Monday, February 29, 2016

Soul Searching In Varanasi

Varanasi is famous for her Ghats, paan, mighty Ganges, sari and holy pilgrimage sites- Kashi Vishwanath temple and Bhairava temple. The narrow lanes around the ghats of Varanasi made us feel like we were walking through a highly complicated maze. In the most unexpected corners, we saw centuries old temples that seem to have been engulfed by surrounding households and many a gem of eat outs. All lanes seem to look alike and are highly confusing but we never had to worry as smiling locals were always available to give us a detailed route map.

Varanasi, where the mornings begin with praying/salutation to the Sun and the day ends with the most magnanimous Ganga Aarti. This colorful city with its rituals, mantras, vedic chants makes one feel that this is the place to attain salvation. It is amazing to see a single platform offering a glimpse of various stages of Life. While on one side, the pundits are holding the naming ceremony or preparing for the first head shave of a new born, on the other ghat, there are preparations going on to cremate the body of a departed soul.

This place teaches you a lot about Life, Indian rituals and a connect with your spiritual side happens even without your knowledge. No wonder, people come down here once they have taken a call of disowning all worldly pleasures. But this place is not just for aged or religious. It attracts people who are soul searching, want to experience the roots of India, the traditions of Hinduism, the rituals and even those who want to learn more about our history and culture. That for sure is given, there is no way that this place does not leave a ever lasting impression on you.

On the other hand, people here know how to enjoy life as well. Their association with Bhaang, Paan, Lassi, colors and their love for food speaks volumes that you do not need fancy and expensive things to be able to enjoy life.

The best way to experience the beautiful ghats of Varanasi and fall in love with the many monuments is to explore them by foot. We were not really up for the much hyped boat tour as we wanted an up close personal feel of the Ghats. But let us caution you things are not all rosy, there are a few sections of the Ghat that are in absolute pathetic shape with a few stinking a lot due to human waste and garbage strewn around. However, the work around for this is to circumvent around the Ghat.

Ganga Aarti is performed everyday at the Dasaswamedha Ghat, the ritual starts at 7 pm and goes on for an hour. You are so engulfed by the Aarti that you start chanting the mantras along with the pundits and are more in a trance state with the awakening of your spiritual side. Ganga Aarti is performed by 7 pundits who perform synchronized Hindu rituals. In order to get better seats be there by 6:30 pm. The extreme corners of the ghat is the best place to view the aarti. To view the Ganga Aarti you will be offered a seat on a boat for a minimal price however, the view may not be great and will be obstructed as people sit on the platforms right in front of the pandits.

Be careful of your belongings as pickpockets prey on unsuspecting devotees and tourists. After the Aarti you maybe approached by pseudo pandits or babas who in the name of blessings will apply tilak on your forehead and then expect money in return. If you want to click pictures of sadhus or babas kindly ask for permission and pay a small tip.

Overlooking the Panchaganga ghat lies the Alamgiri Mosque. This mosque was built on an ancient Hindu temple destroyed by Aurangazeb. You can still see the walls that stand as remains of the Hindu temple and the mosque domes were built on these same walls. This is one of the most captivating monuments on the Ghats of Varanasi. One can see the minarets and domes from the banks of the Ganges.

Superstition plays a huge part in Hinduism and it is widely believed that if you let the ashes of the deceased soul in Ganga they will attain moksha or freedom from the cycle of re-birth. The Manikarnika Ghat which is one of the cremation ghats is a pretty sensitive and it is advised that you do not click pictures here as it might be insensitive and disrespectful towards the grieving family. 

One of the best ghats of Varanasi is Scindia Ghat, right next to Manikarnika, as we were very excited to see one stunning monument that is tilted as well as submerged in the Ganges. This 150 year old Shiva temple was built by a son for his mother and on the completion of the temple, he claimed he had repaid his debt to his mother for giving him life. However, the temple tilted right after completion and the locals say a debt to one's mother can never be repaid.

