Category Archives: Spirituality

Path of the Guru: Journeys of Guru Nanak


On the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY retrace Guru Nanak’s udasis or epic journeys across the Indian subcontinent

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The Bamchu, a tributary of the Yargyap Chu (Siyom river) gushed past an overhang of creepers, just below the cave where Guru Nanak had meditated half a millennia ago. Nearly 200 km northwest of Along deep in the upper folds of Arunachal Pradesh just 20 km short of the Indo-Tibet border, it was surprising to find a cave dedicated to the Sikh Guru, nearly 2000 km from Punjab! It was even harder to conceive that locals considered him as one of their Guru Rinpoches and worshipped him as Nanak Lama.

We were at Pemoshubu, 15 km from Mechuka where the first Sikh Guru had meditated en route to Tibet. As per legend, a ferocious bear attacked him but the huge boulder under which he was meditating, miraculously lifted him up and ensconced him. The indentations in the rock are regarded as his turban’s imprints. To reach the river flowing below, we clambered down a rickety moss-laden ladder lined with prayer flags shivering in the wind. We squeezed through a narrow cleft in the rock. People believe that the rock cleaved to give passage to the Guru for his bath in the river. It is said that only people with a pure heart can pass through the narrow crevice, no matter how thin or fat they may be.

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The small cavity in the rock where the Guru used to have his daily bath was full of black and white pebbles. An army jawan who accompanied us, instructed us to close our eyes, make a wish and pick a pebble. A white pebble signaled that the wish would come true! If the pebble was black, it remained unfulfilled. A pebble speckled black and white indicated partial fulfillment of the wish. Interestingly, the color of the picked pebble is often the same thereafter, no matter how many times you try!

The Bamchu stream originates near Gutso in Tibet and joins the Men-chu, 17 km downstream. Its Tibetan name Bum-chu refers to a religious ceremony for divining prospects of the coming year with water in a pot or well (chu is the Tibetan word for water). Every year in the last week of March – the period when Guru Nanak visited the place – a fair is held to commemorate his visit. His idol is also worshipped in the old gompa at Dorjeling near Mechuka. However this was just one small thread in the rich tapestry of Guru Nanak’s travels…

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Between 1500 and 1524, Guru Nanak travelled more than 28,000 km in four major tours of the world. During these Udasis (journeys), he visited holy places, met people of various faiths, professed his newfound path, challenged orthodox rituals and impressed all with his wisdom and saintly demeanor. Accompanied by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim minstrel who played the rabab, all these journeys were undertaken on foot. During his first journey to East India, he traveled from his birthplace Talwandi to Sultanpur, Haridwar, Reetha Sahib, Banaras, Gaya, Kamrup, Assam and Puri.

It was at Haridwar that Guru Nanak met Brahmins and challenged the ritual of offering water facing east to deceased ancestors. He faced west and offered water to his fields in Punjab to show the futility of his ritual. Guru Nanak visited Banaras in 1506 and collected the writings of Kabir, Ravidas and other saints, some of which form part of the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak held discussions with pundits in Banaras and explained his teachings. Gurubag Gurdwara marks the place where Guru Nanak stayed during his Kashi visit.

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On the second Udasi in 1512-1513 to South India & Ceylon, Guru Nanak traveled through Nanded and Nasik in Maharashtra, Vijaywada and Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Bidar in Karnataka, Tiruchirapally, Tiruvannamalai and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna in Sri Lanka. Wherever he went, Guru Nanak left a profound impact. When he came to Bidar, the place was gripped by a devastating famine. Legend has it that when he began to sing kirtan, the entire place started to blossom with beauty.

Guru Nanak was told that Bidar had brackish water and people had to dig very deep or go far to fetch potable water. He uttered, ‘sat kartar’, shifted a stone with his wooden sandal and crystal clear sweet water sprang forth from a laterite trap in the hill. The place became known as Guru Nanak Jheera after this miraculous mountain spring and houses the largest gurdwara in Karnataka. Incidentally, one of the Panj Pyare (Five Beloved) in Sikhism, Bhai Sahib Singh was from Bidar.

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On his third Udasi between 1514-18, Guru Nanak traveled across the Himalayas – from Kullu and Manikaran in Himachal through Garhwal, Nepal, Arunachal, Sikkim, Tibet and Yarkhand. While returning to Punjab via Kargil and Srinagar, he stopped near Leh. Folkfore recounts how a wicked demon in the area terrorized the people who prayed for divine help. Guru Nanak came to their aid and settled on the riverbank below the hill where the demon lived.

As the Guru sat in meditation, the demon pushed down a large pathar (boulder) down the hillside, which softened like warm wax and came to a halt against Guru Nanak’s back. The Guru was unhurt, lost in meditation. In a fit of anger, the demon pushed the boulder with his right foot, but his foot got embedded in the waxy stone and left a deep impression in it. The imprint of Guru Nanak’s body and the footprint of the demon can still be seen at Gurudwara Pathar Sahib near Leh.

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On his fourth Udasi, Guru Nanak traveled westward to faraway Islamic lands – Multan, Karachi, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Tehran, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad. At Mecca another famous event took place. When a qazi admonished Guru Nanak for pointing his feet towards Kaaba, he calmly replied that the qazi should turn his feet in a direction where God doesn’t dwell. In whichever direction he placed the guru’s feet the qazi saw the presence of God and realized his folly. Every place Guru Nanak visited carries a tale and his anecdotes live on as janamsakhis or moral stories on the oneness of god and equality for all.

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

Faith Accompli: 10 Quirky roadside shrines in India


Bullet Motorcycle temple, Aeroplane Gurudwara, Traffic Ganesha to Visa Hanuman, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out 10 quirky roadside shrines in India

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India is a country that takes religion quite seriously. As if 33 crore gods in the Hindu pantheon were not enough, there are temples dedicated to seers, saints and larger than life figures. Actors are often idolized – there’s an Amitabh Bachchan temple in Kolkata, a Khushboo shrine at Trichy and a Namitha temple in Tirunelveli. Politicians too have ardent followers – a Mahatma Gandhi temple at Bhatra village in Sambalpur to a cardboard temple in Karimnagar dedicated to Sonia Gandhi, an MGR shine at Thirunindravoor, Chennai or a proposed Mayawati temple at Natpura in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. Actor Manoj Tiwari takes hero worship to a new level with a Sachin Tendulkar temple (because he’s the ‘god of cricket’) in his hometown Atarwalia in Bihar’s Kaimur district. Forget humans, there are shrines for animals too. Rats are deified as ancestors at Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke in Rajasthan while dogs turn into gods at a unique canine temple at Ramnagar in Karnataka’s Channapatna district! Here we showcase some truly offbeat roadside shrines in India…

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Bullet Bana temple, Pali (Rajasthan)
Nobody can deny the cult status the Royal Enfield motorbike enjoys in India, but a shrine dedicated to the 350 cc Bullet? Bang on the NH-65 highway via Rohet to Jodhpur stands the roadside temple of Bullet Banna or Motorcycle Baba. It is in memory of Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a motorcycle accident in 1988. The cops took his bike to the police station, but the next morning it went missing and was strangely found parked at the crash site. Each time the bike was impounded, it returned on its own to the accident-prone spot. Believing it to be divine will, locals built a temple in Om Banna’s memory with his Bullet enshrined alongside his garlanded photo. Travelers stop by to light incense sticks and pray for a safe passage.

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18 bata 2 temple, Naldehra (Himachal Pradesh)
In the hills, it’s not unusual for shrines to crop up at accident prone areas and treacherous spots. However what makes this Naldehra shrine unique is its name – ‘Atharah bata do’ or 18/2. It is believed that in a tragic crash some years ago, a bus went over the precipice resulting in eighteen fatalities and only two survivors. The temple that came up on the dangerous curve thus got its strange appellation.

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Chain Tree, Vythiri (Kerala)
In Kerala’s hilly district of Wayanad, beyond the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri, just off the NH-212 stands an unusual tree in chains. It recounts the tragic tale of Karinthandan, a young tribal who guided a British engineer to find a safe route through the treacherous Thamrasseri Ghat. He was killed equally treacherously. It is said his troubled spirit began haunting travellers and often led to accidents. So a puja was performed by a priest to pacify his soul which was then chained to a tree. The iron shackles still drape the branches of the famous Chain Tree as tourists drop by for a quick picture. While on trees, the nature temple of Chingan Chira, 10 km from Kollengode in Palakkad district, deserves mention. With a canopy spread over 2 acres, the cluster of banyan trees looks eerie with wooden houses and offerings dangling from it. Adding to its strange mystique are blocks of flat stone with grinders, mortars and pestles placed around it. Devotees drop by on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays to perform pujas, sacrifice fowls and prepare thanksgiving meals to the deity. It is a popular spot for shooting films, videos and the odd wedding album!

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Traffic Ganesha, Bangalore (Karnataka)
The Ganesha temple on Kasturba Road in Bangalore is known by many local names – Vahana (Vehicle) Ganpati, Traffic Ganesha or Accident Ganesha. Though the temple is believed to be 600 years old, for the last 60 years, motorists have been bringing their new vehicles for blessings of an accident-free life. After all, it has royal approval! As per temple priest Subramaniam Deekshit, the Maharaja of Mysore Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar was travelling in his Rolls Royce from Mysore to Bangalore, when his car broke down nearby. Forced to abandon his vehicle, the king started off on foot and saw the roadside temple. On performing a puja here, his Rolls Royce mysteriously sputtered to life. This happened a few times. Even the Diwan of Mysore, T Ananda Rao, after whom the Anand Rao Circle is named, stayed at Cantonment and regularly prayed at the shrine. When TVS opened its showroom in Bangalore, it brought its new chassis and vehicles for puja. With the opening of the Benz and Nissan showrooms on Kasturba Road, the practice caught on. The belief that an accident can be averted if you perform a puja is so strong that people come in the thousands for vahana puja during Ayudha Puja. Two-wheeler owners believe that they would upgrade to a car and small car owners think their aspirations to buy a bigger car would be fulfilled. Whether the vehicle is old or new, a cycle or a Merc, Traffic Ganesha’s fame only increases each year.

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Jaswantgarh Memorial, Near Sela Pass (Arunachal Pradesh)
Maha Vir Chakra Jaswant Singh of 4 Garhwal Rifles laid down his life during the 1962 war, fighting the Chinese Army for 72 hours along with two other soldiers. He was eventually caught and hanged at the same place where the Jaswantgarh Memorial now stands, 14 km from Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides a garlanded bronze bust of ‘Baba’ Jaswant Singh, the war hero’s belongings are also enshrined – his Army uniform, cap, watch and belt. An earthen lamp placed in front of the portrait of Jaswant Singh burns round the clock. While the rifleman may be no more, his six caretakers from 19 Garhwal Corps believe Babaji’s spirit lives on. He is served bed tea at 4:30am, breakfast at 9am and dinner at 7pm. They make his bed, polish his shoes, deliver the mail sent by his admirers and even clear the mails the next morning after ‘he has gone through them’. They change his bed sheets every Tuesday. Besides serving Baba, the soldiers manning the unique shrine also help needy travelers along the hazardous mountain road.

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Betaal Mandir, Mithbav (Maharashtra)
Maharashtra too has its share of strange shrines – be it a Shiva temple at Kunkeshwar built by shipwrecked Arabian sailors as thanksgiving or Pune’s Khunya Murlidhar temple whose foundations are soaked in blood. Even as the idol was being consecrated, a feud took place outside between the Peshwa and Dada Gadre, a local moneylender, leading to its strange name. Across the Konkan region, it is not unusual to find village shrines of gram-rakshaks, like the Shreedev Upralkar Prasann near Sawantwadi. Echoing the tale of Wayanad’s Chain Tree, the shrine is dedicated to a dhangar (shepherd) who revealed the passage through Amboli pass to the British and thereby got killed. He became the custodian of the passes and once when the British attacked the region, his spirit protected the people. Speaking of spirits, the small Betaal Temple by the road near Mithbav beach is much revered. The wandering spirit is invisible to the human eye. It is said, every evening, his palki (palanquin) carried by his ganas roams the area for an hour. People avoid going near his shrine around 7, else they get possessed, pull their hair and go mad. The madness is abated only after the god is appeased.

