Category Archives: Fairs & Festivals

Basketful of Joy: Ballooning in India


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY reach for the skies and profile the mad world of ballooning while attending the Araku Balloon Festival


Listening to tales of early explorers conquering the world in strange airships and watching their adventures on celluloid had always filled us with awe and wonder. Be it ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ or Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout crossing the Pyrenees in Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, nothing had captured our imagination like hot air ballooning. Verne’s first acclaimed novel in 1863 ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’ involved travelling across Africa from Zanzibar to St Louis in a hot air balloon. With the 2009 animation film ‘Up’, our interest only piqued…

Internationally, ballooning as a sport started in the late 1960s-70s in France, UK & the US and then spread across Europe. In 1986, maverick tycoon Richard Branson did the first Trans-Atlantic crossing in the biggest hot air balloon ever and in 1991, he successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean, setting a distance and speed record of 6,700 miles and 245mph. In the late 90s, Branson ran the largest ballooning operation in the world and wanted to bring Virgin Balloons to India, but things didn’t work out. In India, ballooning seems to have taken off with regular events like Taj Mahotsav, Pushkar Mela and the Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival at Pollachi in January (in its fourth edition).


One day, out of the blue, we got the perfect opportunity for a first hand experience, thanks to the Araku Balloon Festival. Organized by E-Factor and SkyWaltz, pioneers of ballooning in India, in association with Andhra Pradesh Tourism, it was a chance to see Araku Valley and its stunning landscape from a different perspective. We flew into Vizag for the 3-hour drive to Araku where a recently harvested agricultural patch had been painstakingly transformed into a tented luxury camp. On the eve of our maiden flight, we hung out with the world’s top balloonists for an inside look into this fascinating activity.

There seemed to be more butterflies flying around our stomachs than there would be balloons in the air. Though Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognizes ballooning as the safest aero sport, Chief Organizer Samit Garg reassured first-time flyers, “Ballooning is the simplest form of aviation. It’s like a parachute that operates on the simple fundamental of being LTA (lighter than air). It does not have an engine that might fail, nor a wing that could fall off, if the burner has a problem, there’s a back-up burner, if there’s a hole in the balloon, it is not going to burst. If everything fails, the warm air inside will get cold and the balloon will slowly descend to earth.” We laughed at his simple logic. “The only two things that can go wrong is if you’ve taken a bad call and flown in bad weather or the pilot is an amateur.” We were fortunate to be in the company of legends.


“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong?” said Australian flyer Peter Dutneall in mock seriousness. He loved ballooning because it put smiles on people’s faces. Sixteen balloons from thirteen countries were taking part at the Araku Balloon Festival. Italian Paulo Bonanno, the world authority in burners, had been flying for 37 years. He originally made industrial textile machines and one day while talking to a friend on the phone, absent-mindedly doodled a round shape that looked like a balloon. On a wager, he made a balloon in 15 days. As he gained altitude with each try, one day he cut the rope and reached for the skies. Though he had flown across the world, this was his first time ballooning in India. “I’m 73 and plan to fly for the next 30 years,” he chuckled, chugging at his trademark pipe. “The only navigational tool I use is my nose.”

Ballooning is subject to good weather; one can’t do it when it’s too hot, so summers and rains are off limits. The season lasts from mid-Sep to mid-April. Josep Llado from Spain began by fulfilling his dream of exploring Africa by balloon. Thirty years later, he’s still not tired. “It’s freedom, you forget everything else,” he said. An India veteran, Josep had flown in Jaipur, Ranthambhore, over the Taj in Agra and above India Gate in Delhi. “Flying in India is very colourful and incredible, especially the landscapes and the people. When you fly over a city, people run to the roofs. When you land, they come in droves, always interested to see what’s happening.”


Josep explained that the best time to fly is early morning or evening, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without thermals. For long distance flights or across mountains the ideal wind speed is 50 knots, but for short flights, within a valley, 6-7 knots is fine. Wind blows in different directions at various altitudes so one can change levels and pick another wind. That’s where experience comes in. You observe other balloons.

“It’s a bit old fashioned”, he laughed. If you burn less often, you begin to descend slowly. The pilot must always be conscious of what to do – don’t stray too far, watch out for power lines when flying low, land near a road. If it’s windy, you land a bit harder. It’s not important where you go; only the flight is important, so enjoy the flight.


For Samit, the magic moment came in Germany in 2003 when he saw a hot air balloon for the first time while driving from Stuttgart to Frankfurt. On learning that it was a regular ticketed activity, he wondered why it couldn’t happen in India? Samit travelled to the UK, Turkey, France and Germany to understand how it’s done but India still didn’t have any laws to facilitate commercial ballooning.

After much deliberation with the DGCA and obtaining a NSOP (Non-Scheduled Operators Permit), SkyWaltz waltzed into the skies. Commercial ballooning in India took off on 1 Jan 2009. Rajasthan, with its forts, palaces, rugged Aravallis and steady tourist traffic was the perfect place to start. Headquartered in Jaipur, they soon spread to Ranthambhore, Pushkar camel fair and a permanent operation at Lonavala. They flew at Hampi Festival, Taj Mahotsav, Amaravati Festival and for a TV series for the Bedi brothers with balloon flights over 8 national parks.


From branding, tethered flights, corporate group events and destination marketing to experimental breakfasts and proposal flights (somebody held a 100 ft long banner with the message ‘will you marry me’), ballooning is indeed special … Today, the market has grown so much that SkyWaltz flies three baskets full every morning at Jaipur. In the last nine years, they have flown over 35,000 happy customers.

The next morning, the pilots left early for the launch site. Numbered jeeps carrying baskets, cylinders and other equipment rolled in. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh with 800 flying hours across 15 countries, was coordinating the setup. Paul Macpherson, chief of operations at SkyWaltz, was busy checking if any balloonist needed anything.


We had all been designated balloons and were given boarding passes. A huge crowd had assembled to see the drama unfold. It was overcast. “If it’s foggy, it means no wind, which is good,” said Paulo. “The ideal condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The maximum speed permitted by rule is 10 knots,” he added.

Rick Astral and John were rigging up Iwi the Kiwi, a special shaped balloon that won many admirers. Rick, who calls himself ‘the cheeky Kiwi’, was a self-professed cowboy who had flown over the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Setting up nearby were Swiss flier Marc Blazer, Kevin Chassa, whose mother was the first female balloon pilot in France and Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, Malaysia’s first female hot air balloonists.


Their father Captain Khairudin, smitten by his first glimpse of a hot air balloon on a train journey in Switzerland, returned home to become Malaysia’s first balloon pilot. His daughters helped him organize the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in 2009 and after his death in 2012, took over his mantle.

The sisters love the unpredictability of ballooning – the inability to control the direction or flight route, leaving your fate to nature, following the wind and letting it take you to unknown places. Flying a hot air balloon is different from any other aircraft because you can never plan where you will land. Once on a cross-country flight across nine states in Peninsular Malaysia, they landed in a palm oil plantation. First the workers ran away and came back with machetes as they thought it was a bomb. When they saw people inside, they thought they were gods! “Ballooning is so universal – no matter your age, race or where you come from, the reaction is always one of excitement.”


“But it’s not as glamorous as it seems”, they chimed. “You sweat buckets, there’s heavy lifting and you need a team – it’s not a one-man (or woman) show!” The nylon-polyurethane envelope weighs 100kg, the basket about 60kg and 50kg each cylinder. It takes a crew of four 20 minutes to set up. A balloon can cost around 30,000 to 100,000 Euros.

The Bee, a special inflatable balloon purely for display, was the first to dance in the air, as Luc de Wulf from Belgium wielded it expertly. After growing up on his grandfather’s stories on flying, he made his first makeshift balloon at 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer. Luc started ballooning in 2005 and after Israel, Lebanon, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, Dubai and flying over the Alps in winter, this was his first experience in India.


We were assigned to his fellow Belgian Johan Vander Meiren, who had clocked a thousand flights in Europe and has been flying over Bruges for the last 12 years. “We cannot steer, so we float on nature,” he shouted over the din of industrial fans inflating the balloons. The burners fired up and after instructions to bend our knees on touchdown, we hopped in.

With a loud whoosh, we were off, rising above a patchwork of green, yellow and golden fields in a valley ringed with mountains criss-crossed with streams. After the initial whoops of joy, we settled in and savoured the 15-minute ride and the sight of other balloons on the horizon. The touchdown was really smooth. Johan radioed the ground staff and we lowered carefully into an open field where we were greeted by an excited group of farmers, children and bystanders.


Yet, we were all unaware of another spectacle about to unfold that night – tethered flight and night glow! In a large ground, the balloons lit up each time the burners fired and the swarming crowd gasped. A lucky few got the chance to get into a balloon and experience a tethered flight. Little kids clutched colourful balloons on strings as if dressed for a fancy dress party. Later that night, we celebrated our success with dancing the local Dhimsa to the beat of tribal drums by the campfire.

On account of its sheer size and geographic diversity, India has the potential to be a top ballooning destination. However, weather and wind patterns are critical and you need vast open spaces for landing, so plateaus score over coastlines. Places like Varanasi and Hampi can rival Turkey or Myanmar. Ballooning is big business in Cappadoccia where 50-60 balloons take off each day but it took them 27 years to get there. In India, the tough part is done and the administration, the trade and customers are all aware of ballooning. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been, and there you long to return.”


Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 27 May, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Up, Up & Away: Ballooning on the Horizon


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend the inaugural Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh, turning the spotlight on India’s latest trend 

Sky Waltz Balloons-2

As the fourth edition of the Tamil Nadu Balloon festival took off this January at Pollachi with an international focus, all of a sudden hot air ballooning seems to be the hot new trend in travel. Besides trial runs in Amaravati, Agra and the Rann Utsav, the annual calendar now seems full with regular ballooning events at Pushkar Mela and Rajasthan thanks to SkyWaltz, one of the pioneers in the field.

Be it a balloon safari over the lush Sahyadri range at Lonavala and the rugged Aravalis above Jaipur or flights on request at Neemrana, Manesar, Udaipur and Ranthambhore, the main safari season (Dec-March and Sep-Nov) is busy with morning and evening fights. It seemed like the stuff adventures are made of, as we discovered for ourselves at Araku Valley.


“A hot air balloon is the only vehicle in the world without a steering wheel, motor and brakes. It’s crazy, meant for crazy people…” laughed Johan Vander Meiren from Belgium. We were in conversation with the world’s top balloonists at the international Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh. 16 balloons from 13 countries were participating and all their heavy equipment had been air freighted and transported to Araku Valley. The added attractions were the special shaped balloons – Iwi the Kiwi from New Zealand, the sea horse shaped Neptuno from Brazil and Bee, manned by Luc de Wulf from Belgium.

After a press launch at The Park Hotel in Vizag and two nights of music ‘Sounds On Sand’ at RK Beach (where Luc gained notoriety as the ‘dancing balloonist’ for his antics on stage), we drove into misty Araku Valley in the Eastern Ghats. To host the international pilots and media, a specially designed camp with 40 luxury tents was set up at Bosubeda in a clearing amidst green paddy fields, bright yellow flowers and colourful flags fluttering in the breeze.


Organizer Samit Garg from SkyWaltz and E-Factor says: “Araku Balloon Fest is a unique tool to promote Araku Valley as a tourism destination and highlight its lush landscapes and waterfalls, fields and valleys, eco-friendly environment and friendly people. We came here three weeks ago scouting for a campsite. A farmer, who was about to harvest his crops, agreed to lease this patch. The whole camp was set up in days! We hope after this event ‘Araku’ will find a place in the minds of travellers.”

Johan had clocked a thousand flights in Europe and has been flying over the historic cityscape of Bruges for the past 12 years. During winter, day temperatures are constant, allowing longer flights over the Alps. “In today’s age, everything is programmable or as per a schedule. Hot air ballooning is not. You float on nature. That’s the reason I still enjoy it.” His hometown Beselare or ‘Village of the Witch’ has a witch festival and he’s currently developing a balloon shaped like a sorceress!


Luc confided he found inspiration from his grandfather who often talked of flying. “I made my first balloon when I was 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer.” Luc has ballooned in Israel, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico and Dubai. “When you land, the people are so friendly, we’re treated like kings. A balloon ride is something special and often booked for a birthday or anniversary.

