The skies were still overcast as I stood on the steps of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam guesthouse in Auli contemplating the trail that lay in front of me. It looked steep… very steep. The steepness of the trail was further compounded by the rotundity of my mortal body. Thus began a conflict that was to play out every moment for the next few days – the battle between the steep slopes and my heavy self. It was under these circumstances that the unstoppable force of my enthusiasm (for what I lack in physical fitness, I make up for in sheer drive) met the immovable Himalayas.
The morning had begun on a pleasant note though. The sky was still overcast, which meant that Nanda Devi was still out of sight, but there were no aches and pains from the ride from Rishikesh the previous day. Went out for a pre-breakfast walk, and promptly ran into a Khaleej Pheasant. Even though the forests in Auli are rich in bird-life, the overcast skies and the constant drizzle meant the bird activity was low. And then we were to start for the trek to Gorson and we did not have the time to lie in wait for the few birds that did decide to brave the damp weather.
The 3.5 km trek from Auli GMVN to our campsite on the Gorson Meadows can roughly be broken down into two halves. The first part of the trek follows the ski slopes (complete with ski lifts and the ropeway), all the way to an ancient forest. The next half of the trek takes you through the silent forest that opens up suddenly into the meadows.
The climb starts right from the GMVN itself and continues uphill for a quarter of a kilometre to a tea shop and a luxury hotel before plateauing out for about half a kilometre or so. Here, to your left is an artificial reservoir, used to store water to make snow for the ski slopes during winters. On a clear day, the waters of the reservoir reflect the surrounding peaks.
A few hundred metres from the reservoir, the trail starts climbing again towards the last point on the Joshimath-Auli ropeway. This terminal has a small tea shop where you can, if you find yourself huffing and puffing, recharge yourself with a cup or four of super sweet tea. This is also where you leave all forms of human construction behind. The trail continues upwards behind the terminal, and after another few hundred metres, you find yourself standing at the edge of Mirkwood an ancient forest populated by tall trees.
The forest stands tall, solemn and sentient – like an army of mythical giants. These are ancient trees and every one of them is covered with ferns and moss. As the trail snakes through the forest, you come across the occasional fallen tree; but even in death, it is teeming with life, in the form of colonies of mushroom feeding on the carcass of the fallen giant. In this forest, nothing goes to waste. Also, did I mention the silence? Apart from the deafening chorus of the cicadas, that is.
The forest suddenly opens up into a clearing and at one end of a paved courtyard, stands an old temple. My guide tells me that when the bakharwals or the nomadic sheepherders take their flock to graze on the meadows, they generally make an offering of a red flag and some cash at the temple. Apart from the occasional shepherd, the temple also offers salvation to the tired, out-of-shape trekker as it signals the end of the trek.
Just a hundred metres beyond the temple, the trees suddenly give way to a grassy avenue, at the end of which lies the undulating expanse of Gorson. The meadows form a part of the popular Kuari Pass trek, frequented by the teeming patrons of IndiaHikes. Our guide had one clear instruction: to pitch our tent as far away from the IndiaHikes campsite as possible. As soon as I emerged from the forest, the IH campsite came to view. With at least a dozen double tents and the accompanying kitchen, dining and toilet tents, the site looked less like a campsite and more like a small village.
We had chosen to camp about 200m uphill from the IH village, on the edge of the forest, next to a small water body. As we were approaching our tents, the rain picked up again. Thankfully, it was only a steady drizzle – enough to keep the IH crowd in their tents and not enough to keep us in ours.
It was getting colder every minute and thankfully the kitchen tent was up. The cook was quick to brew up some strong tea. Anoraks on and for-tea-fied against the drizzle, we set out to explore the meadows. The entire expanse of the meadows was empty except a couple of shepherds, their dogs and their sizable flock. Dark clouds were sweeping across the upper reaches of the meadows creating a magical landscape that sent one’s imagination into a tizzy. This is the sort of setting, one imagined, where a dragon suddenly emerged out of the mist.
Reality check: There were only sheep.
Here’s a little time-lapse video I made of the sheep grazing on the meadows:
That night, the skies opened up with an unprecedented fury. Lying in my glorified nylon bag, I was at one point of time even worried about the tent collapsing under the sheer weight of the rain. Thankfully the rain fury soon subsided and settled into the steady drizzle. The gentle rhythm of raindrops on the nylon dome of the tent soon soothed me to a deep sleep.
I opened my eyes to tent awash in bright blue light and stepped outside into a sparkling morning. There were still clouds in the sky, but there were also big blue patches… and they were getting bigger! The promise of a bright day and the downhill trek added a much-needed dose of energy to my aching body. By the time we had finished breakfast and packed up, the sun was out in all its glory. Gorson Meadows is known for its stunning view of Nanda Devi, Trishuli, Hathi and Ghoda mountains, Dunagiri, etc, but that side of the sky was still covered with clouds.
Once we emerged from the forest on the open ground above the Auli ropeway, the entire landscape looked completely different from the previous day! The slopes were bathed in bright sunlight while on the opposite side the jagged, toothy mountains looked less sinister now that they were being viewed through the ‘dappled sunlight’ filter. The grey of the previous day was replaced by a thousand shades of green and blue. Mordor had suddenly turned into the Shire.
True to this change, the birds were up and going about their business. We had particular luck with a kestrel that was hopping from bush to bush in hope for a scurrying Pika or two. Further down, we also emcountered a Himalayan Griffon vulture waiting at the edge of the cliff for the thermals to rise.
The trek to Gorson had one purpose: to acclimatise us to the altitude before we push deep into the Nanda Devi National Park. In my younger days (I can officially use this term now), the altitude had little or no effect on me, but during my ride to Ladakh in the summer of 2016, AMS hit me like the holy ghost. Memories of a sleepless night in a carelessly erected tent in the middle of the windswept plain of Sarchu (13850 ft) prompted me to visit the doctor and medicate myself in advance. Cannot be going through that agony again!
A car would be waiting for us at Auli, ready to take us to the village of Lata, from where the trek to Nanda Devi National Park actually began. Unlike the well-trodden Kuari Pass trail, this route is off the beaten track. In fact, if your guide is to be believed, we were the first person to venture on that route in 2017.
If you ever find yourself in Guwahati with an afternoon to kill, head to the Umananda Temple. Located on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, it can be reached by taking a boat from the Kachari Ghat, right in the heart of the city. When I last visited this beautiful city, it was in the winter of 2011. As the waters had receded substantially, I had to walk on sand followed by a nervous balancing act on a bamboo bridge to reach the jetty. The sun had just begun to set over the horizon and the Brahmaputra looked mightier than ever.
From the jetty, a wooden country boat fitted with a makeshift diesel engine takes you to this tiny island, bang in the middle of the limitless expanse of water that is the Brahmaputra. My first encounter with Umananda was a completely different experience, however. Back in 2004, we were visiting the city’s iconic Cotton’s College for the prestigious Manik Chandra Barua Memorial Debate (bragging alert: we won). The day before the debate, my partner and I inexplicably landed up on a boat to the island while out exploring the city.
It was at the very end of the long rainy season and shortly after we set off from the jetty, as far as the eyes could see, stretched the Brahmaputra. To the residents of Guwahati, the island is popular for its ancient temple, to reach which, you need to climb a flight of almost 250 stairs. However, for me, the main attraction was definitely the family of Golden langurs which were introduced here decades ago by a whimsical monk.
After you have walked around a bit, it is time for you to climb down the rocky slopes of the island, right to the water’s edge, and it is here that the river overwhelms you. All of a sudden you come face to face with a force much beyond your comprehension. You sit down on a rock and admire the beautiful shapes made by the river’s churning currents, shapes that appear only momentarily before disappearing or transforming into another. Almost like thought itself. The river, to you, becomes a stream of consciousness.
At this point of time, the river takes over your being. You are hypnotized by its beauty and the sheer monstrosity; then the tide rises. (For all of you who did not know, rivers experience tidal cycles too). First, there’s a hint of a chill at the very end of your toes which are pointing downwards, resting on a sloping rock face. Soon, the chill changes into the feeling of the cold water. As moments go by, the cold water climbs up to your ankles, then to your shin and by the time it finally reaches the knee, you know that the river has had enough of you, sitting by its side, feeling like James Joyce. And you get up and head for the waiting log boat, to ferry you to where the rest of the humanity is.
On the way back, if you are extremely lucky, the Brahmapurta will treat you to a fiery red sunset, like only this river can!
40 years ago Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody and music was never the same again. It was an instant hit with the fans while critics struggled to put a label on it. The six minute track opened with a ballad, transitioned into an operatic verse which then seamlessly blended into an epic Brian May facemelter of a guitar solo before ending introspectively as Freddie Mercury’s voice faded in the distant musical horizon.