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Keeranur Ayyanar (Tamil Nadu)
Though Tamil Nadu has many celebrated temples of the Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, the roadside shrines of village deities called Ayyanars are quite fascinating. Often seated with a sacrificial sword in hand or shown riding horses or elephants with a retinue of lesser gods and attendants, the deities act as guardian of the adjoining village – as rainmaker, protector of the fields and night patroller of the village borders. As votive offerings, people donate terracotta horses lining the pathway leading to the shrine, usually located in the shadow of a sacred tree or grove. Perhaps the best example can be seen off NH-210 at Keeranur, 25km south of Trichy on the road to Pudukottai in Chettinad.

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Aeroplane Gurudwara, Talhan (Punjab)
Punjab’s Doaba region, the fertile land between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, has over six million natives settled abroad, with at least one member from each family staying overseas. Many of them owe their overseas stint to Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara at Talhan village near Jalandhar, better known as Hawai Jahaz or Aeroplane Gurudwara. Just off NH-1, a gate capped with a British Airways aircraft model leads to a road lined with shops selling toy planes of Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and other international carriers. These are not souvenirs, but offerings to the gurudwara in the hope of going abroad! The inner sanctum on the first floor of the century-old gurudwara has several plane models in neat rows. Because of the lack of space, the gurudwara committee has started distributing the toys to underprivileged children.

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Visa Hanuman, Ahmedabad (Gujarat) & Hyderabad (Andhra)
Lord Hanuman is often considered by some as the unofficial god of encroachment. One day suddenly someone may find an udbhav murti that’s manifested itself magically or after a dream. Some just have to place a Hanuman statue or idol and within no time a small shop and a cluster of buildings will come up around it. But Hanuman or Balaji is no ordinary god. In the narrow by-lanes of Desai-ni-pol at Khadia in Ahmedabad, a Hanuman shrine guarantees 100% visa approval for any foreign country. Himanshu Mehta, priest and caretaker of the 250-year-old temple elaborates on this amazing feat. Once eight applicants had their visas approved on Diwali eve after seeking Lord Hanuman’s blessings. The temple is packed on Saturdays, with nearly a thousand ardent devotees filing their appeals for his consideration. Similar is the tale of Chilkur Balaji Temple, popularly known as Visa Balaji. Located on the banks of Osman Sagar Lake, 17 km from Mehedipatnam near Hyderabad, the temple of the Visa God is perhaps the only one in India that does not accept money offerings or have the ubiquitous hundi for donations from the devotees.

Anicut Hanuman of the 19th Vent, Trichy (Tamil Nadu)
There are Hanuman shrines on hillocks, at crossroads and by the river, but a temple in a dam, now that’s a first! Situated 15km from Trichy, the Grand Anicut or Kallanai (kal means stone, anai is dam) built by Tamil king Karikala Cholan 2000 years ago with unhewn stone is believed to be one of the world’s oldest man-made dams. At its base lies an unobtrusive Hanuman temple that has been there for 200 years. A stone tablet in one corner has an engraving of Lord Hanuman on one side and an 1804 inscription by British captain JL Calddell. Despite several attempts, engineers of the East India Company could not complete building the 19th vent of the dam. It is said that Lord Hanuman appeared in a British officer’s dream and instructed him to build a temple for him at the spot. Brushing off the bizarre dream, the officer didn’t act upon it but was soon accosted by a troop of monkeys. Strangely, the local mason too reported receiving a similar vision. Fearing further disruption of the dam work, the officer conceded and a temple was eventually built at the 19th vent. Work magically resumed thereafter and jinx was broken. Today, despite the force of River Cauvery’s waters lashing through the temple and perilous water levels in the rains, the tiny shrine still stands in defiance, almost echoing the indomitable qualities of its God.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 March 2015 in National Geographic Traveller online. Read the story here:

The Middle Path: India’s Buddhist Circuit


On the occasion of Buddha Purnima, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY join the dots of India’s vast Buddhist circuit as they trace the footsteps of the Buddha across the Gangetic plains on an Eco Pad Yatra  

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We had walked with kanwariyas during Shravan Mela, danced with Bauls at Kenduli’s Poush Mela and witnessed the march of naga sadhus at the Maha Kumbh, so an invitation to an 800-km Eco Pad Yatra from Sarnath to Lumbini was just up our street. His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, spiritual head of the 800-year-old Drukpa lineage was on a Swachh Bharat Padyatra to promote cleanliness and environment preservation. In a unique initiative, His Holiness and 900 volunteers were collecting garbage and plastic waste along the way. This was his 7th Eco Padyatra since 2006; after Darjeeling to Sikkim, Lahaul to Ladakh and Mumbai to Sanchi earlier.

The walk would link the holiest sites of Buddhism – starting from Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, Bodhgaya where he attained enlightenment, Rajgir where the first Buddhist council was held, Vaishali the site of his last sermon, Kushinagar where he attained Mahaparinirvana, ending in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal. Having visited the two ends Sarnath and Lumbini earlier, we were keen to do the intermediate leg. It was our chance to walk the proverbial Middle Path in the footsteps of the Buddha… a journey across the dusty Gangetic plains to join the dots of a vast Buddhist circuit.

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The time taken to fly from Bangalore to Patna was what it took to drive to Gahlor, a tiny village between Gaya and Wazirganj. We caught up with the monks resting after lunch, their unmistakable maroon and ochre robes striking against the stark rocky hillocks. A few bhikunnis (female monks) practiced a sacred dance. After registering our names, we walked along a boulder-ridden tract to reach the campsite before dark. Tents were pegged and all assembled tiredly for evening prayers. In the shadow of a tall mountain, the temperature dropped swiftly, yet, the monks were unmindful of the cold as they enveloped us with the low drone of chants, twirling prayer wheels and rattle drums meditatively. His Holiness addressed the masses as we tuned in to the radio for a translation of his talk by Daniel Boschero, better known as Lama Namgyal.

Over the next few days we slept in tents, rested in groves, walked in groups of 15, plodded10-12 km a day as monks cleared out other people’s trash. Locals were sheepish, ashamed and bewildered. Speaking to some overseas participants (300 from 30 countries), we learnt how life changing an experience it was. Many undertook this journey voluntarily every year because it gave them a chance to discover themselves. Chantelle from France said, “We take so much for granted. This trip helps us come close with what is most basic in us.” Lynn aka Deepam, an organizer from Malaysia, confided “These feet are not Made in India or meant for mountains”. Jo from Australia summed it in one word – ‘challenging’.

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Panting through ghats and forests towards Rajgir, we couldn’t help imagine the superhuman feat of Chinese pilgrims Fa Hein and Hieun Tsang, who walked from China to India in search of Buddha’s original teachings. What an adventure nearly one and a half millennia ago – across the Great Wall into Kyrgyztan and Balkh (Afghanistan) to Taxila, Bamyan, Gandhara (Kandahar), Purushapura (Peshawar), Adinapur (Jalalabad) and into the plains of North India… It was dusk when we set up camp in a park outside Rajgir.

Listening to the monks chant, our thoughts drifted to Lumbini. We were there a few years ago on Buddha Jayanti…It was in a grove of sal at Lumbini that Shakya queen Maya Devi stopped to rest as she journeyed from Kapilavastu to Devdaha, her maternal home. Struck by sudden labour pangs she clutched a drooping sal branch and gave birth to Siddhartha. After a dip in the Pushkarni (sacred tank) she bathed the newborn. The child immediately took his first seven steps, sprouting lotus blooms at every step. We remembered Sinhalese bhikkus seated in prayer and Korean monks circumambulating the Pushkarni with lamps in their hand.

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A prayer service near the Ashoka Pillar drew us to the column built by Emperor Ashoka when he visited Lumbini in 249 BC. The Pali inscription on it affirmed the spot as Buddha’s birthplace and, a reduction of Lumbini’s tax liability to one eighth. It is the first epigraphic evidence related to Buddha’s life. Crowds filed in to see a moss-covered stone slab excavated in 1996, enshrined amidst the brick ruins of the Maya Devi Temple. It marked the exact spot of Lord Buddha’s birth. The International Monastic Zone had a sprawling Sacred Garden, an Eternal Peace Flame and World Peace Bell, besides monasteries of various countries – notably the Vietnamese Phat Quoc Tu temple, the Chinese Zhong Hua temple and the colourful Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa of Germany.

Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of Shakya king Shuddhodhana (Lord Buddha’s father) was where Gautama spent his first 29 years as a prince. Confined to the pleasures of his father’s palace, he discovered misery for the first time on a ride with his charioteer Channa. The Four Sights – old age, sickness, death and asceticism – had such a profound impact that Gautama renounced the material world to find a solution to human suffering. Abandoning his wife Yasodhara and son Rahula, he left from the Mahabhinishkramana Dwara, tied his horse to a tree and continued on foot. At present-day Tilaurakot, we saw village children scamper amid among the excavated ruins of the palace complex, defense walls and the historic eastern gateway. At Nigrodharma (Banyan Grove), Shudhodhana built a monastery to welcome his son’s return and his mother’s sister Prajapati presented a Kashaya Vastra. Later, Buddha’s son Rahula became a monk here.

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It is said Gautama recognized desire as the root of all suffering and wandered along the Gangetic plains for six years in meditation and austerity. At Rajgir he met King Bimbisara for the first time and promised to return after he found his answers. Buddha continued to the forested banks of the Falgu River near Gaya where on the brink of death, he received a bowl of milk from Sujata and realized that the Middle Path lay between a sensory life and severe asceticism.

He meditated under a sacred peepul tree vowing not to arise till he learnt the truth. After 49 days, at the age of 35 he attained enlightenment on a full moon day in 623 BC. The tree was called Bodhi tree and the place Uruvela was renamed as Bodhgaya. In 260 BC Emperor Ashoka built a Vajrasana or Diamond Throne, a spot worshipped as Bodhi Pallanka (The Place of Enlightenment). The present temple, built in 6th century AD, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Buddha spent seven succeeding weeks at seven spots in the vicinity in quiet reflection. The first week was under the Bodhi tree; the second at a spot from where he stared uninterrupted at the tree. The Animeshlochana or ‘unblinking eyes’ Stupa commemorates this spot. In week three, he walked back and forth between the Bodhi tree and this spot, causing lotus flowers to bloom along the route, called Ratnachakarma (Jewel walk).

He spent the fourth week near Ratnagar Chaitya and the fifth week answering queries of Brahmins under Ajapala Nigodh tree, marked by a pillar. The sixth week he sat by Muccalinda Lake, where the legendary serpent king Muccalinda sheltered Buddha under his hood when demon Mara raised a storm. The last week was under a Rajyatna tree.

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Buddhist Jatakas consider Bodhgaya as the navel of the earth as no other place could bear the weight of Buddha’s enlightenment. It is believed a ficus tree emerged here the day Buddha was born in Lumbini. The original tree was cut down by Ashoka’s envious wife Tissarakkha and later, by King Pushyamitra Sunga in 2nd century BC and King Shashanka in 600 AD. Each time the tree was destroyed, a new one was planted. In a befitting story of reincarnation, the bodhi sapling taken by Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra to Anuradhapura to spread the dhamma (religion) in Ceylon was used to plant a sapling in Bodhgaya. In Buddhist belief, when the world is destroyed at the end of a kalpa, this will be the last spot to go, and, the first to appear when the world is reborn.

The devout sat content meditating under the shade of the Bodhi tree as excited tourists attempting a blind walk towards an idol in the temple wall in the hope that that their wish is granted. Outside, vendors waved pressed ‘sacred bodhi leaf’ as mementos. The 2nd century BC stone railing built around the tree by the Shunga dynasty was the prized exhibit at Bodhgaya Museum. In a maze of Japanese-run lodges, people dashed around Bodhgaya’s various monasteries from Bhutan, China, Tibet, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan. Daibutsu, the 64 ft high Great Buddha statue erected by the Daijokyo Buddhist sect from Nagoya in Japan, depicted Buddha in dhyana mudra seated on a lotus.