Another reason we fell in love with this ghat is for the divine lassi served in a tiny outlet "Blue Lassi Shop" right behind the ghat. We never knew lassi could be this excellent and awesome. Many varieties are offered by this 70 year old shop and we had a tough time choosing from their 5 page long menu. Their top seller seems to be Pomegranate lassi, we tried the 'Kesar Dry Fruit Lassi' and it was out of the world. In order to reach this treasured place they have strewn around bread crumbs in the form of small arrows painted on the walls directing you to the shop. If you want, carry a passport size photo as they have customers pinning up their photos on the walls of their shop with notes of appreciation.

Do watch-out for the Government authorized stores that sell "Bhang." If you are consuming it for the first time, please go in for really small quantity. Another place that caught our attention was Keshav Ruchika Byanjan Resturant aka KRB that serves incredibly good chaat. Do try the aloo tikki chat and pani puri, the place is super hygienic and clean. 

We checked into Hotel Broadway near Harichandra ghat. There are several plus points to stay in this hotel. Though the property is only 500mt from Harichandra ghat and it is not in a narrow lane. This mid range hotel has 24 hr power backup that operates all appliances including AC which is very important as Varanasi experiences frequent power cuts. They have super spacious rooms and lot of amenities including free WiFi. They were also generous enough to let us take a printout free of charge. The best aspect is their Aman restaurant that serves the best food in Varanasi at a very affordable cost.

Photo Blog Varanasi. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

4 Years Of Living A Nomadic Life After Quitting Google

A sailor is truly content only when s/he ventures out in the ocean. Standing on the shore with the ocean beckoning he craves to be where he truly belongs. The fear of storms, currents, getting lost all seem to be there but the urge to be in ocean overpowers these fears and a possibility of  never returning to land also does not deter him. He is safe when he's on shore but that defeats the whole point of being a sailor.

We dreamt of living a nomadic life i.e. be armed with a map, hit the open road, explore new destinations with no fixed schedule and no return ticket. We were fortunate to have been living this dream life for the last 4 years. But has our life been a bed of roses? No, definitely not! It has its own share of thorns and like Everyone else we have our Ups and Downs but that is what Life is all about. The burning question is are we happy doing what we are doing despite all hardships and challenges. Hell yes, and if we had a chance to go back in time, we would've taken the same decision in fact to be honest, maybe a bit earlier than we actually did.

Introspecting if our lives have changed for better or worse, we sure had one hell of a ride. Over these four years we had experiences that were extremely good and not so good. We have spent nights like royals in a palace, kayaked late in the night and watched the bio luminous phenomenon, snorkeled in the ocean, fell in love with architecture and ruins of our country, hiked up mountains while it poured like cats and dogs, witnessed one of its kind traditional boat race, managed to spot a one horned rhino while on a jungle trek, hiked up 3000 steps to visit the Double Decker Living Root Bridge, witnessed crystal clear natural swimming pools, hiked up the Tiger Nest Monastery, travelled to one of the highest lakes in the world, were audience to the great migration of millions of Amur falcons, lived with locals and dined with the headhunters. We had the luxury to travel for months on multiple road-trips covering a total distance of 33615 km, stop where ever we wanted and change our plans frequently. We were able to pretty much see every place to our heart's content.

On the other hand, there were times when we had to walk kilometers in search of food only to find a place in the middle of nowhere that served just tea and boiled eggs and at times biscuits were substituted for meals. On multiple occasions with no signal or maps to bail us out we were lost on the road. We have also been conned and ended up paying lot more that we should have. At times, we were not sure if we would get a place to sleep and other times we slept in the dingiest of rooms with rats and insects keeping us company. We have worn the same set of clothes for several weeks and have literally lived out of our rucksacks. We have got locked in forts and lived in places when there were riots and unrest, even witnessed a cylinder blast. We have been away from home for several festivals, there were days when we had fallen ill and missed the comforts of our cozy home but not once have we regretted our decision to embark on a nomadic life.

