Panchavati is an amazing city with some very ancient and beautiful temples, and some very big problems of governance. The sacred temples get easily overshadowed by the trash everywhere and the lack of respect for the sanctity of this place. And it was not even the Kumbha mela. This tiny temple, the Neelkanteshwar Mahadev Mandir established in 1662 on the Ram Kund demonstrates the confluence of urban growth, apathy and the sacred. In dire need of the Swachh Bhārat Abhiyan. Continue reading “Neelkanteshwar Mahadev Mandir, Panchavati, Nashik”
Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, Day 6: Peigutso Lake (4,400 m; 14,436 ft) on the Tibetan Plateau
After lunch and pics of local kids, we headed west along a ravine and climbed a pass. There before us was the serenely beautiful Peigutso Lake. Overcast skies quickly gave way to more dazzling azure skies with bright cumulus clouds and turquoise blue water. The scene hushed us all and we simply stared in silence at the magnificence spread before us.
There at that time, my mind was preoccupied by physical discomfort and I did not appreciate the view as much. It had been a few days without bathroom facilities or showers. It was biting cold and the wind was relentless. In the rarefied air I developed the characteristic high altitude-induced dry cough. While the medication (Diamox) ameliorated some of the effects, the cough and headaches persisted. Despite our sherpas’ best efforts at cooking, I was nauseous and could not get anything down. For most of the trip I survived on honey spread over thick rotis and warm yak milk. And ladoos and mithai I had carried from Mumbai.
And so on I complained about material wellbeing. It would have been excusable if I was on an exotic vacation and expected to be pampered. But I was on the most difficult and sacred of all yatras – where it should have been about the “inner journey.” The physical discomfort is essential to force us to divorce ourselves from the comfortable mundane of our lives and turn our minds inwards to pose the trickier questions: What am I doing here on this planet? What is my purpose? Who is breathing? We don’t need to arrive at the answers, but we certainly need to start asking these questions; wallowing in the discomfort of reflection is the entire purpose of a yatra. Many revel in such an opportunity and such a yatra prepares us to reflect more deeply on our inner journey.
Personally, this yatra was a beginning, transition to a new level, turning a key to unlocking more mysteries and ecstasy. I didn’t know it then, but the mental and emotional manifestations of this yatra will continue to unravel over the rest of my life.
(I edited and reposted these two paragraphs in Dec 2014, more than eight years later)
We continued our drive in the valleys between rolling hills, through ravines and water logged streams. We crossed the wide, peaceful Brahmaputra river and arrived at the chinese military base town of Saga. Here in the middle of the barren desert were all the amenities you’d expect in an army town – pool tables, bars, gambling dens and dancing girls. Girls with garish make-up walked the pavement, reminding us once again of the impermanence of material beauty. It was also the last opportunity to buy warm gloves, hats or other cold weather accessories.
In the Indian state of Maharashtra, a tīrth yātra (pilgrimage) to visit eight ancient temples to Gaṇeśa (Aśṭa Vināyak) is mentioned in the puranas and considered very sacred. These eight temples, each with exquisitely beautiful Gaṇeśa murtīs, are in tiny villages, scattered around the mountainous terrain between Mumbai and Pune. After much procrastination, last February we were called on this short, beautiful and spiritually uplifting tīrth yātrā. Continue reading “Aśṭa Vināyak – Pilgrimage to Eight Gaṇeśa Temples – A Photo Essay”
Even as a child, I enjoyed visiting temples. The prasad was certainly a big draw. I’d stop by random SatyaNarayana Pujas, just to receive of the nectarine prasad. Aarti bhajans were equally soothing. At annual Wadala GSB Ganapati celebrations, while we were enticed by stalls selling bhajiyas and bondas, we first paid our respects to Ganapati, our friend and confidant, with whom we traded future visits for good performance in exams. Continue reading “Tirth Yātra: Temples of Tāmil Nādu”
Lake Manasarovar – An Accidental Pilgrim, Day 10
Approximate Elevation: 4,560 m (~ 15,000 ft)
Over the six months I had planned this trip, I never gave much thought to the significance of going on a yatra (pilgrimage). I had signed up primarily as an adventure with my brothers and several of my cousins; to shoot fabulous pictures; and check off one more on my list of places to see before I die! That Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash were the most holiest of sites was only of passing interest.
