For years now I have been delaying my plans to embark upon a road trip to the Mecca of Indian bikers – Ladakh. But then the most unexpected of things happened. Royal Enfield offered to take me on a ride from Delhi to Ladakh to test ride the Himalayan. I would be a fool to turn down the offer of a lifetime.
This would be my first road trip in three years. There were doubts. many, many doubts. Do I still have it in me to travel these long distances? What if I get mountain sickness? What if the bad roads and the strain of the saddle trigger my dormant sciatica? Strangely enough, all these doubts dissipated the moment I swung my legs over the rugged Himalayan on a sweltering July morning at India Gate.
What followed was a week of riding, riding, and then riding some more. Fine, I did fall off a couple of times, but in my defence, it was only while I was trying to show off. So anyway, while I battle my laziness and contemplate how to document the journey in this blog, here’s a teaser of the journey; Through some photographs from the phone. Hopefully someday soon I will manage to get off my ass and write a travelogue and post photos from the ‘proper’ camera.
CHAPTER I: THE HIMALAYAN
I worship my Royal Enfield, a 2008 Machismo 5oo. But the Himalayan was a different beast altogether. For starters, it is purpose-built to take on the rough roads and then carry on when even these ‘roads’ ended. This is not a review of the motorcycle, but let me tell you this, the chassis and suspension are on point. What I loved most was the positioning of the foot pegs; it allows you to stand up and ride. Specially designed indentations along the fuel tanks help you lock in your knees and just glide over the rough patches.
I have always admired motorcycles for their simplicity and ruggedness. After 6 days and close to 2,000 kms on this motorcycle, I can report that not one panel on the bike exists for aesthetic purposes. Everything is rugged and everything is functional. This is what, in my mind, makes the Himalayan beautiful. There is a lot of bite in the brakes, at times, a bit too much, but this is something you will get used to.
All these improvements on the Himalayan meant that it was really hard for me to get off the saddle. As a result, the 320-odd kilometres between Chandigarh and Manali was covered with just one butt break (not counting the photo stops). The previous day we rode into Chandigarh from Delhi, a distance of some 260 kms. This was good because it gave me time to get used to the bike before hitting the hills.
Following the Beas: Snapshots from the road to Manali
Following the Beas: Snapshots from the road to Manali
When you are used to riding the older generation Royal Enfields (and in this, I am including the models with the ‘new’ UC engines), you become so accustomed to vibrations at high revs that when you come across a motorcycle with no vibes whatsoever, it seems rather unreal. This is exactly what happened to me between Delhi and Chandigarh; on top gear at 110-120 kmph, I felt no vibrations whatsoever, at neither the handlebars nor the footpegs.
This also brings us very neatly to what is the biggest downside of the Himalayan – the rather unimpressive power delivery on the higher rev ranges. This is felt the most on long stretches of empty roads where you might want to give it some beans. Irrespective of how well you shift or how wide the throttle, the higher reaches remain annoyingly flat. This motorcycle needs and deserves 10 more horses. The day Royal Enfield makes this happen is the day I put down my deposit on one.
The Trout and I share a complicated relationship
It can die for me and i can travel great distances for it.
CHAPTER II: THE RIDE, OH THE RIDE
The flat Delhi-Chandigarh and the twisty Chandigarh-Manali stretches ensured that by the time we left Manali towards Rohtang and beyond, I had gotten the hang of the Himalayan. The Himalayan Odyssey is a group ride and this year there were close to 80 riders. In addition to this, there were us, a handful of riders from the media. I am not that much of a group rider; in fact, i ride alone and ride to get away from people. So, the mornings were usually slightly stressful for me.
Early morning in Manali/ All set for the road ahead
Of soaring mountains and plunging valleys
View of the road to Rohtang
Road we left behind
A photo stop at the beauty spot at Marhi
At the top of Rohtang, looking down
Going as close to the edge as I dare
Going as close to the edge as I dare
But where there is anxiety, there is also a solution. I planned ahead and parked the bike closest to the exit spot so that in the mornings I am one of the first riders to leave. Upon leaving, I picked up some speed (it was relatively easy as I am a paced rider by nature) which allowed me and a couple of experienced riders get a considerable headstart over the rest of the group. Once you cross Rohtang and descend into the otherworldly Lahaul-Spiti valley, you need to be in your own skin to enjoy the ride and this strategy allowed me to do so.
CHAPTER III: ON THE BANKS OF THE BHAGA
Our destination on the third day of the ride was the tiny mountain village of Jispa. At barely 110 kms, this was the shortest riding day of the trip. Coupled with my riding strategy, this meant that I was able to reach Jispa well before the rest of the gang arrived. Jispa is but a small hamlet located at the widest part of the Bhaga valley. The river here is wide, shallow and full of pebbled banks and a much-needed refuge to worshippers of solitude. Spend some time here, amid the relative greenery before you venture into the land of the high passes, the sparse, stark cold desert.
