Katarmal

This is a continuation of my Almora post.

“Tell me, how much money do you need to stay happy?”

“I don’t know, the more the better”, I said.

“Why do you need more? If you have a place to sleep, some food to eat and clothes to wear, why do you need more? Happiness is to be content with what you have no?”

“I don’t know. What if I get sick? Get cancer or something? That could be an expensive blow.“

“But if you get cancer, your life is fucked anyway. So why not live a happy life till then and just die when you get really sick? That’s how humans lived until the Industrial Revolution. Today, because of good medicine, there are too many humans. Maybe we should just die when we can’t live anymore instead of using up resources that healthier people need. Animals live that way no? We are animals too. Only we forgot somewhere who we really are.”

As P continued his anthropological thesis on the evils of the institution of money, we had climbed the steep flight of stairs to the ancient Sun Temple complex at Katarmal. This largely barebones cluster of ruins at the top of a forested hill was a ghostly sight with wind-battered carvings on its stony walls. Built in the 9th century by the Katyuri kings, it’s now a largely forgotten, unknown yet monumentally important temple, a rare ode to the Lord Surya (Sun) set deep in a Himalayan kingdom. Far down below the Kosi river wound about the pine forested valley. A lone pujari sat underneath a crumpled door staring at the mountains beyond. It was a truly tranquil spot with only the ruminations of P and the cooing of the birds filling the air.

This tranquillity would soon be rudely disturbed by the arrival of a group of noisy school kids. P was thrilled at this sight and went across to talk to them. When two of the kids saw that I was being awkward and aloof, they came around to troll me.

One of them pointed at P and asked, ‘Woh kaun hai?” (Who is he?)

 “Mera dost hai”, I said.  (He’s my friend)

The other boy said, “Tum kaun ho?” (Who are you?)

“Uska dost.” (His friend)

“Tumhara naam kya hai?” (What’s your name?)

“Bala”, I said.

The kid, disappointed with the straight answer, “Bala kya hota hai? Tum mote ho. Aaj se tumhara naam Motu Ram hai.” (What the hell is Bala? You’re fat. From today, your name is Fat Man.)

The other kid pointed at me, laughed and yelled, “Motu Ram hahaha Motu Ram. Tumhara naam Motu Ram.”

I became deeply annoyed at having to endure this when I was having such a peaceful time. So I went over to P and asked him if he wanted to get out of there. P wondered if I was crazy. “Why do you want to go? These children are so beautiful!” The children saw that I was unhappy and resolved make me unhappier by screaming “Motu Ram” in a chorus. P became curious about what the children were yelling.

‘What is Motu Ram?”, he asked in puzzlement.

“He’s a comicbook superhero from India”, I said.

“How interesting? What does he do?”

“He could change his shape and size to fit any situation.”

“Amazing. And they call you this? Why?”

“Because they think I’m cool I guess”, I said, trying to hide the mental torture I was going through.

“So that’s good no? Why you look so sad?”

I made up an excuse about feeling somewhat sick and wanting to take a crap. P nodded sympathetically and continued playing with the kids with the sort of joyful glee that made him so disarmingly amiable. He walked on his hands, juggled balls, made coins disappear, pulled faces, all of which kept the kids thoroughly enthralled. P’s repertoire of tricks was so extensive that this would have continued all day but the lone pujari sitting underneath the crumpled doorway thought he had had enough and yelled at the kids to go back home. P looked dejected at this rude turn of events and we quietly made our way down to the riverside town of Kosi.

When we reached the town, P said he had checked out of our hotel in Almora and was moving to a little hut in Kasar Devi. I looked at his little day pack and asked when he was going to pick up the rest of his luggage. P ripped open his bag to reveal 2 t-shirts, a pyjama, a towel, some undies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.

“This is all I have”, he said, “I don’t need anything more.”

He invited me to stop by at his placei to see if I too wished to make the move. It was a 5 km walk from Kosi and P insisted we walk all the way. We cut through steep pine-forested slopes, passed many flocks of sheep, walked through perilously precipitous trails and came to a clearing with a few huts strewn about.

His hut was as bare as they come, an empty concrete shell with a hole in the wall to let in some air and light and zero furnishings. There was no bed, no place to keep your things, no bathroom and the floor was dusty and covered with a mossy mould.

“Where are you going to sleep?”, I asked.

“On the floor”, he said with a smile.

“And where are you going to shit?”

“In the woods.”

“How much are you paying for this place?”

“I don’t pay anything. The only thing you give here is love. Isn’t that great?”

A tall, lanky American guy with a long beard, grey rastafarian hair, saffron robes and a benevolent smile entered the scene and gave P a long bear hug.

“Hare Krishna! How are you, my man? So good to see you!”, he said, “I see you have brought some guests.” Then he turned to me and said, “Welcome, brother, to our humble abode. I see this is your first day here. You’ll love it. Here, you’re only gonna hear the birds sing, the winds blow, the leaves rustle and the sounds of peace and tranquillity. You’re gonna love it.”

P looked at me expectantly in the hope that I would grab this opportunity wholeheartedly. But all this talk of love and cheer was making me nauseous and there was no way in hell that I was going to shit in the woods or sleep on a mossy floor when I could afford the 250 Rs. at the Bansal Hotel in Almora which was a mere 6 kms away.

So I declined the offer as politely as I could and bid adieu to P and his rastafarian friend who were both a bit puzzled at my decision. P was sad to see me go back to a more materialistic world but he gave me a long hug perhaps to suggest all was forgiven.

“I hope you remember all we talked about. You’re smart. Don’t be a slave”, he said, as a parting shot. I nodded and walked down to the road to hail a taxi back to Almora.