The original masterpiece
The song has endured, and how! Over the years, various polls have consistently placed this as one of the best compositions in popular music history. Comparisons are often drawn with rock’s another magnum opus, Led Zepp’s Stairway to Heaven. Praise does not get higher than this. Given the complicated nature of the track, any attempt to cover it is fraught with peril. Yet, there are some covers out there prove how much of an influence this song has had on musicians.
Here are five of what I think are the best covers:
The Freddie Murcury Tribute Concert: Queen, Elton John and Axl Rose
As much of a visual delight as it is aural. A few months after Murcury’s death, over 70,000 screaming Queen fans congregated at the iconic Wembley Stadium for the Freddie Murcury Tribute Concert. For this track, the surviving members of Queen, Brian May (guitar), John Deacon (bass) and Roger Taylor (drums) joined forces with Elton John and a kilt-wearing Axl Rose. Watch out for Rose’s epic entrance and 70,000 fans singing along.
The Ten Tenors
This Australian group comprising of 10 classically trained tenors are known for their rendition of popular music ranging from AC/DC to Broadway show-tunes. It is no surprise that these trained musicians chose to train their vocal chords at the Queen masterpiece. The outcome? Hear it for yourself.
The Forest Rangers featuring The White Buffalo, Franky Perez and Billy Valentine
Before proceeding further, it needs to be said that this version is from the excellent Sons Of Anarchy, and much like the TV show, it packs quite the punch. This rendition begins with a kids choir singing the intro and just when you are settling down for the ride, a V-twin bellow of a voice takes over. Best enjoyed from the saddle of a mean old Hog.
Jake Shimabukuro – Ukulele Cover
If you have heard Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole’s covers of Somewhere over the Rainbow or What a Wonderful Worlld, you know that the ukulele can always add a laid back vibe to any song. This is no different. Jake Shimabukuro walks on to a TED talks stage and blows our minds with this instrumental cover.
Panic! At the Disco
It is not surprising that PATD attempted to cover this song. The Brendon Urie led rock collective are known for their eclectic sound, the kind that was perfected and immortalised by Bohemian Rhapsody itself. The live recording is of great quality and remains faithful to the original recording; perhaps a tad too faithful, in retrospect. You be the judge.
I have always wondered where my love for nature comes from. The answer came to me as I was standing in the middle of a stream with cold, clear water lapping around my shins: I was born to it. The first twenty years of my life were spent in the Dooars, the sub-Himalayan terai region of northern West Bengal. It rained everyday for six months and as a result the greenery was extravagant. It wasn’t uncommon for us to see the Kanchenjungha from our classroom on a clear day. The mountains always loomed large over my hometown and on nights you could spot the twinkling lights of Kuseong and Darjeeling. Nature was in reality, at our very doorstep.
Birds I shot from the window of my parent’s house using my mother’s Nikon P610 camera that boasts of a 60x optical zoom
The somewhat lackadaisical attitude I had towards the unbridled nature right at my doorstep waned as I moved my boxes to Delhi. Over the last few years, as I became increasingly enamoured with birds and the art of watching and photographing them, I was reminded of Gajoldoba, barely an hour away from Siliguri. Gajoldoba, spoken about in hushed tones by ornithologists professional and amateur, is a reservoir created by an irrigation dam across the Teesta river as it emerges from the mountains. The reservoir, in turn, creates a vast wetland to which migratory birds are attracted in large numbers. This time, I had to check it out.
Our small little getaway for the day. Switch to satellite view for a better understanding of the landscape
The drive to Gajoldoba is as rewarding as the place itself. For most of the way, you follow a lovely road that runs beside one of the many irrigation canals. To top it off, both the road and the canal cut through dense forests and tea estates. We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit. It was a hot, dry week, bang in the middle of the monsoons. The sky was at its bluest and the green was at its greenest. Talk about getting lucky!
Crossing the tracks
A Canal joins the fun
the reservoir at Gajoldoba, swollen by the monsoon rains
The best place to catch up with a friend
Going that extra mile for a photograph
On this day trip, we avoided the highways and stuck to the smaller roads that, like rivers, snake through the region. The roads took us through villages, duck ponds, inundated rice paddies and of course, a river every few miles. If you happen to travel through the Dooars in July-August, your nostrils could be assaulted by a musty smell wafting in from the water bodies. This is a result of bundles of jute plants fermenting in the water. As the stalks ferment, the bark transforms into the strands of golden fiber that we are familiar with. Outside every farmer’s house bales of the golden fiber are set to dry. Public infrastructure, like the bridges below are also extensively used in the process.
Drying Jute Fiber
Drying Jute Fiber
Some villages and many rivers later we reached Lataguri, the small town on the edge of Gorumara National Park. A road from here cuts through the national park and if you are lucky, you can catch an elephant or a bison crossing the road. Almost halfway through the road is a small outcrop of phallic rocks by a small stream. Local imagination has turned the stones into lingams and as a result people leave small offerings – fruits, flowers, rice, etc – near it. The part time priest of this ‘temple’will tell you (should you run into him) that often elephants can be seen visiting the temple, ‘worshipping’ the stones with their trunks. Not very surprising considering some free food happens to be found here on a regular basis!
Onwards from Lataguri
The road cutting through the forest
A small forest rivulet
Ancient sal trees that make up most of the forests of the area
On the other edge of Gorumara, just past a small village and a host of architecturally unimaginative resorts lies the small bridge over the river Murti. During the winter months the sand and pebble banks of the river is very popular with picnicking groups. But this being the warm season, the spot was refreshingly devoid of the tourist meelee. It was perfect, therefore, to wade out into the cool, fast flowing stream and stand there, contemplating where one’s love for nature came from.
Bridge over the river Murty
Bridge over the river Murty
In spite of the heat, there were a few people here, chilling themselves and their beer bottles in the water. A group of uniformed students out on a school trip also seemed to be enjoying themselves. The most fun, however, was reserved for a bunch of kids from the nearby village who were splashing around in the water. They would clamber up on the embankments, run up and canonball into a deep pool in the river – over and over again.
After watching them do this for nearly half an hour, I asked one of them “How long do you plan to do this?”
“Until the sun goes down” promptly came the answer.
It was past mid-day by the time we were done talking to the river jumpers and perhaps not unsurprisingly severe hunger pangs had started to set in. Our driver knew a local restaurant, one of the many unnamed ‘line hotels’ that dot the highway, in the nearby town of Malbazaar. The restaurant itself was a simple affair – tables, benches, soot in the ceiling, people sharing tables, etc. There is a particular way of ordering food at these line hotels; the moment you sit down, a vegetarian thali will be set in front of you. This usually involves a generous helping of steamed rice, one-two veg curries, a portion of crisp potato fritters (aloo bhaja) and a bowl of dal. On top of this, at extra cost of course, you can order from a selection of fish curries, mutton and chicken dishes.
A couple of tips: If you are on the road in Bengal, choose a busy ‘line hotel’. The busier the joint, the fresher and the better the food. Sometimes even the veg dishes have bits of fish for taste. So if you are a vegetarian, please specify this with as much clarity as possible before ordering. In most places, additional helpings of rice or even the dal are absolutely free, so if you need more make eye contact with the waiter, point to your plate and hope for the best.
Our little, nameless gastronomical heaven
And a rustic feast
After a very satisfying lunch, we proceeded eastwards on the last leg of our journey. We were to cross the Teesta again, this time over the mighty Coronation Bridge, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite spots on earth. My school was very conveniently halfway between my home and the bridge and on days when the pursuit of scholastic excellence did not seem that appealing, we would slip out and cool our heels at the bridge. From the bridge, a steep track leads down into the river below. In the dry season, you can sit on the exposed rocks and sandy beaches by the side of the river and watch on as time, much like the aquamarine waters of the Teesta flows swiftly by.
First view of the bridge, still a few kms away
Mowhaked monkey investigates a recently discarded beer bottle
Closing in on the star attraction
Peeking through the foliage
Completed in 1941, the bridge was thus named to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. The gigantic single span has since then connected Siliguri with the rest of Northeastern India. Years later, this same graceful span rendered a 5 year old kid speechless on a sunny winter afternoon. Almost 25 years after that fateful first encounter, I stood on its ramparts, on a warm monsoon afternoon, flanked my father and my to be father-in-law.
To be honest, this day trip was an attempt to show (and show off) my little corner of the country to someone who is to soon be a part of my family. My father is the son of a farmer and although he did not follow his father’s profession, did maintain close ties to the land. As I grow older, my attachment to this land I call my own grows increasingly stronger.
My land is as bountiful as it is diverse; it has lofty mountains, plunging valleys, dense forests and open fields. My land is excruciatingly romantic, yet somewhat unpredictable. My land has inspired poets and nurtured bloody revolutions. And I would like to believe that if you get to know my land, you would get to know me.