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Buddha left Bodhgaya and preached his first sermon at Mrigdava, the ‘deer park’ in Sarnath near Varanasi, marked by Dhamek Stupa and Mulagandhakuti Vihara. Though he delivered many sermons at Kaushambi, Shravasti was his favourite monsoon retreat where he gave the most discourses. It was his longest halt with twenty-five rainy seasons spent at the Jetavana and Pubbarama monasteries. Jetavana’s Anandabodhi tree and Gandhakuti (Buddha’s hut) were venerated spots. At Shravasti, Buddha encountered Angulimala, a highway brigand who chopped off people’s fingers and wore a grisly garland of digits to keep count. While looking for his thousandth victim to fulfill a promise of guru dakshina, he met Buddha who reformed him.

We bade goodbye to the monks at Rajgir, the old Magadhan capital of Bimbisara before his son Ajatashatru shifted it to Pataliputra (Patna). It was a short walk from our camp to the base of Griddhakuta Hill or Vulture’s Peak. We took Rajgir’s famous aerial ropeway (featured in Johnny Mera Naam) to the World Peace Pagoda at the summit. Pilgrims prefer the 600 odd steps to Buddha’s favourite meditation spot. We left the monks in prayer on the hill to discover Rajgir…

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In ancient times, Rajgir was Rajgriha (Royal Abode) and Girivraj, the ‘area surrounded by mountains’. It was the capital of Jarasandha in the Mahabharata and Jains revered its five hills as Panch Pahari celebrating Mahavira’s miracles. We bumped into an alliterative tonga guy ‘Ramesh Prasad’ manning his tonga ‘Rajkamal’ and his horse ‘Raja Babu’. Though Bimbisara originally followed Jainism, in Ramesh’s opinion, he became ‘boudhh-minded’. The king’s first offering to Buddha was the royal garden of Venu Van (Bamboo Grove) to stay. Buddha would bathe at Karandak Kanivapa, a tank in the park and climb Griddhakuta Hill to preach his sermon.

Jeevak Aamravan was the residence of Jivaka Kaumarbhritya (525-450 BC), a renowned physician in Bimbisara’s court. He treated the king and saint and donated his mango orchard to the sangha for a monastery. Buddha spent many chaturmasa or ‘four months’ (July to October) at Rajgir in meditation and discourses, a practice followed by monks to this day. The main reason behind ascetics staying in a fixed monsoon retreat is to avoid trampling on insects, which are abundant in the rainy season.

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We saw the remains of Bimbisara’s jail where Ajatashatru imprisoned his own father. It is said Bimbisara chose the spot so he could see Buddha’s daily ascent to Griddhakuta. A pair of iron manacles was found in one of the cells. Buddha passed away in the eighth year of Ajatashatru’s reign, who built a stupa at Rajgir on his ashes. The first Buddhist council was held during his rule, where the Buddhist doctrines, Sutpatika and Vinyapatika were compiled.

Around 15 km north of Rajgir is the famous university of Nalanda. In 5-6 Century BC, it served as a great monastic and educational institute for monks across the Buddhist world. The ruins, first excavated between 1915-37, reveal extensive remains of six brick temples and eleven monasteries separated by a 30 m wide passage in a 1 sq km layout. The lofty, impressive Temple No.3 to the south was built in seven phases and surrounded by votive stupas. It is named after Sariputra, one of Buddha’s famous disciples who lived and died here.

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We headed to Vaishali, ancient capital of Raja Vishal and venue for Buddha’s last sermon and Second Buddhist Council. It was also the birthplace of 24th Jain tirthankara Mahavira. Green boards proclaiming Vaishali as India’s oldest republic contrasted with the surrounding squalour. In better times, it was the capital of the Licchavis, one of the atthakula (eight clans) that formed the Vajji ganaparishad (confederacy).

At Kolhua, Ashoka erected a lion pillar and the Ananda Stupa. Ironically, British archaeologists discovered Vaishali’s ruins on the basis of Hiuen Tsang’s accounts. Buddha’s residence Kutagarashala, a swastika shaped monastery and a tank called Markatakrada, literally ‘dug by monkeys’ are worth seeing. The miracle of a monkey chief offering honey to Buddha occurred here. It was at Vaishali that Buddha converted Amrapali from a courtesan to a nun and allowed women into the Sangha for the first time. Not only did Buddha spend several varshavas (annual stays), he also announced his impending death here.

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By the time Buddha reached the Malla village of Kusinara (Kushinagar) on the far side of the Hiranyawati River, he was 80 years old! Realizing his end was near, he instructed Ananda to prepare a bed between two sal trees with his head turned north. Ananda, who served him for 20 years, was distraught. Buddha consoled him with the lines ‘Just as a worn out cart can only with much additional care be made to move along, so too the body of the Buddha can be kept going with much additional care.’ His last words were ‘All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence (for your own liberation)’.

The Mukutbandhan Chaitya on the banks of the Ramabhar stream marked the spot where Buddha’s last rites were conducted. The Ramabhar stupa was one of the few sites in India where we noticed a sign in Braille! Not many know that after Buddha’s cremation various kingdoms squabbled over ownership of the relics. After a great debate under a banyan tree at Aniruddhawa village, a Brahmin named Drona (Doha) resolved the dispute. The relics were distributed into eight portions among King Ajatashatru of Magadha, Lichhavis of Vaishali, Sakyas of Kapilavastu, Bulis of Allakappa, Kollyas of Ramagram, Brahmins of Vethadwipa, Mallas of Pava and Mallas of Kusinagar. For seven days those assembled at the ceremony held a festival in honour of the relics.

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We paid our respects at the reclining Buddha statue at the Parinirvana Stupa, before continuing to the Burmese Temple and Matha Kuar complex enshrining a 3.05 m high Buddha statue in bhoomisparsha mudra or ‘earth-touching pose’. When some of Buddha’s relics were discovered at Piprahwa on the Indo-Nepal border in 1898, they were gifted to King Rama V of Thailand, the sole Buddhist monarch at the time. In 2001, King Bhumidol Adulyadej built the stunning Wat Thai shrine around the relics, making it the only royal chaitya ever built outside Thailand.

It was a divine culmination of the journey that we shared a flight and some words with Gyalwang Drukpa from Gorakhpur to Delhi. What was the highlight of the trip, we asked – was it the goat Kamo (Tibetan for white) who tagged along from Varanasi or retracing Lord Buddha’s holy footsteps? He explained, “It wasn’t a religious quest, but a spiritual pilgrimage. And spirituality is nothing but raising one’s awareness about a friendly way of living. You must be friendly to everybody and everything – plants, animals, mountains, air, water… rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Niranjana (Phalgu) and others we pollute before they carry our toxic waste into the sea. So, it is important to reconnect with nature. Wherever we went local villagers joined in for short stretches to clean up, excited kids tagged along, others hid their garbage! It all starts with consciousness,” he smiled as we said goodbye. India had a long way to go indeed, but the journey of a thousand miles had begun with more than a few footsteps…

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How to go
Start the Buddhist circuit from Patna, Varanasi or Lucknow. For a linear route, fly into Lucknow and drive 164km to Shravasti. Continue across the Nepal border to Kapilavastu and Lumbini, 130km away. Drive 147km to Kushinagar. Fly or drive 235km from Gorakhpur to Patna. Continue 70km to Nalanda, 15km to Rajgir and 81km to Bodhgaya. Drive 250km to Sarnath and fly out from Varanasi 13km away. IRCTC and India Tourism run the ‘Mahaparinirvan Express’ that covers the Buddhist circuit in a week. Starting from New Delhi, it covers Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Nalanda, Kushinagar and Lumbini.

When to go
The international Buddhist season lasts from December to March when weather is favourable. Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima, celebrated in May, is an auspicious time with prayer ceremonies.

To participate in the Eco Pad Yatra in 2015, visit

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 3 May 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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

Tungnath: Vertical Limit


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trek to the highest Shiva temple in the country and encounter mystics, legends and amazing Himalayan views


Baba Kidik Bam proudly showed us a faded copy of High Times; his yogic pose captured decades ago by a foreign correspondent. The irony wasn’t lost on us. We were at Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in India. ‘Tung matlab uncha, nath maney Shiv. Amarnath is higher, but it’s a cave, not a temple’, explained Baba. His actual name was Mahant Naga Baba Mukesh Giri, but at Tungnath, he was simply Kidik Bam. “Be it India or abroad, all the guides know me. Babas, bhakts (followers), travellers, whoever comes here, I tell them stories of Tungnath, its natural wonders, and look after them… Din paraya hai, par raat apni hai” (The day belongs to others, but the night is mine), he laughed. Just below us, temple bells rang out under the serpent-shaped cliff as baba sounded his damru (rattle drum) signaling the closure of the Tungnath shrine after the 8pm aarti.

We sat on a rocky ledge outside baba’s little kutiya (hut) while he shared his spiritual experiences. His raspy coughs crackled the air as we listened to his stories in this inhospitable yet stunningly beautiful terrain. Tungnath was no ordinary place. Located in the shadow of Chandrashila peak high above the tree line in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district, this was where the stars prayed to Shiva and achieved their exalted position in the sky. Lord Vishnu received the celestial Sudarshan Chakra at this spot. It was here Lord Rama came to atone for the sin of killing Ravana… And it was in Ravana gufa that the demon-king had performed a rigorous penance and severed his heads as an offering to Lord Shiva. “The large cave is unusual – in the morning only a beam of light enters it, in the afternoon it’s completely dark, but at sunset a golden light emerges from it. It’s something to behold,” baba informed sagely.


Yet another fascinating tale about Tungnath was linked to the Mahabharata. Legend has it, after the Kurukshetra war, Sage Vyasa advised the Pandavas to seek forgiveness of Lord Shiva in order to absolve the sins of killing their kith and kin. When the five brothers came to the Himalayas in search of Shiva, the Lord chose to avoid pardoning those guilty of fratricide. He took the form of a bull and camouflaged himself in a field of countless bulls. At Guptkashi, Bhima saw one creature sinking in the mud and knew their divine search was over. He grappled with the bull but it disappeared and only parts of it surfaced at five places. The hump was found at Kedarnath, at Madhyamaheshwar the navel, at Tungnath the Lord’s forelimbs and heart, the face appeared at Rudranath while the hair and head surfaced at Kalpeshwar. At 12,070 ft, Tungnath was the loftiest of the Panch Kedars.

Like the Pandavas, we had been panting up the same mountain a few hours earlier on our 4km hike from Chopta to Tungnath. Luckily, the carefree songs of a kinnar (transgender person) trekking uphill with a massive wooden trunk filled with provisions on her back provided a lilting background score. Envying her strength and cheeriness, we stopped briefly to catch our breath. Below, rocky outcrops plummeted down to the valley and a tumble of boulders in the grassy meadows. On the other side wide-open bugyals (high-altitude grasslands) lured us to roll in the grass. Fragmented rows of visitors on foot or riding on mules led by porters wended their way along the cemented pathway. At a wayside shack we sipped delicious buraansh (rhododendron) juice in cold steel tumblers before plodding onward to reach Tungnath by late morning.


The ancient temple stood like an old mountain man, its rugged face wrinkled, but posture still erect. We took up lodging at a small shack below the temple and after endless rounds of chai and a late lunch, headed off for Chandrashila. The 1½ km hike was short but steep. A storm was brewing by the time we reached the small shrine of Gangadevi at its peak (13,500 ft). As we walked past the cluster of rock-cairns that held the vows, dreams and desires of hundreds of pilgrims in a wobbly balance, thunder rumbled like the faraway sounds of Shiva’s rattle drum. A lone red flag fluttered in the gusty wind as we absorbed nature in her raw, overpowering glory.

The prospect of five people squeezing into a 4 sq ft cell to brave a storm that could probably rage all night seemed unappealing. Yet the hypnotic sight of lightning flashes in the dark clouds, the last rays of the evening sun, the soft tinkling of tiny temple bells in the wind and the white silhouette of the Himalayas made us dally till twilight. The trek back was faster as we practically ran to avoid getting caught in the rain. A Himalayan pika or mousehare made a furtive scuttle for cover under slabs of rock as wildflowers bobbed their head in the drizzle. It was thus we landed at the doorstep of Baba Kidik Bam, who offered us chai and shelter.