Continue Reading

Rishikesh #3 – Joseph and the “Beetles”

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series. Do check out #1 and #2.

Everything I knew about Joseph was second hand information that had filtered through multiple conversations with the ashram gossip machine named Jasbir.

Joseph was disillusioned with life and love after his ex-girlfriend had dumped him when she found out he was cheating on her with two other girls. After this event, he realized that she was the girl he was truly in love with and that he needed to “fix” his playboy traits and work at being a decent human being to get her back in his life. But there appeared to be no one to guide him along this path as all his friends had the same sexual perversions he did and far from making him remedy his path, they believed the only way to feel better was to fuck around even more. Fucking around was apparently easy for Joseph because women were just queuing up to get into bed with him. After half a dozen one night stands, each more depressing than the last, he had had enough and left Vasco in search of spiritual solace.

Looking at Joseph, his curly hair, somewhat visible paunch and shy, contemplative, aloof demeanor, it was difficult to believe that he was this debonair playboy that he claimed he was. Nevertheless, he left Vasco not for the Himalayas but Arambol in North Goa for some peace and quiet. There, between blurry drinkathons, heavy pot smoking and more depressing sex, he was directed by an Italian backpacker towards the Osho ashram in Pune. Joseph was sceptical about going to Pune because he thought it would only mean more sex and less spiritual growth but the Italian convinced him to disregard the scandalous rumours about the place and go for it because the Osho style was all about meditation and zen.

Joseph spent 2 weeks at the Osho ashram. He was initially taken aback at the HIV tests and the orientation course for Indian people teaching them how to behave but he went with the flow. The Italian guy appeared to be right. At the beginning, all he did was meditate in the mornings and join in the celebrations and the parties in the evenings which were completely asexual. He found the people at the ashram amiable, open and easy to talk to. He also felt like his mind had expanded with peace and love and was on the verge of indulging in more meaningful experiences. Soon, he got talking to a Spanish girl who was open to his overtures despite the stringent warnings issued to foreigners by the ashram authorities to be wary of “local” people.

This, he felt, was true love because for the first time since his girlfriend had left him, he felt compassion for another human being. But, alas, it would be short lived. The Osho ashram was an expensive place to live and many of the ashram guests stayed at budget lodgings elsewhere. Joseph was 25 years old and jobless and had chosen to dwell in relative luxury at the Osho resort with his new Spanish girlfriend. He had been spending his father’s money and while his father was quite a wealthy man, some wealthy people don’t like their kids emptying their hard-earned bank accounts like drinking water down the drain. Joseph’s father called him one afternoon and told him that if he doesn’t return to Vasco immediately and help with family business, he won’t be giving his son any more money. Joseph then thought it fit to inform him about the Spanish girlfriend he was courting at the Osho ashram and his plans to marry this woman. His father became furious and cut off all access to his credit card.

Joseph had about 50,000 Rupees left in his bank account and had no choice but to leave the ashram. His girlfriend left him the moment he told her the truth and he became a broken man again. He was angry at his father for putting him in this situation and resolved never to go back. Miserable and forlorn, he spent the next two days on the platform of the Pune Railway station subsisting on 15 rupee Janata meals and sleeping on platform benches. One evening, he saw a saffron clad baba gently stroking his rudraksh mala while sitting on a bench next to him. This sight appeared to bring a semblance of hope to his crushed soul and he followed the baba in a crowded unreserved compartment to Ujjain and then to Haridwar. The baba refused to take him as a disciple as he didn’t feel Joseph was ready for the rigours of spiritual penance yet. But he didn’t abandon him entirely as he directed him towards the basic courses taught by his good friend Swami D at his Swarg Ashram abode. In its spartan setting, he got by on less than 200 rupees a day while filling the religious vacuum in his head.

The Ganga café and The Last Chance café on the way to the Beatles ashram at one end of Swarashram were favourites among the Ram Jhula side travelers. The Last Chance Café promised “good vibrations” and “jam sessions” and was popular among the more colourfully hippie Rishikesh dwellers, some of whom considered themselves to be spiritual descendants of Bob Marley. The Ganga cafe was close to the river, outdoors, where the food was clean and backpacker friendly without having the sort of overloaded multicuisine menu that you found elsewhere in the town and had a pleasing vibe for the less colourful travelers who could sit freely smoking hash, discussing ashram politics, dipping into the travel grapevine, swapping stories etc.

One day I was sitting at the Ganga cafe with Joseph talking about life and love and all that sort of thing when two white men ran inside, dropped their daypacks on the ground, took off their shirts in a tearing hurry and jumped into the river. Another Japanese man followed, took off all his clothes except for his undies and rolled on the sandy floor writhing in pain. A woman came limping in howling with agony, sat down, probably realised she had to respect the sensibilities of the cultural and religious hub she was in and couldn’t do what the guys did, put her head on the table and weeped uncontrollably. The Japanese guy then got up, went into the kitchen and began frantically begging for ice. But there wasn’t any ice to be found as the people inside cooking our food looked as puzzled and amused as the rest of us. He kicked the tables and screamed in agony.

Mike, Dan, Hiroko and Catherine, who had invaded our café in distress, had been staying in a cheap guest house in the Lakshman Jhula area and had walked all the way here to visit the now dilapidated Beatles ashram. While exploring some of its more hidden and ruinous crevices, Hiroko had disturbed an active beehive and as a result, they got stung by bees all over their bodies. Mike, when he had sufficiently recovered from his stings smirked and said, “Now we could tell people we went to the ‘Beetles’ Ashram. Get it? Beetles?” It was our turn to groan in agony.