A monsoon-swoolen Teesta emerges from the mountains
It was an impossibly early train from a station impossibly far from my house. But there is something about leaving with your bags when it is still dark out. It is the promise that when the darkness of night descends, you will find yourself at an altogether different setting. You will find yourself at the destination. So between the darkness of the dawn and the eventual darkness of dusk lay what I enjoy most – a journey.
Those of you who excel at the subtle art of looking at maps would have noticed that the destination is somewhere in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was in fact, a tiny slice of heaven called Jilling Estate. The real journey starts when the train deposits you in the quaint, single platform Kathgodam Railway Station.
What follows is a one and a half hour journey on the winding hilly roads to the village of Matial. I say Village, but What I actually mean is two general stores and 5 houses along a bend on the road. We see off the taxi guy and start the climb on foot. Yes, there are indeed no motorable roads to Jilling and that is precisely why we chose to come here.
The cluster of buildings that makes up Matial
That’s about the whole village. I promise!
During the colonial times this swathe of the Kumaon Himalayas was owned by a single apple farming sahib. Post independence, the property was divided into various parts and the Lall family bought around 100 acres of this prime Himalayan property. Steve Lall, the bullet-riding, dog loving ex Mig-21 pilot decided to build 4 secluded cottages across the property and invite people to come stay there.
The cottages vary in size but all are slightly rustic, yet not lacking the creature comforts that we city slickers are used to. The food is mostly organic and home cooked, delivered to you piping hot by the estate employees who also double up as fireplace technicians, guides, bird identifiers and storytellers. Jilling is not a hotel. Neither is it a resort. It is one man sharing his little slice of heaven in exchange of some money. If you are in sync with his view of ecotourism (no TV, no motorable road, no noisy neighbour, complete seclusion), you are welcome. Otherwise, bugger off to your favourite Nainital concrete monstrosity.
The distance from Matial to our destination – the topmost cottage – is just north of 2 kms but man is it steep. At the cost of repeating myself I am, to put it politely, a giant ball of lard and the climb, albeit punctuated by a thousand breaks, was arduous. Here is the cool part though, if you lack a spine or if you are old or otherwise disabled, you can hire a pony to the top.
The higher you climb, the prettier it gets
The entire route is paved with stones
Someone has built my dream house. Damn!
Taking a breather, right in the middle of the path
Of the four cottages in the estate, we chose the topmost. When we had spoken to Steve earlier, we had requested for something secluded and it was this cottage he suggested. The cottage is a simple two room affair with basic furnishings. The only disadvantage is the toilet which is not attached to either of the two rooms. While during the daytime, it is absolutely okay, at night when the stillness around you is broken only by the otherworldly scream of a wood owl, stepping out of the cottage to go to the loo feels like the beginnings of a grisly horror movie. Also it does not help if you have read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaun cover to cover a dozen times.
Climbing up, this is the first view of our cottage
waiting for lunch to be served
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Two absolutely glorious days and somewhat terrifying nights later we decided to enquire if some of the other cottages were free. Turns out they were. So we decided to move to the main cottage, about 100 m below us. In the middle of the 19th century, this building served as a warehouse for Jilling’s apples. When the Lals bought their slice of the estate, they turned this warehouse into the bungalow it is today.
This was a world apart from the rustic charm of the bungalow on top. It had a large dining room, a small sitting room with a stocked book-shelf, a spacious bedroom, an ante-room and a kitchen. This was more like your own cottage in the hills, complete with veranda, daisy filled lawns and an ancient tree guarding it all.
Our home for the next few days
The tall tree guarding our hill house
Daisies, daisies everywhere
The Path to our new home is lined with daisies
The small living room
The incredibly airy and well-lit dining room
Between you and me, this level of comfort is new to me. I am used to roughing it out on the saddle of my motorbike, shacking up at the end of the day in a budget hotel – my very definition of travel. But this…this was different. We had rooms, heck, a full bungalow. The bungalow came with Naveen, an extremely polite gentleman who brought us our food, lit our fires, took us for long walks and even helped me identify bird calls. Now, this I could get used to. This was my first “vacation”.
The days passed in a glorious haze of sunshine, birdsong and delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The nights were a collage of twinkling lights on the distant hills, star-gazing and reading till the crickets chirped no more. In between all this, we had time to dream of our own little cottage in the hills. Not much – a couple of rooms, a small garden to grow some food and a group of furry, unruly mountain dogs. I do not want to climb the Everest neither do i want change the world. All I want is that little house in the hills and that, ladies and germs, is the very extent of my ambitions.
To cut a long story short, thanks to Jilling, I now know what my dream looks like.
The second and the last installment has taken a long time and for good reasons. I have changed jobs again and now I am employed as a commissioning editor with a leading global travel guide publisher. So it took me some time to get used to the new job responsibilities and the trainings and the workshops that come as part of the deal. Oh and then the commute from Delhi to Gurgaon. The metro has made it much more comfortable, but it still take roundabout the same amount of time. But then again, for the first time in almost six years I will have a five-day week. Working Saturdays suck. Big time.
Coming back to Narmada, like I said in the previous post, the lives of the people of the region revolve around the river. When kids are born, they are bathed in its holy waters; a pot of the sacred water is essential for every marriage, the daily rituals happens on its banks; and when they die, their ashes are scattered on its choppy dark waters. The Narmada is the cycle of life. It was not unusual that when the but I was travelling on from Maheshwar to Omkareshwar hit a bridge on the river, almost all of my co passengers raised their folded hands to their forehead and chanted in unison Jai Mata Narmadae!! I could translate it for those who do not know what that means, but then the devotion would be lost in translation. So I’d rather not.
My arrival at Omkareshwar was very eventful as well. I caught the bus one evening from the main bus stand at Maheshwar and prepared for what was going to be a two and a half hour journey. But i was in for a surprise. You see, for those who are not accustomed to travelling in buses in India, you must know that there are several types of services – Super Express, Express and Local. The names of the services might differ from state to state but in essence they remain similar. The Super Express has very limited stops on its way whereas the Local service will stop anywhere, all you need to do is stick out your hand. So the thing is what i thought was a super express, turned out to be a local.
So we stopped at every village and finally after three and a half hours we arrived at Sanawad, 15 kms from our destination. To my surprise the bus emptied itself and for the last leg, I was the only person in the bus. So I moved up front to the driver’s cabin and started a chat. The terrain from there on was hilly and the bus had a pair of grimy 40 W bulbs for a headlight. Worrying. More worrying when a single bolt of lightning tore through the night sky and almost immediately conjured up a dust storm of Biblical proportions. Okay..ALMOST Biblical proportions. By the time we reached the bust stand at Omkareshwar, the heavens had opened up and it was raining by the bucket-loads.
Omkareshwar is a vehicle free town, and as a result the main bust stand is outside the city limits and you need top walk from there. Not good news for lazy people like me. We waited in the bus for the rain to slow down and in a while, the driver conjured up two bottles of country made whiskey! That eased the pain considerably. Half an hour and three drinks later the rain held and I was able to walk down to my hotel for the night.
Omkareshwar is located on the old volcanic rocks almost halfway down the Narmada’s course. Here the river passes through a narrow and deep gorge and in the process creates an island in the shape of the holy symbol ‘OM’. So technically it’s the island that’s called Omkareshwar, but just like the town, even its name has spilled over to both the banks.
It was these banks that i set about exploring the morning next. Being vehicle free (motorcycles not included) the lanes of Omkareshwar were easy to navigate. They were lined, much like any other holy city in India with shops selling colourful puja paraphernalia and other trinkets and a score of dharmashalas. I eventually found my way to the Gomukh Ghat, one of the busiest places in Omkareshwar, just when the first sunlight was touching the temple spires.
The narrow and plunging gorge that the Narmada cuts in the ancient rocks of Omkareshwar is known as Gomukh, meaning the ‘mouth of the cow’. Legend has it that, long ago, a demon went on a rampage killing sages and sadhus. The sadhus assembled at Omkareshwar and prayed to Shiva for protection. Moved by their prayers, Shiva fought the demon and killed him with his trishul (trident).
To purify the trishul stained with the blood of the demon, Shiva flung it towards the Narmada at Omkareshwar. The trishul landed a fair distance from the river and its impact gave rise to an underground stream that resurfaces to meet the Narmada at the Gomukh. The stream is referred to as Kapildhara and the ghat built around it called the Gomukh Ghat.