Travelling taught us a lot about life. Patience, things do not go per plan, adjusting to situations, living out of our comfort zone, not worrying too much, not judging people, being sensitive to others feelings, agreeing to disagree, becoming more mature and budgeting. For months we have been on the road, we backpacked travelling like locals taking the train, bus, ferry and sometimes even hitchhiking to reach our destination. We were overjoyed to ride and drive on roads that were brilliant and gave us a chance to wander into so many hidden trails that would have otherwise not been possible. We have learnt so much about many local cuisines and found the best of food at our homestays and many a local small eat outs. Met some extraordinary  people, made some amazing friends and learnt how to live life each day rather than worry about where we stand 5 or 10 years down the line.

We learnt how to live out of a 65 liter rucksack and not once regretted that we are carrying so little. This helped us detach ourselves from materialism and made us realize how little we needed to be genuinely happy and contended. Since the time we stopped receiving our hefty paychecks we have always managed to live happily on a very small budget. Well planned advertisements and mega sales by online giants have never managed to lure us into buying things that we do not need. One of us has been using a mobile with a cracked screen for the last one year. 

A couple of experiences made us realize how bad it is to judge people and not to stereotype them. People who we may never meet again in our life have become our best buddies and few of those whom we considered to be close friends turned out to be complete strangers. Though we spent festivals away from our families, we were welcomed by locals who celebrated their festivals and had such big hearts to invite us and join them in their celebrations. Most importantly we as a couple have matured and the bonding that we share has definitely increased.

Language has never been a hindrance or a barrier, we have learnt how to communicate in sign language and through expressions. We have come so far out of our comfort zone and understood the importance of appreciating varied cultures, traditions, faith and views. Things that were a taboo for us turned out to be someone else's way of living and we learnt to respect that. There are several unforgettable memories that we have had in the last four years which we would cherish until we hit our graves. All these journeys taught us invaluable lessons that no university could teach.

This post in no way suggests that everyone should quit their jobs and travel. When every person is not alike, how can their paths be. And who are we to say what one should or should not do. We have taken the road less travelled and want to share that it made us happy following our passion as opposed to our office desks. Off late we have seen quite a few articles where people following their passion especially travel are being ridiculed and mocked. Everyone has their own passion and interests that they would want to pursue. For us it was travel, for others it could be art or stand-up comedy or acting etc. Just because some people do not follow the society prescribed lifestyle it does not mean that they are an outcast or plain stupid. Our request to people who echo such thoughts is 'if you cant motivate at least do not discourage.'

Choosing this style of living was not an emotional decision that we took at the spur of a moment. We always wanted to do this but the calling came a little earlier than expected. We thought this through had a faint idea of the challenges that we would face and took a leap of faith. Our motto in life is 'Never borrow money to buy anything.' If you cant afford it forget it or save till you can afford it.

Money is always a concern, it is for us too. We try and see how we can make ends meet. Just FYI, we are not loaded, we still have to pay our rent, take care of our living expenses but note that 'changes' and not 'sacrifices' in our lifestyle have helped us realize this dream. Life has ups and downs but in the end if you are happy doing what you are doing that is what counts. 

People are skeptical to take up their passion as profession fearing lack of opportunities and remuneration. In our case, in a span of four months, we were approached by online magazines and travel portals to contribute our travel write-ups. One of us even got an opportunity to be briefly trained as a 'Naturalist' by Taj safaris. 

The question raised by Alan Watts- “How would you live your life if money was no object ?” - pretty much sums up our lives post quitting, happy and content, following our passion- to travel.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Name Is Gaya..Bodh Gaya!

Bodh Gaya, home to UNESCO World Heritage monument that is not only the pride of India but also the whole World, attracts pilgrims from across the globe. Maha Bodhi Temple is one of the holiest sites for Buddhist. It is here under a Bodhi tree that Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became Buddha. A diamond throne under the tree marks the spot where Buddha became the Enlightened One.

The main temple is 170 feet tall and the inner sanctum is one of the best places to be in. The temple was built by Emperor Ashoka and this temple built entirely by brick has railings around it that still remain intact. Despite the fact that the temple is thronged by pilgrims from across the world nobody seems to rush to catch a glimpse of the deity. This is quite a rare sight and very much in contrast with the most revered religious places in India. A gentle calmness prevails throughout the temple premises and pilgrims offer prayers and respect in a calm and composed manner.