Catherine was still in a bad mood and had slumped on her table all by herself. No one had the nerve or the interest to go up to her to ask how she was. No one other than Joseph i.e. While other people and I were chatting up and joking around with Mike, Dan and Hiroko, Joseph had slunk away to Catherine and began sweet-talking her. I felt like he was a completely different man to the one I knew over 3 days. He was gregarious, lively, humorous. It was the first time any of the stories I heard from Jasbir rang true. In a few minutes, both had disappeared from the café.

I would learn later that evening that Joseph came by the ashram, took all his belongings and checked out of the place. It would be an entire week before any of us would see him again.

Continue Reading

Shillong – Intro, Getting There, Cafe Shillong

Until the end of October, 2017 was a lean travel year by the standards of every other year I’ve had post-2009. Aside from a month in Tamil Nadu, a couple of weeks in Gujarat, a trip to Kolkata for my brother’s wedding, most of it was spent consolidating and editing the ton of pictures I had taken over 8 years, painstakingly organizing all my travel notes and replenishing my ever diminishing bank balance by saving up. I also had to deal with travel fatigue, saturation and burn out and my middle-aged body (I’m in my mid-30s) ached for rest after years of bumpy rides, bad food and poor sleep.

So the only reasons I went to Shillong was because NH7 was happening, Steve Vai was playing, some of my closest friends were going and it would be a short trip that I was hoping to finish in a couple of weeks to resume a monotonous routine in Mumbai. One of my favourite guitar players Uli Jon Roth was scheduled to play in Mumbai in mid-November and I was planning to make it back to the city by then. I certainly did not believe that I had another rough, months-long, largely off-beat exploratory journey left in me for the time being.

But as it turned out, Uli cancelled his tour and I am yet to return to Mumbai as I write this. The 3 hour flight to Guwahati turned into a couple of weeks in the Khasi Hills, a month in Mizoram, a month in Tripura, a couple of weeks in Assam, another month in West Bengal, then Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. So I thought I should recount this journey while it’s still fresh in my memory along with my posts about my travels from other years.

IMG_5610-2

The flight to Guwahati might have been painless but getting to Shillong from the airport was a puzzle we had to solve at the airport. A had booked an Ola cab before we left Mumbai to do the transit to Shillong but when we reached the airport, the driver refused to pick us up and canceled our booking. We had arrived at 8.30 p.m., perhaps not too late for a city like Mumbai but the counters for the cabs to Shillong at the airport had shut down. There were a few cab drivers waiting outside, all approaching us with varying levels of disinterest until one gentleman agreed to ferry us to the city for 800 Rs.

I’m continually amazed at how disorienting it feels when you go from Mumbai to any other city in India. While Mumbai would have been bustling at 9.30 p.m., making you curse the traffic snarls you might have to negotiate even at late-night hours on a holiday, Guwahati looked absolutely deserted. The drive from the airport to the city was a breeze through empty roads and haunted streets. Once we reached Guwahati, our driver’s eagle eye caught a Shillong registered vehicle and in a couple of hours, after a quick meal and a swift ride through the foggy hills, we were in Shillong.

We had booked our hotel in Shillong over a month in advance and it’s a good thing we did because the NH7 clientele appeared to have booked out all accommodation in the city and its tentacled suburbs. The hotel we chose was The Best Holiday Inn which, if you have a budget of over 2.5k INR, I highly recommend. It’s in the quietest of lanes in the Lachumiere area of Upper Shillong and was run with pinpoint efficiency. The room, where R, S and myself were staying was on a higher floor with a good view of All Saints Church and Lower Shillong and was quite spacious even for the 3 of us.

The next morning, we began our Shillong explorations with a gentle amble 2 kilometers down to one of Shillong’s photogenically kitschy park, Ward’s lake. I had been to Ward’s Lake on my first trip to Shillong in 2010 and I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed. It’s fairly clean and well landscaped and is a peaceful place to amble about for an hour or two. Hell, if you can find a seat on one of the benches in the shade, you can plonk yourself here for hours reading a book.

But we didn’t have such luxury of time because there was shopping to do, food to eat and a gig to attend. The Police Bazar area is the prime shopping street in Shillong but R had a hard time finding a decent windcheater for himself. It was a bit weird because if there was one place you would imagine would have good windcheaters for sale, it should have been the capital of the wettest region in the world. After much enquiry and investigation, he found a decent piece at an amiable store run by a man from Mumbai.

Ever since I mentioned the fact that Café Shillong, one of Shillong’s best cafes, did great coffee and awesome steaks, S’s paranoia had kicked in. He had been agonizing over the idea that if it was indeed as good as I claimed it was, there would be a veritable stampede of starving people who would be queuing up outside its doors from the wee hours of the morning to finish off all the food they had in a matter of minutes. So ingrained was this fear in his head that as we were making our way to the café, he laboured at length to convince us not to go because he was certain the food must have run out by the time we got there.

To put it mildly, his fears were overstated. It was entirely empty of people and we had a free choice of tables to occupy. S ordered their signature Pork Spare Ribs, which judging by his orgasmic expressions, must have been quite delicious. I ordered the Smoked pork bastenga, a sour khasi curry with bamboo shoots served with rice, which was a bit too tangy for my taste but had enough texture to make me not regret the choice. I did wish I had ordered a serving of S’s PSR after taking a bite though. R, being vegetarian, made do with a vegetarian burger which he assured us was fantastic. A joined us a little later and ordered a sandwich which also appeared to be fairly satisfactory. The cappuccino (light on the coffee heavy on the milk) was strictly okay and looked like it needed another espresso shot to make it taste more like coffee. Caveats aside, if you’re in Shillong and aren’t on a shoestring budget, this little café in Laitumkhrah is likely to serve you well.