There are two bridges connecting the mainland part of the town with the island, but many tourists and pilgrims prefer to cross over by boats from Gomukh ghat. The boats moored on the ghats carry a maximum of eight passengers and charge Rs 10 per head. You could also hire a boat to take you on a joyride on the Narmada. The boats sport colourful canopies and even more colourful names like Titanic, Tu Chor Main Sipahi (You are the convict and I’m the cop), Jalpari (mermaid), etc. For the sinners among you, who want to attain redemption by taking a dip in the holy waters of the river, do be careful. The steps of the ghat are extremely slippery and as the Narmada flows through a gorge here, it is extremely deep. Also, crocodiles are known to stray here from time to time.
The ghat is located roughly midway between the two bridges. From here, another shop lined, colourful lane winds up and down the hilly bank towards the newly constructed suspension bridge. Incidentally, both the bridges are for pedestrian traffic only. Although the policemen are known to turn a blind eye towards bicycles and motorcycles.
Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple, also called Omkar Mandhata Temple, is the key attraction for pilgrims who visit the island. It is the ancient site of one of the 12 sacred jyotirlingas. Local legend holds that the linga, or cosmic pillar emblematic of Shiva’s procreative energy, arrived here as a result of the devotion of the mythological king Mandhata.
Omkar Mandhata Temple is said to have been built by the Paramaras in the 11th century and rebuilt by the Holkars in the 19th century. The temple is suffused with symbolism, much like the island. Its shikhara is said to correspond with Mount Meru, the axis of the world according to Hindu mythology, and to overlook the cosmic ocean, represented by the Narmada.
A series of steps from the ghats leads up to the mandapa of the temple, marking the entrance of the enclosure. The mandapa is decorated with heavily carved soapstone pillars with elaborate capitals in the form of yakshis, while niches on either side are occupied by images of Ganesh, Ram, Sita, and other deities. As one crosses the mandapa, one encounters Nandi, Shiva’s divine vehicle. From the first mandapa, one ascends to the recently built sabha mandapa or prayer hall.
A vast terrace above the sabha mandapa leads to a small door through which one can enter the upper levels of the shikhara. Inside are three shrines, one above the other, enshrining more manifestations of Shiva – Siddhanath, Kedareshwar and Guptanath.
The two approaches to the temple are lined with shops selling baskets of flowers, incense and other puja paraphernalia. There are also people manning little stalls where for Rs 1 you can deposit your foot-wear for safekeeping till you are done with your darshan. It is likely that you will be approached by several priests and chances are that the experience might not be your best. You have been warned.
The temple is the hub of all activity in the island. All roads seem to converge here and it is the starting point of the famous Omkareshwar parikrama. The 16-km parikrama or circumambulation of the island starts from the Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple and proceeds clockwise around the island. Until a few years ago, the path of the parikrama was an unpaved road, making the journey quite arduous. Recently, a proper track has been laid. All along the road, painted on boards, are verses from the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and Hindi.
Along with temples old and new, ruins of ancient shrines and remains of fort walls, the pathpasses through a number of tiny villages. For generations, the villagers have served as priests and caretakers of the island’s many temples, and remain tied to this tradition even today. The route passes through a series of crests and troughs in the landscape and may be intimidating for those that are not used to long walks. The harsh Omkareshwar sun, which can be surprisingly hot even in winter months, is an added challenge. The best safeguard would be to drink enough water and rest when exhausted. I, for one was smart enough to start just at sunrise, to make sure that I was back in my hotel room by about noon.
In this journey, one encounters numerous langoors or hanumans. These monkeys are known to snatch food from people’s hands and it is a wise idea to carry foodstuff in covered bags.
The sacred and purifying Narmada meets the fast flowing Kaveri at the sangam, or confluence, of these two rivers. Located on the westernmost part of the island of Omkareshwar, this narrow projection of land at the meeting point of the streams is covered with stones of all sizes shaped like shivalingas. The Kaveri, actually is not another river, but a part of the Narmada itself that encircles the island on the north.
Legend has it that it was here that Kuber, the god of wealth sat here and meditated without food and water for 100 years. Satisfied with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before Kuber and asked him what he wanted. To this Kuber replied that he wished to be the king of the Yakshas and gain immortality. Like all good mythological stories, his wish was granted and he lived happily ever after in the photo-frames in many a temple and home.
Apart from its religious sanctity, the sangam is the perfect spot to cool down after the arduous parikrama. It is a good idea to take off your shoes and sit on a rock while the cool water plays around your tired feet. Pilgrims are required to take a dip in the waters of the sangam to cleanse themselves before heading on.
After the sangam, the parikrama route becomes even more interesting. The path takes a sudden turn and after a few climbs one reached the top of the island. For the next few kilometres, the road is level. Here you come across broken fort walls and ruins of temples and gateways which prove that at one point of time, the city existed only in the island. Many of the old temples have been built over and modernised, some of them wonderfully preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India, but most are still in ruins.
On a large clearing, on the highest part of the island stands the Gauri Somnath Templesurrounded by numerous smaller shrines and a number of ashrams. Built in the early 15th century by the Paramaras, the temple was once faced with a pillared mandapa which is no longer extant.
In the garbhagriha of the temple is a 2 m high, black granite shivalinga. It is believed that this linga once possessed the power of revealing to a person their previous and future incarnations. When the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was passing through Omkareshwar, he expressed the wish to verify if this was true.
The story has it that the emperor was much disturbed by the linga’s revelations and, in a fit of rage, had the entire temple burnt down. The linga cracked in the intense heat and its surface was scarred and since then it has lost its special ability.
The state archaeological department runs a site museum at the premises of the Gauri Somnath Temple. While the more intricate and delicate sculptures are placed indoors, many others have been installed on pedestals all around the temple.
After you leave the temple and proceed onwards, to left of the parikrama path runs a fallen wall which was once about 9-12 m high. At various places on the parikrama route you will come across ruins which at first glance look like a pile of stones. Closer examination reveals that these are actually remains of the ancient walls of older temples, and gateways.
While most of these temples are barely recognisable, interestingly, some sculptures have survived almost intact. Some of these sculptures have been painted a bright red and a few have been taken over by nature with creepers spreading their delicate tendrils across them. The atmosphere here is completely different from that at the main ghat. It is almost as if two different towns exist on the same space.
After descending through a valley, the road emerges on to the second plateau of the island, with the last destination on the parikrama, the famed Siddhanath Temple, perched on it. According to some historians, this is one of the oldest temples on the island.
A fine example of early medieval Hindu architecture, the temple is built on an adhisthana, or plinth, which is about 1 m in height. The sides of the plinth are embellished with an exquisite frieze depicting elephants in various postures. Legend has it that when the shikhara of the temple was still extant, lights in Mandu, 145 kms away, could be seen from it.
Recently a couple of silver Sheshnagas have been installed in the garbhagriha, shading the linga. Every day, a puja is performed here in which the linga is decorated with freshly picked flowers. The entire temple structure stands in the middle of a wide enclosure, which at one time could have been surrounded by high walls, though no sign of these exists today. The courtyard is filled with free-standing sculptures collected from this and other ancient shrines across the island. A walk through the courtyard reveals bharvahakas and chandrashilas along with numerous other temple fragments.
When you reach the Siddhanath Temple, it means that the parikrama is almost over. It’s all the was downhill from there. From one point in the descent, you are offered a fabulous view of the town with the suspension bridge in the foreground and the path snaking through the river bed, which has shrunk substantially since the dam has come up.
I had stared really early in the morning and had almost no breakfast. I had, however, stopped at many places on the road and rested or had nimboo paani. Times are tough for the villagers and to make the extra buck, many of them have opened up nimboo paani stalls. Please do stop at a couple of these stalls if you do the parikrama. The 10 rupees or so that you spend on this delicious and refreshing drink wont hurt you much, but to the villager, it is precious. Support the local economy, buy the nimboo paani.
Anyway, in spite of all the drinking and stopping, I managed to finish the walk by noon and headed to the MPSTDC rest house for lunch. It is on top of a hill on the mainland part of the town and offers a stunning view of the island with its temples and little houses and the Narmada in the foreground.
While most sites of tourist and religious interest in Omkareshwar are along the parikrama path on the island, the town itself, on the other side of the river, is home to a number of attractions, the most significant being the Mamleshwar Temple. It is in the mainland part of the town where most tourist infrastructure is concentrated. A walk through the narrow lanes of the town reveals a large number of dharamshalas or religious rest houses (dharma means ‘religion’ while shala means ‘sanctuary’). Many Indian communities, such as the Rajputs, the Agarwals, the Yadavas and the Jats, have their own dharamshalas in this town. All the markets, the police station, municipality offices, the main bus stand and hospitals are also located here.
Mamleshwar Temple is located barely 200 m from Gomukh Ghat. Also known as Amaleshwar, Mamleshwar is generally considered to enshrine one half of the jyotirlinga, the other half of which rests in Omkar Mandhata Temple on the island. Set in a walled enclosure and meticulously maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the east facing temple is five-storeyed with a shivalinga enshrined on each floor. The enclosure also has six other temples built on the lines of the main temple.
