a two way street and that without validation, it feels somewhat meaningless. It especially hurt when people I considered my friends and who I thought would be interested in reading my stories never read them. I’m not blaming anyone and while I used to feel bitter earlier, I don’t feel that anymore because ultimately everyone has a finite amount of time and no one has the time to consume everything and if people weren’t reading, the fault lay entirely in my court for not writing what they perhaps wished to read.

None of this would have mattered if the blog had monetized. Because then there would at least be an economic reason for it to exist. But I have always been uncomfortable with selling out, not because of the act itself (money is always good) but because of the compromises you had to make to sell out. There is a certain kind of travel blogger who makes money writing “content” with the requisite amount of SEO keywording, shortening lines, doing lists, breaking paragraphs with pictures, being happy and positive etc. But when I tried to do that, it sucked the soul out of me. I don’t want to throw any shade at people who do this sort of thing and make money (you gotta do whatever works for you or makes you happy) but this made me feel downright miserable.

Last year, during the pandemic, I thought I would let the domain expire quietly. But just before it was about to expire, I bought it again. I did an expensive shift from wordpress.com to wordpress.org, bought a new host, revamped it with a new theme. Then I spent a month reading travel blogs and watching tutorials on youtube to find ways to monetize it. I rewrote some of my earlier pieces to be more SEO friendly, made some highly generic listy posts, connected adsense etc. Like before, this only made me feel terrible.

I’m inherently cynical about market forces that force you to mould yourself to more marketable ends. I had (and still entertain) ideas of being a good “writer” (and maybe there’s a long way to go before I become one) and all the wrestling I had to do with SEO and keyphrasing felt entirely at odds with what I really wanted to become good at.

I wanted my blog/website to be more pure and authentic and I did not want anyone reading to see an ad in every corner. But with all the money I had put into it, it had to make some revenue and if it wasn’t, I was losing precious income I couldn’t afford to lose. So the only option I have now is to shut it down. It might be up for a couple of months before the domain expires for good.

Sincere thanks to everyone who read what I wrote and apologies for letting the site meander in so many directions over the years. Cheers.

 

 

 

 

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The Markets, Palaces and Streets of Mysore

Mysore palace lit in the evening
The Mysore Palace illuminated in the evening

When you wander the quiet streets of the city of Mysore, you travel back in time. This city of big blue skies, grand pavilions, glittery palaces and age old markets was once the capital of the Mysore State, renamed to Karnataka in the year 1973.

I’ve been to the city a number of times and have always loved to linger longer than I planned. It’s a convenient escape from the more metropolitan hustle of Bangalore. It also provides a useful base to explore the hill stations of Coorg and Ooty and the National Parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole.

The cool air and the quiet, lazy pace of the city often lulls me into doing nothing. The food is great in every restaurant you go. From the melt-in-your-mouth dosas at Vinayaka Mylari to fiery Andhra thalis at RRR to the filter coffee at Cafe Aramane, one could spend entire days just eating and drinking.

But the city packs a gallery of easily accessible delights that enable even a lazy soul like myself to do some “sight-seeing”. Some of the places I genuinely enjoyed in my travel to Mysore are…

Mysore Palace

Tourists at the Mysore Palace
Tourists at the Mysore Palace

The biggest attraction in the city is, of course, the Mysore Palace. It’s the erstwhile residence of the Kings of the Wodeyar Dynasty and among the grandest buildings in India. Ornately carved ceilings, graceful arches, glittery chandeliers, mosaic tiles and historic paintings fill the colorful interiors furnished in the Indo-Saracenic style. The audio guide, available at the ticket counter, does a great job of making the Palace come alive with details.

The sprawling complex is populated with wide, open spaces and ancient temples. Elephants and camels roam around the green, expansive grounds of the Palace. Crowds of tourists lounge about and take selfies. And if you like solitude, there are plenty of nooks and corners where you can walk around peacefully.