While the Chopta to Chandrashila trek is relatively easy and open all year round, it is trickier in winter. As snow sets in, the symbolic image of Shiva is taken from Tungnath to Makkumath 19km away. Similarly, the Kedarnath idol is brought to Ukhimath, Rudranath to Gopeshwar and Madhyamaheshwar to Ukhimath. Unlike many who shift to the lower valleys in the icy winter, baba continues to stay in his hut all year round. Hours slipped by as we listened to his tales, before reluctantly climbing down to our humble tenement below.

Despite our evening adventure, we woke at the break of dawn and discovered a black partridge cooing on the path. A short walk led us to a cliff and we spotted a pair of Himalayan monal rifling the grass. The male hopped to a rock and caught the first rays of the sun…and for a fleeting moment we saw its iridescent plumage and the proud toss of its crest that could have put a peacock to shame. A little later, we came across a Himalayan fox loping across the bugyal and a herd of grazing Himalayan tahr. The descent to Chopta was leisurely and the next morning, after hot parathas, noodles and tea, we set off for Dogalbitta at the bottom of the valley. We spent the day birdwatching and hiking around the ravines. As a full moon rose against the shadowy pine trees on the hill, Baba Kidik Bam’s words rang out. “If you wish to see something spectacular, go to Chandrashila on a full moon night to catch the sunrise”.


On a mad impulse, two of us set off at midnight for Chandrashila. With just moonbeams to guide us, we climbed 7km to Chopta and were greeted by nervous ponies snorting and neighing at our intrusion. The hike to Tungnath was surreal as it was pitch dark and we paused momentarily outside baba’s hut. By the time we reached the summit, it was 4.30am. A group of Bengali trekkers waiting to catch the sunrise were stunned by our mad tale.

As the night slipped off its dark cloak, the colours of dawn exploded before our eyes over mighty Himalayan peaks – Bandarpoonch (20,722 ft), Kedar (22,769 ft), Trishul (23,360 ft), Chaukhamba (23,419 ft) and Nanda Devi (25,646 ft). Like the natural representation of Lord Shiva’s mystical image the craggy mountains resembled his matted locks with the crowning crescent and fount of Ganga trapped in a topknot.


We watched the sun break out of the sky and embarked on our 12.5km descent to Dogalbitta when a series of loud claps caught our attention. We looked up to see Baba Kidik Bam waving his hands from the Tungnath temple. There was a wide grin on his beaming face. We didn’t need to exchange any words, no signaling of the full moon or us walking. He knew, he just knew…

Getting there

Perched at 3680m, Tungnath (third among the Panch Kedars) is a 4km trek from Chopta, located on the Gopeshwar-Ukhimath road in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. Chandrashila peak is 1½ km from Tungnath.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 April 2014 in  Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.  

Baul Bearing: Joydeb Mela, Kenduli


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the annual Joydeb Mela at Kenduli and find it to be Bengal’s answer to Woodstock 


Every winter, in the heart of Lal Mati’r Desh (Red Soil Country) in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, the vibrant community of Bauls (wandering minstrels) converge to warm the air with soulful music. Set on the banks of the Ajoy River, 42 km from Shantiniketan, Kenduli’s Joydeb Mela is a 3-day annual festival held during Makar Sankranti between Jan 14-16. If songs of love and freedom, poor sanitation and three days of camping defined Woodstock; Joydeb Mela is Bengal’s answer to it.

Night-long jams, musicians of every style and tenor and unimaginable crowds on hallowed ground – Kenduli is the birthplace of poet Jayadev who composed the Sanskrit classic Gita Govinda and where he supposedly received a divine vision of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Over time, the free-spirited concert has drawn kabiyals, kirtaniyas and folk performers. In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in UNESCO’s list of ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. We were going to find out why…


The road wove past the twin terracotta temples of Joda Mandir at Bholpur before depositing us in the artistic air of Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s renowned university campus. An unplanned excursion took us to Prantik, a Santhal village nearby where a tribal sculptor moulded clay figurines. Soon, we were squatting in a traditional home, our faces buried deep inside large black-metal bowls of hadiya (local rice beer), swaying to low beats of tribal drums. Snug in the warm hospitality of Kalomoni and Karthik’s family, the impromptu jam was the perfect aperitif for the night. We crossed Illambazaar, halting briefly at the Raghunath and Lakshmi Janardhan temples at Ghurisha to join the dots of our terracotta temple trail to Kenduli.

The village road was a crawling millipede on wheels. Every vehicle – cycle, bullock cart, van, bus, truck or taxi bulged with people inching towards the fair grounds. Beyond a chaotic parking lot, a river of heads flowed into the horizon where clusters of lights drew ghostly outlines of poles, colourful tents, stalls and ferris wheels. The place was abuzz with hawkers, megaphone announcements and a cacophony of music and theatrical discourses.


Excited squeals signalled merry-go-rounds, tumble boxes and daredevilry in Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). Roadside stalls stocked a bizarre collection of commodities – utensils, clothes, dolls, idols, stoneware, knives, ploughs, jewellery, flutes, gas cylinders and electronic goods! Food stalls served snacks and some akhras (religious shelter) offered khichri-alu dum and garam-bhat as prasad. Past the assault course of commerce was the portal of spiritual bliss.

The music and poetry of the legendary Lalon Fakir, founding father of Baul philosophy and gurus like Haure Goshai, Podo, Jadubindu and Panju Shah resonated from tents and akhras. Inside, the audience went into raptures as the voices soared. Like rustic hippies who sing of only love and peace, groups of long-haired Bauls, sages, mendicants and travellers huddled around a campfire in the shared communion of a peace-pipe. In another tent, a tantric was in the throes of Kali worship with a skull, staff and trident. 


For Bauls, bhakti (devotion) is the only religion. Their open philosophy, unconventional life and music fuses tenets of Vaishnava, Shakti, Sufi, Tantra, Siddha and Buddhist beliefs allowing them to be neither bound nor defined by religion. Draped in saffron or multi-coloured robes, they strum the ektara, thrum the bama or duggi (clay drum) and swirl like dreadlocked dervishes with anklets wrapped around their feet. Shunning all trappings of worldly life, Bauls sing about man’s relationship with God, spiritual liberation and the pursuit of the divine. The Sanskrit root vatul (batul in Bengali) means mad.

We joined a rabble that sat drenched under the beautiful strains of a blind Baul singer playing a harmonium as admirers tucked currency notes into his turban. The toughest decision was choosing where to go, so we wandered all night in Baulesque fashion from tent to tent. Sadhan Bairagya’s ashram Moner Manush was a big draw. Heaps of cramped weary bodies curled up in dark corners. Elsewhere, kirtaniyas lured us with their eyes, story-tellers got dramatic and dancers in mythological ballets spun vigourously.


Streams of visitors wended their way into the magnificent shrine of Radhabinod replete with intricate terracotta panels. Across the levee, the Ajoy river flowed placidly as devotees bathed in it and boats ferried pilgrims. At Kadambokhandi Crematorium, bodies were being consigned to flames. Travellers hunted desperately for scarily basic toilets.

Kenduli offered a strange cocktail of life, death, shopping and entertainment against the backdrop of song. As night embraced dawn, we settled down for more Baul music that has tinged Bengal’s cultural ethos with its own shade of spiritual blues for over five centuries. 



Getting There
By Road: Bolpur is 160 km from Kolkata via Bardhaman (52km away) and Guskara. Regular bus service and cabs from Jamboni bus-stand connect Bolpur to Kenduli (35km). Or, continue on Kolkata-Durgapur express past Bardhaman till Darjeeling More and take Rampurhat Highway to reach Illambazar. From Illambazar, drive for 2 km towards Suri and then turn left at Joydev Mor (or after 6 km take left turn from Ghurisha) and drive 12km to go to Joydev- Kenduli.

By Train: Bolpur station, 2km from Shantiniketan is the nearest rail head and connected by regular trains from Kolkata (3 hours).


Guided Trips: West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) organizes package tours to Kenduli from Shantiniketan. There is also a weekly haat (rural market) in Joydev.

Stay: Accommodation and sanitation at the fairgrounds is extremely basic and people often camp around, though it is not recommended. One can rough it out in ashrams or rooms rented out by villagers. Barring the tedious to and fro travel, Bolpur is an ideal base. WBTDC has a tourist lodge in Shantiniketan besides Mitali Homestays at Phuldanga and Chutti Resort at Bolpur.

Mitali, Phuldanga, Shantiniketan 731235
Ph 03463-262763, 9433075853, 9433898067

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller.   

Temple Run: Kumbakonam Heritage Trail


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover a heritage trail around the temple town of Kumbakonam visiting Chola shrines, weaving villages and bronze casters


In a corner of the 30,187 sq ft compound of the town’s largest Shiva shrine, Mangalamba, the 40-year-old temple elephant was being scrubbed and bathed by four men. Outside, the canopied market bristled with the sale of religious trinkets at dawn while the aroma of coffee wafted from roadside cafes. Rajagopuram, the majestic 128 ft high eastern gateway soared skyward like a multi-hued pyramid. In the sanctum of Adi Kumbeswara in the temple town of Kumbakonam, the Lord was ready for the day’s stream of devotees…

Set in the rice bowl of Central Tamil Nadu, Kumbakonam has been revered since ancient times. According to mythology as the end of an epoch drew near, Lord Brahma approached Lord Shiva for divine counsel. He was instructed to worship the celestial kumbha (pot) containing amrit (nectar) and the seeds of creation and place it atop Mount Meru (Himalayas). During the Great Deluge, the floodwaters displaced the pot and carried it southwards. Guised as a kirata (hunter), Shiva shot an arrow at the pot and released the nectar, which formed the sacred Mahamaham Tank. Mixing broken pieces of the pot with nectar, he fashioned a lingam and merged into it. Ever since he is worshipped as Kirata murti, Amrudeswara or Adi Kumbeswara and the place was known as Kumbakonam or Town of the Celestial Pot. The seeds of creation thus dispersed sprouted new life again, symbolically represented as a hundred Shiva shrines in and around town.

As per Kumbakonam’s creation myth, when Lord Shiva broke the pot after the flood subsided, its contents were scattered across the countryside. The spot where the bilva leaf came to rest became a Bilva-vanam at Nageswara temple, where the yagnopaveetham (sacred thread) fell became Yagnopaveeteswara or Gautameswara, the coconut took root at Abimugeswara, the string securing the pot formed the linga at Someswara while the place where Shiva’s baanam (arrow) landed became the Bana Pureeswara temple.


Kumbakonam temple tour

In the Adi Kumbeswara complex, colours of the temple’s gopurams (gateways) leapt out like vibrant parakeets as we absorbed the fascinating detail of sculptures. Pilgrims wound their way past the flagstaff and silver chariots towards the sanctum. ‘No abhishekams (libations) are offered to the lingam’ the priest hushed. ‘It will get destroyed since it is made of earth’, he added conspiratorially. ‘So it is coated with punagu, the dark scented secretion of a civet cat!’ The principal deity Sri Kiratamurti held a bow and arrow.

The temple also had a resting chamber for the Lord and his consort Mangal Ambigai besides sub-shrines for Adi Vinayaka and Lord Subrahmanya, who wielded different weapons in six hands, instead of twelve. The Navarathri Mandapam was a monolithic wonder displaying 27 stars and 12 rasis (moon signs).


Nageshwara Swami Temple nearby, the town’s oldest shrine, was a fine example of early Chola art with painted ceilings and exquisite bronze sculptures of dancing deities and rich patrons. There were stunning shrines to Lord Vishnu as well – Ramaswamy Temple depicted scenes from the Ramayana and Sri Chakrapani Temple helped remove the malefic effects of planets.

