Thursday, May 17, 2018

For the love of walking – Chapter 1.

Hanumantok, Gangtok, Sikkim.

It was a day off and I had a plan ‘all – ready’.
1. First, choose a good location.
      2. Pray for good weather.
     3. Carry water to hydrate and chocolates to keep off the hunger among other essentials.
4.  Start walking. 

So if you are visiting Gangtok and go around for local sightseeing, this will be one of the points- ‘Hanumantok’. Located at a height of around 7200 feet above sea level, the highest viewpoint in Gangtok, this place has its own history. It is believed that Lord Hanuman while on his way back with the 'Sanjeevani booti', rested here for some time! Now that may sound fascinating! 

But what is spectacular is the view of the beautiful himalayan ranges of Kanchenjunga that one can see from the top if the weather permits.

The place is around ten kilometres from Gangtok. So to and fro makes it to around twenty. Not to forget the gain in elevation that one attains with every step, summing to at least seventeen hundred feet. The weather was pretty good and so was the road. I carried an umbrella none the less to keep off the sun rays. 

Because I stay in Arithang, I had two ways to start the journey on foot. One via the NH and diverting from zero point, or walk upstairs to MG Marg and follow the Tibet road. I chose the latter. The first locality on the way is a place called Chandmari. It’s mostly a residential area with a small market place around. Once you get past it, the beautiful journey unfolds. 

The enormity of space on one side of the road you travel with stunning hues of mountains- one covering the other at the horizon, and the tiny little buildings at the distance revealing a part of the town you know you came from.  Walking is so much fun if you switch on your senses in true sense! And with watchful eyes, you can even cut some distance and the metal road with shortcuts along the hill. This would certainly give the feeling of a trek, though not in real. Now this is actually the Nathula-Changu route that you undertake and finally bifurcate from ‘teen mile’ checkpost; from where you climb another two kilometres uphill. At the near end of the destination is a place for meditation for the Buddhist monks or ‘lamas’. I really wanted to see the place from inside but unfortunately, nobody is allowed in there!

It took me two hours to reach my summit and took an even longer time getting down, now that I had so much time left in the day. So on the way back, I found this lovely place in Chandmari  where you must have the full course in case you happen to pass by . The food was served hot and was delicious to say the least. Gangtok, in general, is a very costly place. But to my surprise, this restaurant was an exception by its standards.

You also get mountain bikes for hire from here!



NOTE: Whatever is being written here are the personal views of the author and are subjected to agreement or disagreement.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The tale of two museums and a hungry crow.

In later October of 2015 when we were discussing the places to visit in Kolkata, my father was very particular about one, the birth place of Swamiji. From the numerous books he had read on Swamiji’s life, he knew one thing- it was in Simla. A place called Simla in Kolkata!

Narendranath Datta was born in an aristocrat Bengali family; the volume of the house speaks of it if not anything else. Built in the British era in the eighteenth century, it housed the entire Datta family under one roof. Later after the demise of his father, Vishwanath Datta, who served as an attorney in the Calcutta High Court, the fabric started to disintegrate. The other members claiming their share over the property erected walls at will and separated in a way, though still under the common roof. It was only later in the twentieth century that the importance of the concrete structure was realised. The land was acquired by Ramkrishna Mission in 1999 and through donations from various entities, the renovation of the building was completed by 2004. The extra walls were crushed to dust and repair work was carried out by expert hands and materials to bring it to its original form or as close to that.

The beautiful house that now stands, though oddly, between very close private properties on either side in 3 Gour Mohan Mukherjee Street (very close to Simla) is-  'Vivekananda’s Ancestral House and Cultural Centre'. It houses not only the memories of people who once lived there but also each event that the house itself witnessed over time and the struggle to renew. To witness the room where Swamiji was born, the things he used- the study room, books, the boxing gloves, the robe, musical instruments such as tanpura and sitar, also a horse riding stirrup, etc makes you realize that he was human too, a truly passionate being. It also houses a meditation room and a Shivlinga which is believed to fulfil your wishes. A video on his life and teachings is also made available to visitors. Books are also available for purchase from the reception.

