Thursday, February 28, 2013

Day 2 - Royal Rajputana Rhapsody - Bikaner and en route Jaisalmer! - Feb 2012

The Junagarh Palace, Bikaner
What a wonderful morning to get up! The day coincided with the holy festival of Mahashivratri (Dedicated to Lord Shiva) and our wedding anniversary (dedicated to us J). The place where we stayed being a heritage property, we couldn’t resist but to click few photographs in the premises. After a sumptuous breakfast, we left the hotel and we were in a nearby Shiv Temple. I am not a big temple fan but this Shiv Temple was exquisitely clean. Anita offered an elaborate pooja to the God of the Gods and we were all set to explore the mighty Junagarh Fort of Bikaner.

Courtyard for the Queen, Junagarh Fort

At first sight, the grandeur of Junagarh Fort stunned us. Not that I haven’t seen a palace like this before but probably I was too young to appreciate the ‘grandeur’ of Mysore Palace when I was only 12 years old. From the entry itself, this structure starts impressing you. The whole fort has a red hue due to the use of red sandstone for its construction. An amazing courtyard inside built with marble to play holi for the queen and her friends gives us the taste of royalty. 

Golden work in Anup Mahal, Junagarh Fort 

The artistry in the fort goes to next level in the Anup Mahal and Karan Mahal where you find exquisite art pieces of golden work. Maharaja Karan Singh of Bikaner in 17th century is believed to have revived this art. The Anup Mahal and Karan Mahal are the part of places for private audience. The Diwan-e-Aam (Hall for the General Audience) is very big but less craftier with carvings on red sandstone. From the terrace of the fort, the well maintained gardens and the expanse of Bikaner city are clearly visible.

We also paid visit to the museum which is in the premises of the fort. Good thing about paid entrances is – they are not thronged by every Tom, Dick and Harry. The museum is worth a visit which exhibits royal costumes, old manuscripts, palanquins, idols etc. A local young woman artist was showing her skills of henna design. Anita wanted to have one designed on her hands. It was costly at 500 bucks but it was our wedding anniversary, remember?

How I wish that we had been to the Karni Mata Temple or popularly known as the Rat Temple. Here the offerings are first tasted by the rats and then distributed as Prasad. May be next time (not for the offering though)!

We started our drive to Jaisalmer, the most famous city of the Marwar region of Rajasthan. We again hit an obstacle before exiting the Bikaner city in the form of railway crossing. The railway crossings across Rajasthan could be annoying at times as they normally slow down the pace of your journey. Sans the railway crossings, the roads across Rajasthan are in a very good condition.

Bikaner-Jaisalmer Highway :)
Specially to talk about this 331 km stretch between Bikaner and Jaisalmer is a driver’s haven any day (make sure that you are travelling in an AC vehicle during summer J) The lovely tarmac with visibility till horizon and miniscule traffic makes it one of the ideal roads. I was too excited and wished I was driving my own car. I kept on requesting Shib Kumar to let me drive for some distance but he was hesitant. Of course he should be! It was neither his nor mine car. But finally, I persuaded him and he allowed me to drive for half an hour till we took our first pit stop or lunch break at Jaswant Vilas Palace which is situated exactly in the mid of Bikaner and Jaisalmer.

Me with Mr. Dushyant Singh
We were fortunate to meet the owner of Jaswant Vilas Palace, Mr. Dushyant Singh. Son of an army brigadier, owner of coal mines in Chattisgarh and a wonderful human being, Mr. Singh appreciated the respect we paid to him. People of Rajasthan carry themselves with pride and they love it when one respects that. We had a long chat over our cold drinks. An hour flew by and Shib Kumar was grumbling. It was time to say goodbye to Mr. Dushyant Singh. He insisted that once in Udaipur, we should certainly dine at ‘Ambrai’ which is situated on the banks of Lake Pichola. He told us that the owner is his sister and we need not face any difficulty to get in even on a crowded evening. Look, how we keep on getting people who just think like us only!