Imagine, it’s sunset… a nice landing place – we set up a pop-up café with champagne, cheese, and cheekily ask our passengers ‘Didn’t you do this yesterday evening?’ They wail ‘No’! ‘Exactly!’ Everything isn’t commercial. We spend a whole fun evening together. Why go to a café or bar when I meet so many people through ballooning?”


After dinner, we retired early for our morning tryst. By dawn, the camp was abuzz with pilots getting their gas cylinders filled with nitrogen. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh, was overseeing the fuelling operations. “We don’t have propane in India, so commercial LPG cylinders are used and pressurized with nitrogen,” he explained. Though non-motorized, the balloon is still an aircraft, so requires registration, licenses and permissions from the DGCA, Airport Authority of India and local Air Traffic Control. Karim started ballooning as a hobby and has flown 800 hours across 15 countries.

It was a short drive to the launch site and the atmosphere was electric. Numbered jeeps rolled onto a grassy clearing and each passenger was given a boarding card with the number of the allocated balloon. We caught up with other participants while they were unloading baskets, setting up equipment and inflating the colourful balloons.


Paolo Bonanno from Italy has 37 years of ballooning experience and is the leading authority on burners. He chugged at his trademark pipe and looked up ruefully at the grey sky. “By rule, the maximum permitted wind speed is 10 knots. The perfect condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The landing is most important. We fly for pleasure and avoid taking risks”. His partner Nicole added, “There’s a popular saying – ‘Better to be on the ground and say I wish was in the air rather than to be in the air and say I wish was on the ground!” Their words seemed as dark and foreboding as the low hanging clouds but we laughed.

Paolo originally made automatic machines for industrial textiles and created a balloon just to win a challenge. Back in 1980, there was no concept of ballooning. For 2 years, cops followed him around to confiscate his balloon! Now 73, he planned to continue flying for the next 30 years, Paolo said with a twinkle. He had flown in Sri Lanka and Philippines, but this was his first time in India. At Albuquerque, the organizers said he couldn’t smoke in the fields, so he lit up the moment they were off the ground. “No Pipe, No Fly,” he tapped his badge and chuckled.


Spaniard Josep Llado from Ultramagic started 30 years ago with a balloon trip across Africa. Be it Albuquerque in USA, the world’s biggest ballooning event with 650 balloons, or a small event like this, each has its own charm, he explained. “It’s freedom – you forget about terrestrial problems”, he laughed. “We’re in an era where we like to control everything. With ballooning it’s very difficult, but you can adapt. There are different wind directions at various altitudes so you can change levels. Early morning or evening is better for flying, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without any thermals, making it easier to control the balloon.”

Ballooning as a sport started in the late 60s and grew in the early 70s in the UK and US before spreading to other places. Josep had flown over Kilimanjaro, India Gate in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra, besides Jaipur, Pushkar and Ranthambhore. “Flying in India is incredible and very colourful. As you fly over a city, people throng the roofs and there’s always a big crowd when you land. In Africa, there are photographic safaris over lions or elephants. In Burma, you fly over temples. In Capadoccia, Turkey, ballooning started in 1992 and today is a big business catering to hundreds of tourists. India is huge, like a continent, and I’m sure there will be fantastic panoramic places for ballooning. We hope Araku will be our favourite!”


“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong” – piped in Peter Dutneall with characteristic humour from Down Under. His balloon was called Zoz. “Not ‘coz it’s from Oz, it’s my registration number!” he said. “What I love about ballooning is that it puts smiles on people’s faces”. The wind had stopped and the smiles were coming back on. Huge industrial fans had inflated the balloons and burners fired them up with hot air. Last minute instructions were handed out – clutch the ropes inside the basket, bend the knee when landing, hope for a soft touchdown!

Josep was the first to fly out, followed by Marc Blazer from Switzerland, Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, the intrepid ballooning sisters from Malaysia who run the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Kevin Chassa from France (whose mom was the first female balloon pilot in France) and Rick Astral and John who fly Iwi the Kiwi. Rick, who relocated from New Zealand to Santiago, is candid. “There’s so much stress in life, ballooning is all about enjoyment. I’ve flown the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, even landed in an airbase to shoot against some F-16s. I was a Cheeky Kiwi who just wanted photos of balloons in dramatic places!”


As our pilots fired up with a loud whoosh and hiss of fire, we clambered into our baskets and were off, waving at the screaming crowds below. We rose above the mesmeric patchwork of green and gold fields, noticing streams and grey blue hills that ringed the valley and other vibrant balloons mid-air. Now and then, a paramotorist swooped around us in hypnotic curves. Farmers stopped their work and children waved agog!

Ballooning was as much about the flight as a foolproof exit plan. One had to watch out for low hanging powerlines, forests and hilltops. The most important thing was a flat patch of land and proximity to a road for the crew to easily recover the equipment. Our smooth landing could put an Airbus to shame as we headed back to the camp for breakfast, jabbering about our experience.


The day was free to visit the Tribal Museum and Coffee Museum in town, Araku’s coffee plantations and tribal hamlets. Near waterfalls like Chaprai, local women sold barbecued chicken and fish on wooden skewers. That evening thousands of locals and tourists converged at a large ground to witness the Tethered Flights and Night Glow balloon spectacle. Later, the party continued at the camp, with lilting folk tunes and an energetic Dhimsa dance, performed by women of the Nookadora tribe.

Kaushik Mukherji, consultant for AP Tourism, explained that Araku was one of the many wonders in Andhra Pradesh. “There are temples with floating pillars, ancient Buddhist sites and 500-year-old Dutch cemeteries. We’re creating different holiday experiences for different customer segments and an event calendar from October-March. There’s horseracing on the beaches at the Vizag Stud Million while the Yacht Pentagonal in mid-Feb will be one of its kind in Asia.”


On our return, we stopped by at the fascinating Borra Caves, discovered by British geologist William King in 1807. Deep in the bowels of the Ananthagiri Hills, we encountered the most incredible stalactites and stalagmites besides formations, created by the subterranean Gosthani river. Roadside stalls sold ‘Bamboo Chicken’, cooked in hollow stems “without oil or water”. At Vizag, the brand new Fairfield by Marriott, just off the Araku highway and near the airport, was the perfect base for our local explorations. We also got our fix of local Andhra cuisine – Nellore chepala pulusu (fish curry), Gongura Mamsa and desserts like pootharekelu.

A befitting tribute to Vizag’s maritime history, the INS Kursura is a fascinating museum inside a retired Russian submarine. We drove north to Rushikonda Beach, the Buddhist sites of Thotlakonda and Bavikonda and the port town of Bheemli. Not far from the ancient Dutch cemetery, it was startling to see the same Gosthani river descend from the Araku hills and flow into the sea. Life had come full circle, like a giant hot air balloon…



Getting there
Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam and Srungavarapu Kota. Borra Caves is a 6km diversion off the main road to Araku and 30km before it. Bheemli is 30km north of RK Beach in Vizag.

Where to Stay
Fairfield by Marriott
KSR Prime, R&B Junction, Marripalem, Vizag
Ph 0891-668 8999

The Park
Beach Road, Vizag
Ph 0891-304 5678

APTDC/AP Tourism
Hotels at Vizag, Rushikonda, Araku, Ananthagiri, Tyda
Ph 0891-2788820, 1800 42545454

Balloons Only

Hot Air Ballooning Festivals

Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival (10-16 Jan)
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204

Pushkar Fair (28 Oct-4 Nov)
Ph +91 8130925252

Araku Balloon Festival (14-16 Nov)

Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 12 January, 2018 as the cover story in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Flying Colours: Holi across India


India is the land of festivals and no other festival has captured people’s imagination as Holi, the festival of colours, accompanied by music, mirth and feasting. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY capture the celebrations across the country. 

JetWings Holi 3

While Holi is played across India, its regional variations are as myriad as the hues that colour the festival.Be it murals in temples and havelis or miniature paintings, Holi is a recurrent theme in Indian art and literature. Neither does any other Indian festival have so many Bollywood songs dedicated to it. Gabbar Singh’s immortal lines in Sholay were not ‘Diwali kab hai’ or ‘Dussehra kab hai’, but ‘Holi kab hai’!

In sacred Brajbhoomi, at Lord Krishna’s birthplace Mathura and Vrindavan, where he grew up, Holi is celebrated with great pomp for 16 days. Special pujas are held until Rang Panchami to commemorate the divine love of Radha and Krishna. Legend has it that Krishna developed his blue skin as a child when the she-demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his adolescence, Krishna often despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha will like him because of his dark skin. One day, tired of his constant pestering, his mother asked him to colour Radha’s face in any colour he wished. Krishna goes ahead and does it and in doing so, Radhe-Krishna become a couple. Ever since, the playful colouring of Radha’s face has been commemorated as Holi.


Armed with pichkaris (water guns) and gulal (coloured powder), tolis or bands of men trawl the streets. But as if drenching each other with coloured water and painting faces black and blue wasn’t enough, people decided to whack each other with sticks! Radha’s village Barsana near Mathura celebrates a sadomasochistic brand of Holi called Lathmar Holi. Men from Nandgaon impersonating Krishna, come to play Holi with the ladies of Barsana who beat them up with lathis. The festival begins with a ceremony in the Radha Rani temple – the only temple in India dedicated to Radha. The procession of men marches down the Rang Rangeeli Gali (Colourful Street) where lathi-wielding women await them gleefully.

The tradition commemorates the event when Krishna stole the gopika’s clothes from the bathing ghat and Radha and her friends decided to teach him a lesson. Songs are sung in earthy Braj bhasha as chants of ‘Sri Radhey’ and ‘Sri Krishna’ rend the air amid clouds of colour. Males sing provocative songs to invite the women’s attention, who reply with well-oiled lathis as men protect themselves with leather shields. The next day, gops from Barsana go to Nandgaon in a reciprocal gesture so that everyone gets a fair, sound beating.


Outside Braj, in rural hinterlands of UP-Bihar, Holi lasts for seven days with colour and often degenerates into mud-slinging and dunking people into pits of keechad (sludge). In Kanpur dehaat (rural), a grand fair called Ganga Mela or Holi Mela is celebrated on the last day at various ghats along the banks of the Ganga. The fair, started by freedom fighters during the first war of independence in 1857, marks the official end of the Holi celebrations in Kanpur.

In Gujarat, Holi is celebrated for two days. On the first evening people light a bonfire (holika) and offer raw coconut and corn to the fire. The second day is dhuleti, the festival of colour, where vibrant hues are applied to each other. The coastal city of Dwarka, once Krishna’s capital, celebrates Holi with festivities at the Dwarkadheesh temple and comedy shows held across the city.

JetWings Holi 2

Ahmedabad celebrates Holi like Janmashtami, with a pot of buttermilk suspended over the streets as boys form human pyramids to reach and break it. Girls try to stop them by throwing coloured water while gops heckle the girls. It commemorates the pranks of Krishna and the cowherd boys to steal butter. The boy who manages to break the pot is crowned ‘Holi King’. Afterwards, they all set out in a large procession issuing mock warnings to people that Krishna might come to steal butter from their homes.

The word Holi itself originates from Holika, the evil sister of demon king Hiranyakashipu. According to Puranic lore, Hiranyakashipu had earned a boon from Lord Brahma that made him almost invincible. He grew arrogant, demanding that everyone worship him. His son Prahlad however, remained steadfast in his devotion to Vishnu. This angered Hiranyakashipu, who subjected him to torture. One day Prahlada’s evil aunt Holika tricked him into sitting on a pyre – she wore a magical cloak that would protect her. As the fire raged, the cloak flew from Holika and shrouded Prahlada. Holika burned while Prahlada survived. Vishnu appeared as Narasimha, ‘part-man, part-lion’, and killed Hiranyakashipu.


The next day after the fire cooled down, people smeared the ash on their foreheads, a ritual still observed by some. Over time, people started using coloured powder instead of ash. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil. Falling in the Hindu month of Phalguna (Feb-March), Holi marks the agricultural season of the rabi crop. The festival is also a harbinger of spring and a celebration of love. Since it occurs on the first day of the panchang (Hindu calendar), Holi is hailed as the beginning of the year. People often undertake spring cleaning at home. It is an auspicious time for new beginnings, to forgive and make up, momentarily forget differences and celebrate with music, gaiety and laughter.