I reached Chennai Central in the wee hours on the sixth of May this year. Then having somehow managed an affordable room nearby after getting rid of a man wearing a half folded lungi (one of the many dalals who would follow you holding many hotel cards in hand and would present himself in front of every hotel before you as your caretaker), and an early morning bath, I was wondering how to make my half day stay useful. One of the many good things about southern part of India is that, BSNL network is at its best including data services. I then rested my mind on one place. Kamaraj Salai, Triplicane, Marina beach road, Chennai. Back to Chennai Central and the bus stop on the opposite side of the road, I waited for exactly one hour for bus number 32B. This very experience was first of its kind.

Vivekananda House or Vivekanadar Illam as it is called here was once an ice house. It was built by Frederic Tudor in 1842 for storing ice. Later on when the business slumped, it was bought by Biligiri Iyengar who was an advocate by profession and also an ardent follower of Swamiji. After returning from the west, on one of his visits to the southern part of India, Swamiji stayed in this place for nine days. After his departure, Iyengar set up a centre here, dedicating it to the life and messages of Swami Vivekananda. Here you will find numerous photographs of Swamiji’s life starting as an ordinary monk to the peaks of recognition and association with people from different spheres of life from almost every place he visited. Many of his hand written messages across photographs and otherwise are found on display. At one corner, there was a very interesting holographic presentation of Swamiji himself on display, as if speaking to you in real. Also, a 3D video containing his messages would last for ten to fifteen minutes. However, the one thing to really look forward to is the meditation room. The volume of the room is not that large, but it is beautifully built and I was lucky to find myself alone for the next 1000 seconds or so, totally undisturbed from any external entity apart from the thoughts that sprung once in a while. It was so peaceful.

Adjacent to this building is the 'Vivekananda Cultural Centre' where activities such as yoga classes, meditation and other cultural activities are carried out from time to time.

By noon, I had completed this awesome journey and although the sun was at its peak I could not hold myself back from walking in the sand and hear the fighting waves. All it took was, a few hundred metres walk over the hot sand and some sweat. Well, only two kinds of people would visit such a place at such a time. One who has nothing to do, and the other who had so much at stake. Myself and a number of couples, respectively. But what took my attention was this picture of a dead fish that was being eaten bit by bit by a crow, very attentive as to when to rise as the waves pushes the dead mass a few inches away and sit back again to enjoy the midday meal.

Swami Vivekananda once said, “Death is but a change of condition. We remain in the same universe, and are subject to the same laws as before.”

It is to be noted here that, at both these places, taking photographs or making videos is strictly prohibited.

                         NOTE: Whatever is being written here are the personal views of the author and are subjected to agreement or disagreement.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Cham at Rumtek

In the current century of smart phones, internet and 3D movies, where western culture is highly motivating the youth, where nations aspire to go digital,where old ruins are replaced by magnificent architecture and engineering marvels of the new world; one of those very few things that still holds the fabric of traditions and the cultural heritage those inherited by our forefathers for generations before- is dance. The various dance forms in the traditional attire mostly referred to as the folk dances have somehow been able to create an unique identity for people inhabiting in different regions of the planet. These dances are usually showcased during festivals celebrating events such as the harvesting of crops or the new year. Similarly there are religious dance forms, that aims at creating awareness among masses and are themed on the victory of good over evil. The monastic dance or the ‘Cham’ is one such beautiful arrangement.
Rumtek, a small town situated in the east district of Sikkim, places itself in the hills facing the capital city- Gangtok , which is some twenty five kilometres from here. The place gains its importance from the beautiful monastery named after it, and is a sacred place of worship for the Buddhists.