Shib Kumar and his car! Tough task, indeed! :)
4 pm and more than 150 kms to cover to reach the Khuri sand dunes before sunset. A tough task indeed for a Maruti Dzire which has a run for more than 0.2 million kilometers and a driver who is weary of driving with speed more than 60 km per hour! Indeed, a tough task! Shib Kumar did his best and we reached Jaisalmer well before sunset. But Khuri is another 40 odd km drive and the road is not so good. Yes, the tough task turned out to be INDEED a tough task and we couldn’t make it to Khuri Dunes before sunset. L We stopped the vehicle on the way and kept on staring at the red sphere for a while!

Not to be disappointed…the dusk was falling and the evening had just begun! Here we come, Khuri!
The Sunset en route Khuri, near Jaisalmer

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Day 1 - Royal Rajputana Rhapsody (Rajasthan) - On the way to Bikaner - Feb 2012

Rajasthan, the land of Kings, the grand forts, the mesmerizing desert, the big hearted people…I can keep on writting this and you’ll keep on reading this without complaining. We probably chose the best time to visit Rajasthan..the last 9 days of a February in leap year i.e.2012.  We however had a slightly unusual (though not so unusual) approach of not following a fixed itinerary for visiting different places. Since, February end is not a peak tourist season in Rajasthan, we even had the liberty of not booking the hotels in advance (or we thought so…) A call to over loyal chauffer in Delhi, Shib Kumar confirmed his availability as well as the vehicle’s.

Though the itinerary was not fixed, we at least needed to have a rough idea about our journey.  Initially, I was little unsure about going to Jaisalmer (a. for the distance we needed to cover and b. for the limited time we had with us!) Shib Kumar was aghast to hear that and exclaimed, “Sir, Jaisalmer nahi dekhe to kya Rajasthan dekhe?” (If you have not been to Jaisalmer then you haven’t been to Rajasthan!) And indeed, it would have been a blunder to drop Jaisalmer from the itinerary. So the plan was to cover following cities – Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaipur.

Delhi - From a height!
19th Feb 2012, the morning flight to Delhi, landed us at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at 10 am. Shib Kumar in his crisp driver’s uniform was ready with his vehicle – a white Maruti Dezire, both our companions for next 8 days. I always feel bad when I arrive in Delhi, the national as well as a gastronomical capital (for some recipes) as I have to make a quick exit since my destinations are always distant (Shimla Bikaner, Ranikhet etc). I promise you Delhi, I will specially come to stay with you and savour the goodies..sob!

Raj Kachori at Haldiram's, Gurgaon
Piggybacking Shib Kumar’s knowledge of Delhi, we arrived to have breakfast at Haldiram’s Gurgaon outlet. And my gastric juices were again on fire. Polished off the mighty Raj Kachori and Chole Bhature. I was surprised to see most of the families having a south Indian breakfast of idlis and dosas. I mean Haldiram’s is not the place for idlis..right?  It is like going to an Italian restaurant and ending up ordering ‘Paneer Satay with Hunan Sauce’! Anyways, I have no business telling the people what they should eat (but I really love to do so.. :P) 

We finished our breakfast and were on the way to Rajasthan. Barely 20 minutes after we left Haldiram’s,  faced the first obstacle. The high tension electricity supply wires were snapped and were lying on the road leading to a traffic jam. I probably gauged it – The going won’t be easy at least that day! After struggling for an hour, the situation eased. Shib Kumar’s choice of route was baffling as he decided to drive via Rewari and Narnaul which are less explored. It cost us terrible delay in the journey. We hit another terrible traffic jam near Narnaul in Haryana.

Dinner at Ratangarh Railway Crossing
In the google maps, there is a warning that “This route has restricted usage or includes private roads” for all the three options available to try from Delhi to Bikaner. And we actually experienced that. We were simply at sea at some places as we pondered if the road existed. With lot of grit, we managed to reach Jhunjhunu as the dusk was falling. Still 200 odd kilometers to go! We took a short tea break near Mandwa and stopped again only to have dinner at the Ratangarh Railway Crossing. The dinner of hot phulkas and freshly cooked vegetables was a much needed (as well as deserved) phase of the day’s journey.