The 150 ft tall rajagopuram of Sarangapani Swami Temple was suffused with erotic sculptures, erected by Lakshmi Narayana Swami, a staunch Vishnu devotee. He died on the holy day of Deepavali but being a bachelor he had no heirs, so the lord himself is believed to have performed his funeral rites. Even today, priests perform shraadh for him on behalf of the Lord on Diwali!


Mystical excursions

Swamimalai, a short drive west of Kumbakonam was the site of Lord Murugan’s sacred shrine atop a malai or rocky hillock. It recounted the tale of how Murugan or Swaminathan took on the unconventional role of a ‘swami’ or teacher to expound the meaning of Om, the pranava mantra to his own father, Lord Shiva. Lending credence to the myth, Murugan’s shrine enjoyed an exalted position while the lower temple was consecrated to Lord Sundareswara and Goddess Meenakshi. After a luxurious veg thali meal at the heritage resort Indeco Swamimalai, we witnessed local craftsmen at work.

At Nachiyar Koil, around 10 km from Kumbakonam, we discovered that the main shrine was dedicated to Vanjulavalli or Nachiyar, Vishnu’s consort whom he married as a commoner. To give her due prominence, devotees first visit her shrine before praying to the Lord and her idol leads the procession on a swan during festivals. To ensure that Vishnu trails behind on his Garuda, a mysterious phenomenon slows down the lord’s swift mount. When the deity is taken out, only four people are needed to carry it out of the sanctum, but as the procession continues, the Garuda progressively doubles its weight till 8, 16, 32, 64 and 128 persons are required to bear it. Strangely, the reverse takes place on the return trip!


The great living Chola Temples

Besides Thanjavur, two UNESCO world heritage sites near Kumbakonam showcase the zenith of 11th -12th Century Chola architecture. At Darasuram the intricate carvings of Airavateshvara temple complex could be seen in the trellis screens of the Alankara Mandapam, the wheeled stone chariot drawn by horses and elephants and the 108 pillars depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati at Rajagambhiran Mandapam.

As per legend, once Sage Durvasa, notorious for his fiery temper, gifted a celestial garland to Lord Indra passing by on his royal mount the white elephant Airavata. Indra placed the wreath on the elephant’s head. Irritated by the bees attracted by the garland’s heady aroma, Airavata trampled it and incurred the sage’s wrath. Cursed that he would lose his pristine colour, Airavata performed a penance to appease Lord Shiva at Darasuram to regain his former glory. The lingam worshipped by Airavata was thus known as Airavateswara. 


The magnificent replica of the Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, the victory capital of the Cholas, marked their successful northward expedition up to the Ganges. King Rajendra Chola returned with holy water from the river and had it poured into the temple well. As a symbolic gesture, the leonine sculpture of Simha Kinaru, a representation of the imperial crest of the Cholas, stands guard.

Yet, Kumbakonam’s fame went beyond its shrines as we discovered its other secrets – the house of Math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan turned into a museum, shops selling fresh-roasted coffee and artisans handcrafting brass and bronzeware! Just beyond the Periya Nayaki Amman shrine at Darasuram, skeins of dyed silk hung like garlands in the bylanes of the weaving village. Interestingly, the weavers traced their ancestry to distant Saurashtra and almost every household wove traditional saris that could be bought off the shelf!


Mahamaham Tank

The famed Mahamaham Tank spanning 6.2 acres and circled by 16 pavilions is the venue for the Mahamaham festival occurring once in 12 years. The tank’s sanctity is proved by the belief that nine river goddesses come during the festival to cleanse themselves of the sins they washed off their devotees. Lakhs of people will converge at the next festival (Feb-March 2016), dubbed as the Kumbh Mela of South India.

Sitting on the steps of the mighty Mahamaham tank we watched people washing clothes and bathing themselves in its green waters. The city skyline was a broken circle of temple towers and buildings jostling for space. History, myth and modernity melded together to create a strange alloy of architecture reflected in the waters. In the lanes, cows ambled among shoppers as men and women sat down to gossip as they mechanically strung flowers in radiant colours for gods and mortals. When the temple priests sang lullabies to put their deities to sleep, Kumbakonam slept as if anointed from head to toe, by the Kaveri River to the north and the Arasalar River to the south.



At a Glance
Hailed as a seat of culture and education from the Sangam period, Kumbakonam came under the sway of formidable dynasties like the Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyas, Vijayanagar kings, Nayaks and the British. By 7th century Kumbakonam was the capital of the Chola Empire, which at its peak (9-12 century) extended from coast to coast. The town, built around the Adi Kumbeswara Temple, bustles with weavers, potters and metalsmiths still practicing their centuries-old crafts and temple towns like Darasuram, Swamimalai and Gangaikondacholapuram nearby.     

Things to Do


Try Kumbakonam’s degree coffee
The town’s signature brew was the brainchild of Panchapikesa Iyer of Laxmi Vilas, who transformed a cup of coffee into an art form. Though today’s variants are either too milky or diluted, saccharine or bitter and too dark or light, only Murali’s Café promises a cup that is closer to the original – a dabara-tumbler with decoction made from freshly ground roast beans, the perfect bittersweet blend of chicory, a whisk of frothy fresh milk and just a dash of sugar. Narasu, Santhi and Padma are leading brands of Kumbakonam coffee available locally.



Visit a weaving village
Villages around Kumbakonam like Darasuram and Tirubhuvanam reverberate with the rattle of looms where the family tradition of weaving has continued for generations. Weavers are happy to display the entire process of spinning and weaving vibrant traditional  and scarves, often selling their products directly, at a discount. 



Brass and bronze manufacture
While Kumbakonam’s Pottramarai South Street is crammed with retailers like Sri Meenatchi Vilas Pathura Maligai, Cholan Vilas Pathiram Maligai and Gomathi Vilas selling a wide range of metal artifacts, idols and vessels, the process of watching metalsmiths at work is more rewarding. Ramakrishna Metal Works near Kammala Street at Nachiyar Kovil is popular for brass ornamental lamps, Rajan Bronze Arts in Swamimalai is renowned for its bronze idols while some resorts like Indeco Swamimalai and Paradise have in-house craft centres.


Driving Tour of Navagraha temples
The Navagraha Temple Circuit is a popular tour covering a 60km radius around Kumbakonam. The devout believe that the worship of shrines dedicated to the nine celestial planets will remove doshas (malefic effects) and impart benefits. One can cover the temples leisurely over a few days or opt for a guided 1-day tour (5am-10pm, Rs.2,500/head, inclusive of meals and transport).


When to Go
Avoid April-June as summers can be very hot and dry. October to March is an ideal time to visit Kumbakonam, when the weather is pleasant and the town comes alive with various festivals – Deepavali (Oct), Makara Pongal (Jan) and the Maha Sivaratri and Magam festivals (Feb–Mar).


Getting there
By Air: Trichy International Airport (Ph 0431 2340551) is the nearest airport, around 90 km from Kumbakonam via SH-22.

By Rail: Catch the daily Trichy Express (daily 8:15am) from Chennai’s Egmore station, which takes about 6 hrs to reach Kumbakonam at 2:10pm.

By Road: Kumbakonam is 40 km northeast of Thanjavur and 285 km south of Chennai.

Getting Around

Though pre-arranged cabs are convenient, auto-rickshaws are more economical and practical for negotiating the busy streets. Bicycles are also available on hire. The state highway enters Kumbakonam from the east via Tirubhuvanam and merges into NH-45C that exits from the west towards Darasuram and Swamimalai. Buses to Darasuram, Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram ply regularly from Kumbakonam bus station north of Mahamaham tank.



Kumbakonam is packed with small restaurants and the ubiquitous South Indian mess. Hotel Venkatramana at Gandhi Park North (Ph 0435 2400736, 9486433736) has been serving traditional meals prepared without garlic for six decades. Local favourites include rava dosa with gosthu (spiced lentil-eggplant gravy), thirumal vadai, kadappa (potato moong dal kurma) and kothumai (cracked wheat halwa). Meenakshi Bhavan at Nageswaran North Street (Ph 0435 2430749) offers dosas, uthappams and appams, besides unusual items like paal paniyaram, veetu (oats) dosa, idiappams (string hoppers) and milk periyada (mildly sweet ball of black gram bean flour). Mami’s Mess off Periya Theru (Big Street) is a hole-in-wall shack dishing out home-made snacks besides full meals for lunch on banana leaf. If you’ve overdosed on south-Indian veg fare, head to Aathurar Restaurant (Ph 0435 2427666) or Hotel Chela (Ph 0435 2430336, 99443 04657) on Ayekulam Road which has a North Indian restaurant serving tandoori items, naans and kebabs.



Mantra Veppathur
No.1 Bagavathapuram Main Road Extn, 536/537A Sri Sailapathipuram Village, Veppathur 612 103, Kumbakonam
Ph 0435 2462261, 2460141 Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000 (30 rooms)
This eco-friendly resort wears its Tamil tradition proudly with a welcome fanfare for its guests, a drink of panakam (jaggery and ginger) or nannari sherbet and a soothing foot massage. Stay in Agraharam-style cottages embellished with Kanjeevaram silks, Athangudi tiles and Tanjore dolls and enjoy tasty veg cuisine. Rejuvenate at Punarjenma Ayurvedic spa or play traditional games like daayam (dice), palaanguri (cowrie) and parama-padam (snakes and ladders). The rustic charms of Mantra Chai Kadai and bullock cart rides to old Chola temples of Kalabhairava and Karkadeshwar add to the magic.



Paradise Resort
3/1216, Tanjore Main Road, Darasuram, Ammapet, Kumbakonam 612103
Ph 0435 2416469, 3291354, 9943311354 Tariff Rs.4,400-7,500 (43 rooms)
A heritage resort on the banks the river Arasalar, Paradise offers a delightful blend of South Indian hospitality and modern comforts. Relax after an Ayurveda spa in renovated town houses, pool view heritage rooms or river view heritage row houses with antique doors. Dine in thatched tree huts or try Chettinad food at the restaurant. Walk in the garden with guinea fowl for company, learn pottery and metal casting at the craft centre or take an ox-cart ride to quaint villages and Ayyanar shrines. 


Indeco Swamimalai
6/30 B, Agraharam, Thimmakudy Village, Baburajapuram Post, Kumbakonam  612302
Ph 0435 2480044/385/406, 94444 10396 Tariff Rs.3,000-6,700 (28 suites)
Set in a 5½ acres site of an old 1896 Brahmin village, Indeco Swamimalai (formerly Sterling Anandham) is a unique theme-based heritage resort. It bears the imprint of Chairman & MD Steve Borgia’s vision to showcase a fascinating collection of antiques. Besides heritage rooms, an Ayurveda centre, a temple tank-shaped pool and elaborate thalis served at the restaurant, the resort has its own farm, cowshed, deer park and units for bronze casting and pottery. Every evening the Noor Deepam Mantapam is lit up with a hundred lamps and the village centre thrums with cultural programs.


Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine. 

Ganpati Utsav: Mumbai’s Maha Kumbh


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY roam the streets of Lalbaug to meet idol makers, artisans and organizers to take stock of the preparations for Ganesh Utsav, Mumbai’s biggest street festival


Months before Ganesh Chaturthi, with the onset of Mumbai’s rains, the familiar sight of blue tarpaulin stalls pop up by the roadside like mushrooms. Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav Mandals are busy with the final preparations of elaborate pandals while karkhanas (factories) from Parel to Malad are abuzz with the manufacture of Ganpati idols to the whims of the season. If it was the Agneepath Ganpati last year inspired by Hrithik Roshan’s ‘Deva Shree Ganesha’ song, this year it was the turn of Lambkarn, the large-eared one.

Ganesh Chaturthi wasn’t always like this. Its evolution from a quiet festival at home to a sarvajanik utsav (public celebration) is credited to Bal Gangadhar Tilak. To dodge the British ban on political rallies in 1893, ‘Lokmanya’ Tilak used the festival as a vehicle to promote nationalistic fervor through cultural programs. With its epicenter in Pune, Ganpati mandals (associations) were formed across Maharashtra. Shree Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Sanstha, Mumbai’s oldest mandal began at Keshavji Naik Chawl in Girgaum and Lokmanya Tilak graced the dais in 1901.