This gastronomic excursion meant we were late to catch the shuttle bus to the venue. I was wondering whether to skip day 1 altogether because very few of the bands lined up played the sort of music I like listening to. But since we had already paid for the tickets, we made a rush to the central bus stand where the shuttle buses operated from. An NH7 shuttle bus rolled past as we hurried into the bus stand desperately hoping we hadn’t missed the last bus out.

Continue Reading

Rishikesh #2 – The ashram group

My room at the ashram wasn’t big. It had a stone platform with a thin mattress that one had to employ as a bed and there were two tiny wooden brackets on the wall acting as makeshift shelves to keep some of your belongings. The message being sent to potential guests was that if you wanted to stay here you better not bring a lot of luggage or have any back issues. For our daily ablutions and nature calls, there were 2 squat toilets and one little enclosure for bathing at the end of a long corridor that had to be shared with 30 rooms. The bathroom ceiling was so low that if you were any taller than 5 foot 5 (most of the guests at the ashram were), you had to wash yourself while sitting on the floor.

The ashram was always full, so there was a long shit-queue early in the morning which made it one of the socializing hubs for the denizens of the ashram. The shit-queue also meant getting to Swami D’s 7 a.m. lectures became a bit tricky. Swami D wasn’t one to take too kindly to people coming late to his pearls of wisdom. So if you woke up any later than 6 a.m. you were probably screwed and would have to fear one of Swami D’s eviction drives. Every single day, I would curse myself for staying there and resolve to look for some other place to stay. But then I would go to the shit-queue and look at the pained faces of Jasbir, Dave, Ranga, Joseph, Pierre, Carol, Jessica, Steve, Linda, Kei, Matt etc., all waiting their turn, all friends I had made in a week at the ashram and all united in their agonies, and I would say, maybe tomorrow.

One of the handful of people who didn’t have to attend Swami D’s lectures was my neighbour, a 78-year old man from Bhadohi named Shambhu because Swami D believed he already possessed all the knowledge and wisdom that he could impart. He was the only ashram guest who had the honour of having chai with Swami D. Shambhuji didn’t have a lot of teeth left and had been staying in his dingy little room for over 4 months. On my first day at the ashram, I slumbered out of bed at 6 a.m. to brush my teeth when I saw Shambhuji standing outside his room looking fresh and dapper ogling at the 6 and a half foot German girl Brenda staying in our row of rooms filling up hot water from the tap in the corner. Jasbir must have seen a scandalized expression on my face because he came up to me and said, “Woh kya hai ki Uncleji ab bhi zindagi mein choti choti chizon ka aanand lene mein vishwaas rakhte hai.” (The old man still believes in taking pleasure in the little things in life.)

Shambhu heard the snide remark thrown in his direction, opened his mouth wide, shook his head and said, “Itni lambi! Itni badi! Hey bhagwan.” (So tall, so big, oh my God)

Shambhuji had spent his entire adulthood working for the Indian Railways as a signalman. Every conversation with him involved at least one story of how he miraculously escaped a derailment and a certain death all thanks to Lord Kishan Kanhaiya.  His eyes would well up with tears and he would join his hands to look up to the framed poster of Lord Krishna decorating his shelf at the end of every climax. He had 7 children (4 boys, 3 girls), 18 grandchildren (all married) and 2 great grandchildren and was predictably conservative. He would boast often about how he married off his girls by the age of 16 to give them more time to grow boys because – “…pehle do toh hamesha mahila hi nikal thi hai jaise hamare saath hua. Agar putr nahin hua toh vansh aage kaise badega?” (…the first two always tend to be girls like it was with me. If you don’t have a son, who will extend our family line?)

Nevertheless, the platform outside Shambhuji’s den became the place “the ashram group” hung out every night. The core group, who had been staying in the ashram for at least a week comprised of Jasbir, myself, Shambhuji of course, Jessica – a 19 year old girl from California in Rishikesh to learn Patanjali yoga, Kei – a Japanese guy whose ineptitude in English was matched only by Shambhuji and who was learning tabla at a local hackshop, Joseph – a jilted lover from Goa who was in Rishikesh looking for “new experiences”, Carol – a 40 year old woman from France who was planning a move to India and Matt – a guy from New Zealand who was backpacking round the world and was taking  a cheap break in Rishikesh to recover from travel fatigue. Apart from us, there was a constant ebb and flow of backpackers and everyone inevitably landed around where we were because that was “the” place to be.

Shambhuji and Kei never joined in the conversations but perhaps felt a degree of comfort and warmth in human company. Kei gently stroked his tabla every once in a while to keep himself busy. Shambhuji sat on a chair and stared into space with his thick spectacles.

The warmth went missing one quiet day when the ever-mischievous Jasbir took advantage of a lull in conversation, looked up to Jessica and said, “You know, Shambhuji has big family. 10 brothers 20 children. “

Jessica – “Really? Why does he have to live here then?”

Jasbir (to Shambhu) – “Pooch rahi hai ki aapko yahan rehne ki naubat kaise aa gayi?” (She’s asking why you have to live here)

Shambhu – “Bas mahaul accha hai. Log acche hai.” (I like the atmosphere. People are nice.)

Jasbir (to Jessica) – “He saying he likes here. He likes you.  Hahaha.”

Jessica, with an expression of mock disbelief – “I can’t believe he said that”.

She turned to me and asked – ‘Did he really say that?”

Me – “No, he didn’t. He said he likes the place and the people here.”