The long parikrama and the hearty lunch thereafter propelled me towards my hotel room where i spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping. At around 4 in the afternoon, relaxed and rested, I set forth again, this time to explore the Omkareshwar Palace. Commanding a wide view of the Narmada and the town, the palace is located on the island on a flat piece of land above the Omkar Mandhata Temple. A narrow lane leads from the bustling flower market at the ghat and winds up to the entrance to the palace. From the outside, the entire palace looks like a single structure, but upon entering it is revealed that it is actually a series of three large courtyards surrounded by rooms on two levels.
The most striking aspect of the palace is the central room or the durbar. It was here that the king would receive guests and preside over the affairs of the state. The circular ceiling of the hall was once painted and inlaid with glass. Although the past glories of the Holkars have since faded, traces of their grandeur are still clearly discernible. When you visit, the chances are that the bright fluorescent colours that you see in the photograph will still be there, but i can guarantee you that back in the good old day of the maharajas, it looked classier. Taste, you see, has taken a nosedive since then.
The southern wall of the durbar hall opens into three jharokhas (projecting balconies). These balconies with their superb view of the temple town make the perfect vantage points for observing life in the town below.
I couldn’t end my narrative on Omkareshwar without a mention of the daring kids that make a living from the waters of the river. They lead, what I call a recycle business. When devotees offer their prayers on the ghats, they usually throw a lot of flowers, colours and coconuts on the river. The kids, sometimes on boats and sometimes on inflated tire tubes venture into the river and pick up the floating coconuts and bring them to their parents who then sell them again.
Incidentally, I have seen the same thing in Mumbai. Lots of people offer coconuts to the dogs in marine drive. Following them are a group of youngsters armed with a basket tied at the end of a length of rope. Just as the devotees have turned their backs, they come out swinging their baskets with the same air that a cowboy would swing his lasso. eventually every coconut would be fished out from the sea and resold. We Indians are very inventive and innovative people, you see!
A travel writer’s job is not easy. You often have to talk the talk while you walk the walk. Omkareshwar was one such trip. In spite of the afternoon siesta, I was tired, so I headed off to a local barber’s for a wet shave and a nice champi. For the philistine, it is a sort of head massage with fragrant, mint infused herbal oil. If done right, it has the power to relieve you of any stress, mental or physical. My guy was good and before I knew it I was fast asleep.
Freshly massaged and feeling like a million bucks I headed off to the ghat for a cup of tea and a moment of quiet reflection. Dusk had just started to set in and one by one the lights started to come on. Before I knew it was dark and the temples on the islands were lit up. The waters of the Narmada were now forebodingly dark and on its choppy surface danced a million reflections of the thousand lights that shone on the island. I sat there until one by one most of the lights had been switched off and all the shops had closed down. All I heard as I walked the deserted streets back to the hotel were the distant chiming of the temple bells.
In the next post, I shall be talking about the road trip I took to a scenic hill station in the middle of the monsoon. That reminds me, unlike my other trips, this time I had used public transport. From Indore to Maheshwar, from Maheshwar to Omkareshwar and from Omkareshwar back to Indore, it was all on crowded buses, and how I loved it.
On my return trip, I shared a seat with a guy my age who was travelling with his two little daughters. The first thing he did after he sat down was to deposit the smaller of the two on my lap. Trust comes as a given. You are, on a long journey supposed to look after each other and their children. I guess to illustrate the point even further, halfway down the journey, he leaned his head against my shoulders and went to sleep!
Mumbai could be very unsettling for someone who is used to life in Delhi. My first impression of Mumbai was marred by the nightmarish flight. It was the middle of August and i had added some leaves to the Independence day weekend and come to meet Anindita, who was working here for a media agency. The monsoons were hitting Mumbai with their full fury and we began to feel the effect as the plane began to begin its descent towards CSIA. I had a window seat from where i could see the wings of the plane and i could see them almost flapping up and down. Scared would be an understatement..,i hate flying with all my heart. Every time i need to travel on work, i try and go by train. In my mind i was waiting to hear the captain announce “Mayday!” anytime.
But then we landed and i headed out where Anindita was waiting for me with a broad grin on her face, which did calm me down a little. I was still a bit unsettled, though. But that was taken care of at the Vile Parle station from where we needed to catch a north-bound train to Borivili, where she stayed. So there was my first encounter with the legendary Mumbai suburban train. I finally managed to get into a first class compartment, luggage and all and stood there, sandwiched by people on all sides, Anindita nowhere to be seen. After Andheri, the crowd thinned a little and Anindita materialized magically from behind a fat Marwari aunty-jee. Phew!
This was in 2008 and i have been to Mumbai twice more and come back with more memories. All my trips to Mumbai have never been about exploring the city, although i always meant to. Its been about spending time with my best friend. And in between long walks on Carter Road, boat-rides to Elephanta, Chicken Peri Peri in Inorbit Mall in Malad or simply sitting on the embankment on Marine Drive, i did get a glimpse of the city. Sometimes i hate Mumbai because of the constant claustrophobia, the ever-present crowd and the way the weather reacted to my then long hair, but all said and done, it is also where some of my most important memories are. Some of these memories are good, and a couple of them, not so, but important they are, nonetheless.
I have always visited Mumbai at the same time of the year – the August 15 weekend. Being the heights of monsoons in Mumbai, i have always got bad light and as a result of which i have resorted to shooting in black and white with increased contrast and spiked ISO for the grainyness. At times, the sun did come out and i reverted immediately to colour!
We usually hang out at home in Borivili. Anindita likes to go to the movies so we usually average a movie a day while in Mumbai or when she comes to Delhi. The funniest part of the movie going experience in Mumbai is rising for the National Anthem. Works for a Manoj Kumar Movie but not so much for Singh is Kinng!
Sometimes in the evenings we would go to places by the sea to sit and talk. Carter road was nice but i liked Bandra Reclaimation (i think!) even better. Its like a promenade by the sea with a park that runs alongside. To your right is the Bandra-Worli Sea Link while in front of you, across the little bay is the constantly rising Worli skyline. A perfect place to sit and watch the sun go down. If any Mumbaikars are reading this and you happen to identify which place i am talking about, please do tell me because next time i am in Mumbai, i would like to go back there.
Last year when i went to Mumbai, Anindita took me to Carter Road, again in Bandra. Off the park by the road, a little strip composed of boulders juts out into the sea. We tried to walk right till the end of it, but it was broken at several places. We however, did make use of the ice-cream vendors loitering about the area.
In September 2008, Aamir had to go to Mumbai to meet ‘someone’ and since he had no other place to stay in Mumbai, decided to stay at Anindita’s.. and that gave me an idea. In the evening he was leaving for Mumbai, i asked him if it was okay for me to tag along. It was a Friday and all i had to do was call in sick on Saturday. So i bought my ticket in the same flight hardly two hours before the takeoff and in another three hours Anindita found both of us knocking on her door rather than just Aamir.
That weekend was a flurry of activity. Since i had come unplanned, Anindita had to go to the office the next day, while i stayed at home watching TV and cooking. In the evening, Anindita’s friend Ananya came over. I had gotten friendly with him during my last visit and he took me to a nearby restaurant where we feasted on some delicious Marathi mutton curry and biryani. Anindita came back at night and the next day Aamir, her and me roamed around the city and in the evening both of us left on the last flight to Delhi.
Other than this surprise trip, on both the other occasion, i had made it a point to go to Elephanta Island. Other than my personal interest in history and heritage, it was the hour long boat ride that attracted me the most. As you leave the Apollo Bunder and make your way through a large variety of ships of various sizes, the Bombay coastline recedes gradually to the distance and you see what you rarely do in Delhi – a skyline! I usually bribe the boatman to let me sit in the tiny triangular patch right in front of the boat where you can feel the sway the most.
The island slowly comes into view and in a few minutes the boat docks. It usually does so alongside another boat and you cross from one boat to another till you reach the jetty. The most fun thing about Elephanta Island is the tiny train that takes visitors from the jetty to the ticket office. When Anindita and I went there, we were hungry and went to a restaurant for lunch. Time flew by and before long the caves had started closing down. So basically, we went all the way on the boat, took the train from the jetty to the ticket office and then spent like three hours there, but never really saw any caves.
When the Portuguese were building their base in India, the island’s jetty used to be dominated by an enormous sculpture of an elephant; hence the name. Numerous attempts were made by the Portuguese to destroy the sculpture, until it was broken down in pieces. The fragments were later transported to the mainland and joined together. Today it can be seen in the Bhau Daji Lad museum in the suburban Byculla.