But we were headed for Mumbai’s most famous pandal, Lalbaug cha Raja, the King of Lalbaug. Echoing the turbulence of the sea, this area had seen many ups and downs – the freedom movement, the making of a city, the displacement of its original inhabitants, arrival of migrant Konkanis in late 19th century and the rise and fall of textile mills. For 80 years this Ganpati idol has fulfilled dreams and wishes of millions of devotees. Its very genesis took place under similar circumstances…

In 1933, the Kolis (fisherfolk) had a fish market at Peru Chawl, on the opposite side of the road and were displaced when the Government acquired the land and allotted it to Bombay Gas Company. The kolis who worshipped Lord Ganpati in the same market up until 1930, begged their god to help them get another patch of land to continue their livelihood. They promised to install his idol at Lalbaug if their wish were fulfilled. To their good fortune, the Government allotted a piece of land nearby the very next year… True to their word, the kolis installed a Ganpati idol at Lalbaug market, dressed as a fisherman in 1934. Around the time of India’s Independence, the idol resembled Subhas Chandra Bose in 1946. The following year saw Ganpati dressed as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on a bullock cart while in 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the idol was dressed as the Father of the Nation.


We found ourselves below Lalbaug flyover being led by overwhelming odours of chicken coops, incense, spices, flowers and fresh paint towards a narrow galli (lane) that opened into a large covered enclosure. Two men carrying an unfinished peacock cutout crossed our path and disappeared into the maze of bylanes. A security man guarded a set of loudspeakers and poles while a tired worker rested in the shade. We climbed up the cast-iron spiral stairway to meet Mr. Ashok Pawar, President of the organizing committee.

Outlining the grand-scale of operations, Mr. Pawar explained that queues are organized into the fast-moving Mukhya Darshan line (for a quick peek) and the Mannat line (for offerings on stage), which starts two days in advance! Ritual offerings and prostrations take time and people wait patiently, sometimes 15-24 hours to see the Lord. Rows of people zig-zag across the ground with queues stretching 4 km from Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Marg to Byculla.


The mandal’s elaborate arrangements make the wait as comfortable as possible. “Unki nigrani aur suvidha, yahi hamara dharam hai!” smiled Pawar (It is our duty to take care of their security and comfort). Protection from rain, pandals spanning over 1lakh sq ft, free tea and snacks twice a day, toilets and plumbing, seating, lighting, fans, 10 water supply connections from BMC, 50,000 litres water in the pandals and 20 lakh glasses of packaged water on standby… the statistics are staggering. “Jitna hamara pandal ka kharcha hai, utna mein log 10 Ganpati baitha lenge.” (Ten Ganpatis can be installed for what we spend on the pandal.) “We spend Rs.75,000 on the idol, which is decorated with gold ornaments that have been donated earlier by anonymous devotees. The whole utsav costs Rs.7-8 crore and in the 10-day period we collect the same amount through our donation boxes.”

Preparations begin months in advance as per procedure through meetings and tenders. After muhurta pujan on 14 June, there’s a collection drive for funds, sponsors and advertisements and by July 1st week pandal preparations begin. Involved with the committee since 1983, the only change Pawar has seen is the increase in numbers in the last decade. “Earlier, darshan was easy in the first 5 days with queues only up to the road. Now, it’s increased tenfold, with crowds of 7 lakh from day 1, building up to 10 lakh a day. In the last 5 days, we can’t even sleep.” Over 3,000 volunteers help cops manage the flow. The line may seem never-ending, but at a time 200-500 people get darshan in a minute. Despite the scale of operations, due to Lord Ganesha’s blessings, nothing untoward has happened. It’s almost like the Maha Kumbh of Mumbai, we remarked. “Much bigger”, he quipped.


Managing the Ganesh Utsav was just one aspect of the mandal. In a city often sliced along communal and regional lines, it was heartening to know that the Pandal contributed to the Bihar flood relief fund in 1959. It also donated to the defense fund for the wars in 1962, 1965 and the 1999 Kargil conflict. Over the years, their focus has shifted from crisis to daily battles of urban life. Pawar outlined, “The mandal runs a dialysis centre at nominal charges, with free blood tests and tie-ups with a dozen Municipal and government hospitals where we contribute 10% of the operation cost for the poor. We spend 4 crore rupees on it. We also run a library, computer-training institute and offer free textbooks on a rotational basis for poor children. Many students don’t have place to study in their 1-room homes, so the mandal runs study rooms and students come every morning from faraway Virar and Kalyan and return by evening! We also impart training for various competitive exams. Our faculty is not voluntary. We hire professional teachers to ensure there is no compromise in quality.”

Beyond the triviality of competitions and size wars, the mandal quietly goes about its year-round schedule. The height of the idol has remained relatively the same (around 12ft) and its most important aspect has been its gaze and grace. Devotees line up for a glimpse of their navsacha ganpati or wish-fulfilling Ganesha. We walked past the Lalbagh Housing Co-operative Society to an enclosure where the king was getting ready for his coronation. Stripped of his regal pomp, we respected the request not to photograph him in his unfinished state.


The Ganesh Nagar avenue inside Lalbaug Market was lined with shops selling arecanut, tobacco, chilli, pickles and spices. During Ganeshotsav shops remove their regular wares and sell incense, flowers, coconut and puja items. The shop closest to the pandal, Chavhan Bandhu doesn’t mind shutting down for the entire 10-day period, because they do enough business in the days leading up to it. Past farsan stores and shops selling fibre Gauri idols dressed in finery, we stumbled onto the busy Dr Ambedkar Road towards Ganesh Talkies.

Entertainment was not new to the area. Landmarks like Hanuman Theatre and Bharat Mata Cinema once bustled with activity when Lalbaug was a hub of Marathi entertainment and cinema. Regular tamashas, folk dances and films provided recreation to the mill workers and there was even a shrine of a tamasha artist Mari aayi nearby. We were off to meet the sculptors who have been crafting Lalbaug’s famous idol for decades. Armed with just a password ‘Kambli ka karkhana’ that served as the address, we had no trouble in finding the shop.


In between text messages on his white Android phone, Santosh Kambli, the tech-savvy third generation sculptor elaborated on his family’s association with Lalbaug cha raja. In 1920 his grandfather Madhusudan Dhonduji Kambli set up Kambli Chitrakala Pradarshan that made jhaankis (floats) and models for traveling exhibitions. In 1935 Kambli got a chance to decorate a car for a rally to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V’s visit to India. He decked up the car like an elephant that was so beautiful and real, it didn’t appear as if there was a motorcar under its façade! Through a family friend Bhausaheb Shinde, he was introduced to the mandal and took over from Shankar Bisle, who had made the first idol of koli Ganpati. His idol was so good that 8000 prints were sold that year. Madhusudan Kambli never took money for making the idol till his demise in 1951.

However, it was Santosh’s uncle Venkatesh Madhusudan Kambli, a JJ School of Art alumni, who gave Lalbaug cha Raja his legendary serene appearance. Now into its 80th year, his father Ratnakar Kambli and Santosh continue the tradition. He explained why the idol was so popular. “Unlike the stereotypical pot-bellied figure, we have a slim Ganpati which is not overweight. Staying true to the legend of an elephant’s head transplanted on a human form, he looks like a real person. He has a smiling face and bright small eyes. His posture, a slightly tilted body, reflects the personality of a benevolent king. His bhaav or expression has the smile of recognition and pleasure in seeing his subjects.”


Most pandals have a large ostentatious utsav murti (festive idol) and another smaller puja murti that is simpler and worthy of prayer. The Lalbaug cha Ganpati is unique because despite its size, it serves as the puja murti. While other idols take a diversion via Opera House, the Lalbaug idol passes from Girgaum Bridge. To pass under low bridges, the idol is made in such a way that three parts are foldable – the kalash (vessel) on the crown, the round halo around the head and the main prabhavali (decorative arch) behind the idol!

While the idol’s appearance remains sacrosanct, cosmetic changes are done each year for the prabhavali (arch), singhasan (throne) and astras (weapons), which generate a lot of curiosity and excitement. “Earlier shankh-paash (conch and noose) were fixed props, but now we innovate,” said Santosh. As if on cue Mr. Ratnakar Kambli pulled out a large menacing axe made of fibre. His son continued, “This year’s design will be next year’s trend. If Amitabh Bachchan keeps a French beard, then his fans also keep the same style… It’s just like that.”


After realizing that some of their smaller idol designs were being copied and how Indian concepts like basmati rice, turmeric and yoga had recently been exploited abroad, the Kamblis patented the face of the Lalbagh cha Raja idol in 2011. While brands, logos and songs are often protected by copyright, it was a first for an idol. Many idol makers in Gujarat and Maharashtra were scared about its repercussions, but it also created awareness among Ganesh utsav mandals, which got registrations, copyright and other issues sorted out in the process.

It is believed that during Ganesh Chaturthi, the grace of the Lalbaug cha Raja idol increases with each passing day. Researchers who come to study and document the celebrations have found an energy field and a 360-degree circle of vibration around Ganesha. In terms of power, they rank it just a notch lower than Siddhivinayak! The fame of Lalbaug cha Raja has spread far and wide with devotees celebrating a promotion, birth, good fortune, miraculous survival or whatever they wished for. Amitabh Bachchan, Lata Mangeshkar and the Ambanis are regulars every year. Shilpa Shetty had promised to install an idol if she got married to Raj Kundra and continues to be a client.


Kambli Art is flooded with demands from actors, ministers, police officers and others, though their buyers include both rich and the poor. Their artworks have also traveled beyond India’s boundaries from Sydney to Switzerland. A 7 ft Saraswati stands in an Amsterdam museum while Gujarati clients in London got an idol of Jalaram Bapa made, besides regular requests for Ganesha idols from NRIs in US, Canada and London. “We have limited space so we make only 125 Ganpatis. Sadly, we don’t have the capability to fulfill everyone’s desires.” It’s belief over business, capacity over commerce…

Till a few decades ago, no one knew about this area of quiet Parsi enclaves, textile mills and Marathi theatres, but Lalbaug cha Raja made it famous worldwide. Santosh said that earlier there was a tramway with a footpath in the middle with gulmohar trees. When the flowers were in bloom the whole area resembled a lal baag (red garden). The trees were not there to prove the story. As for other origins, there was still a Parsi bungalow called Lal Baug with a red wall and the dargah of Saint Hazrat Lal Shah Saheb. The dargah houses a well donated by a Marathi Tamasha Group. Such stories of communal harmony stand out. Despite past riots and troubles, the Raja’s route has remained unchanged. As he passes through Nagpada, local Muslims serve sherbet to devotees while many observe fast and perform arti.


We bid adieu to the Kamblis and crossed the Chinchpokli Railway Bridge to meet another legend. Vijay Ramakrishna Khatu specializes in large idols. His guru Dr Dinanath Welling made Mumbai’s first 26 ft idol for Ganesh Galli in 1977, setting the trend for large Ganeshas. Since Khatu’s workshop outside Parel station was overflowing with idols, he had a small shed at Chinchpokli with a dozen giant Ganeshas destined for South Mumbai. Like an army of Titans ready to be deployed, the murtis were arranged in the pandal according to their delivery schedule. The ones that had to go first were closer to the entrance…

We ducked under the scaffolding, walking gingerly over a pile of poles and narrowly missed getting doused by a bucket of water from a worker atop a towering white Ganpati idol. The workshop was busy as young men applied finishing touches to colossal idols that lined the shed on trolleys. His father RV Khatu, a former millworker started his own idol-making business on August 15, 1947 and Vijay joined him as a 14-year-old kid. In the old days, statues were as tall as 8-10ft. When he attempted making 15ft idols, they collapsed due to his lack of technical knowledge. So he sought the help of old karigars (craftsmen) and eventually perfected his technique. “The secret is in the centre of balance,” he smiles and explains, “First the trolley has to be leveled, then balance has to be decided and the idol must be architectured around a central metal rod in a part-by-part assembly.”