The Kumaoni Holi in Uttarakhand is a musical affair with many forms. In Baithki Holi and Khari Holi, people sing songs based on classical ragas. Baithki Holi or Nirvan Ki Holi begins in temple courtyards, where Holiyars sing Holi songs set to classical music and people join in. The songs are sung in a particular order based on the time of day. At noon, the songs are set to Peelu, Bhimpalasi and Sarang ragas, while evening songs are based on Kalyan, Shyamkalyan and Yaman. Khari Holi is celebrated in rural Kumaon with men in white kurta-pyjamas dancing in groups to the tune of ethnic musical instruments like dhol and hurka. Women too have fun, often with bawdy songs, in private assemblies called Mahila Holi.


Across Kumaon, the cheer or Holika pyre is made amid great ceremony at the Cheer Bandhan fifteen days before Dulhendi. A green Paiya tree branch is placed in the middle. Every village fervently guards its cheer as rival mohallas from the neighborhood try to playfully pilfer each other’s pile. The colours used in Holi are sourced naturally. Chharad is made from flower extracts, ash and water and thus Dulhendi is also known as Chharadi. During Holi. walls and courtyards of rural houses in Punjab are decorated with drawings and paintings by women. This art, similar to rangoli in South India or mandana in Rajasthan, is known as chowk poorana locally. Flowers, plants, peacocks, palanquins and geometric patterns form key motifs.

In east India, Holi is called Phaguwa in Bihar’s Bhojpuri dialect and Phakuwa or Dol Jatra in Assam. Neighbourhood kids roam around to collect dry twigs, branches and leaves to make a large wood pile, often competing for the largest bonfire. On the eve of Phalgun Poornima, people light the holika pyre. They put dried cow dung cakes, wood of the araad or redi tree, grains from the fresh harvest and food offerings. The next day the festival is celebrated with colours from morning to afternoon. In the evening, families visit their friends and relatives for Holi Milan and apply abeer (coloured powder) to each other or daub the feet of the elderly for blessings. It’s an open house with an array of food laid out for visitors.

JetWings Holi

Holi is synonymous with feasting and kitchens are abuzz days before the festival with elaborate preparation of sweets, savouries and other delicacies. Women make gujiya, malpua, laddus, khoa barfi, kheer, namakpare (namkeen) and shakarpare in large quantities to welcome guests. The highlight and often the cause of all revelry is bhang. A lot of time is devoted to grinding cannabis into a smooth paste, used to make bhang kulfi or pedas, fried into pakodas or spiking milk infused with dry fruits as thandai. For lunch, people prefer to be vegetarian with poori-sabzi (usually kathal or jackfruit) and dahi vada.

In Assam, Holi is closely associated with the Vaishnava satras of Barpeta. On the first day, clay huts are burnt while on the second day people play with colour. In Bengal, Holi is called Dol Jatra or the Swing Festival. Icons of Radha and Krishna are taken around the streets on a dol (decorated palanquin). On the morning of Dol Purnima, people dress up in saffron or white clothes, wear garlands and sing and dance to the tunes of the ektara (single stringed instrument). Women dance around the swing and sing devotional songs while men throw coloured water and abeer at them. The tradition of celebrating Vasantotsav (Spring Festival) at Shantiniketan through music was started by Rabindranath Tagore. Typical traditional sweets like basanti (saffron) sandesh, payash (kheer) and saffron milk are offered to visitors.

JetWings Holi 4

In Odisha, the icon of Lord Jagannath is taken in a procession called Dola Melana with bhoga being ritually offered to the deity. Holi is also part of the Konkani spring festival Shigmo, which lasts for about a month. In Goa and Maharashtra, Hindus worship the fire as they perform Holika Dahan, followed by Dhuli vandan or playing with colours and haldune or offering of yellow (turmeric colour) to the deity.

In some cultures, the significance of fire is associated with the burning of Kama, the God of Love. Legend has it that the demon Tarakasura could be killed only by Shiva’s son. But after Sati’s death, a grieving Shiva withdrew into a shell. Without the procreative will, all creation and life came to a standstill. Kama shot Lord Shiva with his love dart to arouse his feelings towards Parvati, but was burnt to cinders after Shiva opened his third eye. Down south, children in north Karnataka collect firewood for weeks and the wood pile burnt on the eve of Holi is called Kamadahana. In Sirsi, Holi is celebrated with a unique folk dance called Bedara Vesha or Hunter’s Dance, performed at night across five days before the festival.

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The colors of Holi have run beyond India’s borders to wherever the Indian diaspora has emigrated – Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, US and UK. In countries where ISKCON is fairly active, Holi translates into one big community party. Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Utah, Holi NYC in Brooklyn and several cities across Germany celebrate Holi: Festival of Colors on a grand scale. Thailand has a similar water festival called Songkran, derived from the word ‘Sankranti.’ No matter where you go, the infectious spirit of Holi remains the same, a time to let your hair down and scream ‘Holi hai!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the March 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

Holiday on Ice: Ladakh in winter


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY fuse snow travel with slow travel as they discover an icy realm of frozen rivers and waterfalls with authentic Ladakhi hospitality


“Why have you come to Ladakh in winter? Why??” the old monk at Chemrey monastery asked exasperatedly, twitching his toes and shaking his head in disbelief. Clearly, travelling this far in non-tourist season wasn’t the done thing. Snug in our thermals and jackets, we stood laughing in the freezing courtyard and shot back, “So we could have the Buddha all to ourselves!” Selfish as it may sound, the lack of tourists and the absence of Royal Enfields echoing through the valley did accentuate the silent desolate beauty of Ladakh.

Many are daunted by Ladakh’s unforgiving terrain and temperatures of up to -25 in winter, but the truly adventurous swear it is the perfect time for rarer thrills. They come in Jan-Feb for the Chadar trek from Chilling on the frozen Zanskar River or the wildlife challenge in the rugged hills of Hemis to spot the enigmatic Snow Leopard. For those who don’t wish to undertake strenuous journeys, there are simple Ladakhi pleasures to be found.


There is an old saying in Ladakh that in this region of remote passes and mountains, only a good friend or a serious enemy will visit you. And what better way to get a sense of this harsh landscape than the flight from Delhi over Himalayan peaks, glaciers and frozen lakes? The full import of the air hostess’s nonchalant announcement that ‘the temperature outside was -10’ didn’t really strike us at Leh Airport, but high up at Chemrey Gompa, lashed by cold winds, we understood what sub zero was all about.

Just layering yourself with clothes, climbing a steep flight of steps or the effort in bending down to tie your shoelaces seemed like climbing Stok-Kangri, often leaving us with ragged breath. Fortunately, we had a few days to acclimatize. Smala, from the Forest Department gave an insightful presentation on the region’s wildlife at our hotel. Besides the apex species the shan (Snow Leopard), Ladakh is home to an impressive array of birds and mammals – kiang (Tibetan wild ass), wolf, ibex, sheep like bharal and urial, and marmots, best sighted on the Changthang plateau. Over time, many became intrinsic to Ladakhi culture, like the ubiquitous black-billed magpie, regarded as a messenger or a sign of guests coming home.


Stripped of their leaves, the skeletal forms of malchang (willow) and berfa (poplar) added an eerie touch to the landscape. Lakes had frozen into ice rinks where local boys enjoyed a round of ice hockey, a sport that was picking up in the region. The only thing that added colour to the bleak winter was the gustor (festival) at Spituk gompa. With prime terrace seats overlooking the central courtyard and a steep cliff behind us, we watched the twirling cham (masked) dancers. A large covered thangka stretching across three storeys of the gompa was unveiled to reveal Tsongkhapa, founder of the yellow hat Gelugpa sect.

The performance was riveting and our guide Tashi explained the nuances. The sword carried by the dancers was symbolic of a tool to cut ignorance, the skeleton figures denoted emptiness, the different colours symbolized the five elements and various attributes – blue was sky or power, white was cloud and peace, yellow was earth, green was water, red was fire. The highlight was Chhoshkyun, the red faced mask of the head of the gompa, in his fierce attribute.


Cosseted in woolen parkas, we sat around a bonfire as our host Danish Din Abdu shared the traditional thermal yardstick. “Chile kalan refers to 40 days of peak winter, Chile kurud is 20 days and Chile bacha is 10 days of milder cold.” With activity down to a bare minimum, the kitchen becomes the most integral part of the house. There is no running water; pipelines are emptied as water freezes and expands as ice, causing the pipes to burst. Family members huddle around the stove to keep warm with typical winter preparations.

After roasted marshmallows and grilled kebabs by the fire, we were invited for a traditional Ladakhi meal upstairs, served on low stools. Skiu is a hearty wheat pasta stew eaten during bitter cold months. The broth is made from mutton bones along with dried vegetables harvested in summer, to which meat and potatos can be added. As chhang (fermented barley drink) was poured into our kore (cups), Danish gave us a crash course in Ladakhi cuisine. Churpe (hard cheese), served as an instant snack, was presented in a pheypor or decorative lidded bowl, often used to store tsampa or barley. Another delicacy is timstuk, wheat flour made into thick strips and served as a soup with black gram. Usually made at homes, it is rare to find such dishes at restaurants in Leh.


The main course was more of an obstacle course as we tried everything from nang (Ladakhi sausage), shapta (meat curry), phingsha (keema with phing or glass noodles), even fried lungs! Vegetarians needn’t go weak-kneed as there’s plenty of great veg fare – phing alu or glass noodles with potato, taint (Ladakhi saag) and tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns). We thanked the shy cook Phuntsok Thundup profusely – perhaps the chhang had taken its toll. He was from Saini in Zanskar and was happy to learn that we’d be visiting Chilling the next day, the launch point for the Chadar or frozen river trek on the Zanskar.

The morning drive was extremely scenic – via Magnetic Hill and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib (where Guru Nanak had meditated and overcome a local demon) to Sangam, the confluence of the icy blue Zanskar river with the olive green Indus. A diversion to the left took us along the Zanskar – the river was frozen in parts and lacy sheets of ice wafted along its course.


Waterfalls stood frozen as if cast by a magic spell, glinting like icy sabre teeth. The road was blocked just short of Chilling, so we turned back and continued on the Leh-Kargil highway to Lamayuru. One look at the surreal landscape and you know why Ladakh is called Moon-land. Perched on rocky crags, the gompa offers stunning views all around.

Our driver Stanzin had an interesting analogy for the severity of the Ladakhi winter with respect to the timing of local festivals. “Spituk Gustor mein yak ka thand hota hai, Likir gustor pe bhed ka thand hota hai.” (Cold of the yak at Spituk gustor, cold of the sheep at Likir gustor).


We returned to Leh via Alchi. Unlike other gompas in Ladakh, the monastic complex was situated not on a hilltop but right in the heart of the village. It was built by noted 10th century scholar Rinchen Zangpo, called Lohtsawa (Great Translator) who disseminated Vajrayana Buddhism and erected 108 monasteries in the trans-Himalayan region. The features in the murals were distinct and we learnt that Kashmiri artists were employed to paint the walls; the paintings at Alchi are some of the oldest and most exquisite in Ladakh.

There were other signature experiences on offer. The serene prayer ceremony at Thikse Gompa was followed by a Ladakhi breakfast in a nearby home with salty gur-gur chai (yak butter tea), served with khambir (local bread). We learnt a little calligraphy from local artist Phunchok Chosgial who taught us how to write our name in Ladakhi. We even dropped by to meet Padma Lamu, an oracle from Chushul, who did a small prayer session at her house near Choglamsar and blessed us. With a costume change in local regalia, our Ladakhi transformation was complete.


Back at the hotel, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Danish’s father, now in his 50’s, reminisced about the old days when Ladakh had just opened to tourists in 1974. The first tourists (locals called them ‘hippies’ and followed them everywhere) were brought to Leh in special buses from Srinagar. Back then, the Manali-Leh highway didn’t exist (it was opened in 1989) and there were no hotels in town. The foundations of the hospitality industry were laid when the slightly affluent families were asked to host guests and build toilets for their comfort.

“My father was the manager, my mother was the cook and I was the errand boy. We did everything ourselves”, his voice quavered in emotion. From 500 tourists in the 70s to over 1.5 lakh tourists in 2014, the region had indeed come a long way. It was only in the hibernation of winter, devoid of mass tourism and package tours, that you get a sense of how things would have been in the old days… The weather may be cold in Ladakh, but the simple Ladakhis possess incredibly warm hearts.