As i said already, the best part about Elephanta is the boat ride. In the evenings, when you take the boat back from the island towards Colaba, the sun is usually setting and a thousand other suns dance on the surface of the waves. Here are a couple of images i took on the trip back from Elephanta:
On one of the trips, Anindita had to be in office one day and i decided to walk around the fort. I was told that it would be deserted as it was Sunday. So i walked around. I started at VT and walked all across the Fort and the narrow bylanes and following the recommendation of a friend, had lunch at Jimmy Boy Cafe. I dont know if anyone would agree with me, but Fort did feel a bit like Kolkata, albeit better organised.
Bombay is too hyperactive for me. Everyone seems to be travelling all the time. From home to the station, from the station to catching a bus without any time to spare. I have seen women chopping vegetables on the the train so that they can get home and cook and get a few hours’ sleep before the next day begins at the same pace. I am not that ambitious a person. All i need to have is enough money to tank up my bike and my camera slung on my neck. Bombay does not make any sense to me, but then its my personal, honest opinion.
Sometimes, i did feel that i was travelling to Bombay to bring back memories that would sustain me till the time i came to Bombay next or Anindita came here. But i guess after some time, you need something more than memories… you need something that stays in the preset – with you. So Bombay, in a way is synonymous to distance, as far as i am concerned – a place where memories are made, the Chocolate Factory, if you will! Thinking about Bombay does make me feel nostalgic but at the same time makes me realise that there is more to life than nostalgia. There is life itself. Things change, as do people. I know i will go back to Bombay and when i do i just hope i stop manufacturing memories and just be in the moment, at one with the environment.
A few months back, our organisation, Good Earth Publication received the bid to produce a coffee-table book on the monuments of Delhi from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). At the behest of the protectors of Indian antiquity, the book was to be very imaginatively titled “Monuments of Delhi”. It was to be released on the occasion of the Commonwealth Games, and possibly was the only project that was completed and delivered well before the start of the event (if it takes off at all, that is).
A coffee table book means more photographs and less words but sadly i was given the task to shoot only the smaller monuments while the task to capture the more significant ones like Humayun’s Tomb, Qutb Minar, Red Fort etc, were given to reputed free-lance photographers. But i toiled, nonetheless, in the pre-monsoon sun, which is one of the worst times to shoot monuments. Everything is dirty and the sky, for most part of the time remained a dirty shade of white. So every time there was the rare pre-monsoon shower, i remained on the tenterhooks, scooting off as soon as the rains ended and the clouds cleared to reveal a bluish sky.
My first destination was the tombs of Dadi and Poti. They are amongst the many tombs in Green Park, an area north of Hauz Khas village. Set side-by-side on a slight elevation along the road that leads from Aurobindo Place to Hauz Khas, the tombs of Dadi and Poti are well-preserved, though the identity of those buried within remains unclear.
The larger of these buildings is known as the tomb of Dadi (grandmother) or Biwi (mistress), and the smaller as that of Poti (granddaughter) or Bandi (maid-servant). Both tombs are built of rubble and plastered, and both follow the square pattern characteristic of Lodi tombs: with openings to the east, north and south, and their façades broken into a semblance of ‘storeys’. The western walls of both tombs are closed with mihrabs, but only the tomb of Dadi rests on a plinth.
My next assignment took me to Begumpur Village, near Sarvapriya Vihar. It has has two Tughluq era monuments of immense archaeological significance. Of these, the Begumpuri Masjid is best preserved, while the ruined palace known as Bijay Mandal is unfortunately dilapidated.
Over the years, the village of Begumpur has been engulfed within New Delhi’s ever expanding city limits, but the Bugumpuri Masjid remains quite spectacular still.
It is generally held that Begumpuri Masjid is one of the seven mosques built by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the prime minister of the great builder and restorer, Firuz Shah Tughluq. Its large, paved courtyard is enclosed by arched cloisters to the north, south and east. To the west is the sanctuary of the mosque, which is three aisles deep. The entire structure rests on a high plinth. Begumpuri Masjid, to this day remains the largest mosque in Delhi after the Jami Masjid in Old Delhi.
The façade of the prayer hall is broken by 24 arched openings and is flanked by tapering minarets. Of the arches, the central one is the highest, and the building’s most prominent feature. The prayer hall’s central compartment is surmounted by a large dome, while smaller and lower domes rise along the roof from the central aisle and from the corridors.
The main entrance to the mosque is to its east, through a domed gateway, reached by a flight of steps. Within, the Begumpuri Masjid has five mihrabs, and it has been conjectured that it might have once been connected to the Bijay Mandal.
Lal Gumbad, an elegant Tughluq-period structure, is located south of Panchsheel Park, on the road leading to Malviya Nagar. Dated to about 1397, this is the tomb of Shaikh Kabiru’d-Din Auliya, a disciple of the Sufi saint Shaikh Raushan Chiragh-i-Dihli, whose dargah is in the urban village of Chiragh Delhi, barely a kilometre east of Lal Gumbad. Chiragh-i-Dihli himself was a disciple of Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya, whom he succeeded as the head of the Chishti sect.
Built on a plinth about a metre high, the tomb consist of a square chamber whose walls are faced with red sandstone. The building is surmounted by a conical dome that rises on an octagonal drum. This dome is reminiscent of the one in Ghiyathu’d-Din Tughluq’s tomb. The dome was once topped with a golden finial, which was stolen. Thieves used iron rings (called rakab) to scale its western wall, thus giving the tomb its popular name of Rakabwala Gumbad
Lal Gumbad is entered through a pointed arch on the east, decorated with marble bands, which faces the mihrab on the western wall. Within, its northern and southern walls are adorned with intricate sandstone jaali screens. East of Lal Gumbad is a smaller domed building, which probably served as the gateway to the tomb enclosure.
The Khaljis came to rule Delhi in 1290, and so turbulent were these times that only six years later the third king of this dynasty, Alau’d-Din Khalji, ascended to the throne, and was responsible for building the second city of Delhi.
This was the city of Siri, which Alau’d-Din Khalji began building in 1303, and it was also the first originally Islamic city of Delhi. Little remains of it now because the city was destroyed by Sher Shah Suri, who used the rubble to build his own city, Shergarh. What survives are some stretches of thick stone walls near Panchsheel Park, the Asiad Village and Khel Gaon Marg.
These walls still have some bastions, some holes through which to shoot arrows, and battlements shaped like ‘flames’, a feature that makes its first appearance here. Nothing of the palaces within has survived, though there are a few derelict buildings in Shahpur Jat, a village near the Siri Fort Sports Complex, from this period.
The nearby Hauz Khas reservoir (later in the post) was dug by Alau’d-Din Khalji, and originally called Hauz-i-‘Ala’i. Its waters served the needs of Siri’s inhabitants.
According to the medieval traveller Ibn-Battuta, Alau’d-Din Khalji was not just a great builder but ‘one of the best of sultans, and the people of India are full of his praises’. Besides Siri, Alau’d-Din Khalji also built the beautiful Ala’i Darwaza near the Qutb Minar.
On the peripheries of the old city of Siri is a monument that dates to a much later period, when Delhi was ruled by the Lodi dynasty from 1451 to 1526. Set within an enclosed courtyard, the Muhammadwali Masjid can be found just north of the entrance to the Siri Fort Sports Complex. There is a gateway made of dressed stone leading into the courtyard. Within, the prayer chamber of the mosque has three bays, the middle one of which is domed.
The eastern façade of the building contains arched niches in red sandstone and one can still see vestiges of the blue tiles that once decorated the wall. Further decoration remains on the ceiling, which has patterns of intersecting red bands on it. Originally, the mosque had chajjas (eaves) as evidenced by some extant brackets.
When Alau’d-Din Khalji built the city of Siri, in 1303, he also excavated a vast tank to provide water for his subjects. Originally named Hauz-i-Ala’i, it is now called Hauz Khas. A medieval alcove surrounded by modern bustle and construction, Hauz Khas is located just off Aurobindo Marg, south of Green Park.
Half a century after Alau’d-Din built the tank, Firuz Shah Tughluq gained Delhi’s throne, taking great pains to restore and expand many of the monuments built by previous dynasties. Not only did he de-silt Hauz Khas but he also erected several buildings along its eastern and southern banks.
So great were the proportions of Alau’d-Din Khalji’s tank that even the conquering Mongol, Timur, who blazed through Delhi at the close of the fourteenth century and pitched camp by these waters, was impressed. It is ‘so large,’ he wrote, ‘that an arrow cannot be shot from one side to the other’. A century after the tank’s construction, it was still fulfilling it’s original function, for Timur went on to note that it ‘is filled with rainwater and all the people of Delhi obtain water from it year round’.
The tank that exists today was built by the Delhi Development Authority and, though pleasing and inhabited by a variety of waterfowl, bears little resemblance to the original and almost a quarter of its original size.