Continue reading “Lake Manasarovar – An Accidental Pilgrim”
Kailash Manasarovar Yatra: Brahmaputra, Day 6,7: Paryang Elevation: 4,540 m (14,895 ft)
Considering the spectacular Peigutso Lake, the 185 km drive from Saga to Paryang was tedious. We made a bee-line to the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which remained featureless; the skies were overcast and in the distant south we discerned the grey-brown outlines of the Himalayas. The road continued to be desolate; we didn’t even pass any settlements along the way. Just us and a long dirt road.
They were badly rutted and often, the roads were cut by streamlets creating dangerous ditches. The ride was extremely bumpy and we were constantly jostled. We longed for stepping out to stretch our bodies, but the biting cold and relentless winds were ever present; forcing us to dart back to the refuge of the van. Thus even simply riding was torturous and everyone appeared fatigued and listless in their interactions. We were eager to get to Paryang, our last stop before Lake Manasarovar.
Continue reading “Kailash Manasarovar: Brahmaputra and Onwards to Paryang”
Once we reached Kailash, the plan was to walk around the mountain parikrama. We’d hike 40 km over three days, at elevations starting at 15,000 ft and reaching over 19,000 ft. While this might appear trivial at sea level, reality is vastly different at 15,000 ft. To test our selves, the organizers arranged a short hike on our free day in Nyalam. Even though we would start at 12,000 ft and hike only a 1000 ft, it was an important part of the self-assessment before continuing onto Kailash.
Even at 12,000 ft, I could feel the reduced oxygen levels in the air. Once I lightly ran up a flight of stairs and found myself kneeled over, gasping. After a few minutes I was back to normal and remembered our instructions to “walking slowly”. Even a short walk through town would leave me panting. Thus this hike was not going to be easy.
After a leisurely breakfast, we started on the trail a few 100 meters from our guest house. Within a few minutes of walking, the elderly folks were taking long breaks. A few had already given up and started walking back to their rooms. I brought up the rear and tried to motivate many to rest often, but keep walking. Yet many would not be able to complete this small, but exhausting hike. I too was winded on reaching the top. Certainly the marathon training gave me the physical endurance, but it did nothing for my oxygen requirements.
Once we got to the top, the views of the mountains were mind blowingly spectacular. The mountains here are covered with wild grass, yielding the green velvet look, and a few scrub bushes on the slopes. At 13,000 ft, we are above the tree-line and there are no trees here.
I was surprised at the deep azure sky. Many photographers have noticed this and there are several reasons for this appearance. 1. there is zero pollution here and we are getting an unveiled view of the sky. 2. at the higher elevations the atmospheric layer is thinner. 3. at higher elevations, the angle of the incident light from the sun is lower, yielding deeper blue skies and higher saturated colors. 4. I use a circular polarizer which reduces extraneously diffracted light from reaching the sensor; and 5. (I love this one), it is said that our minds are cleansed by the hardships of this spiritual journey, permitting us to “see” more purely.
Halfway up the left of the opening photograph, notice the ant-like stick figures; that’s the rest of our group. I had walked to the nearby hillock for a better view, giving us a better sense of the size of the mountains in the background. The boulders in the foreground appear to have been tossed like giant dice rolled by a celestial hand.
In the grand scheme of things, how insignificant we are. How fortunate to perceive this nature in this form. How blessed to have been entrusted to care for all this. Truly so fortunate. You can see large versions of many images on Arun Eyes.
Enjoy the glory of this planet.
Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Tension in Kodari
Kodari Elevation: 2250 meters; 7,382 feet.
Our initial plan was to have a quick lunch in Kodari, perform exit visa procedures, and cross over the Friendship bridge into China-occupied Tibet. But instead, we found ourselves gobbling lunch to a backdrop of a frenzied stone-throwing mob and the staccato of automatic weapons. Read more details in previous post here.
We had uber-confident ‘armchair experts’ in our group, who provided continuous analyses. One opined that police would not fire on unarmed protesters, “they are firing in the air.” We learn’t later that the mob was engaging the military, not the local police. Another divined, “they are firing rubber bullets.” Yeah!
Yielding to my cousin’s protests, I hid my camera in my backpack and scrambled to the door for a close-up of military tactics. As the military advanced, they pulled down a couple of civilians standing in a truck and kicked and beat them ragged. The frenzied mob was hurling rocks. A few rocks came our way and shattered the glass front, littering the restaurant floor with glass shards. We all shrieked and scrambled for safety. I grabbed my backpack and dashed to the back room, where most of the others waited. A few more projectiles shattered whatever remained of the entire glass front.