This year’s highlight for Khatu is the Shankar-roopa Ganpati in the likeness of Lord Shiva sheltered under the hood of 11 serpents. An ashta-bhuja (8-handed) Mushaka-dhwaja Ganesha poised on one leg upon a warlike mouse mid-stride. The idol, commissioned by 11th Galli, Khetwadi is priced at 2.65 lakh rupees. Another large Ganpati seated on a singhasan (throne) had been booked by Chandanwadi mandal. About 2-3 months prior to the festival, Ganesh Mandals come with their requirements, select a sketch from Khatu’s collection and their preferred size. This year Vijay Khatu has created 185 idols and all are above 8 ft tall! “I’ve honed my skills through experience. I use unskilled labour in my workshop but my expertise is still a secret – the entire design, balance, posture and technical know-how I have not shared with anyone.

Talking about the viability of this art, Khatu says dryly “Sirf kala se pet nahi bharta, vyapar bhi zaroori hai” (You can’t feed the belly with talent alone, you need business sense as well). He goes on to explain, “I’ve seen many sculptors who are very strong artistically, but they lack business acumen and end up getting exploited.” He rattled out names of talented craftsmen – “Balachandar Ganar, Satish Walivadekar, Rajan Jhad, Manohar Bagwe, Shivalkar in Borivali and Rajan Vedak in Girgaum. These are true artists. 99% people who claim to be idol-makers in Mumbai don’t know how to make an idol. The seth (owner) just sits on chair and dictates orders, while true artists are ignored.”


While most people source unfinished idols from nearby Pen, paint it and sell it at a mark-up price in Mumbai, many aren’t happy about Pen’s mass-production or painting quality. Khatu says, “Pen became an idol manufacturing hub because of several reasons – cheap labour, ample space and proximity to Pune and Mumbai. However Mumbai is stronger artistically and has much better quality. This business requires investment and space. The Government should make land and raw material available to artists.” He has been lobbying for this since 2004.

Dismissing ecological concerns raised during the Utsav, Khatu argues, “It is convenient to pass the buck to sculptors and painters. The government should offer incentives. There are 4-5 lakh small murtis for worship at home. Where will the material come from? You have to dig deep in agricultural land to obtain shadu (clay). Where is the space for that? And if we raid the fields, what will people eat? Of course, we can use natural colours – turmeric for yellow, soot for black, but the idols won’t be as attractive as the ones painted in brighter colours. Aap uske taraf dekhenge bhi nahi! (You will not even glance at them) And what about the detergents from your home, untreated waste, industrial effluents, the diesel launches out on sea that run for hours…. don’t they cause pollution? It happens all year round. Ganesh Utsav comes once a year and people have a problem!”


Like moths to light, we were drawn by a yellow glow in a narrow passage. Soham Arts at Chinchpokli had a fine collection of Ganpatis in the soft pinkish hue of lotus petals. Inside, Prabhakar Katalkar (66) painter sat before an idol and daubed orange paint from his arm with a brush and drew a neat curving flower on Ganpati’s trunk with utmost concentration. Noticing us, his eyes crinkled into a smile as he said, “I paint the God’s eyes.” He makes a daily trip from Chunabhatti to Chinchpokli by train. Though the journey is stressful and crowded, he says “I forget everything when I come to the karkhana (factory).”

A former textile artist in Tata’s Swadeshi Mill, Katalkar became a freelance artist who painted Ganpati idols, after the mill downed its shutters. He’s been doing it for 30 years or so. For Katalkar, painting is a spiritual experience. He believes Ganpati himself gives him sphurti (energy). “I don’t do anything, apni shobha wo khud kar ke deta hai. (The Lord himself decides on his brilliance!) When I sit before an idol, the Lord appears before me. It’s almost as if he instructs me on how I should paint his eyes. When I return home, I think about the next day’s task and Ganpati emerges in a dream. I visualize him and he guides me.”


Sunil Walunkar started Soham Arts 15 years ago. Because of bad roads, many people bought the sculptures in parts from Pen and reassembled it here. This entire process begins in June. People like his products because of the colour combination, expressive eyes and the glitter that is used. “I don’t cut costs when it comes to quality. I get expensive raw material from Masjid Bandar. Noting the number of idols in the room, we asked if they were made to order. “We make as many as we want. The unsold idols go back to godown and will be re-painted from scratch the next season. Damage hua to samandar mein,” he laughs! (The damaged ones go straight to the sea). His prices are competitive and depend on the affordability of the mandal.

Rahul Khanvilkar, an electrician for the rest of the year, takes leave for 3 months to make an extra buck. Echoing Khatu’s thoughts on eco-friendly options, Khanvilkar says, “Shadu doesn’t work because it’s prone to damage and cracks. Given that an idol is handled many times through its 8-10 procedures, these sculptures are risky to handle.” We watched Khanvilkar paint the background and a worker gently blow glitter from a sheet of paper, over the wet paint. Its dull background instantly transformed into a blue-spangled halo. Walunkar outlined that though paints and materials were expensive (glitter costs Rs.3000/kg), devotees would be assured of quality products at reasonable rates.


In Ganesh Galli, Parag Kadam took us through the history of Mumbai cha Raja. Set up in 1928, it was the first Ganpati of Lalbaug. Steeped in the swarajya movement, it showcased historical plot scenes to instill nationalistic pride. Statues of Muktabhai, Dyaneshwar, Eknath and other luminaries were kept for 45 days. Interestingly, Ganesh ji’s idol was also kept; but wasn’t the highlight! A mela was organized where plays, lavni performances and bhajan-kirtan were staged for 11 days of festivity.

In 1945, a local seth commissioned an Arjun-type ratha with Subhash Chandra Bose as the charioteer. Bose briefly stayed next door at Batatawala Mansion, which served as a temporary office for his organizing committee. To celebrate the mandal’s golden jubilee in 1977, Dinanath Welling sculpted a 26 ft idol. During his 15-year association, he built elaborate sculptures like Ganesha on an upturned lotus and Kalia-mardan, Ganesha standing atop a serpent on one toe. Welling’s old workshop is a few lanes away. For the 75th year celebration in 2002, the mandal decided on something novel. Since the old and the poor could not afford long, distant pilgrimages, pandals were built in the likeness of India’s top spiritual attractions. “Starting from Madurai Meenakshi, Kedarnath, Mallikarjun temple, Chamundeshwari, Akshar Dham, Hawa Mahal… we had Pashupatinath last year and this year it’s Sorti Somnath.”


“At 8:05 am only after the arti at Ganesh Galli, do other processions move out. We must reach in time for a scientific reason. We have to catch the low tide at 4:15pm, so that we can go as further into the sea till 6:15pm. The best swimmers and 1,500 volunteers help us during the event. We don’t delay lest the entire schedule in Mumbai gets affected. The next day, metallic plates and all debris are brought back along with the trolley.”

A sea of people follow the procession for the visarjan or ceremonial immersion that takes place in Sewri, Korai, Girgaum, Versova, Gateway of India and Worli. Eighty per cent of the idols go to Girgaum because of its central location and wide area that can tackle large crowds. Roads are chock-a-block with crowds pulling 15 ft tall Ganpatis on trolleys. Parel alone has 25-30 mandals with large idols. While Mumbai cha Raja sets off on his time-bound mission, Lalbaug cha Raja is waylaid by devotees for a last glimpse as they make offerings or collect flowers. The procession leaves at 10:30 am and reaches Chowpatty next day around 6 am, taking 20 hrs to cover the 6 km distance!


While smaller idols are immersed close to the beach, Lalbaug cha Raja rides a tarafa (metal barge) 4km into the sea. Local boatmen and coolies hire launches for audiences who dare to undertake a perilous journey to see Mumbai’s most popular idol slowly consigned to water. The salty tears of the devotees mingle into the sea, as they wait another year to welcome him into their hearts and homes. 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

Walk by a River: Rishikesh to Tapovan


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY journey along the Ganga from Rishikesh to Tapovan in search of Himalayan stories, mystics and adventure


‘Who was the son of Hanuman?’ Mauni Baba gesticulated with his hands. The Ukrainian scowled, the Russian shook his head, as all eyes turned to us. ‘Baba, wasn’t he a bachelor, sworn to brahmacharya (celibacy)?’ we enquired politely. Mauni Baba gave us his warm benign smile and through dumb charades explained the mythological conundrum. How, on his aerial journey to Lanka a bead of sweat fell from Hanuman’s body into the ocean and was swallowed by a makara (sea creature). The child thus born of it was called Makaradhwaja and became the gatekeeper of Ravana’s brother, Ahiravana. During the Lanka war, the powerful Makaradhwaja came face to face with the monkey god who was baffled to meet his match. When he asked the young lad his identity, he replied that he was his son. Hanuman surely must have been more shocked than us.

It was a helluva story. More so, considering baba had used just gestures to communicate it. At 14,435 ft, our theatrics could have been mistaken for high altitude madness, but there were hardly any people save a herd of Himalayan blue sheep to make such assumptions. The majestic Shivling peak (21,750 ft) towered above us, its head covered in clouds while the Amar Ganga stream flowed silently as if washing its feet. Tapovan, the spiritual retreat of Lord Shiva, wore an air of meditative calm.


Herds of bharal flocked to Mauni Baba’s Ashram. Besides providing food, shelter and answers to mundane and philosophical questions of humans, the young swami also tended to the salt intake of the herbivores. On a vow of silence since eight years, he was one of the many extraordinary people we met on our Ganga odyssey.

Our tricky descent over mud slopes, rocky paths and glaciers brought us to Gaumukh, the glacial source of the Ganga. It was alarming to see that the path we had taken while climbing had shifted on our return. Deep below our feet, bits of the glacier fell into an unseen abyss with a chilling distant splash. We walked gingerly wondering when the icy path would give way. Global warming was not some phenomenon in the future; it was a reality unfolding right in front of our eyes. The source of India’s holiest river was a trickling expanse of mud and it felt as if time was running out…


We breezed past the clutch of camps at Bhojbasa, the shady arbor of chir pine at Chirbasa and through Gangotri National Park. We had walked 21km non-stop from Tapovan and by evening we returned to the mayhem of mainstream Gangotri. After thanking the river deity for a safe trip, we crossed the metal bridge to the quieter side and stayed at the Isha Vasyam Ashram. At dusk the oil lamps by the riverside seemed magical as the snowy peaks of Sudarshan and Bhagirathi shone in the fading light.

Next morning, a walking path led us to Gauri Kund, the spot where Lord Shiva took the tempestuous Ganga into his matted locks and saved earth from the fury of her descent. Just opposite Surya Kund, we came to a kutiya (hut) decorated with driftwood and sacred stone arrangements. This was the ashram of Swami Sundaranandji, better known as Clicking Swami or Photo Baba, whose amazing stories kept us enthralled for hours…


Swami ji came here in 1948 from Nellore and after meeting his guru Tapovan Maharaj, developed a fascination for nature. He took to photography in 1956 with a Rs.25 Agfa Click III camera and went about documenting the Himalayas with amazing detail. A veteran mountaineer who has scaled 25 peaks, Sundaranandji has trekked to Gaumukh 108 times much before there was a path and walked from Gangotri to Badrinath a dozen times. During the China war he showed the way through the mountains to the Indian army. He survived a fall into a crevasse and lowered himself using a rope, risking his life to take photographs of Suralaya Glacier in Satopanth.

He has a penchant for discovering the sacred symbol Om in nature and has captured pictures in stone, leaves, flowers and sky. With several awards to his credit and many exhibitions across the country, a lot of his 8 quintal photographs and 4000 slides had been purloined by visitors. An operation in 2002 ended his climbing career but his lifetime’s work finally bore fruit through a coffee table book ‘Himalaya: Through the lens of a Sadhu’, translated into German and Italian.


Poring over his glossy photos, Swami Sundaranandji rued that the mountains are not the same anymore. It was unbelievable to see crystal blue waters at Surya Kund when Gangotri was bejewelled like heaven on earth. Swamiji scoffed at the herd of pilgrims who came with blinders on a char dham yatra, with little time to explore the natural beauty or the inclination to climb a hill. “Eshwar mandir ya masjid mein nahin, prakriti ke praangan mein yun hi bikhra pada hai,” he said, meaning ‘God does not reside in temples or mosques, he is scattered everywhere in the courtyard of nature.’