Fact File

Getting there
With the Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Leh highways closed in winter, the only access to Ladakh is flying to Leh. Most internal roads within Ladakh are open, except the route to Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri, which can be blocked due to heavy snowfall.

Where to Stay
The Grand Dragon Ladakh
Leh’s plushest hotel that’s centrally heated, serves terrific food and stays open all year round with great views of the Stok Kangri range. Winter packages offer great value (3N/4D for just Rs.22,999 per person, valid Dec 1-Mar 31)
Ph +91 9906986782, 9622997222

Saboo Resorts
Located 7km from Leh in Saboo village, Odpal George’s resort has 15 cozy cottages with traditional Ladakhi architecture and cuisine.
Ph +91-9419179742, 9419231374

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

Located between 9000-15,000 ft, Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert with rare air. Winters are characterized by low levels of oxygen and temperatures ranging between -10 to -25 degrees. Make sure to carry enough warm clothing, jackets, woolen caps, thermals, mufflers and gloves. Keep head and ears protected at all times and avoid stepping out with wet hair.

Take it easy for the first day or two for the body to acclimatize due to sudden change in altitude. Watch out for headaches, dizziness and breathlessness. Get a precautionary health checkup. If SPO2 or oxygen level in the blood is below 90%, you’ll need supplemental oxygen. For low blood pressure, pop Diamox, a blood thinner, twice a day (after meals). Drink lots of water, preferably warm, with a diet rich in fat and protein. Regularly munch on dry fruits to keep energy levels up.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 March, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Gwalior: Sweet strains of music


In Gwalior, the home and resting place of legendary Indian classical musician Tansen, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the ancient city during Tansen Samaroh and find that art and culture continue to flourish here

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Not too far from the 16th century tomb of Tansen, Pandit Abhay Narayan Mallick’s dhrupad rendition filled the air on a clear December night. Unlike the black tie affair of an opera, Gwalior’s culture aficionados had turned up unabashedly wrapped in blankets, mufflers and monkey caps to brave the winter, yet, united in their love for classical music. Over the weeklong Tansen Samaroh, the country’s top classical singers and performers regaled audiences in a city that was home to medieval India’s most celebrated musician.

The elevated rectangular platform enshrining Tansen’s tomb rested under the shade of a tamarind tree. Its bitter leaves were considered miraculous and local singers often chewed it for a sweet voice. Tansen’s memorial dwarfed in front of the mausoleum of his spiritual mentor and Sufi mystic Sheikh Mohammad Ghaus Shattari. The large square tomb capped with a large dome, hexagonal towers in the corners and delicately latticed walls resounded with notes late into the night.

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Nearly 500 years ago, the voice of Tansen similarly echoed through the galleries of Man Mandir, the palace of Tomar Raja Man Singh (1486-1516), high up in the fort atop Gopachal Parvat. It is said the court poet could light lamps with Raga Deepak and his Raga Malhar could bring down the rains! Tansen later became one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. He sparkled, drawing gasps of awe, much like the brilliant azure, ochre and emerald green mosaic tiles on the façade of Man Mandir Palace adorned by whimsical bands of yellow ducks and blue elephants.

The rambling Gwalior Fort is dotted with several mahals (palaces), chhatris (domed pavilions) and shrines like Sas Bahu Temple and Teli ka Mandir, besides the exquisite Jain rock cut sculptures carved into the hillside. En route to the reputed Scindia School, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod celebrates the release of Guru Hargobind Singh from the fort, along with 52 other inmates. Gwalior is also associated with Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi who died fighting the British at the southern base of the very fort at Phool Bagh.

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At the hillock’s northern base, Man Singh built Gujari Mahal for his doe-eyed Gujar queen Mrignayani. Currently serving as an archaeological museum, its most prized exhibit is the 10th century statuette of Shalbhanjika, excavated at Gyaraspur. We retired to the royal comfort of Deo Bagh, Neemrana’s heritage hotel facing the nine-chequered garden Nau Bagh, located in a quiet campus with two 18th century Maratha temples, cenotaphs and arched pavilions.

For any visitor, Gwalior is worth exploring leisurely over a few days. There’s a lot to see – from the Vivaswan Surya Mandir to chhatris of the Scindias to Jai Vilas Mahal, still used a Scindia residence. Forty rooms of the 400-room European style mansion are open to public as the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum, with Belgian chandeliers, opulent dining sets and royal artefacts on display.

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And where art and culture flourished, can cuisine be far behind? Like music, Gwalior takes its food seriously too. Regulars line up in the wee hours at Bahadura, an 80-year-old sweet shop in Naya Bazaar for the local favourite bedai, a poori stuffed with moong and udad dal (lentils), besides laddus and gulab jamun. Locals love eating out – from samosa, kachori, jalebi and rabdi at SS Kachoriwala or a pure veg thali in Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak or assorted parathas at Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazar.

The city also nurses a sweet tooth with laddus of Shankerlal Halwai made famous by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the legendary gajak (crispy sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) of Ratiram Gajak and Daulatram Gupta’s Morena Gajak Bhandar. Indeed, in the city of Tansen, sweetness is in the air…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December, 2015 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Enter the Dragon: The Drukpa Trail in Ladakh


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY follow Drukpa’s Dragon Trail from Hemis to Shey and uncover Ladakh’s tryst with movies at Rancho’s School & Pangong Tso

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Every precious spot of shade and vantage point at Hemis gompa (monastery) was taken while the not so lucky sat patiently in the sun. Whenever a masked performer came too close, old women touched their foreheads in reverence while wide-eyed kids cowered in terror. A large thangka of the Drukpa sect’s founder Tsangpa Gyare unfurled on a wall loomed over the proceedings. We were at the annual Hemis Festival in Ladakh on invitation by the Drukpas for the birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism to the Tibetan region. Crowds milled about for a glimpse of his large statue in an antechamber.

For 350 years, the courtyard of the largest monastery in Ladakh has resonated with the clang and drone of gongs, horns, pipes and drums. We watched an endless procession of 400 monks twirl and dance wearing centuries-old costumes. The masked chham dances were based on the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava – wrathful, benign, feminine, royal, saintly, leonine – that he assumed at different times for the benefit of mankind. His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, spiritual son of present monastic head HH Gyalwang Drukpa, along with learned scholar Khanchan Tsewang Rigzin traced the origins of their sect.

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The Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in western Tibet by Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211). On a pilgrimage, he and his disciples witnessed nine dragons roar out of the earth into the skies as flowers rained from the heavens. They named their sect Drukpa (druk in Tibetan means dragon) after this divine incident. To be honest, the only time we had heard of Druk was while devouring Druk jam as kids and Druk Air, both originating in Bhutan, where the sect prospered and Mahayana Buddhism continues to be the state religion.

Lynne Chain, a donor-volunteer from Malaysia known by her adopted name Deepam, outlined Drukpa’s big plans for next year. Every 12 years a four-storeyed thangka of Padmasambhava is unfurled at Hemis. Next year, the event coincides with the millennial anniversary of Buddhist maha-siddha Naropa. A disciple of Tilopa, Naropa was the gatekeeper of Nalanda University and posed questions on theology and philosophy to people who came for admission and decided whether they were fit to enter or not. Later, he came to Ladakh and meditated in caves near Lamayuru and Zanskar.

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Naropa 2016, a month-long event slated for 1-31 July will take place on a 300-acre tented zone near Hemis. Besides the Hemis Festival, the relics of Naropa (six bone ornaments) will be displayed for a few days, with teachings by masters, Himalayan cultural performances, free eye camps and tree planting. With half a million visitors expected to attend, it is billed as the ‘Maha Kumbh of the Himalayas’. Drukpa’s charity organization Live to Love will attempt to break its own Guinness record of a million trees planted simultaneously. HH Gyalwang Drukpa will address the audience seated at the centre of a giant mandala shaped like the 9th century Borobodur temple complex in Java. After the event a statue of Naropa would be installed and consecrated as a monument.

Kargyud Homestay, a new family-run hotel in the quieter part of Leh overlooking the Tsemo Gompa, Leh Palace and the Stok range, served as the perfect base. The owner Phuntsog Wangchuk Goba also ran the famous restaurant Tibetan Kitchen, so food was delicious. Our next stop was the old summer capital Shey on the Leh-Thikse road lined with poplar and Ladakhi willow trees. Located in the lofty palace complex next to the Namgyal Victory Stupa was a chamber with a 39 ft high copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha gilded in 5 kg gold. The seated statue towered above us, spanning three storeys. From the citadel, a stupendous view fanned out of the Indus valley dotted by Stok, Stakna and Leh in the distance. A 4km trekking path connects Shey to Thikse Monastery, past the largest chorten fields in Ladakh with hundreds of whitewashed stupas strewn across a lunar landscape.

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Signboards along the way announced ‘Rancho’s School’ or the Druk Padma Karpo (White Lotus) School, propelled to fame by Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots. Before the movie released in 2009, the school had no visitors; today it averages 200 a day! They had to set up Rancho’s Cafeteria and gift shop to cater to the rush. The dynamic principal Stanzin Kunzang and His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, the school’s guiding light, took us around the campus.

It wasn’t just the dramatic backdrop and its philanthropic mission that made the school special; the institution itself was unique. Designed by London-based Arup Associates, its award-winning eco-friendly architecture used passive solar heating, ventilated pit toilets that didn’t require water and interlocking timber frames to withstand earthquakes! The dorms, named after Ladakh’s high passes, housed local and underprivileged kids who learnt Bothi (the Ladakhi script), art, music, martial training besides regular subjects. Nearly half of the 726 students came from remote areas like Dah Hanu and Zanskar and were sponsored.

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In August 2010, after Ladakh was struck by cloudbursts and mudslides, the school suffered serious damage. Aamir visited Ladakh for disaster relief and the following month, gracefully accepted the appointment as ‘Live to Love’ Global Ambassador at a convention in London along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh. After her recent relief work during the devastating Nepal earthquake, Michelle visited Ladakh for the first time this July and spent an evening at the school. “This is the most beautiful place on earth and the most beautiful school. We pledge our commitment that we will make your school bigger, better and stronger,” she exclaimed, floored by the entertainment program and enthusiasm of the students.

Speaking on her association, she mentioned that she first met HH Gyalwang Drukpa in New York and learnt about his Himalayan trek with 700 Live to Love volunteers for ecological awareness. Roped in as Executive Producer for Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, Michelle chronicled the epic journey with producer-director Wendy Lee. The Himalayas, a fragile glacial region being devastated by global warming, was described as the planet’s ‘3rd Pole’. Michelle elaborated, “One of the things I love about the pad yatra is that you connect with Mother Nature… Your feet always have to be on the ground. The environment issue is very close to my heart. It is about being responsible – making people living in this region believe that they are custodians of the natural resources and how we have to be good tourists when we visit.”

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She had joined the Peace Pad Yatra in Sri Lanka at the tail end and hoped to do a complete journey. Being an outdoors person who liked to trek and camp, she wished to join the upcoming Eco Pad Yatra to Myanmar in December… In Ladakh, she looked forward to visiting Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake. Seeing the ‘Rancho’ name plastered everywhere she reiterated the impact of movies. “Well, if it helps tourism, why not?”

It was local tour operator George Odpal who put Ladakh on the Bollywood map. Far from the chaos of Leh, we met him at his beautiful resort in Saboo 7km away, a lovely showcase of Ladakhi architecture and cuisine. George recalls, “It all started with LOC Kargil in 2001. JP Dutta was planning to shoot in Ladakh and all enterprising locals were aflutter about how to get in touch with him. I had just started my company Himalayan Safaris. I had no idea about Bollywood so I just Googled him and caught the next train to Mumbai! I bumped into a friend on his production team and my knowledge of the region and tour expertise got me the project. LOC was shot around Leh besides the army area at Karu. At that point, it was the toughest thing we ever pulled off.”