A raised platform next to the temple has stone lotuses signifying the place where Lord Buddha rested his feet while walking up and down during meditation.

The entire temple complex has a large number to stupas scattered around and these places are used by many a monks for meditation and prayers.

Early morning is the best time to visit the temple as it is engulfed in a very calm, serene and positive atmosphere. Sitting next to the Bodhi tree listening to the pilgrims recite prayers had a calm and soothing effect on us even though we could not understand the prayer recitals. We witnessed the enthusiasm and happiness sparkling in the eyes of those pilgrims who were overjoyed and collected the leaves from the Bodhi tree that fell on the ground, it was as if they were blessed by Buddha himself.

Apart from the incredible Maha Bodhi temple many recently built temples by Buddhist nations from around the world are the other attractions.

Post the bomb blasts in 2013, the temple management has ensured that there are elaborate security check points for the safety of the pilgrims. They have also made arrangements for pilgrims to deposit their valuables. Mobile phones are prohibited inside the temple. However, cameras are allowed and tickets for it are priced at Rs.100.

Bodh Gaya is 12 km from Gaya and is very easily accessible with both places offering decent stay options. We checked into Hotel Gaya Regency which is opposite the railway station - 'Gaya Junction.' A budget accommodation with basic facilities, 24 hours power backup and free WiFi. The proximity of the hotel to the railway station is a blessing and a curse. Chaos and constant honking in this area is kind of unsettling but you don't have to be worried about your mode of transport if your train is scheduled at odd hours.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Patna AKA Patliputra, Capital Of Mauryan Empire

A few places tend to leave an everlasting impression on you when you visit them. It could be due to their scenic beauty, stunning architecture or history. Then there are places like Patna where it is the people and their hearts that enhance the beauty. Planning a trip to the so called lawless state of Bihar, we had our inhibitions and it would be completely wrong if we did not admit that we were concerned about our safety. But we were put to shame by the beautiful people of Patna and they taught us the most valuable lessons of all- It is a grave sin to have sweeping general perceptions and to not get into the cycle of typecasting based on a few incidents alone.

A chance discussion with fellow passengers in the train and they went out of the way to tell us about how safe and cheap it is to take shared autos, they found us a decent accommodation, dropped us there and even treated us to plates of piping hot momos. As if this was not enough, they got their bikes the next day so that we could roam the city of Patna and like true hosts they never expected anything in return. It was not just them but every other person we met in the city from auto drivers to people accompanying us in the shared auto to the caretakers and guard of the patna state museum. All of them treated us with so much kindness and went out of the way so that we have a great time in their city.

They proved the age old golden Indian tradition true "Atithi Devo Bhava"- "Guest Should Be Treated Like God." In general for the three days that we were in Patna we experienced a whole different world contrary to the views expressed by the media and mean jokes circulated on social media.

Apart from the warmth of these awesome people, the city offers a lot to keep travellers on their toes and we started off with the Patna Museum. It is definitely a must visit as it houses relics that are very precious. The museum is divided into different sections bronze and stone sculptures, terracotta gallery, textiles, weapons, artifacts, paintings and an entire section dedicated to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India. The thankas displayed near the staircase on the first floor surely grab your attention.

Among all the sculptures, the one that stands out is the Didarganj Yakshi. This sandstone sculpture over 6 feet in height and made from a single stone with well polished surface is one of the finest examples of Mauryan art. It was excavated from banks of Ganga and is considered one of the most precious examples of ancient Indian sculptural art. Even the backyard of the museum has centuries old sculptures.

Another interesting aspect of the museum is a 200 million year fossil tree. It is 58 feet in length and was found near Asansol in 1927. You can also spot World War 1 canons that are on display here. The museum also houses Buddha relics, Buddha's ashes and manuscripts with Gold and Silver inscriptions. If you want to see these manuscripts and Buddha's ashes, the museum tickets are priced at Rs.100 per person. If you want to give it a miss, the tickets are Rs.15. Even though we felt the pricing is unfair we highly recommend you visit these exquisite or one of a kind relics. Camera charges are Rs,100.