For us it took less than 2 hours from Ratangarh railway crossing to reach Bikaner. But it was certainly late by Bikaner’s standards. 12 hours for 434 kilometers was a bad statistic for a road journey! Nobody on the road to ask for directions.  An advice- Though Rajasthan is a safe state to travel even in the dark hours, make sure that you reach your destinations by evenings. This time I was prepared and was carrying a Lonely Planet guide for Rajasthan. Enquiries to few hotels from the list didn’t come positive. And again…good old Shib Kumar drove us to Hotel Basant Vihar Palace (‘An Oasis in The Thar Desert’ as per the management). I was mighty happy though as I had finally made it to the beautiful Thar Desert J Got a very good deal due to low tourist season and we retired in the lovely heritage room of this heritage property. What a well deserved hot water shower at the end of the long and tiring day! 

Our Suite at Basant Vihar Palace, Bikaner

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Deconstructing Life's Plan!

During the Vipashyana Meditation Course, it became clearer to me regarding what a typical mind is up to. I earlier had an understanding about the typical behavior of a human mind but it was crystal clear during my Vipashyana (aka Vipassana) course.

The mind has a habit of delving into the past and always thinking about future. The most important thing which is HAPPENING (means the present) is somehow taken granted by us. The thought of I wish this could have happened then I would have been happy and the thought of I wish this will happen and I will be very happy are the major stakeholders of our thought process. And almost every activity of your life is based on these postulates. A corollary of these postulates would be the thought that THIS should not happen to me (so that I can be happy again!)

I guess from the birth itself we are in a planning mode. Planning for the future always and learning from the past. And not even your own past but the past of different people, collectively calling it as KNOWLEDGE. This is exacerbated by the fact that since childhood, we are exposed to different simple ideas. Remember Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION? The idea has to be in its simplest form to grow on you- on your mind and then on your body

Vipassana says that the sub conscious mind is capable of understanding the facts only on account of experience and nothing else. The bookish knowledge doesn’t entice the subconscious mind. The superficial mind is a ‘nodding miracle’ according to me for a common man. Anything written in the books, told on account of knowledge from the past and our superficial mind starts nodding. Oh yes, right, that’s true, agreed..what?

The irony is -  it is not the superficial mind which is continuously exposed to plethora of information decides the behavioural pattern of a human being but the subconscious which learns from pure experience. The subconscious knows only two things- very simple ideas – to crave and to hate. All the other activities are woven around these two ideas. A simple inception! We are sure to have two emotions for every matter – crave or hate. And we start planning our life accordingly so that we could get whatever we crave for and we could avoid whatever we hate.

We plan to get good marks in our school, impress parents and teachers. We plan to get our admissions in the best of the universities and colleges. We plan to crack our job interviews. We plan to settle in our lives. But tell me..does life allow us to settle down? Does everything happen as you had planned? Tell me if you are what you had planned when you were a kid or possibly an adolescent. No….because what you experience is a CHANGE every time

The universe is changing at a blinding speed. A blink of your eye and everything around you is changed. Even a simple act of walking for couple of minutes instead of sitting at a place changes our future dramatically. We just fail to sense it until it is in your face.

You may counter-argue – Are you against planning one’s life? Not at all. Planning is good but I am not in favour of attachment with a specific outcome especially a quantitative aspect. You may pounce on me – this itself destroys the very purpose of planning. My dear friend, what is this attachment with numbers? I will give you a number- our subconscious is capable of processing 400 billion bits of information per second and the planning you do with your Noddy mind processes information at 2000 bits per second. Is there any comparison with what our mind is actually thinking and what you have planned for it?