Jessica rolled her eyes at Jasbir who blushed and looked away. Jasbir had a not-so-secret crush going on Jessica, something he had told everyone in the ashram except Jessica. She must have had a hint because she made it a point never to be around with him alone.

Jasbir to me – “Saale kabab mein haddi mat bano. Shambhuji ko jaane nahi ho tum ab tak. Inki jawaani ab bhi jhilmila rahi hai.” (Don’t spoil all the fun I’m having. You don’t know Shambhuji yet. He’s still very young.)

Then he turned towards Jessica and said, “I tell him Shambhuji still very young. He like beautiful people.”

Jessica just ignored him and said – “Before I came to India, I read a story about old people abandoned by their familes. So I hope he isn’t, like, one of them.”

Jasbir, with growing desperation to gain her attention – “No, no, he very happy. He like this ashram.”

Shambhuji who seemed lost in thought all this while now broke out of his reverie, looked at Jasbir with all the intensity his 78 year old eyes could muster and with his aged drawl said, “Raj dharm kya hota hai jaante ho? Tum yahaan jo apna poonch hila kar phirte ho, kuch pada karo apni sanskruti ke baare mein. Sabse ooncha, sabse pada likha, sabse zyada dimaagwala raja hota hai. Hum yahaan ke raja hai. Raja ke jo padosi hai woh uske dushman kehalaate hai. Dushman ka padosi raja ka dost hota hai. Tum hamare padosi ho aur hamare dushman bhi. Yeh jo angrez hai saare woh tumhare padosi hai aur hamare dost. Dekh lena aage se agar koi zurrat ki toh humse bura koi nahi hoga.” (Do you know what the duty of a king is? Instead of wagging your tail around here, you should make an effort to learn about your history and culture. The king is the tallest, most knowledgeable, most intelligent man in his world. I am the king here. The king regards his immediate neighbours as his enemies. And the enemy’s neighbours are his friends. You are my neighbour here and my enemy too. These foreigners here who happen to be your neighbours are my friends. If you misbehave ever again, I will make sure you’ll pay for it.)

There was a pin drop silence after Shambhuji finished and while no one other than Jasbir, Joseph and I could decipher what he was on about, this anachronistic monologue from a man who was the gentlest and quietest people in the group, appeared to shock everyone.

Matt broke the ice as he let out a mighty yawn and said, “Time to call it a day then?”

And on cue, we all said our good nights and left for our rooms.

Jasbir, for all his swagger, got spooked enough to stay away from Shambhuji from that day on and would only meet us outside the ashram.

Continue Reading

Gour PE Wrap-up – The Baishgazi wall and the Gour landscape

IMG_8216-Edit

IMG_8202

The Baishgazi wall was a massive brick wall built by Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah to protect and encircle the main palace area of Gaur. Much of the palace now lies in ruin where just the foundations remain. 

 

IMG_8198-Edit

The archaeological site is still being excavated by the ASI but the caretakers here appeared to be pessimistic about the possibilities of uncovering anything worthwhile in the future. On a quiet day, you find more goats than people wandering about the brick foundations.

 

IMG_8165-Edit-EditIMG_8204-Edit

The site is reached by walking through a verdant green landscape of mango orchards and photogenic pools of water. It’s worth coming all the way to Gour just to experience what a true rural hinterland in Bengal could be like.

 

IMG_8171IMG_8183

Languid fishing poles loll in stagnant pools of water while fishing boats float by to inspect the catch. It feels as if these scenes couldn’t have played out very differently in the 15th century to which many of the monuments that dot the landscape belong.

IMG_8229

IMG_8201-Edit-2

 

Continue Reading

Gour #1 – The Boro Shona Mosque

A few kilometers south of Malda and Ramkeli, close to the Bangladesh border, one finds the ruins of the ancient seat of power at Gour. It’s not a particularly difficult place to get to – autorickshaws from the WBTDC Hotel in Malda charge a quite reasonable 400 Rs. for a full day trip to the monuments here.

Although its early history is unclear (it is said have been an important cultural center during the Pala dynasty and the Senas before them but there isn’t a lot of archaeological evidence that points to either), Gour came into historical prominence with the Sultans of Bengal who made it their capital for over 3 centuries from the 12th century AD.

The Boro Shona Masjid (The Big Golden Mosque) is also known as the Baroduari Masjid aka the 12 door mosque (though the structure only has 11) was commissioned by the then Sultan of Bengal Alauddin Shah and built by his son Nusrat Shah in 1521 after his death. Alauddin Shah became Sultan after he ended the brief rule of the Abyssinian Habshi synasty by overthrowing then ruler Muzaffar Shah. This mosque, the largest of all monuments in the Gour area, is supposed to have been his masterpiece. While much of it lies in ruin, its scale and architectural excellence is still imposing. It’s walls were once gilded in gold (giving the mosque its original title) and was built to commemorate the 15th century Sufi saint Nur Qutb e-Alam. Some of the doorways still serve as gateways to get in and out of what is now a peaceful, bucolic village.

The first three pictures are of the Dakhil Darwaza, the magnificent gateway which serves to provide access to what was once a fortified citadel.

IMG_8066-Edit

IMG_8056-Edit-3

IMG_8054-Edit-2

IMG_8043-2

IMG_8041-Edit

IMG_8035-Edit

IMG_8025-Edit-3

Continue Reading

Rishikesh I – On the benefits of celibacy

“After all, deep down, we’re just rotting corpses awaiting a painful death”.

A stunned silence ensued after Swami D ended his lecture on that sombre note with a benevolent blink of the eye and a hint of a benign smile. In this edition he had spoken at length about celibacy and its many benefits, which included the ability to endure extreme weather events without any bodily protection, walking on water, turning invisible and staying free of hunger and thirst for years on end.