The ‘Cham’ is the annual monastic dance that is performed every year or in periodic sets of years in various monasteries in Sikkim. The event was fixed on the eight of January, twenty-sixteen for this year and I managed half a day for it. The dance starts from the early hours of the day and continues till late in the evening with small breaks in between. So as you climb the steep road leading to the monastery from its main gate, the mantras aired from the loudspeakers sets you ready for the beautiful depiction of afterlife through dance. It is performed in the courtyard by the monks of the concerned monastery perfectly in tune to the beat of the drum, the exotic sounds of the extra long trumpets, the  piercing cymbals and the chanting of the mantras. But what draws the crowd are the vibrant mix of both coloured costumes and the masks of the deities and animals worn by the monks who perform the dance. The daggers and the swords; the expressions and the moves  in sync with the tone of the chants creates the perfect ambience. But they carry a message. They believe, after you die, in the transition period (ie., between death and the new life) when your soul wanders about, you will have to face these animals and the deities. And based on the life you have lived, they will lead you either to heaven or to hell. This dance is thus a depiction of the afterlife that one would face and thus prepares one so that he is not frightened later on. Throughout, you will find a few number dressed and acting as jokers just to lighten the atmosphere a bit and thus to keep away any misfortune amidst all these.

There are many such themes to these dances  that are being performed in other  monasteries as well, that more or less sends the same message- the teachings of Buddha, the path of dharma, to stay away from doing what is morally wrong and to live a life full of compassion.

The main place of worship becomes more of a rehearsal room where monks next in queue prepare themselves and as such on that day, visitors are not allowed inside. There are however sitting arrangements around the courtyard both in the ground floor and the one above. One particular story telling may last more than an hour, like in our case, and if you are interested in photography, you wouldn’t mind that.

If you are staying in Gangtok, an half day trip to the place would cost you atleast 800/- with a small car (say an alto). There are no public buses for the route. Sumos or 10/12 seater  travellers is the only other option. They would charge you 50/- to 60/-, but in such a case u must start early as later in the day, you may struggle to find any vehicle from the other end. The taxi stand is below the MG Marg, near the restaurant- Hungryjack and the Dominos.

And last but not the least, you must carry your identity proof along as the gate is guarded by army men who will check both you and your belongings. This chapter has a bitter story to it. For that, you may refer its history.

Also, here I would like to thank Smt. Kiden Bhutia, (who is an Announcer (Sikkimese) at All India Radio, Gangtok) for the valuable information I received from her.

And, I certainly meant colours-

NOTE: Whatever is being written here are the personal views of the author and are subjected to agreement or disagreement.

Friday, January 22, 2016


We boarded the Dhauli Express from Howrah scheduled to depart at 6 am. Train was very much on time and whistled to leave. I was with my parents and for the first time on an ‘actual family trip’. It was an a/c chair car and I relaxed. The stay at Puri was already booked at our departmental guest house. To spend the next two days at Puri was the plan. We reached just ten minutes late at platform no 2 and the air smelled different. Just outside the station, was the prepaid taxi counter, from where we got an auto instead. The driver had been following us right as we stepped out of the bogie. We had to reach All India Radio campus.

VIP Road
To the left hand side en route  the VIP road was the beautifully maintained asset built for public welfare. The boundary housed both the AIR  and a low power transmitter of Doordarshan. Shri Niranjan Das, Assistant Engineer of AIR had been very kind and welcoming and had arranged me the only room in the guest house. Lucky I was!

The famous Puri beach is just around half a kilometre from there where we spent the following hours.  The air was so fresh, the sound of the waves  as they came and returned, the sight of the watery horizon, everything just made me alive again. There were numerous  shops all around and opposite to it was an array of hotels. How I missed that! Next time I go there, I’ll be sitting on a chair somewhere on the balcony of any hotel  embracing the Bay of Bengal.

Oriya being very similar to bengali, most locals (ones you need the most-  autowalas and the hotel staff) can speak the latter. Also the geographical border with Bengal supposedly brings more bengalis than anyone else, if not for their holidaying habit. Packed our dinner from a hotel, and must say, the food was delicious.