The bus from Gangotri dropped us to Dharali where the Ganga had broadened into a wide expanse. Lazing by the tents of the Char Dham Camp of Leisure Hotels, it was cathartic to gaze at the placid river murmuring past us. At the ancient Kalp Kedar Temple, Swami Narasimh Tirth told us that this was the mool sthan (original place) of the Ganga and that the glacier had actually shifted 21km to Gangotri over centuries! It is common knowledge that the glacier recedes 5m every year but this was a staggering statistic. The temple itself was believed to be 5115 years old, built by the Pandavas. Adorning the façade was an intriguing face of Surya, the sun god or Kalabhairava, Shiva’s fierce attendant.


Earlier the temple overlooked the Ganga but had since sunk. A famous photograph from 1802 showed us the shrines of Parvati and Ganesha, destroyed in the glacial shift of 1895, which also flattened an 18km stretch from Jangla to Sukhi. Between 1935-38 another glacial shift submerged the Kalp Kedar temple with only the shikhara visible. The temple was partially excavated in 1980 but 6 ft still remains underwater. The priest told us that every Shravan, the Ganga comes up to Lord Shiva and washes the panch-mukhi lingam as an oblation while in the dry season, the submerged temples magically reappear.

It is said that the Pandavas cursed Kalp Kedar to be washed away since Lord Shiva did not give them darshan when they had performed a penance to atone for the bloodbath at the Mahabharata war. The Pandavas took a holy dip to remove the sin of hatya (murder), so the river bears the name Hatyaharini. We continued on the Pandava trail to Mukhwa, the winter seat of the Ganga, where Bhima’s horse left its hoofmarks on a rock while going to Mansarovar. Locals believe that Bhima created the Bhim Ganga waterfall to quench the thirst of the Pandavas.


Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while walking up the mountain. Our young guides Gokul and Samridh mimicked Arjun and Bhima shooting an arrow into the mountain. The trail beyond led to Danda Pokhri for views of Mount Sumeru. But we were content with the splendor of Chandraparvat, Srikanth, Himvan and Bandarpoonch. On our walk through the quaint village, the boys insisted we taste the berries and shoots like chuli, shirol and saunf (fennel) that grew on the mountainside.

As we descended via Uttarkashi to Rishikesh, the rise in temperature was palpable. Relaxing at Neemrana’s Glasshouse on the Ganges amidst the mango and litchi orchards of the Maharaja of Tehri seemed like a perfect way to unwind.


From our perch we spotted yellow and blue dinghies bob down the river and were tempted to embark on a white-water rafting adventure. At a placid stretch, the guide egged us to jump overboard. We needed no encouragement. The icy cold water of the Ganga was like balm to our trek-weary bodies. Sage Bhagirathi hadn’t just assured the salvation of his 60,000 ancestors, he had ensured it for generations to come.   

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published on 19 May 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

7 Days in Ladakh


To typify Ladakh as a lunar landscape would be injustice. The multi-faceted region is simply the Land of Epithets, say ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY


‘Ladakh? It’s like the surface of the moon.’ Usually, that’s the first thing people say while describing Ladakh. And it’s no surprise that Ladakh’s lunar landscape causes some degree of lunacy in the people who go there! Travellers have attempted to cover it in every possible way – some do it solo, some fly, some go overland on motorcycles or jeeps, some even on bicycles! We happened to hitchhike our way back to Manali in a truck. Doctors blame it on the rarefied air. But there is a fascination with this stark, rugged land that urges people to push themselves in ways they never have.

To classify Ladakh as a lunar Landscape would be injustice. It simply is, the Land of Epithets. Ladakh or Ladag, the Land of the Split Moon, has been called by different names, all of which are its diverse manifestations. It was earlier Manyul, The Land of Men, and also Ladwags, Land below the Mountain Passes. To some, it was Bladwags or Land of the Lama. To others Maryul, The Red Country. To Ladakhi nomads, it was Muah Ris Ssor Gsum, Land to the West of Tibet. To the geographically ignorant West, it was Little Tibet! And to poets, Ladakh was the Last Shangri-la. That’s an unusually long list of names for a region that has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Two inhabitants per kilometre; three in tourist season!


Hemmed in by the Karakorams in North and the Himalayas to the South, the mountainous terrain spreads over 59,000 sq km. At one time Ladakh was no man’s land, accessed only by different nomadic tribes, some who chose to settle down. Ladakh’s predominantly Mongoloid element came about when Skilde Numagan invaded it after being driven out by his brother, the King of Tibet. This became the starting point of a dynasty that lasted 8 centuries. After Wazir Zorawar Singh invaded Ladakh In 1842, it became a part of India. Ever since it was opened to foreign visitors in 1974-75, Ladakh has witnessed a phenomenal growth in tourism.

The best way to get a glimpse of the lofty peaks and the majestic grandeur of the Himalayas range is aboard the 70-minute flight from Delhi to Leh or a 2-day road trip from Manali. But while some remain snared in the luxury of Leh, the intrepid visit the beautiful monasteries of Ladakh or trek through its interiors. Sometimes, it takes days before you see any living being. The common Sea-Buckthorn shrub found usually near rivers, teems with White-winged Redstarts and Black-throated Thrushes while the river is good for Ibisbills. Besides Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), the Tibetan Big Four (Snowcock, Sandgrouse, Partridge and Lark) are found only on the Tibetan Plateau, a long drive east of Leh. Here’s a one-week itinerary that packs in the best of everything from monasteries and palaces to high altitude lakes.



Day 1: Leh Sightseeing Tour

After crossing endless miles of the high Himalayan ranges, as the plane prepares to land on an asphalt runway in a dustbowl you wonder if you are going to make it. The stewardess announces the temperature outside and you know you have indeed landed. At 10,682 ft, Kushak Bakula Rinpoche is one of the highest airports in the world. The drive to Leh town is short and the remaining day is free for leisure or acclimatization. Visit Leh Market, a centuries old Trans-Himalayan trading post, and the ruins of the Royal Palace built by Sengge Namgyal (1612-42) across nine levels. From the summit, one can see Khardung La to the north, Tsemo Gompa atop a cliff to the east, the Japanese Stupa and Sankar Gompa to the west and the majestic snowclad Stok Kangri (6130 m) to the south. With the Polo grounds and Trishul, the highest golf course in the world at 11,500 ft, you can practically see most of Leh town.


Day 2: Leh to Thiksey, Hemis, Chemdrey and Taktok monastery

Have early tea/coffee and leave with packed breakfast for the famous Thiksey Gompa, one of the most beautiful monasteries in the region. Perched on a hillock and nicknamed ‘Little Potala’, the monastery houses an ethereal turquoise studded stucco statue of Maitreya Buddha across two levels. Monks gather for morning prayers before dawn (6am) and the air resonates with their chants accompanied by drums and horns. After breakfast, drive to Hemis monastery, 30 km southwest of Thiksey. Hemis is the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh. The Hemis festival, considered amongst the biggest and most famous monastic festivals, is dedicated to Padmasambhava. Every 12 years, the gompa’s greatest treasure, a huge Thangka, is ritually exhibited. A further drive towards the north takes you to Chemdrey and Taktok monasteries before you can head back to Leh. If time permits, drive to the Shanti stupa to see the Japanese Peace Pagoda and Sankar monastery.


Day 3: Leh to Uleytokpo via Basgo palace, Likir and Alchi monastery

After breakfast, drive on the Leh-Kargil highway to Lamayuru, en route visiting Kali Mata Temple and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib. Cocooned in the craggy mountains the gurudwara was built by the Lamas of Leh in 1517 to commemorate the visit of Guru Nanak. A 4km drive deposits you at Magnetic Hill which defies the law of gravity. Strangely, vehicles parked in neutral gear on the metallic road seem to be magically dragged upwards! Drive through a picturesque landscape to the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar River, 4km before Nimmu village. Visit Basgo, certainly the most impressive of Ladakhi citadels despite its ruined state. This endangered site was built using mud bricks and packed earth in the 16-17th century. The fortress houses three shrines dedicated to Maitreya, the fifth Buddha. The largest statue is a towering 14m high mud sculpture of a gilded Maitreya, encircled by exquisite murals depicting scenes from his life and portraits of rich patrons who constructed the temple complex. You could also visit Likir gompa located on a windy tor hovering above the village of Likir. Drive and cross the River Indus to reach Alchi, a 11th century monastery that displays a delicate blend of Tibetan and Kashmiri art. From here drive to Uleytokpo and camp for the night.


Day 4: Uleytokpo to Leh via Lamayuru, Spituk and Rizong

Start early to reach Lamayuru, a monastery belonging to the Dripung Kagyu (Red Hat) sect. Founded in 11th century, Lamayuru is perched on a spur high above the valley just off the main road and is easily one of the most striking monasteries in central Ladakh. It is also touted to be the oldest monastery in this region as long before the advent of Buddhism, it was the sacred place of the Bon-Chos. Explore the village of Lamayuru at the foothill before returning to Leh along the Srinagar-Leh highway. En route don’t forget to visit the Rizong Gompa/nunnery and Spituk monastery on the banks of the Indus River. The Gompa exemplifies the meaning of Spituk, which is ‘to show by good example’. Counted among oldest gompas in the region, it has been practising this philosophy for over 300 years though the Spituk tradition itself is well over 1000 years old.


Day 5: Leh to Pangong Lake via Shey Palace

After early breakfast leave for Pangong Tso (tso means ‘lake’). En route visit the palace at Shey, the ancient capital of Ladakh. The stark tiered complex with tiny windows crowns a hill above the village while a tiny marshy lake wraps around the base. Drive through the 5486m high Chang La (la means ‘pass’) towards Pangong Tso, situated at 14,000ft (4,267m). This sheet of crystal water measures 6-7km at its widest point and is about 130km long. Since it is bisected by the international border between India and China, the lake and its surroundings are under army surveillance but the government decided to open it to tourists a few years ago. Stay overnight at a camp on the lakeshore.


Day 6: Pangong Lake to Leh via Stok and Stakna

Quite easily, the stunning backdrop and the shimmering expanse of turquoise waters can keep one enthralled for hours. So after you have had your fill of Pangong Tso, head back to Leh via the quiet riverside monastery of Stakna. The scenery takes your breath away as it resembles a watercolour painted by a divine hand left to dry in the sun. The road stretches like a black ribbon into the horizon while the surrounding mountains look like some exotic dessert for the Gods. Some like heaps of dark marble cake or black forest cake with gigantic scoops of ice-cream and others smooth like chocolate mousse. At Stok village nearby, situated at the foot of Stok Kangri ranges; visit the Stok Palace, former residence of the Royal family of Ladakh. It has a notable display of the family’s heirlooms and relics recalling Ladakh’s illustrious past as a sovereign kingdom. Return to Leh and stay overnight at hotel.


Day 7: Leh to Khardung la Top – 18,390 Ft.

After breakfast, drive 39km to Khardung La (18,390 ft) via the highest motorable road in the world for spectacular views from the Indus Valley to the seemingly endless peaks and ridges of the Zanskar range and the Saeer Massif to the north. The road leads further to Khalsar where it forks, one road leads towards Siachen base camp and the other to the picturesque Nubra valley. Enjoy a packed lunch or return to Leh for some hot thukpa and Ladakhi food before trawling the market place for souvenirs, handicrafts and funky T-shirts. Try and wrangle a visit to a Ladakhi home. There’s nothing like sitting in their warm carpeted kitchens lined with exquisite bonechina cups and bowls. If you’re lucky, they’ll serve you endless cups of gudgud chai (buttered tea) and give you churpi (hard yak cheese), the Ladakhi equivalent of chewing gum. Fly out the next morning.

Do keep an eye out for the following landmarks on your tour:

The highest motorable road in the world
The highest inhabited village in the world
The highest monastery in the world
The highest cultivation in the world
The largest Himalayan monastic complex
The highest market of the world
The highest golf course in the world

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.