The most prominent structure in the Hauz Khas complex is Firuz Shah’s tomb, a square chamber built on a low plinth and surmounted by a lofty dome. The tomb’s entrance is to its south, while its northern and western walls have narrow arched openings leading to adjacent buildings. Its eastern and southern façades are each broken by an archway, which acts as a door.
Over the southern doorway, there is an inscription dated to 1507 AD, when the then ruler Sikandar Lodi ordered some repairs to the tomb. There is also a courtyard outside the southern entrance, surrounded by a stone fence that is typical of early Buddhist stupas, and has here been elegantly mingled with features of Islamic architecture.
Although the tomb is fairly austere in appearance, the severity of its construction is broken by a decorative panel of red sandstone and marble, and carved battlements. Within are four graves, of which the central one is believed to be that of Firuz Shah, and two others of his son and grandson.
Contiguous with the tomb, to its north and west, are a series of two-storeyed buildings rising along the banks of Hauz Khas. These were built by Firuz Shah as a madrasa (or school of theological learning); and to their north is a mosque. An unusual feature of this mosque is that the obligatory mihrab on its western wall is pierced by arched windows.
The madrasa, which once attracted both students and teachers from across the Islamic world, is designed in an L-shape, and its many chambers are decorated with latticed windows, medallions in stucco, lotus motifs, painted ceilings, projecting balconies (jharokha) and deep niches. An independent building to the south-west served, in all probability, as the principal’s residence. The principal during Firuz Shah’s reign was Sayyid Yusuf, who is buried in the courtyard of the college.
There are several other tombs in this area. It is not know who is buried in them, but archaeologists believe that at least some must belong to teachers of the madrasa.
Today, Hauz Khas village is a pleasant labyrinth of narrow lanes, many lined with boutiques and popular restaurants. The village also has a Deer Park, which contains the beautifully preserved Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad, an early sixteenth-century Lodi tomb.
While most of previous assignments were in south Delhi, this one took me to Central Delhi. Within the premises of Delhi Golf Club on Zakir Husain Road, are two tombs collectively known as Lal Bangla, or the ‘red bungalow’. The larger of these tombs is supposed to contain the graves of Lal Kunwar, mother of Shah Alam II (Mughal emperor of India in the latter half of the eighteenth century) and Begam Jan, his daughter. It is uncertain whether the monument derives its name from Lal Kunwar or the profuse use of red (lal) sandstone in the structure.
Laid on a similar plan, both tombs consist of a square central chamber with square rooms on the corners connected by halls. Both structures are surrounded by arcaded verandahs, while the smaller tomb, though built on a less elaborate scale, has a disproportionately large double dome.
The main gateway to the tomb enclosure is to its south. It is decorated with arched niches, sandstone brackets and octagonal chhatris on either side.
One of my favourites…
Najaf Khan’s Tomb is located southeast of the tomb of Safdar-Jang, opposite the Safdarjang Airport. Najaf Khan came to India in the early eighteenth century from Persia when the Delhi throne was occupied by the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. Later, Najaf Khan entered the service of Shah Alam II and attained a high position in his court.
The tomb, constructed by Najaf Khan in his lifetime, is set in the centre of a large enclosure, which has a gateway to the east. The enclosure was landscaped to a Mughal-style charbagh (explained later) garden and has been amazingly restored by the ASI. The mausoleum has bastions on each of its four corners and is entered through a projecting arched entrance on its eastern side. From here, a vaulted passage leads to the central grave chamber. The tomb’s two marble cenotaphs are inscribed and belong to Najaf Khan and his daughter, Fatima, who died in the early nineteenth century. The real graves, however, are in one of the two chambers at the core of the platform on which the mausoleum stands.
The Mughal tradition of erecting a grand mausoleum in the middle of a garden that started with the Humayun’s Tomb would end in the tomb of Mirza Muqim Abu’l Mansur Khan. Better known as Safdar-Jang, he was the viceroy of Oudh (modern Lucknow) under the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-48).
According to an inscription on the eastern entrance to the tomb, it was constructed in 1753-54 by Nawab Shuja’u’d-Daula, the son of Safdar-Jang. The sprawling square garden, which measures 300 m on each side, is enclosed within high walls. These walls, with channels over them to carry water to the various pavilions, contain a series of recessed arches on the inside. On four corners are octagonal towers, covered by hemispherical domes (chhatris). Following the convention of the Mughal charbaghs, the garden is divided into four squares by wide pathways and tanks.
The complex is entered through an impressive double-storeyed gateway at the centre of its eastern wall. The mosque on its second storey, built of red sandstone, was added much later. At the centre of the other walls are several multi-chambered spacious pavilions – Moti Mahal (north), Badshah-Pasand, or the ‘king’s favourite’ (south) and Jangli Mahal (west).
Safdar-Jang’s tomb stands at the heart of the enclosure. This double-storeyed structure, measuring 18.3 m sq, is built of red sandstone and is lined with white marble. The central chamber of the tomb, directly under the dome is square and is surrounded by eight apartments. The corner rooms are octagonal while the remaining are rectangular. While the central chamber has one cenotaph, the underground chamber directly beneath it has two graves. The other grave is presumably that of Safdar-Jang’s wife. The building is capped by a bulbous dome that rises from an octagonal base.
On each corner of the tomb are polygonal towers, inlaid with striking designs in white marble and covered with chhatris. The four facades of the tomb are built on similar lines. They have a central cusped arch, framed in marble and red sandstone, through which the tomb is entered.
Incidentally, the marble and red sandstone used in the tomb of Safdar-Jang were pillaged from the tomb of Abdu’r Rahim Khan Khan-i-Khanan, located around a kilometre south of Humayun’s Tomb. With its large garden enclosure, Safdar-Jang’s tomb is laid out on the pattern of its prototype – Humayun’s Tomb, but is set apart by structural differences. The tomb has often been described as ‘the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi’.
College opened a whole world of experiences for me. I came to Delhi in 2002 to study history at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi from the small town of Siliguri on the foothills of the Himalayas in northern Bengal. I had been sheltered and protected like only Bengali parents are known to and it was for the first time that i tasted limitless freedom. Whatever happened as a result of that limitless freedom is very entertaining but not pertinent to to this story.
Before college, music for me meant the Hindi and Bangla oldies and being trained in Hindustani Classical from a very tender age, semi classical music and Rabindrasangeet. I still remember that evening. It was my very first day in the hostel and i was called by a menacing senior to his room for a session of ‘positive interaction’ which included familiarization with certain college traditions like the Blacksmith’s Song, the Oath, the Bhajan and other sundry.
So there i was, standing in the very unflattering stance that you need to take while reciting the Oath when i heard the most beautiful musing wafting i through the air. It was like nothing i have heard before. As the hours rolled by and my knowledge of the traditions of the great institution grew, so did an immense curiosity for the music playing in the background. By the time i was allowed to go to bed, the music was long gone. Next morning i was back in my room during a break in the classes and heard the same music playing through the corridor. I followed a sound like a hound follows the smell and knocked on the door from which the music was coming. Knocking on the door of a senior on the second day of college meant suicide, but as luck would have it, the door was opened by a gentle soul who was perplexed to see me standing there.
He turned out to be a third year physics student and did not possess the urge to interact positively with the first years. Muttering a few apologetic words, i mustered the courage to ask him the name of the artist. That was the very first time i heard of INDIAN OCEAN. To this day, my dear friends, i have never looked back and my appreciation of the band and their music has only grown.
Its been over eight years now and in this time, i have attended more than 30 of their concerts in various college fests, charity events and music festivals across Delhi. I remember one time when i was in my second year of college, i had gone to the festival of Miranda House, where my girlfriend was and together we eagerly waited in the crowd for Indian Ocean to take the stage. Imagine our surprise when we saw the band members standing in the crowd, chai in hand, waiting for the setup to be done. I took the chance to talk to Amit Kilam, the percussionist and was surprised by how down-to-earth he was. I had to get an autograph but had neither a pen not any paper. A quick search of the girlfriend’s bag produced a couple of tissues and a stick of kajal. I still have to tissue somewhere, inside one of my books, perhaps. I have not seen it in years and as i was writing this, i promised myself to look for it as soon as i am done .
Indian Ocean’s music defies genre and paradigm. It is an experience by itself and the very essence of this experience is the live performance. I lived for these soulful moments when the foursome poured their hearts and souls out on the stage. There was always something new and there was always life.
In the college days, i was always jealous of people shooting at Indian Ocean concerts. So one of the first thing i did after i got the camera was to go to an Indian Ocean concert. Since then i have shot at a number of concerts but always from the crowd and always at night.
My favourite moment in any Indian Ocean concert is the performance of Ma Rewa. Love the way Amit and Rahul spar with the guitar and the gabgubi. Almost a dance. Then later is the duet between Amit on the drums and Asheem on the tabla.