Mr Dipu, the panda I reached for to visit Lord Jagannath Temple asked me to reach the temple by 0430 hrs and we made it the next day. Yes, running autos are readily available at that time. At sharp 0430 hrs, the gate opened for the first time for the day. Devotees ran in for the best place inside the temple for the morning prayers, Aarti. I climbed up a store and tried my best to wake up the guy so that he could keep our shoes, but unfortunately I found myself in him. He said no and kept sleeping. Least to say, I was amazed! Ours were the first shoes anyway alongwith a mobile and a bag (for they are barred inside), for another shop though and we managed to get in along with our temple guide. We joined the clapping hands, the powerful chorus of male voice in full rhythm, the dholaks and the kartals. Kirtan can shake you from the inside if you can feel it. It was just the perfect start for the unknown day.

I even tried meditating to the tune. It was close to 0530 and temple door was to open for the first view of the deity for the day- from right, Lord Jagannath, his sister Subhadra and their brother Balaram, fully clothed with flowers, often referred to as the best attire of the day. A rush of crowd moved ahead to the gate. If you hire a guide, he will get your passes ready though, for Rs. 50 per head. You can then buy a bhog from the counter just outside the main temple. The rate chart was interesting, less price would mean bhog for a single god, some more would mean one more god to be added and minimum of 2000 rupees for all gods. Higher ones are also available depending on the bhog being on behalf of just you or your entire family. The bhog is served seven times a day. It is said, the lord was very fond of eating. But I doubt he had such schemes in mind then. The temple compound has numerous other temples and a full society of monkeys running, screaming and just doing anything they want. While we waited there for another two hours, finally left for breakfast in the nearby market with just made idlis served with curry. The main central market has everything to offer, from photos of the temple deities to the local made handicraft items which includes bags, clothes, etc. But you should bargain unless you read ‘FIXED PRICE’ somewhere. It was early November, so the weather was pleasant for moving around during the day. We did some shopping and by evening also received the bhog-prasad and khicdi brought by our panda. He talked about God, nature, our future and on many such things standing outside our room. And his last words of wisdom were, “Women and fire are the two things in this universe one can never satisfy, the more you give them, the more they want!” ;) :D

The local boy of the guest house had also arranged us the mid day bhog- rice, mixed veg and kheer. The Prasad is worth mentioning.

One of the best things about Odisha is its tourism cell, the OTDC. You may refer to the online site for details. And also, there are people to attend the phone numbers given there. The department’s guest house facility also called Panthanivas is at a walking distance from the AIR campus. Well, OTDC conducts daily sight seeing tours for both full and half days as per their chart. The rooms for stay may be a tap higher for the aam-aadmi, but the package tours are both affordable and comfortable.

It was the third day in Puri, the eleventh of the month, and Diwali for the year as we boarded the a/c bus from Panthanivas at 0700 hrs to Chilka lagoon via Satpada (one of the three entry points to the lake), for the next fourty eight kilometres. Enroute, the first stop would be after travelling twenty kilometres at Brahmagiri for a temple visit and breakfast. You should reach there by 0800 hrs at max. and leave by 0830 hrs. The next stop would be after another twenty eight kilometres (at around 1000 hrs) at Yatrinivas, Satpada, where you would pay your guide for the Chilka boat ride and also order your lunch before you leave for the three hour boat trip. From there you need to walk for another five minutes to reach the boat, a govt. one booked for the OTDC people. The private ones are usually quite small and they also charge much more. The interior houses benches which could accommodate 24-30 people. Rest are free to take a seat of their choice at the deck. Old people  and women are given preference for seats. Young ones like me had the other option which was actually better.

The first stop would in the lake itself several times to spot the dolphins. They are usually seen in pairs of two, one following the other. And you shouldn’t dream of them jumping upto three feet high above the water. We spotted around ten to twelve that day. The lake is quite shallow, 5 feet at max at this time of the year. The season just begins then. The best time to visit is however December-January when different species of birds arrive from far flung areas. The next two destinations are the sea mouth and the Rajhans Island. There, you can try the fried prawns and crabs. However, the system wasn’t as I expected. You first need to buy them raw and then order to cook them at the nearby hotel. So I opted for coconut water instead. A pretty long walk  makes way for the sea at the other end. The beach was so steep as compared to that of Puri’s.