Golghar, one of the iconic monuments of Patna, was constructed by an Englishman to store grains for the British Army after the tragic famine of 1770 which killed millions of Indians. This stupa shaped monument with a spiral staircase was designed in a manner for laborers to carry the load up, drop the load and descend from the other set of stairs. With a storage capacity of 140000 tonnes it could provide food for thousands of people. The panoramic view of Patna from the top of this 79 meter tall monument and the scintillating sunset over the ghats is a perfect site. However, this place tends to get a little crowded around sunset.

Kali Ghat/ Kali Mandir is a revered place of worship over looking one of the many ghats with the mighty Ganges flowing by her side. The main deity is Kali Maa. It is considered as one of the holiest sites of Patna and attracts hordes of people. People do not just come to the temple, they make sure that they visit the ghat after praying to Goddess Kali to offer their prayers to Ganga. Earlier the devotees used to let the diyas float in the Ganges but now thanks to PM Narendra Modi's 'Swachh Bharat' mission, this practice is highly discouraged and the diyas are now left on the steps of the ghat. The neighboring building is Patna University, one of the most prestigious university of Bihar.

Takht Harmandir Sahib Gurudwara is one of the holiest sites in India for Sikhs as Patna is the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh ji, the tenth Guru of Sikhism, This beautiful Gurudwara is a sight to behold and like every other Gurudwara, a sense of peace and calm prevails. Your trip to any Gurudwara is incomplete if you skip the Langar. The best part about the Sikh community is that they welcome people with a very generous heart and offer food irrespective of the faith they practice, their social status or any other discrimination. The rich or poor sit shoulder to shoulder and dine like one big family. A visit to this beautiful Gurudwara might be chaotic as it is set in a super busy market place and the roads are very narrow and congested.

Shaheed Samrak Park aka martyrs memorial is dedicated to seven martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice of laying down their lives fighting colonists in a bid to hoist the National Flag on the Secretariat building during the Quit India Movement. The bronze statue of these young students portrays the determination and the love for their motherland not willing to give up on their mission even after facing bullets. It is very important and supreme duty of any Indian to remember and respect every man and woman who fight fiercely for the freedom and prosperity of India. This park is a couple of kilometers away from Patna High Court.

Haldiram's in Boring Road is one of the best veg restaurants to dine in. 'Boring road' contrary to the name is a happening lane in Patna. It is a street food lovers paradise with several thelas (food carts) that serve excellent street food. We were surprised to find a few carts selling delicious momos. A small shop, Blue Moon, sells a wide variety of 'Kathi Rolls' aka Frankie. This place is pretty easy to find as it is often mobbed and that would be your tell tell sign. If you are not a big fan of street food this lane is still a big hit as it also has several fine dining restaurants. To cater to your sweet tooth, head to Sweet Home, they have a huge range of sweets confectioneries and bakery items. The sandwiches at this place are a must try.

If you are in Patna on a Monday it would be a better idea to reschedule your entire trip as all attractions remain closed. Patna comes second only to Gwalior in terms of unnecessary honking that result in a headache if you spend long hours on the streets. Patna is very hot even in the month of September, the sun is pretty severe on you throughout the day so be sure to keep yourself hydrated and be well equipped with sunglasses, hat and sunscreen. The Bihari dialect is something we fell in love with. 

When we visited Patna, Bihar was gearing up for one of the most unpredictable elections and there was a lot of debate about who would win the State elections. During one of our evening strolls we saw technology being put to great use. PM was interacting with the locals through digital media and trying his level best to convince them to back his party. 

We stayed at Royal Executive Guesthouse at Boring Road residential colony. Their rooms are basic and clean and their service is good. During our entire stay in Patna shared autos ruled Patna city and we never had to hire a private auto or cab. One can reach any corner of the city by waving down one of the several autos and to reach far off parts one might have to take more than one shared auto. The charges are very nominal with the minimum charge being Rs.5 and the maximum we paid was Rs.13 per person. However if you are riding in one of these for the first time be careful and always have a tight grip.