On Sundays and public holidays, thousands of bright light bulbs illuminate the Palace in the evenings from 7 pm. They make an already beautiful monument even more spectacular.

Devaraja Market

Devaraja market
The old Devaraja Market

The busy, chaotic, aromatic market in Central Mysore might be over a 100 years old but it attracts customers in droves. Here you find flower sellers, vegetable vendors, fruit stalls, hardware, kitchenware, metalware, silk and sandalwood stores jostling for space.

This is the only place many of the city’s residents like to shop. Busy, bustling shoppers throng the shops, making small talk while haggling for deals. The vendors and customers have a knowing bonhomie because of relationships that have been cultivated over many generations.

Sadly, this is perhaps the most fragile of the city’s attractions. The market has endured innumerable fires and disasters and plans are afoot to demolish it altogether to make way for a new one.

Outside the market, there’s a large public square, perfect for people watching. It revolves around the historic, colorful Dufferin Clock Tower named after the Viceroy of India in 1884. Around the tower, more vendors sell fruits and vegetables, often at rates cheaper than inside the market.

Town Hall and Clock Tower

The clock tower of Mysore
The big clock tower

The Mysore Town Hall is an imposing monument with white walls and tall Corinthian columns. It’s also known as Rangacharlu Hall, named after the first dewan of Mysore.

Quaint old fashioned horse carts lounge on the gates outside. One of the gates leads to the statue of Chamarajendra Wodeyar in the wide traffic circle outside the Mysore Palace. The other takes you to the Big Clock Tower, a lot taller and grander than the Dufferin outside Devaraja market.

Chamundi Hill

Pilgrims at the ancient Chamundeshwari temple

No travel to Mysore is complete without a trip to the ancient Chamundeshwari temple in the Chamundi Hills. While the weather in the city is suitably pleasant for most of the year, the air around the temple is suitably cleaner and cooler. Here, street vendors sell coconuts, flowers and ritual items to devout Hindu pilgrims. Groups of monkeys prance around stealing food freaking people out.

The other attractions around the temple are a monolithic sculpture of Lord Shiva’s bull Nandi a few steps down the hill and a colorful statue of the demon Mahishasura in the main traffic circle. The views of the city of Mysore below are spectacular from just about anywhere in the vicinity of the temple.

The exercise freaks might want to take the 1200 stairs leading up to the temple. But the lazier ones can take bus 201, which takes you right up to the temple.

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Palitana #5 – Obstacles

The soda shop guy told me the bus to Shatrunjaya stopped right beside his shop. I waited 15 minutes but when no bus came by, I hailed a rickshaw. The driver wanted 250 rs. for the 4 kms. No way, I said, I’ll wait for a bus even if it takes an hour. Hearing this, the man’s rate magically dropped to 40 Rs. His only condition was that he be allowed to pick up passengers. I congratulated myself on striking such a brilliant bargain and put it down to all the years of budget travel. 

But, as it turned out, all the years of budget travel experience didn’t prepare me for what followed. Because in about 10 minutes, just before the cranky old bridge before the market at the other end of the town, the rickshaw, which ordinarily had the capacity to house 4 people, was bursting at the seams with 10. It was so crammed that I traveled all the way with my left foot precariously dangling outside and other people resting their butts on my right thigh. 

Not everyone was going to Shatrunjaya. Most people were in for short rides. For 2 or 3 extra rupees, the driver was even kind enough to take a detour to take them exactly where they wanted to go. As soon as they got off, they would be replaced with more people. This prolonged my discomfort further because every time someone got off, I had to get off as well to let people out. The driver wouldn’t let me sit in the middle because I was too fat. So every time he had a new passenger, I had to get off to let them in. With the no. of steps I took to get in and off I could have walked all the way. I would have reached faster too because with all the stops and detours, it took us over an hour to traverse the 4 kms to Shatrunjaya. 