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As queries trickled in, George expanded from location hunts to logistics, transportation, stay, permissions, recce and even equipment for film shoots. He has co-ordinated the filming of over 20 movies in Ladakh, including Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero and critically acclaimed Hollywood docu-film Samsara, featuring monks of Thikse Monastery making mandalas. Shot in 25 countries, it was the only location chosen from India. However, it was 3 Idiots that spurred the tourism boom in Ladakh. Interestingly, the original location for the movie’s climax was not Pangong Lake but Tso Mo Riri, but wildlife permissions and snowfall made the production team look for an alternative in Europe, until they finally returned to Ladakh for Pangong. The rest is screen history. Today, tented camps dot the lake at Spangmik with carloads of tourists and biker groups stopping at the ‘3 Idiots’ restaurant and shooting point.

After featuring Nubra Valley in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra recently returned to Ladakh to shoot his next film Mirziya, based on Mirza-Sahiban, a classic love story from Punjab. Shot in Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, the movie will feature Ladakh on a dramatic scale. Few days later, as we cooled our heels in the blue waters of Pangong, we spied ‘three idiots’ mimicking the famous ‘bum scratch’ on the banks. We wondered what Bollywood poses would make it to people’s selfies in a few years. Sigh… Cut!

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Fact File

Getting there
It’s a linear route down Leh-Manali highway to Mahabodhi Society at Choglamsar 9km away, Shey Palace 6km further and another 4km to Thikse Gompa. The road continues to Karu check-post, 35km from Leh, where it forks – a diversion on the right crosses the bridge over the Indus River and goes to Hemis 7km away while the left turn goes via Chang La to Spangmik (125 km) on Pangong Tso.

When to go
Ladakh is accessible all year round with direct flights from Delhi though road access from Manali or Srinagar is generally between May-October. The 2-day Hemis Festival takes place in June-July. Next year, it kicks off the mega-event Naropa 2016, held between 1-31 July.

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Where to Stay
Kargyud Homestay, Chubi, Leh
Ph +91 9419178630

The Grand Dragon Hotel, Leh
Ph +91-1982-255266

Saboo Resort, Saboo
Ph +91 94191 79742, 94192 31374

Camp Redstart, Spangmik, Pangong Tso
Ph +91 94191 77245

Hemis Monastery
Drukpa White Lotus School, Shey
Live to Love International
For more info, visit or

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 August 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

The Great Tirth: Jainism in India


On the occasion of Mahavira Jayanti, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trace the roots of Jainism in India and its impact on art, architecture and philosophy

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India’s Jain legacy extends from celebrated cave shrines at Ellora and Badami to Udayagiri-Khandagiri in Odisha, exquisitely carved temples at Dilwara and Ranakpur to Gomateshwara statues at Karkala and Shrvanabelagola. Though stone sculptures may erode and paintings might fade, Jainism’s impact goes beyond art and architecture to more fundamental concepts.

The five cardinal principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness), represented by an upturned palm with a wheel encircling the word ahimsa, is a defining symbol of Jain faith. The wheel or dharmachakra represents the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation through relentless pursuit. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology of satyagraha was partly inspired by his correspondence with Jain saint Shrimad Rajchandra; eventually freeing India from centuries of slavery.

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The roots of Jainism

Jains consider their religion anadhinidhan or timeless, with no origin or end, occasionally forgotten by humanity and revived by a succession of tirthankaras (ford-makers, who help cross the Ocean of Life). One of the world’s oldest religions, Jainism predates Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism (the 24th and last tirthankara Mahavira was a contemporary of Buddha). Like Buddhism, Jainism too originated in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

When human civilization was still in its infancy, Rishabha, the first tirthankara, was born to Nabhi Raja and Marudevi at Ayodhya. People were illiterate and it is believed that Rishabha taught them seventy-two sciences including arithmetic, agriculture, tending animals, cooking, poetry, art, sculpture, song, dance, art of lovemaking, rituals for marriage, funerals and festivals. Even the extraction of sugarcane (ikhsu) juice was taught and the Ikshvaku dynasty claims lineage from it. Rishabha divided his kingdom between his hundred sons, making Bharata, the eldest, king of the north and Bahubali in charge of the southern capital at Paudanapura. Rishabha left to meditate in the forest, gained kevala gyana (supreme enlightenment) and became the first jina (conqueror), deified as Adinath (the first lord).

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple idols IMG_9344_Anurag & Priya

Over time, Bharata expanded his dominions and became a chakravartin samrat. Some historians claim that India was named Bharatavarsha or Bharat after him and not the Kuru king in Mahabharata. Everyone accepted his rule, except his brothers. They renounced their kingdoms and joined Rishabhnath in the forest while Bahubali, the Strong-Armed, refused to acquiesce. He defeated his brother in combat but ashamed at his own ego and pride, abdicated the throne and undertook severe penance. He shed his clothes and attained a kayotsarga position, standing still in meditation through rain and shine. Vines and anthills grew around him but he didn’t relent till he gained enlightenment. To commemorate this, Bharatha got an emerald statue of Bahubali erected in Paudanapura. Later, Bharatha too attained moksha and was worshipped as a siddha. Subsequently, the statue was lost and no trace of Paudanapura could be found…

Rishabha was greatly revered in the ancient city of Pithunda, capital of Kalinga (modern Odisha). When Magadha king Mahapadma Nanda conquered Kalinga, he destroyed the city and brought a statue of Rishabha to his capital Pataliputra. After Rishabha, a succession of tirthankaras preached the faith through a body of scriptures, memorized and orally passed down the ages. However, history only records the existence of Parshvanath (c. 877–777 BCE) and Mahavira (599–527 BCE) and a legend in the Uttaradhyayana sutra relates a meeting between disciples of Parshva and Mahavira, which unified the two branches.

Bihar_Vaishali Lord Mahavira's birthplace Baso Kund IMG_7236_Anurag & Priya

On a recent trip to Bihar, we drove to Vaishali, erstwhile capital of the Lichchavis. Against the rustic backdrop of paddy fields, a red arch announced the birthplace of Lord Mahavira. We were the only visitors on the winding trail to Baso Kund. Beyond a compound wall, construction of a grand shrine and dharamsala was underway. A flight of stairs brought us face to face with a serene statue of Mahavira seated in meditative repose. Born to King Siddhartha and Trishala of Videha, Mahavira spent thirty years here, before attaining enlightenment at 42.

We followed his footsteps to Rajgir, whose hills are sacred to Jains as Panch Pahari. As per legend, when Lord Mahavira placed his foot on each mountain, it sparked a divine event – a mountain moved (Vipulachal), it rained jewels (Ratnagiri) and gold (Sonagiri), the sun arose from darkness (Udaygiri) and streams started to boil (Vaibhavgiri), which continues to this day. Pilgrims do a full day trail across the five mountains, ending with a visit to the Museum and Jain dharamsala.

Bihar_Vaishali Lord Mahavira's birthplace Baso Kund IMG_7250_Anurag & Priya

While Rishabha attained moksha on Mount Ashtapad (Kailash) and Neminath on Urjayant (Girnar), both Mahavira and twelfth tirthankara Vasupujya attained samadhi in Bihar at Pavapuri and Champapuri respectively. The remaining 20 tirthankaras attained nirvana at Sammed Shikharji, the Jain pilgrimage centre atop Parasnath, the highest hill in Jharkhand. Pavapuri was also the site of Mahavira’s final sermon. After his cremation the scramble to collect his ashes caused so much soil to be dug out that a pond was created! The marble temple at the centre of a lotus pond became an inspiration for future Jalmandirs.

Hills and caves played an important role in Jainism. The lonely perches were ideal spots for meditation and contemplation. Jainism flourished under royal patronage of King Shrenik of the Shishunag dynasty to the Nandas, Mauryas, Guptas, Pratiharas, Parmars and Chandelas. From Pataliputra, Rajgir and Vaishali, the faith spread across Central, North to Western India via Varanasi, Kausambi, Sravasti, Avanti (Ujjain), Ahicchatra, Mathura, Hastinapur, Saurashtra and beyond…

In the epic Ramayana, Rama pays homage to Jain monks living in South India en route to Lanka. Silappatikaram, the ancient Tamil epic was written by Ilango Adigal, a Jain. Even the main characters of his work, Kannagi and Kovalan, were Jains! Though Jainism had been prevalent in South India, a tragedy in the north gave the faith a monumental push in the south.

Bihar_Rajgir Sonbhandar eastern cave with Jain sculptures IMG_6603_Anurag & Priya

The Great Famine and the Schism

In 3rd century BCE, when Ujjain served as a secondary Mauryan capital, Jain acharya Bhadrabahu predicted a 12-year famine that would ravage North India. In those days, Jain scriptures were memorized and passed down from guru to disciple orally. Bhadrabahu had taught his disciple Sthulabhadra eleven of the twelve Anga Agams, except the last one called Drashtivada, containing fourteen Purvas. Since the famine would hamper the large Jain order from getting alms, Sthulabhadra was appointed as the leader of the monks who stayed back in Magadha while Bhadrabahu migrated with 12,000 disciples to Karnataka. Among them was Chandragupta Maurya, who had renounced monarchy and turned to Jainism. He performed sallekhana (starving to death) around 300 BC on Chikka Betta, a small hillock at present-day Shravanabelagola, called Chandragiri in his memory.

Over the passing decade, Jain practices in the north got corrupted and monks realized that the sacred scriptures were being forgotten. After the famine, Sthulabhadra held a convention in Pataliputra to recompile Jain doctrine. Only eleven Anga Agams were orally recompiled. Bhadrabahu held the knowledge of the twelfth but had left for Nepal to practice Mahaprana Sadhana, a special meditative exercise. Sthulabhadra went to the Himalayas where Bhadrabahu taught him ten purvas. On seeing his disciple misuse his newfound powers, Bhadrabahu forbade him from teaching the remaining four purvas to others. Thus, the fourteen Purvas in their original form perished with these two men.

Rajasthan_Jaisalmer Fort Jain temple IMG_2516_Anurag & Priya

When Bhadrabahu’s followers led by Vishakha returned to Pataliputra they found that the monks in Magadha had started wearing white clothes. They no longer believed that nudity was essential to asceticism and were known as Shwetambar or ‘white-clothed’. The southern camp, Digamber or ‘sky clad’, rejected all the Angas compiled by Sthulabhadra. The Magadha camp held that Mahavira, the last tirthankara, was not a bachelor. They also believed that women could obtain moksha since they considered the 19th tirthankara Mallinath to be a woman. Though rites and rituals remained the same, the faith was divided into two sects.

Unlike Chandragupta Maurya, his grandson Ashoka found solace in Buddhism after his bloody conquest of Kalinga. Buddhism jostled for royal patronage at the expense of Jainism. Life came full circle as Ashoka’s grandson Samprati adopted Jainism and helped propagate it. In first century BCE it received another boost from Emperor Kharavela Mahameghavahana of Kalinga, who conquered Magadha, retrieved the old statue of Rishabha and installed it at Udayagiri, near his capital Shishupalgadh. With earlier wooden buildings long destroyed, the caves of Udayagiri (Sunrise Hill) and Khandagiri (Broken Hills) near Bhubaneswar are the only surviving stone Jain monuments in Odisha.

Odisha_Khandagiri Jain statues carved into cliffs DSC00101_Anurag & Priya

One of the earliest Jain rock-cut shelters, these austere cells served as dwelling retreats for ascetics. Their richly carved facades depict court scenes, royal processions, hunting expeditions and scenes of daily life; each cave named after the distinguishing figure dominating the arches or doorway. Of Udayagiri’s 18 caves, the largest and most beautiful is the double storeyed Cave 1 or Rani Gumpha (Queen’s Cave). However, it is Cave 14 or Hathi Gumpha (Elephant Cave) that is most significant. The large natural cavern has a 117-line inscription of Kharvela that notes his victory over Magadha and other conquests.

Of Khandagiri’s 15 caves, Cave 1 and 2 are called Tatowa Gumpha (Parrot Caves), Cave 3 is named Ananta Gumpha (Snake Cave) after twin serpents on the arches and Cave 7 is Navamuni Gumpha (Nine sages). The trail ended at the 18th century Jain Temple on the summit dedicated to Rishabnath, built on the site of an earlier shrine.

Odisha_Khandagiri hill DSC00129_Anurag & Priya

Jainism Down South

From Kalinga, the faith found another route to South India, via Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Jainism received widespread patronage from the Kadambas of Banavasi, Gangas of Talakad, Chalukyas of Badami, Pallavas of Kanchi, Chera kings of Mahodayapura and the Ay kings of Ezhimala.