Rest about the trip was our moving boat and the ones passing by, many, so many of them. On the way back from the lake, you will find yourself scrutinizing the skeletons of the dolphins at the Chilka Visitor Centre. Staring from the skeletons to the history of the lagoon, everything you wanted to know ever about Chilka, you will find here. Then we had our lunch which was indeed very good.

Our guide for the day was Mr Prashant Kumar Sahu, a very decent man and delivered a hell lot of information about the lagoon and the other places we visited. He helped me book the package for the next day (Bhubaneshwar – Konark - Puri) and also gave me a lift to my guest house thereafter from the OTDC office. That way, I skipped the idea of staying in Bhubaneshwar and extended another day in Puri itself.

The bus leaves at 0630 hrs from Panthanivas. Breakfast at around 0730 hrs and then the first spot, the Lingaraja Temple. In between, your guide will collect money from you for the entry pass to Nandankanan. Other than the main temple, there are numerous other very small, medium sized temples all around. It’s is tough to cover all in the time frame allotted for the spot. So you should move as fast as you can. There is another temple on the way before you reach the Khandagiri and Udaigiri Caves. Again the time constraint won’t allow you to go through and read everything in detail. I just bypassed so many of the caves. We returned to where the bus was parked by a five rupee auto drive. The next was a delight to the kids who were in the bus. Yes, Nandankanan. Enough time is given for the visit there. Fishes, crocodiles, snakes, white bengal tiger, lion, giraffe, bear, deer, peacocks, ostrich, the world’s smallest monkey and many more animals can be seen, but from a distance ofcourse. Later in the day we were taken to the historic place, Dhauligiri where the battle of Kalinga was fought. Although he won the battle, King Ashoka was deeply moved by the amount of bloodshed that resulted and later ensured that this place becomes an important centre for Buddhist activities. The beautiful Shanti-Stupa stands tall spreading the message of peace and harmony. This then makes way for lunch nearby, a hotel branch of Panthanivas is at a walking distance.

As you prepare for the last leg of the journey, a power nap for an hour as you reach Konark is a good choice. The bus would wait for just an hour over there. To fully understand the architecture and learn to read the time of the day, you would want to hire a guide, which is very much available and also at a very low price. You can actually calculate the time of the day by tracing the shadow at the specially designed wheels. I realized that a full day is must at the place. The huge lawns are lush green and very well maintained which serves as the perfect resting place in the midst. The time of the day as we reached was good enough for this wonderful creation, The Sun Temple. However, we found it in a web of iron structures as renovation work was underway by the Archaeological Survey of India. And yes, you should keep a watch at the time lapsed because the bus may not wait for an extra minute just for you! We almost missed it due to my curiosity for the items at the nearby shops. Also, you need to buy the tickets yourself before you enter. The day ends at the beautiful Chandrabhaga beach on
the way to Puri. The shore is almost at the same level which makes the sunset marvelous. An hour and a half journey later will take you back to Puri, and this ends the package.

Food rates  at Panthanivas are almost comparable to the IRCTC ones, a little higher but the quality of the food is much much better.
For breakfast you will find idli in almost all hotels, even on the way to Sadpada and Bhubaneshwar.
The roads were broad, smooth, clean, fully lighted at night, and so well planned specially the Puri-Bhubaneshwar link.

Rate chart :

Chilka full day package (under OTDC): 300/- per head + 250/- per head for boat ride
Bhubaneshwar-Konark-Puri full day package (under OTDC): 430/- per head

We spent all our evenings in the beach. Just sit by the side, enjoy the breeze with tea/coffee and jhaal-mudi and wait until a tide reaches you. On the Diwali night, there were many tourists who were burning crackers here and there. The night sky sparkled frequently, hotels beside were decorated with lighting all through. The sight was beautiful to say the least.

Although I wasn’t fully done with Odisha but had to return due to time constraints. The only motivating factor was the first Shatabdi-ride of my life on thirteenth early morning at 0545 hrs. The station looked stunning under lights. Platform no. 8, it was.

And I have so many pictures, so have to share a few more. :)

NOTE: Whatever is being written here are the personal views of the author and are subjected to agreement or disagreement.