The final blow landed when the only other person in the rickshaw, an aged gentleman in a white kurta, got off near his dharamshala and paid only 10 rupees for the trip despite having embarked just a minute after I had. The driver, because he had to rub it in, now began to count the wads of cash he just earned and said I too had to get down because he can’t go any further. I began arguing, the mid day sun heating up my head and making my arguments blisteringly incoherent. But the man just sat there looking at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I looked at the time. It was already close to 2 o’clock and I had to hurry up if I was to have any chance of going to the temples. I also didn’t want to waste my time in a loud confrontation in a town I didn’t belong to. So I just coughed up the 40 Rs. and stormed away angrily. 

I walked the 500 meters to the entrance quickly. Here was a scene of much religious bustle. Jain monks, nuns and pilgrims dressed in white walked up and down with their wooden walking sticks. A mahout fed an elephant in a corner. A line of food and drink stalls served families of exhausted pilgrims who had just finished the pilgrimage. 

You weren’t allowed to wear footwear beyond the security barricades. So I left my slippers dutifully at the locker room and walked up to the security guard to be frisked. He pointed at my rucksack and asked what I was carrying. 

“A camera”, I said. 

“Why are you carrying a camera? Are you a journalist?” 

“No”, I said with a forced smile, “Just a tourist.” 

“Do you have a written permission?” 

“No.” 

“Then camera not allowed. Either get a permission from the office or keep it in the locker.” 

It wasn’t my day, I thought, and ran over to the “office”.

There were so many people crammed in the little I didn’t know who I was supposed to ask for a permit. Then I spotted an elderly man dressed in a white robe in a corner. 

“Sab theek hai? (Is everything all right?), he asked as soon as he approached him, “You look very tense.” 

“Yes, I need permission for a camera”, I said breathlessly. 

The man laughed. “Haha I thought something bad had happened. Are you a photographer?” 

“Yes.” 

“You work for a newspaper?” 

“No.” 

“A magazine?” 

No.” 

“Then how are you a photographer? You won’t get permission.

I was at my wit’s end and in my desperation to get a permit, told him about what a woeful day I had. I hoped that he would help me get one out of pity. Jain monks might be influential in these affairs I thought. The man listened patiently with a wide smile on his face and then said, “So you had a bad day. Maybe what you need are prayers and blessings, not pictures.” 

“Maybe”, I said, “But I would really love the permit. It will immediately make this a good day. Can you help me get one?” 

“Tell me one thing. What would you do with the pictures?” 

“I will keep them as memories and put them online for people to see.” 

“But there are already thousands of Palitana photos on the internet. Surely you can just look at them if you want to remember the place.” 

“Maybe yes. But these will be my own pictures.” 

“That’s where you’re wrong. They won’t be your pictures. Just because you own a camera and click the shutter doesn’t make those pictures yours. The pictures belong to God and Lord Mahavir and his followers over thousands of years who built this temple. All you would have done is climb up the stairs and taken a shot. There is no need for you to do that.” 

“I don’t know…” I said, tentatively. 

“Take my advice. You’re having a bad day. Go back to your hotel. Wake up early tomorrow morning before dawn and see the temples with true devotion. This is not a tourist place. It’s a pilgrimage. And I promise you, when you come back down, you’ll feel a lot better than you feel today.” 

I nodded my head resignedly and as I was about to leave he said, “But don’t be so sad. If all you want to do is take pictures, you can take your phone and take pictures with it. No one needs a permit for that.” 

“That’s good to know”, I said. 

“But what would actually help your soul is if you woke up early and saw the temples with your own eyes than the camera’s eyes. I can’t help you get a permit but I can help you see the temples. I will begin my walk up at 5 a.m. You’re free to join me if you want. I’ll be right here.” 

“I’ll try”, I said, “I usually go to sleep at 5. 

“Where are you staying?”, he asked. 

I told him. 

“Oh”, he said with a laugh, “Then no problem. I’ll make sure you wake up.” 

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