The last time i went to a concert was in September 2009, shortly after which Asheem collapsed at the airport after a heart attack. Even though he recovered, he never really got better and finally left us on Christmas day. Frankly, since Asheem’s passing i am somewhat in doubt if i would want to go to another concert. I mean, Indian Ocean cannot be Indian Ocean even if one of them is removed. The music would not be the same. I am not sure i want to find out how much my favourite sound has changed. Not anytime soon. For the same reason maybe, i haven’t heard any of the songs from the latest album, Khajoor Road.
Maybe one day i will go to another Indian Ocean concert and maybe i will shoot more, but for the time being, its time to say goodbye. I have to find the tissue with the autograph in it.
And to conclude, here is my favourite photograph from this lot.
Last Ramzan (August-September 2009) Aamir and I along with some other friends from Genpact (where i used to work earlier) went for an iftar mission to Old Delhi. Lucky for me, i decided to take my camera along. I took some shots and while i sat and looked at them, the desire to do something different with them became increasingly stronger.
I have always been inspired by graphic and comic book art and one of my very few regrets in my life is that i cant draw to save my life. Even in the digital domain, my knowledge is immensely limited. So i summoned up whatever knowledge i could and worked on the pics. Here are my first baby steps to graphic-city
The cold is beginning to set in on Delhi. While the days are still warm, the evenings have this endearing way of reminding you that its time to enjoy Delhi to the fullest. Sadly, Sundays are all i have to soak in the warmth of the winters… load my mind with fresh memories to last me through the next summer. Yesterday, i woke up at 1 in the afternoon feeling rather cross with myself for having wasted almost a half of this precious 1 day i get to myself.
Saturday was lost in a haze of dust and smoke. The entire city lay shrouded with the depressive smog and i kept wishing that Sunday would be better. As soon as i woke up on Sunday, i rushed out of bed and stuck my head out of the window to look at the tiny patch of sky visible between the lane cramped with buildings. And i saw blue…however faint it was, blue nonetheless. It was time for me to head to Aadilabad. It is THE place for me in Delhi. I still remember the time in my second year when i stood on the ramparts of this deserted, overgrown fort and said to myself “God, i love Delhi”.
Very few people are in fact aware of the presence of Aadilabad. Located on the other side of the road from Tughlaqabad, it can be reached by crossing the dust bowl, full at this time by youngsters enjoying a nice game of cricket. At first sight, it looks monstrous and overgrown…intimidating and foreboding to some…but for me, it is a place where i thrive. Thoughts fall into place, and i find myself in the ‘zone’ as i stand and stare from the high ground, across the plain on to the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and the epic backdrop of Tughlaqabad.
Aadilabad was borne out of the whims of Muhammad Bin Tughluq. After the death of his father Ghiyasuddin, he decided to build his own citadel. For this, he chose the hill directly facing Tughlaqabad, the fortress his father built. At that point of time in the middle of the 14th century, what is now the dust bowl, was a lake. He had his problems with his father, but now they lie in the eternal sleep under the same roof, exactly midway between the citadels they built.
You can take a bike up to the base of the hill and then proceed to climb over the rocks to reach the main entrance.
Tughlaqabad is built on a much larger scale, but lacks the appeal that Aadilabad carries. The absence of a road leading up to it, the creepers growing through the rocks, no names on the walls… alright, very few names on the walls, and most importantly, SILENCE – this is Aadilabad.
The Archaeological Survey of India is undertaking some renovation work on the fort. The workers on the projects live in these little hutments inside the outer walls of the fort. Funnily enough, go back 700 years and the same people would have lived in the same way (minus the plastic sheets), in the same part of the fort. The inner citadel was no place for squatters.
Squatters of a different kind.
The old, naked, disembowelled walls…How i love them!
Friend, bitch, reluctant partner in crime(s).
PS: Tughlaqabad walls in the background.
This is where i always sit!
Looking inwards into the fort. Where we are is a giant bastion. In front of us lies the ruins of a great palace. Still discernible are a large hall full of arches, a pillared hall, several chambers and the foundations of what can only be an elaborate hammam. At one point of time this was one of the finest palaces in the world. At least Ibn Batuta thought so!
This picture was taken from the bastion looking onto the squatters’ village. The kid was walking around in between the huts and stopped just short of a junction of two tracks left by passing livestock. The wild hedges, the littered garbage and the dusty kid made it look like life had been annihilated of the face of the planet and she is the lone survivor, surveying the remains of the day!
There is a method in madness, order in chaos, beauty in squalour and a hearth in front of a home.
The thing about plants is that they dont need an excuse to grow. I want to be a plant!
I have lost weight and i dont own a belt. So i put my hands in the pockets so that it does not fall down.
This side of the fort was less crowded. It was away from the road, the cricket-bat wielding crowd and the voices in my head. We sat here on a rock and stared at nothing. Yet we saw everything. Then suddenly a muezzin sang the Azaan. If somehow you minus the jhuggis outside the fort, the jets passing overhead and the distant honking of horns, you can actually go back in time. The fort would have been the same 3oo years back. So would have been the language, tune and appeal of the Azaan. All you need to do is block out the inconsequential, the mundane, the ephemeral.
Come with me… lets take a walk on the wild side!
Kids are always a joy to watch and photograph. The one on the right found the cricket ball in one of the thickets and that made his day! This frame, i think, defines friendship.
Then they turned back to look at Imroz and me.
When they saw the camera, they called out some names and out of nowhere more little boys materialised for a photo. …and i thought that the fort was deserted. Over the next half an hour, we became very good friends. The kid with the ball would even let us play ‘catch-catch’ with it. We parted after exchanging locations of secret hideouts in the fort and batting techniques.
Imroz has ugly hands.
One thing i hate about winters is the short days. I could have happily spent a couple more hours here. On one hand was the fading daylight and on the other was Imroz going on and on about how we are only wearing tee shirts and the later we leave the colder its going to get. What do i do with this guy?
Thats him stepping outside the fort. The field stretches ahead. Games are being wrapped up and goatherds return home with their flock. We would go back hime and wait for the monday to come and drive the blues away!
Kolkata was the prelude to the Andamans. We stayed at Maniktala at Bubu mama’s place and we met Au Dida, a very nice old lady who has known ma since she was a toddler.
Mamar bari is in the typical North Kolkata para of Maniktala in this little street called the Karbala Tank Lane. The family has resided in the building for over 150 years. The walls of the house are so thick that you dont get network on your cellphones when you are indoors.
Mami and Ma on the way to Au Dida’s place, which is only like three buildings away from mamar bari. The lanes and the architecture is typically north Kolkata.
She stays with her two sons and their families in this another old house, As you can see in the pic, there is the central courtyard to which all the rooms in both the floors open. The ground floor is mostly the kitchen, the store and some spare rooms while the family lives on the first.
Ma negotiating the steep stairs to the first floor.
Au Dida. As you can see, she is very pretty and she is great with kids. I remember she came to Siliguri once with mama, mami and Maam di. So she took maam and me out to the Baisakhi Mela. While every adult we went with dragged us away from the fast food stalls, she infact kept feeding us all the delicious and restricted food items that we used to fantasise about.
Au Dida and Ma deep in some animated conversation.
Thats two of Au Dida’s three similar aged grandsons. As you can see, they are not the quietest of souls. To the left is Chunilal while Pannalal holds up a kite. Hiralal is nowhere to be see, so i guess its safe to assume that he is up to no good.
Mami (Ratna Lucy Sinha) and me
Au Dida comes to the balcony to see us off
Another one of Maniktala’s many lanes
In the evening, i went off to Salt Lake to meet my old friend Ipshita. She had warned me pehle that if i came to Kolkata and did not meet her, that would be the end of my life. She meant it. So i went and we hung out at City Centre and visited some bookshops. After that we went for some food at this amazing Italian place called HUSSH. Here’s another pic we took there:
While coming back i was stuck at this huge traffic jam caused by the bhashan procession. I had nothing to do in the taxi and there was a market by the roadside. I got this photograph from the taxi.
This blog was conceived with Anindita is mind. Passion translates into profession and i find myself travelling across India sometimes with colleagues, at times with family but mostly alone.
Throughout my travels and occassionally in day-to-day life, i stumble across some flotsam of thought – a moment, maybe captured on my camera. The first instinct is to turn to Anindita and say ‘look what i found..’. Due to practical reasons, however, that is not always possible.
Recently i was in the Andaman islands – as romantic a place as can be. There were times when thoughts of her were so intense that i might not have enjoyed a particular place thoroughly. Anyway, plans of coming back sometime in the future aside, this blog is meant to facilitate the sharing of photographs, incidents and anecdotes between the two of us.
What better way to start than from Andamans itself.