We don’t have any idea about our abilities until and unless we are put in a particular situation. With such a superfast processor, you have the capability of handling almost every situation you are simply not aware about. So if you drop your attachment with the outcomes of the activities (which is indeed a difficult thing but at least start trying it from today) then you will find yourself in a far more comfortable position than you were yesterday.

And regarding Deconstructing Life’s Plan…. No we can’t do that! That was a catchy title. Life doesn’t have a plan. It is full of surprises. Sets your adrenalin rushing in the blood. Why make it dry with a so called ‘constructive’ thinking (it’s pretty rhymic to this word ‘destructive’!)Enjoy every day as it comes and you will have no regrets! J

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Day 3 and 4 - Kumaon and I - Kausani and Baijnath

Left the Yogoda Ashram at around 10.30 am with the blessings of Swamiji and Dograji.  We didn’t forget to say goodbye to the lady who had served us her food last evening. We made a point to visit her every time we visit Dwarahat (Isn’t that obvious considering her tea shop was just next to Yogoda Ashram?) So we were again in the dense forestations of pines, on the same road to Dunagiri but this time detouring (???) to Kausani.
In this trip, I had deeply thought about the distances we had to cover from one point to another. Since we suffered from extreme lethargy in our last two trips (Himachal and Rajasthan) due to long distances to be covered, I had planned Kumaon trip in this way that we should be on the road for minimal time. However, this strategy burnt a hole in my pocket as I had the cab at my disposal for the whole journey. And I paid for 250 kms even on the day we didn’t travel. J
The Binta Villege, Near Someshwar, Bageshwar
 A paltry 50 km distance from Dwarahat to Kausani was a child’d play but the first half was boring. And suddenly, out of nowhere, we were face-to-face with one of the most beautiful villages we have ever seen in our lives. Binta, situated atop plains on the hills is a sheer treat to eyes.  Two and three storied scattered houses generally painted with white and doors & windows painted with blue amongst the greenery on the hills almost pushed me to inquire if any house is available for sale. J. Excellent grey tarmac going through the fluorescent green paddy fields was worth clicking numerous photographs. We did it.
Moved on and reached Someshwar, just half an hour before we reached Kausani. The air was slightly cooler. Uttarakahnd was actually on fire this summer. Unbelievable heat everywhere. So Kausani was a slight breather. Our accommodation, Krishna Mountain View was located at a very strategic place in Kausani town, next to Anasakti Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi. Krishna is the smartest hotel in Kausani with all its rooms providing brilliant unhindered views of Kumaon Himalaya including peaks like Nandadevi, Trishul, Panchachuli and Dangathal. We were not so lucky there being in the month of June. The clouds and smoke from the jungle had blocked the view. Sob L
Krishna Mountain View, Kausani
After a sumptuous lunch at Krishna’s restaurant (I guess that is one good multicuisine restaurant you can find in Kausani), we took a nap (ahh lovely days!) The evening was even cooler and we decided to take a walk in the woods leading to the hills. It was a nice hearty walk filling my lungs with sufficient quota of fresh air from the mountains.
Anasakti Ashram in Kausani was established by Mahtama Gandhi and he zeroed down on Kausani as the ideal location for his practice of anasakti. Anasakti is the practice detaching yourself from all kinds of cravings and clinging. I can now talk with some understanding as I myself is a vipassana mediatator. And I can vouch for Kausani (and who am I to do this when Mahatma Gandhi finalized the place, but I can still vouch for it). Anita attended the evening prayer at the ashram while I decided to keep on staring at the West where the Sun was setting.
After the prayer, we met a very interesting couple from Lucknow who were on their honeymoon and had arrived Kausani the same day from Nainital. We had a very nice conversation over tea and snacks for long time and also accompanied them to their hotel. So simple and so happy they were! Recall Rajesh Khanna’s dialogue from the movie ‘Bawarchi’ – “It is so simple to be happy but it is so difficult to be simple!” Wish to see them again if I happen to travel to lucknow one day. Oh yes, the latest issue of Outlook Traveller covers appetizing trails of Lucknow in detail. Nice Read! (Feb 2013)
We woke up next morning with little hope accumulated throughout the night in our eyes to see the Himalayan snow peaks. And I got in the balcony….ahhh…disappointment….all smoke, fog and clouds…no Himalaya peaks! But still it was a beautiful morning.  Krishna’s beautiful garden was beckoning with some nice blooms. But a breakfast in garden is not a good idea. You will be intimidated by the macaques who will snatch your food.
Workers in the Tea Garden, Kausani
After a sumptuous breakfast of Aloo Ke Gutke and Fried Puris (the Kumaoni Specialty), we set out for a little excursion in and around Kausani. The first destination was the tea gardens on the outskirts of Kausani. The Kumaoni Tea has its own aroma and taste and should not be mixed with milk. We spent some time with the workers in the tea garden plucking the tea leaves. We even treated them with cold drinks and snacks and they were mighty happy. They said that no tourist even cares to talk to them properly. It just felt as if we had taken this Kumaon trip for good wishes and how amazingly we were getting them!