CHAPTER IV: MOONLANDIA
The word ‘Ladakh’ translates to ‘the land of high passes’. The first of these, Baralacha La, lay but a few kms from Jispa. The previous night was spent in the throes of a myriad of impossible dreams – an obvious effect of the high altitude. So as I swung my legs over the Himalayan’s saddle, I was acutely aware of the fact that on this particular day, we would end up camping at Sarchu, about a kilometre higher than Jispa. I had been previously under the impression that altitude-sickness would not affect me – what with all the trips across Spiti and a couple of high-altitude treks under my belt – but boy, was I about to be proven wrong.
Altitude is a great leveller and pride comes before Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Avoiding the precautionary dosage of Diamox was a bad idea. Baralacha La came and went, but what remained was a constant throbbing in the head and a strange tingling on the lips. Every breath was laboured and progress was hard. There was barely any strength left to stand on the footpegs and let the lovely Himalayan (which, at this point was faring better than the rider) loose over the gravel and the occasional water crossing. Your appetite goes for a toss, but you need to keep a full stomach to fuel the body and keep the situation from getting worse. Luckily, the lovely tented restaurants along the way dish out many a delicacy from their makeshift kitchens.
Mutton momos at 3500 m
Rajma Chawal at 4300 m
Sarchu is cold, windy but impossibly picturesque. It is also a nightmare for those staying overnight. There are no permanent structures, only tents offering varying degrees of ‘luxury’. Gasping for breath, we reached our encampment, neatly lined up in the middle of the windswept plains against the background of the stark, craggy hills.
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!
The ubiquitous red-vented Bulbul is the hunted one these days in Assam’s Hajo. A 400 year old tradition pits these birds against each other in the compound of the historic Haigrib Madhab Temple on the day of Bihu. A year after the contentious event was banned by the sessions court, the bird fight is back this year with the High Court removing the ban. Buoyed by the order, around 100 families are expected to participate this year with a catch of over 400 birds for the fight.
The birds are first trapped, then kept hungry and often drugged to make them more ferocious. On the day of the fight, birds from two villages Sonaritula and Bharalitula are pitted against each other. It is this hunger which forces them to attack each other.
Animal rights activists are now mulling a move to Supreme Court against this fight. Sangeeta Goswami of People For Animals (PFA) says she would like to seek Union Minister Maneka Gandhi’s help to take the legal fight forward. She also says that apart from the pre-fight torture, a number of birds do not survive the injuries received during the fight itself.
Residents of Hajo however maintain the birds are never tortured. They claim the birds often stay back after the fight when they are released. But we suspect they stay back for that intoxicating mixture of 108 ingredients which are allegedly fed to the bird while they are held captive before the fight. Not a single villager was willing to speak to us about this.
A battle rages on – between a 400 year-old ‘tradition’ and the question of ethical treatment of animals. It is probably time to take a stronger view against these traditions, be it Jallikattu of Tamil Nadu, the cock fights of Andhra Pradesh, or the Bulbul fight of Hajo.
ALSO WATCH: A special report on the Bulbul fights from Hajo
This article was written for Beyondlust by Subhajit Sengupta, Bureau Chief, North East with CNN-IBN. You can find more if his work here.
Delhi, with its 2 crore people, buildings to house them in, vehicles to transport them is bursting at its seams. The cost of this human expansion is sadly being borne by the animals and birds that used to call this bit of geography their home. Nowhere is this terrible price clearer than at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, at the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Here are 5 things I noticed on a recent visit to the park:
The bird sanctuary is located along the eastern bank of the Yamuna, upstream of the Yamuna Barrage at Kalindi Kunj. Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and multiple attempts (and crores of rupees) to clean it has yielded negligible (at best) results. As a result, the moment you enter through the gates of the sanctuary, your nostrils are assaulted with the stench of untreated sewage and human waste. Even the otherworldly beauty of the reeds on a misty winter morning does not take your mind off this olfactory onslaught.
I love dogs, I really do! I will also confess that I usually prefer the company of canines over most humans. But even I will admit that feral dogs have no place in a protected sanctuary. Okhla is home to a number of species of endemic waders and waterfowl and most of them nest on the ground amidst the reeds. Packs of dogs roaming across the sanctuary decimate the nests and massacre the chicks. Here is hoping that the UP government comes up with a humane process for relocating the dogs that roam inside the park. (The following photographs by Sriparna Ghosh)
Okhla Bird Sanctuary is popular with a wide variety of people – birdwatchers, errant schoolchildren, lovers in need of a quiet moment and even picnicking families. While most leave with pleasant memories, they leave behind bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags and all forms of refuse that have no place in a bird sanctuary. The park is also massively understaffed, which means that the garbage rarely gets collected and removed.
Where are the migratory birds?