As we had dashed in, so did our team of Sherpas. The military apparently thought that mob-members were seeking refuge in the restaurant and charged in after them. With heavy boots one kicked the swing door, breaking the last of the glass panels and thundered in. On seeing the puzzled looks of desi-tourists and quiet sherpas, he fired into the floor, looked around and stomped out! Whoa!
The owner promptly pulled the shutters. As the military pushed the mob back past our restaurant, we got a reprieve from the stones and bullets.
In the back room our party singing bhajans, taking our minds off the tenuous situation outside. The back room was a porch overlooking a canyon. Deep in the canyon below, the river Kosi rumbled and frothed over gigantic boulders.
Above, the seemingly peaceful Tibetan side teased us.
During this entire episode, the family owning the restaurant had not panicked, but instead kept us all calm (and away from windows). Their bucolic village was torn apart by mobs and military. Their restaurant, representing their entire life-savings, was littered with shattered glass and nervously pacing tourists. Coolly, mother, father, teenage daughter and a few helpers, started to pickup the glass and rock debris. We all laughed as the daughter showed us some of the rocks that had come through. The dry nervous laughter masked the fragility of our experiences.
Early in the evening, the shutters were rolled up to an eerie calm outside. AK-47 toting military controlled the streets and a forced peace had descended on the village.
Inside, the owners made chai and passed around biscuit packets. Our tour organizers along with local help made sleeping arrangements in the rooms above the restaurant. My cousins and I, got a small room in the adjoining guest house. Even stepping next door – across a threshold of a shared wall – felt dangerous. Next door too was a tiny restaurant/home with rental rooms. With nothing to do, we just sat around, chatted and caught up on life.
When traveling, I am accused of over-packing. In my backpack houlder bag, I carried an extra set of clothes, kit with toiletries and candy bars. With our luggage trapped somewhere behind the mob-line, I was likely the only guy with a toothbrush, and a set of pajamas. *hee hee* After decades of not needing my ‘spare set,’ it took a mob action in Kodari to validate my packing habits.
Dinner was in the restaurant/family room where all the owner’s family gathered as well. The only TV had continuous news of the standoff between the mob and the military. From the News we gathered that two agitators had died and many more injured. The situation was now apparently ‘under control.’ I just prayed for calm.
After a restless night, I was up at sunrise. I noticed the owner stepping out of his room, still rubbing his eyes and yawning. I asked him for some tea and he quickly got to making chiya (tea with ginger) and coffee for us all.
Out on the streets, all was quiet. We were encouraged, the military had withdrawn from the town. I scrambled up to the terrace to catch the sun glistening on the town. On the left are the buildings in Kodari and the immigration office is the last one. The Friendship Bridge connects to China-occupied Tibet on the right. The village on the hill in the background is the Tibetan town of Zhang-Mu. While we show our passports and go through the border here, it is at Zhang-Mu that our passports are inspected more carefully. Interestingly, China is not authorized by the UN to issue visas on our passports. Thus we apply for and receive separate ‘travel permits,’ which we surrender, and our passports don’t have any evidence of us entering China-occupied Tibet; only us exiting Kodari at the border. Ironically, it was in Kodari, part of the democratic Nepal that we had the most difficulty, while the sun shone golden on the authoritarian regime in Zhang-Mu. Whoever said life is fair!
After a quick breakfast we heard the border was now open and we could leave. … if we could get around the tire burning crowd!
Apparently, our tour organizers had made a deal with the local mafia, as well as the local immigration and military bosses. Our passports were taken ahead to prepare for a quick exit. When all negotiations were completed, we were asked to proceed quickly.
We marched single file. First through the quickly gathering mob, which quietly gave us passage. Then past more burning tires. Then the barren area beyond which the military in riot gear held their line. As we approached, we all held our breaths, the riot team parted and we were allowed to pass through. Phew.
I sighed relief as we reached the bridge. After a cursory examination of our passports, Chinese authorities quickly let us through. On the Tibetan side, everyone in our group had a wide smile on their faces. We had passed the first adventure. We mounted the waiting Toyota Landcruisers and the drivers took us up the mountains to Zhang-Mu for further passport checks and onwards to the Tibetan village of Nyalama.
During travels it’s near impossible to predict what will happen. The important lesson I learnt was to remain calm, smile, and … always pack an extra toothbrush and set of pajamas in your shoulder bag.