Just off the Trichy-Pudukkottai highway is the fascinating archaeological site of Eladipattam. We climbed the hundred steps cut into the western side of a hillock leading to a natural cavern where 17 rock beds were carved into the floor with a raised headrest for a stone pillow. We marveled at how the stone had acquired a mirror-like polish, weathered by time and use. Overlooking the plains, this was where Jain ascetics performed penance. The oldest of the Tamil and Brahmi inscriptions etched on the margins of the bed date back to 2nd century BCE. Today, the remote site prompted old men and young couples to seek quietude.

Tamil Nadu_Eladipattam stone beds for Jain ascetics IMG_8490_Anurag & Priya

Nearby, Sittanavasal exemplifies early painting traditions of South India. The 2nd century AD rock cut Jain temple (Arivar koil) bears bas-reliefs of a Jain acharya (teacher) and 23rd tirthankara Parsvanath sheltered by a five-hooded serpent. In a sunless cell that thrummed and magnified even our breath, our torch caught vestiges of mural art in mineral colours on the ceiling. Based on the theme of Samavasarana, the exalted heavenly pavilion where Jain tirthankaras impart knowledge to all beings, the scene illustrated fish, geese and elephants swimming in a lotus tank as a man in a loincloth plucked flowers. Though most panels were horribly ruined we caught images of a dancer, a king and queen on the pillars. The Jain imprint was visible deep in the south, with several cave shelters around Madurai and the Chitharal hill shrines near Nagercoil, a serpent shrine believed to be an old Jain temple.

The legend of the lost Mauryan statue of Gomateshwara drew Ganga ruler Rachamalla’s general Chavundaraya to a place dominated by two hills and a large lake. Following a dream, Chavundaraya shot an arrow from Chandragiri’s summit to adjacent Indragiri and the figure of Gommateshwara flashed from the big hill. At the place where the arrow landed, a similar image was carved from a monolith under the supervision of sage Arishtanemi between 980 and 983 AD. The spot with the 57 ft high statue of Bahubali was called Sravana Bela Gola (White Pond of the Monk). It became a template for other Gommateshwara statues at Dharmasthala and Karkala, where the ritual of mahamastakabhisheka (head anointment ceremony) every 12 years draws the devout.

Karnataka_Badami's rock cut caves bear Jain influences 57190035_Anurag & Priya

Sites like the Chalukyan capital of Badami and more famously Ellora, the jewel of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, bear fine specimens of India’s cave-temple architecture as well as the confluence of three faiths. Of the 34 caves carved into a basalt hill, the 12 southern caves are Buddhist, 17 in the middle are dedicated to Hinduism while 5 caves to the north, excavated around 9th and 10th centuries, are Jain. Like the Gangas, the 11th century Hoysalas too owed their kingdom to a Jain saint, Acharya Sudatta. Jainism became a powerful state religion in North Karnataka.

Beyond the well-worn Jain trail in Karnataka, we sought out offbeat places like the Saavira Kambada Basadi (thousand-pillared temple) at Moodabidri and the the jalmandir (water temple) at Varanga near Someshwara. The priest rowed us across to the shrine in the middle of a large pond with tiny kumudni (frilled lotus) flowers fluttering in the breeze like white eyelashes.

Karnataka_Varanga Jain jala mandir DSC04418_Anurag & Priya

Many shrines and basadis were built during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings when Bhatkal served as their chief port. Chandranatheshvara Basadi, the largest Jain basadi in Bhatkal built in 1556 by Narana Nayaka, was a twin-storeyed structure with three chambers on each floor. A wishbone’s throw away from Bhatkal’s old biryani hotel Kwality, was another Jain shrine, discernible only by a roadside pillar.

Between 12th and 16th centuries large scale Jain migrations took place from Mysore to Wayanad and Kerala’s ports like Calicut and Cochin. They settled as traders, dealing in cash crops and spices. Located on hill slopes and in coffee plantations, are remains of Jain shrines like Ananthakrishnapuram temple near Kalpetta, Kottamunda Glass Temple at Vellarimala and the exquisite shrine at Puthangadi close to Panamaram–Nadavayal Road.

Kerala_Wayanad-Panamaram Jain Temple DSC_0170

Perhaps the most intriguing shrine is the 14th century Jain temple at Sultan Bathery. Once known as Ganapathivattom, Tipu Sultan built a small bastion here and erected a watchtower in the 18th century. To hide his ammunition, the wily Tipu cleared the idols of the temple but retained the façade to con the British. The place was thus called Sultan’s Battery or Sultan Bathery. The Jain temple is well preserved, barring the missing idols. Hanneradu bidi (12 streets) still remains one of the traditional Jain settlements in Sultan Bathery.

We were fortunate to be at the Sri Vardhman Sthanak Vasi Jain Sangh at Kochi’s old quarter of Mattancherry around noon. For once, it wasn’t a meal to partake, but one worth witnessing! In a unique avian ritual and as per some divine clockwork, the resident pigeons circled the spire of the temple thrice before landing in the courtyard to feed. In a flurry of fluttering wings, the birds swooped into our palms for grains. Spotting the white pigeon is considered auspicious but we seemed too burdened by our karmic sins to get that lucky!

Kerala_Cochin-Feeding pigeons at Mattancherry Jain Temple IMG_9997_Anurag & Priya

Western Frontiers

Jain traders controlled maritime trade along the Spice Route in South India, Gujarat and the Silk Road skirting Rajasthan. A major stop for camel caravans since the Gupta period, the region was an important center for the Gurjar Pratihara dynasty and Jain merchants who channeled a lot of the wealth to construct magnificent shrines.

The people of Osian, an old trading town converted to Jainism after Jain Acharya Ratnaprabhasuriji impressed the local populace with his supernatural powers. However, even after converting to Jainism, locals continued to worship serpents and Hindu goddess Sachiya Mata, whose hill shrine displays decorative features of a Jain temple. Many Jain clans conduct their mundan-sanskar (head tonsuring ceremony) here.

Rajasthan_Osian Mahavira Jain Temple IMG_0061_Anurag & Priya

Osian is also an important pilgrimage center for the Maheshwari and Oswal communities who derive their name from ‘Osian-wale’. There are 15 Jain temples in Osian, the most important being the Mahavira Temple, built by Gurjara Pratihara King Vatsaraja in 783 AD. Red sandstone carvings depict various stages of the life of 22nd tirthankara Neminath besides a 32-inch tall sculpture of Mahavira in padmasana.

We visited Lodhruva, the old capital of Bhati Rajputs before Jaisalmer, straddling the old trade route. Chintamani Parshvanath temple, dedicated to the 23rd tirthankara, was destroyed in 1152 AD by Muhammad Ghori and rebuilt in the 1970s. The stunning Adeshwar Nath Jain temple fringed the dry lakebed of Amar Sagar while we continued to Jaisalmer Fort to see exquisite 15-16th century Jain temples.


Fashioned out of yellow sandstone without using mortar, the masonry blocks were held together by iron staples. Notable among the seven were the shrine of 8th tirthankara Chandraprabhu, pillars depicting apsaras and gods at Rikhabdev (Rishabh) temple, carved torana (arch) and painted ceiling of Parshvanath’s shrine, 10th tirthankara Shitalnath’s image made of ashtadhatu or eight precious metals and sensual carving of Shantinath and Kunthunath, recognizing primal human impulse. The Jain shrines of Jaisalmer Fort have often been compared to the more famous Dilwara temples of Mount Abu and the temple of first tirthankara Adinath at Ranakpur.

Legend has it that Dharma Shah, a local Jain businessman, started constructing the temple in 15th century following a divine vision. The town and the temple were named after its chief patron Rana Kumbha as ‘Rana ka pur’. Located in a valley on the western side of the Aravalli Range, the chaumukha (four-faced) shrine and quadrupled image symbolize the cosmos and the tirthankara’s conquest of the four cardinal directions. Its turrets rise dramatically and no two of the 1444 carved marble pillars supporting the temple are alike! Another proof of superlative Jain architecture is the marble carving of a snake with 108 heads and numerous convoluted tails. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to make head or tail of it!

Rajasthan_Ranakpur Jain temple IMG_0933_Anurag & Priya

Jainism flourished in Gujarat under the Solanki ruler of Patan, Kumarpal (1143–1172 AD) under the tutelage of Jain Acharya Hemachandra. Adinath, the first tirthankara, is said to have meditated atop Shatrunjaya Hill at Palitana. Today the entire hill is covered with hundreds of shrines. Owing to its sanctity, in 2014, Palitana became the first city in the world to be legally vegetarian.

The hill of Girnar near Junagadh is equally sacred as the 22nd tirthankara Neminatha attained moksha here. His idol, considered among the oldest in the world, predates the construction of the temple in 12th century. Other notable attractions include shrines of Neminath, Mallinath, Parshvanath and the golden shrine of Rishabhadev.

Gwalior Fort_Jain statues at Gopachal Parvat IMG_4997_Anurag & Priya

Perhaps the most stunning example of rock cut Jain art can be found at Gopachal Parvat in Gwalior. Midway on the slopes of the fort on either side of Urwahi road, hundreds of images of Jain tirthankaras, large and small, standing and seated, sheltered in small caves or niches are carved on the rockface. The 57 ft high monolithic figure of Parshvanath seated on a lotus is spellbinding. Built in 15-16th century by Tomar kings, these Jain tirthankara statues are one of a kind.

Despite persecution in the past and tussles with other religions, over five million people practice Jainism in India today. At Lodhruva, we watched Jain priests wearing mukhapattis (cloth covering the mouth) grind sandalwood in mortars, decorate the idols reverentially and put up colourful pennants for a festivity. The wind swept across the courtyard and the flags fluttered gently in the breeze, as if carrying the message of peace and tolerance across the land…

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple IMG_9364_Anurag & Priya


How to go
There are direct flights to Jodhpur and Udaipur for Jain sites in Rajasthan, Ahmedabad for sites in Gujarat, Gwalior in MP, Bhubaneswar for Odisha, Varanasi-Patna-Ranchi for the UP-Bihar-Jharkhand circuit, Cochin and Kozhikode for Wayanad, besides Madurai/Trichy for Tamil Nadu.

Remove shoes and leather items before entering Jain shrines. Respect the sanctity of holy places like Palitana and Dilwara where photography is not allowed.

Rajasthan_Jain circuit map IMG_0028_Anurag & Priya

Where to Stay
Most Jain pilgrim sites have dharamsalas run by temple trusts or one can also stay at boutique hotels at key destinations in greater comfort.

Suryagarh, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Circuit: Jaisalmer, Lodhruva, Osian

Mana Hotels, Ranakpur
Circuit: Ranakpur, Mount Abu

Mayfair Lagoon, Jaydev Vihar, Bhubaneshwar
Circuit: Udayagiri-Khandagiri

Sangam Hotels, Madurai/Trichy
Circuit: Madurai, Sittanavasal, Eladipattam

Taj Hotels, Bangalore/Mangalore
Circuit: Shravanabelagola, Dharmasthala, Moodabidri, Karkala, Varanga

The Panache, Patna
Circuit: Patna, Rajgir, Pavapuri, Vaishali

Deo Bagh, Opposite Janaktal, Gwalior
Circuit: Gwalior Fort, Sonagiri

Divan’s Bungalow, Opp Gaikwad Haveli, Ahmedabad
Circuit: Mehsana, Patan, Palitana

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 29 March 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Tides of Yuletide: Christmas in Goa


Far from the beach parties and all night raves, Christmas is an enchanting time to be in Goa, with its mix of tradition, Portuguese legacy and Konkani flavour, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Christmas in Goa DSC04491_Anurag Mallick

As a slight winter chill descends on Goa, preparations for the festive season begin weeks in advance. Locals can be seen ferrying gigantic star shaped lanterns and decorations. Others simply strip the frayed decorative paper covering the bamboo frames of last year’s Christmas star and re-clad it. Most houses display a small crib depicting classic Biblical themes – King Herod’s Palace, the nativity scene of Mother Mary and Joseph watching over infant Jesus or ‘Soro jivak boro,’ the first miracle of Jesus turning water into wine.

Most visibly, Santa Claus makes his appearance in cribs across Goa’s wados in strange avatars – on a fishing boat casting a net, paddling a canoe, at a railway crossing, on a plane, riding a bike or climbing a coconut tree. This old tradition of building cribs is supposed to have been started by St Francis of Assisi who erected the first crib in a forest clearing, until his followers elevated it into an artform. In Goa, face-offs take place between local clubs like ‘Tender Boyz of Falvado, Arossim’ or ‘Mexico Boys of Costa Waddo, Cansaulim’.