While Okhla is home to a vide variety of endemic species, every winter thousands of migratory birds descend on the marshes. With the birds come birders like yours truly. This time, however, things were different. Sure, we did see a number of resident birds like spotted owlets, Red and Silverbilled munias, spot billed ducks and purple swamphens, but the flocks of Northern pintails, Northern shovellers, Common Teals and Eurasian Wigeons were conspicuous by their absence. According to this report by News18, it was ‘due to the pollution at the Okhla barrage as the Chhath Puja concluded recently’.
Some welcome changes
On my previous visit to OBS in November 2014, I encountered a bizarre set of rules. You could drive your cars / motorcycles anywhere within the park. You would also have to cough up an exorbitant Rs 500 for the privilege of carrying a camera in the sanctuary. I am glad to report that both these rules have now been scrapped. Cars remain parked outside the sanctuary gates (no designated parking) and all you pay is a Rs 30 entrance fee.
Have you visited Okhla Bird Snctuary recently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
So this is what my life has come to – my friends do the hiking and I post about them while contemplating strategies to rein in the steadily rising cholesterol levels in my blood. Well done, life, well done.
So three of my friends – Padma, Rohit and Sriparna flagged off a clandestine ‘Himalaya One’ project in the summer of 2013. The first trek started in Naggar (Kullu Valley) and ended in Kafnu (Kinnaur Valley). Over 19 days, the trio crossed four passes (Chandrakhani, Rashol, Pin Parvati and Bhaba), celebrated a birthday, got lost and in the process walked for over 200 kilometres.
The video below was shot with Rohit’s GoPro and edited by Akash Mohimen.
If like me, you are more of a stills person, you can find photographs from the trek here
Here’s what you can expect in the album:
The Chandrakhani Pass ridge
Strange skies over Kheerganga
The sheep fell in love with the trekkers
A stunning campsite
The shelter at Tunda Bhuj
Trekking along the Parvati River
Go on this trek, you might just run into this handsome fella
A lesson in humility
A pink tent against the backdrop of the Parvati South peak
Camps in the stillness of the night
Mulling Campsite: Sheer insanity
Destination in sight. So is the prospect of a hot bath
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.
Living alone sure has its charms. Oh Yes. Especially when you live in a barsati (rooftop flat) in a leafy South Delhi colony. The laburnum tree grows so close to my balcony that I can just reach out and touch the branches.
This tree is also the favourite haunt to some of the tiniest birds in this part of the world – okay, maybe with the exception of the Fire Breasted flowerpecker – the Oriental White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus).
One lazy Sunday afternoon, my siesta was disturbed by a huge racket outside. I open to door to see at least half a dozen of these tiny beauties darting from branch to branch announcing their glee to the entire world. I have never had them come so close. After a frantic dash into the other room to get the camera, fix the right lens, I managed to get a few shots of the passerines.
On account of my poverty, my wildlife / birding lens is a Sigma 50-500. It is slower than an geriatric on a vintage stair-lift and lesser said about its auto-focussing prowess, the better. White eyes are notoriously darty, never settling on the same perch for more than a second or two. Imagine if you will, my woe. Half an hour later, however, I get few shots worth talking about.
Once I view them on the laptop I notice the noise. One quick look at the camera setting tells me that my ISO is set to 2000 from a night shoot I did few days back. F*** my life. Anyway, here’s what I got.
In the gaggle of white eyes, another tiny bird almost went unnoticed. Almost. My keen eyes (cue ‘Eye of the Tiger) spotted the imposter and the handy field guide identified it as a Hume’s Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus humei). Equally fidgety, shooting it was another task. But in the end, two images of some quality did emerge.
Bonus of the day:
A sneaky Yellow Footed Green Pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera) trying hard to be a leaf
This is unfamiliar territory. Uncharted waters if there ever was one. I have always been a little dense at poetry. Unsurprisingly I am also a really crap poet.
I once bought my girlfriend a book. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in case you are curious. Nothing out of the ordinary, buying your girlfriend a book. What was alarming was the little limerick I composed for her in the book. Let’s just say that one of the lines was just composed of the words ‘hee hee hee’. Yes, that bad.
So this morning as I came in to work, I found myself in a funk. My head was a big blank. If I could look into my own eyes, they would look like the eyes of a recently deceased person. So I did what one must do at times like these… write poetry.
Now its time to unleash the beast on to you. Be warned, for here be monsters!
It’s always been a crowd in here Ironic, really Because I hate crowds. There’s always been pushing and shoving There’s always been the struggle to come out in front Most of the time it’s amusing Sometimes a bit of a nuisance
The constant crowd does not Prepare you for a mass desertion One morning you wake up, You look to the left You look to the right You look up and you look down (Because the world is three dimensional, silly) Not a soul in sight!
The silence is eerie, The blankness is unfamiliar. Not a thought floats past Not a memory peeks at you from behind a door Suddenly it’s a whole lot of nothing Tabula rasa? Aye, tabula rasa
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!
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.