His audience apart from myself and another Indian guy were an all-white, ragtag bunch of backpackers staying at the ashram. For us, the price we paid for a cheap 100 Rs. room was this “free and compulsory” 7 a.m. lecture every morning. Swami D had a formidable mental register where he kept note of all the people who missed his lectures and promptly had them evicted from the premises. Some of them would wander aimlessly around Lakshman Jhula and Swarg Ashram in a futile attempt to find another deal as good and come back defeated to apologize profusely, sign up for yoga classes, show the Hindu philosophy books they’d bought to prove their seriousness in pursuing their eternal search of wisdom and be grudgingly accepted back into the fold.

“Any questions?”, said Swamiji with a look that suggested an intent to strike down on anyone who had the temerity to answer.

On the 7th row, between two white heads that were vigorously suppressing their yawns, a hand gingerly went up.

“Yes?”, said Swami D, “What do you want to know, my dear friend?”

“Well, it was a wonderful lecture. Thank you so much. I got to learn so much about the meaning behind…” Swami D put his hand up to interrupt the American and said sternly without losing the benevolent smile on his face,

“Question please.”

“Do you practise celibacy?”

“Yes, I do.”

“So can you do all the things you said people could do if they were celibate?”

Swami D erupted with laughter.

“A true sadhu will never show you the miracles he could do. His goal is inner peace and if God wills, to attain the point of zero where he blends himself with the universe.”

“But that’s awfully convenient then, isn’t it?”

Swami D’s face wrinkled from a smile to a frown for a moment and then settled back into its default look of tranquillity. The few heads that had hitherto stumbled into deep sleep perked up at this unexpected challenge from one of their own to Swami D on his turf. This had the beginnings of an event worthy of getting them bragging rights on the road when they swap stories in other backpacker ghettoes.

“If you don’t do it,” continued the American stubbornly, “then there’s no way for us to know if it really works.”

Swami D laughed again and said, “Tell me, my friend, where are you from?”

“America.”

“How old are you?”

“22.”

“Okay, good. When did you first learn to walk?”

“Well, I don’t know. When I was a year old maybe? I honestly don’t remember.”

“When did you learn to cycle?”

“At 5 possibly.”

“And swim?”

“About the same age.”

Swami D howled with laughter and applauded patronisingly.

“You are a quick learner, my friend. Let’s give a big applause to my friend here. You see these two boys?” While saying this, he pointed towards me and the other Indian guy in the group. “They don’t know how to swim even now and they’re older than you. Hahaha. Great job, my friend. So with these precious skills that you possess, how many triathlons have you won?

“What do you mean?”, said the American, visibly amused and somewhat puzzled.

“You know how to walk, you know how to cycle, you know how to swim. So shouldn’t you be winning triathlons?”

“I don’t see the connection, I’m sorry.”

“You see, celibacy is just the first step, it’s the first foot you put forward. You need to practise for years and years, meditate deeply and then by God’s grace you’ll get to stage 2. Our great sages get the ability to perform the feats I spoke of after meditating 100s of years. Some of them are over 600 years old. But you don’t see them because they don’t want to be seen and aren’t meant to be seen. Your puny minds won’t be able to understand the severe penance and isolation required to achieve such great feats.”

Another hand went up. It belonged to one of the few serious students of yoga at the ashram and, not surprisingly, also one of Swami D’s favourite people. He was from Chicago and over 50 years old and his duties apart from rigorous scriptural study involved eavesdropping on the people who stayed at the ashram and reporting any misbehaviour or faux pas to Swami D, a duty he performed gleefully. Every morning, he would come to the lectures decked in saffron robes presumably signifying his seriousness in his spiritual pursuits.

“Yes, Krishnadeva. Please go ahead”, said Swami D with infinite compassion.

“Guruji, I apologize on the behalf of my fellow devotees here for the impertinence in questioning your wisdom and knowledge. The reason the Western world has lost all moral value in this century is because its citizens have run away from pursuing higher knowledge. It’s a testament to the weakness of Christianity that people have lost faith in it and have turned to atheism. But in India, the ancient religion is not only embraced but is continually strengthened all the time. My friend here who questioned your words does not know what it is like to grow up spiritually. Please forgive him as he knows not what he speaks.”

Swami D nodded gravely and said, “Krishnadeva, I agree entirely with what you say about the world in which you had to grow up. Yet I admire that people like yourself have come all the way to this ancient land to seek higher truths. I’m not pained at the sarcastic questioning of our ancient world by people from your land. You see, at least that is honest. I’m more worried about people from my own land (and here, he pointed at the two of us brown folk seated in the audience), who would not tell me what they think but would gossip behind my back because they’re fickle. They’re not as evolved as you are to understand this religion thoroughly. So don’t be so hard on your people. They have been deceived for a long time but they are capable of seeing the light when it is shown to them.”

While I was too meek and timid by nature to respond to these continual slights at my upbringing, my fellow Indian “devotee” Jasbir was from Delhi. He didn’t take too kindly to Swami D’s heckling. He stood up and yelled, “Babaji, kya samajh rakhe ho apne aapko, hain? Char firangi dikh gaye toh udne lage ho kya? 10 lakh rupaiye diye hain mere papa ne is aashram ko. Bandh karva doon donation? Ki kya Mohanji (the owner of the ashram) ko bataoon aapki karvaton ke baare mein? Bahut zyaada bolne lage ho aajkal, hain? Mohanji bahut khush honge sunkar ki aap in firangiyon ke chakkar mein kya kya kar baithe ho ganga kinare.”  (“Who do you think you are? You see four white faces and think you’re a big star? My father has donated a million rupees to this ashram. Should I discontinue the donation? Or should I tell the owner of this place what you’ve been up to? You’ve been acting too smart lately haven’t you? The owner’s going to be very happy knowing what you’ve been up to with these foreigners on the shores of the Ganga.”)