Christmas in Goa DSC04483_Anurag Mallick

Long before the big day, Goan households start preparing rum dunked plum cakes, puddings and traditional Christmas sweets like marzipan, neureos (like a gujiya or sweet fried dumpling filled with coconut), dodol (sticky toffee like pudding made of coconut milk, jaggery and rice flour) and kalkals, fried sweets made of flour, eggs and coconut milk. Children of the house are roped in to lend a hand in fashioning the dough on the tines of a fork or a new comb to give it the typical ‘butter curl’ appearance. These are deep fried and coated with a sugar glaze that gives it a crunchy exterior and a soft core. Similar to the Portuguese Christmas sweet Filhós Enroladas, these sweets are called Kidyo (worms) in Konkani. The popular name kalkals (always referred to in plural form) is believed to be onomatopoeic, from the rattling sound they make when shaken in a bowl of sugar syrup. Often given a multi-coloured appearance, kalkals are an important item in the Kuswar, a collection of Goan Christmas treats distributed among neighbours or taken on visits to friends and family a week in advance.

Typically, Catholic families had as many as 22 different treats as part of kuswar. However, due to the laborious method of preparation, the number of items on the sweet platter has dwindled, or people prefer to outsource them or improvise. Besides Bebinca, the famous layered baked dessert made of flour, sugar, coconut milk and ghee, there’s Perada (Guava cheese), Chonya Doce or Doce de Grao (barfi made of Bengal gram, coconut and ghee), Bolinhos (coconut cookies with markings on top), Baath or Batk (moist semolina coconut cake), Nankaties (baked desi biscotti, better known as nankhatai), Kormolas (sweet coconut pastry shaped by hand into flower buds), Pinaca (sweet cutlets of jaggery and crushed rice), Tuelinnas de Coco (sweet made from scraped coconut), Mango Miskut (mango pulp and sugar confectionary), Suspiros (lemon rind and almonds), Bolo de Nozes, (made of coffee, nuts, brandy and breadcrumbs), Bolo de rei (made of semolina, almonds and butter) and pasteis da santa clara (cashewnut and almond dumplings). To the uninitiated Nachidos, Mandares, Pinagre, Cocada and Batica might well seem like names of Portuguese footballers! Which is why, over the years, many delicacies like the Pasteis de nata (milk and egg cream dumplings), Bolo Bebedo (made of biscuits, dried fruit, brandy and custard), Girgilada (made of sesame seeds) and Coscoaroes (made of flour) have disappeared…

Christmas in Goa DSC02923_Anurag Mallick

Undoubtedly most of these Christmas treats, like the festival itself, can be traced to Portuguese rule in Goa that lasted for nearly five centuries. For the longest time, Christmas in Goa was a fairly conservative affair with midnight mass, sacred sermons, carols and hymns commemorating the birth of Christ. However, its evolution from a religious festivity to a more secular season of merry-making can be ascribed to the hippies…

In the 60s, after migrating from the beaches to the hills and traipsing all over the country, most westerners came back to Goa to celebrate Christmas, as it was visibly the most ‘Christian’ state in the country. The revelry often extended to New Year and beyond, with music on the beach and full moon parties. In a way, this laid the foundation of the future Goa ‘scene’ and December party season.

Christmas in Goa DSC03851_Anurag Mallick

As Christmas approaches, youngsters form little troupes and visit Catholic homes in their locality singing carols. It’s the only time portly guys are in great demand – so that they can be dressed up as Santa! The groups carry a box to raise funds, which is usually donated to feed the poor or the underprivileged. Most homes get a Christmas tree and all the members get involved in decorating it with baubles, festoons and paper cut lights. People exchange Christmas cards, usually displayed at the crib. Everything is in place by Christmas Eve and by midnight most Goan Catholics flock to the local chapel or parish church for Midnight Mass, which commemorates the birth of Jesus at midnight.

In the old days, no self-respecting Goan Christian would be caught dead partying on the night of December 24. They wear new clothes and exchange greetings, hugs and kisses with their family and friends. Everybody gets a present, normally stacked under the Christmas tree. The celebrations kick in later with a traditional Christmas lunch or dinner; whose centerpiece is usually a succulent, roast suckling pig with wine soaked crackling, downed with copious quantities of red wine or feni.

Goa cuisine IMG_5390_Anurag Mallick

The lavish Gaulish feast may also include roast chicken, stuffed crab, fish fry reichado, chicken cafreal, beef, Goan sausage with baby potatoes and shallots, wedding pulao, tendli curry (for the chance vegetarian) and an assortment of sweets. There’s also sannas and sorpotel (pork offal)! It’s believed that the name comes from ‘sarapatel’ or confusion, perhaps alluding to the mixture of strange ingredients – heart, liver and the customary pork blood, which is mashed and mixed into the curry!

To quote an anonymous poem steeped in Saudades (that supposedly indescribable feeling of nostalgia): ‘And Oh! For Christmas dinner don’t you think it would be swell/If by some freak of fortune or by some magic spell/We could, as they have in Goa a bottle of the cajel/And toddy leavened sannas to go with Sorpotel!’ Quintessentially Goan eateries like Souza Lobo in Calangute, Martin’s Corner at Betalbatim and Fernando’s Nostalgia in Salcette dish out Christmas spreads, smoked barbeques, roast duck (turkey is too passé), red snapper on banana leaf, lamb curries and sweet-sour spicy prawns. Dessert can range from gooey caramel pudding and homemade rum cakes to more exotic fare – Teia de Aranhas (literally ‘cobweb’ in Portuguese) that’s made of tender coconut strips dusted with castor sugar, Dedos da Dama (marzipan fingers coated with burnt sugar, literally Lady’s Fingers) or Sans Rival, a layered confection of buttercream, meringue, coconut and cashew that literally means ‘without compare’!

Goa cuisine IMG_5174_Anurag Mallick

Though most five-star hotels and luxury resorts have their Christmas bashes and treats, a great place for a Goan Christmas banquet is Hotel Mandovi at Panjim. In existence from the time that Goa was still a Portuguese enclave (it was set up in 1952, almost a decade before India wrested control), the hotel is known for its annual celebration ‘Jantar de Natal’ on Christmas. Many old-time associations like Clube Nacional and Club Vasco da Gama organize their traditional Christmas Balls on the night of Christmas, usually very formal affairs with strict dress codes.

Festivities and visiting people go on even after the big day, often 10 days beyond Christmas. On New Years night, children sit with an effigy of an old man on the roadside, and collect funds from passers-by. They burn him at midnight, which symbolizes of putting the past behind and ushering in the future. Officially the Christmas season ended on January 6 with the Feast of the Magi, marked by a Church service and a symbolic procession of the three kings at three places in Goa – Reis Magos, Chandor and Cansaulim.

Christmas in Goa DSC04592_Anurag Mallick

The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated with great reverence and devotion in Cansaulim. Three young boys, usually around 8 to 10 years old, are chosen to enact the role of the Three Kings from the villages of Cansaulim, Arossim and Cuelim. All through the year there’s great excitement and curiosity as to who will be the chosen one. Outsiders cannot claim this privilege, as the boys must be from these three villages only. Being a king, even for a day is serious business, and the boys take great care of themselves. Dressed up as monarchs, they travel on horseback through three different paths and meet near the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies) atop the hill at Cuelim, founded in 1599. They carry gifts of the original trio to pay obeisance to the infant Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and proceed to the chapel together. Meanwhile, huge crowds gather for the Mass, a glimpse of the three kings and the big jatra (fair) on the hilltop.

In recent times, with a sizeable Russian presence in Goa, the festive season has only got stretched. Besides a break from the freezing winter back home, Russians get to celebrate Christmas twice – once on December 25 and again on January 7, the Russian Christmas. Leading five star hotels like Taj Exotica at Benaulim and Grand Hyatt besides other party spots host Christmas bashes on both dates. After all, this is Goa, where the party never stops…

Goa cuisine IMG_5843_Anurag Mallick


How to reach
By Air: Dabolim Airport is 30km/45 min from the capital city Panjim. There are regular flights every day from Mumbai (1 hr, GoAir 12:15 PM, IndiGo 12:20 PM, and Bangalore (1 hr 10 min, IndiGo 12:55 PM, Air Asia 3:10 PM)

By Rail: Thivim Railway Station, an ideal stop for beaches of North Goa, is just 9km from Mapusa while Vasco da Gama is 27km south of Panjim. Margao or Madgaon Railway Station, more suited for beaches of South Goa, is 7.5 km east of Colva. From Mumbai, Jan Shatabdi Express (12051) leaves Dadar at 5:25 AM and reaches Thivim at 1:50 PM and Mandovi Express (10103) departs from Mumbai CST at 7:10 AM to reach at 6:50 PM. The overnight Mangalore Express (12133) leaves CST at 10PM and reaches Madgaon at 7AM while Konkan Kanya Express (10111) departs from CST at 11:05 PM to reach Thivim at 10:45 AM.

By road: Goa is almost equidistant from Mumbai and Bangalore. Panjim is around 540 km from Mumbai by NH-66/NH-17 and 590 km from Bangalore via NH-4.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Discover India magazine.

Road to Salvation: Shravan Mela Kanwar Yatra


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY join the saffron tide as they march 105km with kanwariyas from Sultanganj to Deoghar during the annual Shravan Mela  

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‘Why this, why this, why this Bholagiri ji’, the Kolaveri Di parody blared out of tinny loudspeakers. Every few steps, the cacophony changed to ‘Daraibher sainyan’ (Darling driver-take me to Deoghar)’, ‘I love you Gaura’ or ‘Roje-Roj Ganja Bhang’. As global musical trends go, Cher’s Believe may be a thing of the past, but in Bhojpuri music the Auto-tune pitch correct was the next big thing after Jhankar Beats.

Adding to the spiritual soundtrack were tinkling bells, the low hum of a moving crowd and loud chants rending the air. ‘Bol bam ka nara hai, Baba ek sahara hai, Bol bam, Badhe kadam, Bol bam, Doori kam, Baba nagariya door hai, jana zaroor hai (Bol Bam is the chant, Baba is our support, Bol bam, onward feet, Bol bam, distance less, Baba Dham is far away, We must go there).

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From singsong chants of pilgrims to pots bobbing on either ends of the pole, walking was a rhythm. As veterans of religious and rustic fairs from the Baul Mela at Kenduli, Baithurappa Festival at Iritty to the Maha Kumbh at Allahabad, we had experienced our share of processions, but the Shravan Mela was something else. It was the ultimate budget trip, a spiritual marathon comparable to the Santiago de Compostela (St James Way) in Spain, a medieval pilgrimage route to the cathedral of St James where the Apostle’s remains are enshrined. The pilgrims foot the distance without any trappings of comfort.

In India, during the monsoon month of shravan (July-Aug), saffron-clad men carry pots of holy water on kanwars (decorative slings) and pour it over a Shiva linga at the nearest important shrine. In this case, the 105km journey started from the uttar-vahini Ganga (north-flowing, hence holy) at Sultanganj in Bihar to Baba Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar, Jharkhand, one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India. People trudge over hills, across rivers and places with evocative names like Suiyya Pahad (Needle Mountain), Jalebiya Mod (Twisty Turns), Bhutbangla (Haunted House) and Bhulbhulaiya Nadi (Labyrinthine River) – realms akin to the Tolkeinian route to Mordor. As it turned out, it was rather scenic.

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The pilgrims hike 20-25km each day, stopping at makeshift seva-shivirs (camps) for food, rest or sleep. The journey takes about 4-5 days. One class of pilgrims doesn’t stop at any camp but grabs water, food and medicines on the go. These are dak bams, who must complete the journey within a day (usually 15-17 hrs), which earns them privileged access to the Shiva shrine at Deoghar, unlike ordinary pilgrims who must queue up for miles.