After departing Kodari, we quickly forgot about the incident – till our return journey. The locals mentioned that the rioting continued for a few days, as fifteen more bodies of locals surfaced downriver. *shudder*
The Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Onwards to Kodari
We spent a day in Kathmandu flying along the Everest Mountain Range, taking darshan at Pashupatinath, and the Baudhanath Stupa, (Monks and Kids at the Baudhnath) and visiting the local markets. We left early the following morning for the border town of Kodari, where we would process immigration requirements and cross over into China-occupied Tibet.
Once we left Kathmandu, we also left behind paved roads. Dirt roads lead us through the countryside, up mountains and picturesque views. After monsoon rains, the fields cut in mountain sides were lush with greenery, reminding me of Goa and Kumta. But the rains also bring landslides in the mountains, and we heard news of villages washed away. In many places we drove by recent landslides. The rocky rubble had merely been shifted, so traffic could go by. We were treated to innumerable streams cascading down mountain sides; and in many cases, the streams flowed right over roads, slowly eroding them. As our mini-buses dipped into streams and groaned out again, we were simultaneously gripped by adventurous excitement and terror – which would be the defining characteristic of this trip. The 135 km journey took us more than four hours.
Green fields zipping by.
The road hugs the river Kosi; in several places I noticed rudimentary suspension bridges which the locals use to cross the rapidly flowing river.
Indian trucks dominated the roads here and I was struck by the vivid graphics on their trim. At a rest area, I shot this artwork atop the drivers cab. The art depicts nicely the scenery (and the river Kosi) we enjoyed in the mountains.
Along the route, our accompanying bus got a flat tire and we stopped in a village. These kids were selling quartered cucumbers. I was not going to test my intestinal immunity and just settled for a pic. Noticed the effeminate lips on the kid on the left
A tea shop in the village
As we entered Kodari, the buses had stopped in front of tire-burning fires in the middle of the road. Blissfully ignorant of what was happening, we carried our shoulder bags and walked a few hundred meters to the road-side restaurant for a quick lunch. We walked around more burning tires spewing dense, acrid smoke and angry young men glaring at us. In some places the heat and smoke were very intense and we hurried along.
The mob stopped our bus and we had to stop over in Kodari
Our initial plan was to have a quick lunch and cross the border, which was only about 50 meters away. But all was not well in Kodari. Apparently the locals and the military police guarding the border had gotten into an altercation. The border was now closed and mobs had blocked the only thoroughfare with their burning tires and essentially brought this village to a standstill.
As we ate lunch we hoped the mob would disperse and we could proceed on. But that was not to be. Outside, we heard the raucous of the angry mob. And then,thakt, thakt,
We looked at each other, raised eyebrows at hearing shots being fired, but carried on with our meals.
thakt, thakt, thakt, thakt!
thakt, thakt, thakt, thakt, thakt, thakt, thakt!
The sounds of automatic weapons fire continued, … and went on and on. We saw the mob screaming and running by, chased by camouflage fatigue-clad military types.
Our hopes of crossing the border were dashed. We were going to be stuck here between trigger happy military and tire-burning mobs!
to be continued … .
You can breathe easy, we all came through the ordeal unscathed!
One of the joys of traveling is taking spontaneous photographs of complete strangers. Our interaction is only for a few seconds, or at most a few minutes. But through their pics they leave a lasting impression. In the comfort of my home, those few moments get stretched, not unlike Einstein’s time. I recall every blink of an eye, every body shrug and every word that passed during that brief interaction. And it sticks in my mind, sprouts, grows and nourishes; and subtly transforms me too.
I particularly enjoy photographing kids hanging out on streets. They are not scared of strangers, invariably smile and are willing to pause for a photograph. And once they see their likeness on the camera LCD, they jump in glee and are thrilled to pose forever. Despite their posed smiles, their inner joy seeps through the screen. These kids usually have very little material things at home, certainly no gameboys to keep them from throwing tantrums. Instead, at a young age they are observing and learning from strangers. They learn to rely on their siblings and friends. To trust them, for so much depends on trust in this part of the world. And above all, they know how to have fun with nothing more than a place to hang out. Theirs is the purest of joys.
I saw these girls on the steps of the Baudhanath Stupa (In the opening pic you see them playing by the elephant on the left). As they saw me approaching with my camera, they cuddled together and smiled. I think these were all from an extended family. When I asked if they were brothers and sisters, the oldest girls brought everyone together and kept repeating – ‘family, family!’