Swami D looked visibly perturbed at this unwelcome retort. He hurriedly muttered the closing mantras and brought the session to a close. Krishnadeva glared angrily at the two of us and escorted Swami D out of the hall consoling him along the way.

After his spectacular outburst, for two weeks in Rishikesh, Jasbir would become my best friend in the whole world.

Continue Reading

Reiek Tlang I (the mobile camera version)

Reiek is a hill about 30 odd kms from Aizawl. At an altitude of 1594 metres, it doesn’t seem particularly daunting but once you make the steep hike up to the top here, the views are just gobsmackingly beautiful. From the top here you get a panoramic view of the city of Aizawl on one side and an endless range of Mizo hills on the other. If you aren’t here on a weekend, it’s an extraordinarily tranquil spot. I, for one, was glad there were a few people around because the hike up is quite steep with some exposed sections that could be a nightmare for anyone who suffers from mild vertigo.

All of these pictures were taken with my Galaxy S7 phone.

20171125_144813-Edit20171125_145131-Edit20171125_15340820171125_153423-Edit-220171125_153443-Edit20171125_160427-Edit

Continue Reading

The streets of Agartala I

I’m starting a new series here to rewire the blog while I work on the more time consuming long-read pieces. Here I post black and white pictures of the places I’ve been to and hope to update this more frequently than I normally do.

I’m beginning this with a series of pictures I shot in Agartala, a street photographer’s haven. Agartala is a city that smacks of the old world with a distinct texture in its streets and markets that’s fast disappearing from other more heralded urban areas of India.

Many of these shots have been taken using the Samsung Galaxy S7 phone and that’s part of the theme of this series as well – the fact that your camera matters less than the shots you take.

Continue Reading

A month in Mizoram

IMG_5911First of all, if you’re going to Mizoram as an Indian national with no local sponsor and wish to travel for anything more than 10 days, it’s a pain and a half to get your permit extended. I can name at least a dozen foreign countries where my visa process and extensions have been easier than what I experienced in Mizoram. I was under the impression that as an Indian traveler, you get a 15 day ILP at the Mizoram House in Guwahati but what I got was just a 7 day permit extendable for no more than 3 days. I wanted to travel around for at least a month as I like to travel slow and long and after several point blank refusals at the DC Office in Aizawl and much begging and pleading and furnishing my instagram profile as a traveler, I was allowed a month long extension as a “Photographer” because mere tourists can’t have the luxury of such a generous permit extension.

That being said, I totally loved my time in Mizoram. The people were friendly and the hills are absolutely tourist-free and beautiful.

Getting in: If you have the time, I totally recommend the overland approach by train from Guwahati to Silchar. I took the 4.30 a.m. Kanchenjunga and after taking a nap for a couple of hours, got to enjoy some of the most gorgeous scenery I have seen from an Indian train. The route goes through thickly forested hills, wide valleys and green fields of the Barak valley on the way. 

Silchar was an unavoidable pit-stop as no jeeps left that late in the evening for Aizawl. Stayed at Hotel Center Palace, which had okayish rooms for 700 odd rupees. Had biryani at Nawab restaurant next door, which I highly recommend if you need to bunk here for a night.

From Silchar, I took the 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl (400 Rs.) on a bumpy road that got steadily worse as it went along, getting better only a few kilometers before Aizawl.

Aizawl – There wasn’t a lot to do in Aizawl but walk around and take in views. The airbnb place (Vanhmingi’s house) I stayed in had the most spectacular view of all the viewpoints in Aizawl. It’s one of the only two places in the city listed on airbnb and is on top of Laiputluang hill near the PWD office and is, I was told, on the highest point in the city. The view here, I thought, was even better than the one from the Presbyterian Hospital which was fantastic as well. It’s a short but steep walk up and down from the place to the market but worth the effort to stay there to take in the morning and sunset views.

Apart from this place, I also stayed in 3 other hotels in Aizawl because I had to track back to the city to go to Champhai and Reiek. Chawlhna Hotel was a cheap hotel with dingy, tiny rooms that are just about OK for a night or two and the price I paid. Walk-in rate – 730 Rs. (online aggregators tend to offer a decent discount for this place) There’s a common balcony looking down to Lower Bazaar which is nice for people watching.

Hotel Elite was on the other end of the town about 3 kms from Zarkawt market. Again, got a great discount online which made the place tolerable. I would have been very angry if I had paid the rack rate here (2000 Rs.) for the room I was in. My room was boxed in and the only view I had was of the two building walls ten inches away.

Decided to luxe out for a night at Hotel Regency, supposedly Aizawl’s most fancy address. I don’t know how the expensive suite rooms are but my room was merely OK, with a decent bathroom. It was exorbitantly overpriced for what it was. The restaurant here was pretty good and inexpensive considering this is as fine dining as dining gets in Aizawl.

The best Mizo food apart from my homestay was at Red Pepper which had humongous Mizo thalis and some local rice wine to go with it. The Indian food at Jojo’s was great as well.

Hmuifang: Mizoram doesn’t have an extensive bus network but there’s a bus that leaves every morning at 6 a.m. to Lunglei with an unreliable 10 a.m. service on alternate days. Hmuifang is on the way to Lunglei and I stopped at the tourist lodge here for a couple of nights. The rooms here were somewhat dilapidated (the caretaker assured me it was because of the severe monsoon) but I thought they were decent for the location and the price.