Baijnath Temple Complex
The next stop was the Baijnath Temple Complex near Bageshwar. A beautiful temple complex situated on the banks of the Gomti River, dedicated to Shiva. We reached this place when Sun was at zenith. The heat was simply unbearable. Nothing eventful here except the story of the strange round stone. The legend is that exactly 9 males with their index fingers giving support to the stone while continuously chanting nau nau (nine, nine in Hindi) can easily lift the stone. Otherwise, the stone is immovable. Strange but true! And I experienced that. Initially, we were 8 males and tried to lift the stone together but it didn’t move and the 9th guy came and whoa…we effortlessly lifted it to our eye level. Anita captured that in a HD video clip. J
Buransh (Rhododendron Juice)
The scorching heat dented our plans to explore Bagshwar and we decided to turn back to Kausani. We came back to the tea garden and had a bellyful of lunch as it was late and reaching Krishna for lunch was bad option. So settled in a breezy restaurant overlooking the valley near the tea gardens. After a good lunch, it was washed down by the refreshing ruby red drink, Buransh, made of the beautiful red rhododendron flowers. Not exactly sweet but slightly tart, this juice is supposed to be very good for the heart (and since my heart is big, it is needed! J  
After finishing our lunch, we headed towards the main chowk (square) in Kausani contemplating some impulsive shopping. So an entry in a garments shop made us buy some woolens (although it was scorching outside..this is true impulsive shopping)  And voila….I bought a bottle of Buransh, the red rhododendron juice from the same shop (this is impulsive selling now…I mean a garment shop keeping buransh bottles ready…GREAT!). We decided to walk towards our hotel and turned out to be a slightly tiring decision till we reached the shadows of the mighty eucalyptus trees near Anasakti Ashram. The walk from there was pleasant though.
Kausani is such a small town that you are almost done with everything in less than 12 hours.  We had all the evening available to us. We decided to skip the prayer at Anasakti Ashram and tried our skill at table tennis in the hotel. As the dusk started to fall, the whole atmosphere gets magical. We were sitting in the balcony of our room appreciating the cool air and the foggy valley in front of us, with of course steaming hot cups of tea and delicious samosas. This is life, otherwise you just breathe! (Now common…look at the options…either to attend the Evening Prayer at Anasakti Ashram or sit in the balcony enjoying chai and samosa.. J)
In the old times (say some 2000 years ago), it was considered that the only way to be WISE is to TRAVEL across the world. I bet if any book can beat it!
In the onward journey, we probably had the best stay till date spending 4 nights in the Binsar Sanctuary near Almora in an eco resort (meaning no electricity), The Binsar Retreat. Have already penned down my thoughts in an earlier blog and link to it is as follows. I insist that you should read it and visit Binsar once in your lifetime. J
The Binsar Retreat, Binsar, Almora