We found ourselves in this spiritual obstacle course courtesy Albela Dak Bam Seva Samiti, Telco Colony, Tatanagar – a bunch of friends and acquaintances who left their jobs for a month to run a free, voluntary camp for dak bams near Suiyya, the most treacherous part of the journey. Their daily schedule ran round-the-clock – from rest and sleep arrangements for pilgrims, dispensing water, handing out painkillers, massages with pain balms, making prasad, chopping fruits, morning puja, evening arti and kanwariya songs… By evening, the speakers would crank up and crowds would break into frenzied dancing in a religious rave.

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Nearly 70,000 pilgrims walk to Deoghar each day with numbers touching 3-4 lakh on Mondays, a day sacred to Shiva. Even after Shravan Mela (July 13-Aug 25 this year) people do it through the year till Magh (Jan-Feb). Some arrive directly at Deoghar by vehicles. We met a group that had cycled all the way from Kolkata. Old men, women, children, even those differently abled, all formed part of this motley cavalcade.

And thus, after a customary visit to the Shiva temple of Ajgaibnath, our journey, like that of a thousand others, started at the ghats of Sultanganj. Streets were lined with shops selling custom-built kanwars and religious paraphernalia. Makeshift stalls on the ghats hawked pots, sacred threads and lumps of clay for sealing pots after collecting holy water. In the dark watery theatre of oil lamps and incense smoke, priests chanted appropriate mantras and prayed for a safe journey and good darshan. And we were off…

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Over slushy banks, through busy streets, dodging traffic, past music stalls blaring the latest tunes and videos of kanwariya songs that looked like a mish mash of different art forms – Bhojpuri stage shows, tacky theatre and bad Photoshop. Standing out in this strange flotilla were the two of us – with backpacks and cameras instead of kanwars, shoes instead of bare feet – sticking out like sore thumbs in a sea of saffron.

Some threw taunts at us ‘Aye Jutta bam’, ‘Japan bam’, ‘English bam’ or simply chuckled while inquisitive ones struck up a conversation. One man walked up to us and after a moment’s scrutiny, affirmed to the rest ‘Belgium’, with the confident authority of a head surgeon confirming the gender of a newborn child. Soon, we got used to it. And they got used to us. We walked mile after mile, braving winds and a steady drizzle. When it didn’t rain, we rested by day and walked at nights, stopping at teashops for milky concoctions or rest at wibbly-wobbly benches in dharamsalas and inns. With practically nonexistent sanitary conditions, we watched people run to the fields or behind rocks and trees as we plodded towards the next makeshift loo and bathed near village wells or took community showers.

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Wooden stands were placed at regular intervals where pilgrims could rest their kanwars or water pots, as rules forbade it from touching the ground from the moment it was carried. It was odd to see kanwariyas hold their ears and do utthak-baithak (squats) in penitence for any oversight in protocol before resuming the journey. There were other restrictions too – vegetarianism, celibacy, truthfulness and purity of speech and thought. Using oil, soap, shoes and articles of leather was not permitted. Each addressed the other respectfully as ‘bam ji’ or appended ‘bam’ to one’s name; which did amuse us initially! Grappling with the outdoors on an unfamiliar road to transcendence, we had unwittingly become characters of Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums’.

The path was well laid out with diversions and underpasses that skirted all vehicular traffic. Not too long ago, the tracts were wilder with little or no illumination at night. People often had to fend against wild animals and robbers. Today, they had to deal with beggars, kids dressed up as gods and hastily built roadside shrines. No one knew how long people had been walking this route, but as per tradition Lord Rama was one of the first to undertake this yatra. There was also a reason why this took place in shravan.

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Legend has it that during the samudra manthan or churning of the cosmic ocean, many divine things emerged, including the poison halahala. As Lord Shiva consumed it, Parvati grabbed his neck to prevent the toxic brew from being swallowed, turning his throat blue, hence his name Neelkanth. Yet, the poison inflamed Shiva’s body. To decrease the effect of the poison, the practice of offering water to Shiva started. Hence, his associations with all things cool – the crescent moon, the Ganga and water continuously dripping on the linga. It is said the samudra manthan took place during the month of shravan, characterized by rains and the act of libation was thus a great service to Shiva.

As a form of hatha yoga, some covered the distance by dand-baithak (full body prostrations), taking weeks to reach their destination. They too carried a kanwar, but walked a mile, left the kanwar on a stand, walked back, crawled up to it and repeated the process. For them, it was three times the journey! We were fortunate to meet veteran dak bam Ram Sagar, who was doing the yatra for the thirteenth time that month (he had vowed to do it 15 times).

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We wondered what motivated them to take on this arduous journey that was riddled with masochistic hardship and austerity? A wish unfulfilled, welfare of loved ones, an unbroken oath, problems in life or just out of service or devotion; each pilgrim had a reason. We heard stories of Krishna dak bam, the pious lady from Muzaffarpur who was a regular for the last 35 years! She walked only on Sundays, four times a month, in time for the holy darshan on Mondays. Sumit bam explained “She is considered a divine being and walks in a retinue of 100-150 people with villagers flocking to see her. The police too escort her, blowing whistles and fanning her with towels, as she blazes forth. It’s near impossible to walk with her. Seeing her, even a spectator is energized.”

While there was no competition to reach first, the fastest time achieved was 9 hours, a brother-sister duo from Nepal. Legend has it they died after pouring water. Shwet bam explained “The system is such that till the last minute you are not sure whether you’ll be able to complete the task. Whether the water falls on someone’s back, on the ground, or the linga is hard to tell”. We met a guy who had walked for three days, stood in the line and yet, declined to enter just meters before the temple gate, daunted by overwhelming crowd. But such is life, the next year he went twice. Jha ji chuckled “It is like clearing your backlog.”

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The crowd comes to a stop miles before Deoghar with a waiting period of several hours before one can even reach the temple complex. The sanctum sanctorum has just one entrance, so managing the crowds is near impossible. Temple priests and policemen whirl towels and beat pilgrims with frayed cane sticks goading them on like cattle. JP bam, the most experienced in the group, explained the strategy to us like the team leader of a crack commando unit going over a hostage evacuation exercise… “Once you enter the inner shrine, don’t try to pour the jal immediately or you’ll be crushed. Stick to the walls. Wait for the initial rush to subside. Then dart forward and do the deed. But don’t pour everything on the linga. Save some for Parvati and Ganesha shrines nearby. Watch where you step… The stone floors will be wet. Don’t slip. Don’t fall. One more thing… Keep a tenner handy. Hand it to the priest and he will allow you to bend down and touch the linga.”

The rest followed like a slow-mo war scene. With the crush of a thousand bodies around us, the strange stench of sweat and flowers recycled by the air-conditioning, the crack of cane sticks, trampled toes, shouts and screams, curses and invocations… We have no idea how we made it in and out of the Baba Baidyanath temple, shuffled to Mata Tripurasundari’s shrine and picked out the Ganesha shrine out of the 22 temples in the complex. As we stumbled out, we caught a mixture of emotions on people’s faces – elation, daze, relief, fatigue and an emotional vacuum that comes after achieving an objective at the end of a trek or after scaling a peak.

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To make this endgame a little more humane, the Deoghar temple authorities has made special arrangements this year. As per the new arghya-vyawastha, devotees would be given a bar-coded wristband and a suwidha pass with the time slot and the serial number printed on it. Instead of entering the shrine, they can pour the water outside on a brass alley that directly leads to the jyotirlinga, thus assuring them complete satisfaction, minus the anxiety of a stampede.

Tired and thrilled to have completed the penance, we trawled the narrow streets of Deoghar for its legendary pedas. The best place to buy was Shree Bhagirath Sah Peda Bhandar. A poster warned against imitations and insisted that one should ‘buy only after seeing the photo of its founder’. Pilgrims looked around for souvenirs, devotional CDs, lac bangles, some memento to take home that said ‘I was there. And I survived…’

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Baba Baidyanath Temple, Deoghar, Jharkhand
Tel 91 6432 232295

Getting there
The 105 km journey starts from Sultanganj, near Bhagalpur in Bihar to Deoghar in Jharkhand. The nearest railway station is Jasidih with many special trains during the Shravan month.

Sultanganj-Kamrai 6km, Kamrai-Asarganj 7km, Asarganj-Tarapur 8km, Tarapur-Rampur 7km, Rampur-Kumarsar 8km, Kumarsar-Chandan Nagar 10km, Chandan Nagar-Jalebiya More 8km, Jalebiya More-Suiya 8km, Suiya-Abrakhia 8km, Abrakhia-Katoria 8km, Katoria-Lakshman Jhula 8km, Lakshman Jhula-Inaravaran 8km, Inaravaran-Bhulbhulaiya 3km, Bhulbhulaiya-Goryari 5km, Goryari-Kalakatia Dharamsala 3km, Kalakatia-Bhutbangla 5km, Bhutbangla-Darshaniya 1km, Darshaniya-Baba Baidyanath Temple 1km

What to carry
Kanwar, two water pots, match box, agarbatti (incense sticks), candles, torch, cloth bag, plastic sheet, thin blanket, saffron clothing (two pairs), towel, money

Crescendo: Snowpenair 2014, Switzerland


ANURAG MALLICK takes the narrow gauge Swiss mountain railway to Kleine Scheidegg to attend a high altitude music concert featuring Deep Purple and Swiss rockers


Having attended Deep Purple’s ‘Battle Rages On Tour’ in 1995 (their first appearance in India), the prospect of attending another Purple gig nearly two decades later didn’t seem that exciting. Gillan, Glover, Paice and Morse hadn’t gotten any younger. However, what got me hooked was the venue – Kleine Scheidegg, with the backdrop of three spectacular Swiss peaks Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch! This wasn’t just open air; this was Snowpenair! I had heard of music festivals in rainforests and secluded islands, there was Burning Man in the Nevada Desert, but a high altitude music show on snow, hell this was new…

Interlaken, that scenic tourist destination located ‘between the two lakes’ (Thunersee and Brienzersee named after the lakeside towns of Thun and Brienz) was buzzing with tourists. Travellers from around the Bernese Oberland had congregated at Interlaken Ost railway station. The narrow gauge railway breezed past quaint stations like Wilderswil and Schynige Platte to Grindelwald. We hopped on to the connecting Wengernalpbahn train. Soon, Alpine meadows flecked with snow were transformed into an endless sea of white as we pulled into Kleine Scheidegg.


We disembarked, inhaling the cool and crisp mountain air. The setting was like a Mondrian painting – blotches of red, yellow, blue, green, orange of fluorescent ski clothing against the white snowy expanse. At 13,842 ft, Mount Jungfrau (the Virgin) stood shoulder by shoulder to the Monch (the Monk) at 13,449 ft. As the gates opened and people stomped down to the arena, we slip-slided our way to the VIP enclosure. Unlimited wine and starters got us into the groove as the Lewis-Bowie-Hammer Band took centre stage. Sharon Lewis, the frizzy-haired Big Momma of Soul belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T with Joseph Bowie on the trombone and Michael Hammer hammering away at the drums.

After a dose of Southern style R&B and numerous references to Ganja, it was time for the local musicians to take over. Marc A Trauffer got the crowd to sing and sway along to ‘Brienzer Buurli’ (Boy from Brienze) and ‘Nit min typ’ (Not my Type). It seemed we were only the klutzes who didn’t know the words to the songs. But the music was infectious and catchy. Then it was Gola’s turn to rock the house. The tattooed musician with a shiny pate whose rags to riches story from being a carpenter to a rockstar was legendary.


To a world that thought Swiss music was just about Alpenhorns, cowbells and yodeling shepherds, these new artists were giving a definitive voice to the nation. Despite Montreux’s association with its iconic Jazz Festival, Swiss rockers were still a rarity on the world stage. Finally, Deep Purple came on. It was an epiphany seeing the ageing rock stars in Switzerland, a country that had unintentionally given them one of their biggest hits and the most recognizable guitar riffs ever – Smoke on the Water. In 1972 when some joker with a flare gun burnt down the venue at a Frank Zappa concert at the Montreux Casino complex, the band members watched the scene from their room in The Grand Hotel just across the lake!

Soon the Kleine Scheidegg arena transformed into a Japanese karaoke bar as people mouthed the lyrics ‘We all came down to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline…’ with nationalistic pride. It was as if they were singing the Swiss national anthem! But this time there was nothing to fear – no mad arsonist, no rattan ceiling, just the shadow of the peaks and the blue sky above. As a man swayed recklessly with his lit Zippo, I only prayed there would be no Deep Purple song in future ‘We all came down the Glacier’…  

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.