The best views in Hmuifang apart from the top of the hill itself is just down the Lunglei road where there’s a clearing from which there was a 180 degree vista of the mountains beyond. Perfect place for the sunset.

Opposite the tourist lodge, an extremely friendly ex-army guy runs a restaurant which was my go-to place for chai and breakfast. The bread omlette and chicken pulao there was amazing.

Thenzawl: Caught the Lunglei bus and got down here to spend a couple of nights. Again, not much to do but walk around. There’s a sizeable handloom industry here with every house having an old-style weaving mill. The tourist lodge here was perhaps the best maintained of all the lodges in Mizoram. Lots of government functionaries and officers seem to stay here. There aren’t any views from the lodge itself but the church at the top of Thenzawl town had some pretty vistas.

The Vangtawng Falls were about 9 kms further down the Lunglei road. Got a seat on a shared sumo to Lunglei and got down at the falls. Beautiful falls, especially because I had the whole place to myself. Hitchhiked back to town and got down on the way because the landscapes just before Thenzawl on the Lunglei road were beautiful. Walked around 5 kms back.

Lunglei: I did not want to stop in Lunglei. It’s billing as the second biggest city in Mizoram did not appeal to me at all and I was impatient to move on to Saiha and Phawngpui as quickly as possible. But the road from Thenzawl to Lunglei was so horrible (it took 3 and a half hours to do less than 50 kms) that I had to spend a night to rest aching bones. Lunglei won me over though. From the tourist lodge here which is a few kilometers before the town, the views of the city and rolling hills to both sides were just gobsmackingly beautiful. The 600 Rs. I paid for the room here was practically a steal. Did nothing here for 4 days, except eat, sleep, take in the views from the road below, have long conversations with the pastor and stare at the valley on the other side from the church below. Spectacular place. I didn’t like the city itself so much but had to make one trip to book my seat to Lawngtlai.

Lawngtlai: Probably my only disappointment in Mizoram. Maybe because Aizawl, Hmuifang, Lunglei and even Thenzawl were so awesome, wasn’t so taken in with this grubby small town in the south. Probably the best thing about the place is that the lodge here is friendly and food was a bit better than some of the other lodges.

Saiha: Another beautiful town to land in Mizoram after a backbreaking sumo ride. The road from Lawngtlai was just horrible but the views from Saiha and the easy-going laidback nature of the place was just the right kind of balm for aching bones. The people here were the friendliest I encountered in the state. My Vodafone network disappeared as soon I landed in Saiha district but I spent 3 nights here just soaking up the atmosphere.

Twisted my ankle here, so decided not to go further to Vawmbuk and Sangau as I had planned earlier. A big disappointment, especially considering the fact that to come all the way back here, I’ll have to beg and plead at the DC Office again for a permit extension.

Broke the journey at Lunglei and reach Aizawl the day after.

This stretch itself had exhausted 17 days of my permit. To heal my ankle, which the doctor said would take 2-3 days of rest, spent a couple of days in Aizawl and headed to

Reiek – Caught the 12 a.m. sumo from the Bungkawn stand. Don’t go to Reiek on the weekend unless you want to party. I didn’t mind the Aizawl crowds here though and I was amazed that most of them were coming to this awesome place merely 30 kms from the city for the first time. Was thrilled that I could do the hike to the top and the views were just spectacular. Spent 3 nights here and did climbs to some of the other peaks around too. Beautiful trekking country.

The lodge in Reiek was run by a very friendly guy and couple of ladies. Apart from myself, there was only a group of labourers staying at the property. They were building something at the Children’s Park and we hung out over lunches and dinners every day.

Saitual – The share jeeps to Saitual run from the sumo counter on a flight of steps adjacent to the Millenium Center at 6 a.m., then hourly from 12 a.m to 2 p.m.. Saitual was a laidback place but not one worth hanging around for long. The tourist lodge here had been “privatised” but the place was friendly and well-kept enough. Took a taxi from here to Tamdil and back and while the Tamdil Tourist lodge was at a great location right at the edge of the lake, it looked quite desolate and uncared for and I was glad I stayed at Saitual. The lake itself was merely alright and I have a feeling it’s been touted about as an “attraction” only because Mizoram doesn’t really have that many “tourist” attractions. There are spectacular views wherever you go and look, but very few “attractions”.

Champhai – The road to Champhai was less a road than a rocky trail punctuated by landslides. Took 8 hours to do the 100 kms from Saitual, the most obscenely difficult road of all in Mizoram. Since my permit would run out in a week’s time, decided to stick around in Champhai for 3 nights. Loved the town, which had a different landscape of the Mizo hills compared to other Mizo towns. Lots of green fields, beautiful evening light and rolling hills. I wanted to go further to Farkawn and Murlen but just didn’t have the time. The perils of a stringent permit regime and a slow, relaxed travel routine.

Kolasib – Since I had two days left in my permit, decided to break my journey in the little-visited town of Kolasib on the way to Silchar. There was a wedding at the tourist lodge on the day I landed here and since I like social evenings when I travel alone, it was good fun with lots of alcohol and 80s rock music. The lodge here doesn’t have any views but there’s a school at the back which had a little clearing (infested with mosquitoes) that gave a nice view of the sunset over the hills.

The best view of the hills is from the viewpoint just after Thingdawl on the Aizawl road with a jawdropping view of an entire range of hills. There are also nice views of the lake from some of the shop terraces on the way to the market who were nice enough to let me in to take pictures from the rooftops.

So that was the account of my first tour of Mizoram lasting 29 days.

Continue Reading