Friday, August 19, 2016

Ghats of Narmada – Omkareshwar

India is country where faith has become a nascent part of people’s lives. There might be no place in the country where one won’t find a temple around. While secularism is an integral part of India, its faith foundation can be traced back to the foundation of Hinduism and temple towns of Bharat. One such old town is Omkareshwar.

At about an hour’s distance from Indore, Omkareshwar seems like a crowded small town that has grown in random unprecedented way over time and is now a block of crisscrossed dusty pavements with centres of faith at every other corner but it has one of the twelve ancient Jyotirings of the world that hold great importance in Hindu scriptures. A Jyotirling is believed to be a place where a proper ‘shiv linga’ had occurred naturally and recognized by sages of the time to hold incessant power and spiritual aura. Omkareshwar, or the river Island that houses the Jyotirling, however is believed to be created by the power of penance of Sage Mandhata and the shiv ling occurred there as a result of the power of his devotion and as the centre point of his spiritual power but then split in half when the sage doubted his penance.

Obviously it is all about stories and mythologies but with them grew faith and with faith grew this place and became what it is today. Now Omkareshwar is a pilgrim centre, smaller than the close by town – Ujjain, but equally sacred to the believers of Shiva. When you enter the town, all you see is lodges and tea/sweet stalls with boiling badam (almonds and cashews) milk at the entrance. A small bus-stand and a lot of people asking you to take a boat from the Ghat greet you in the vehicle free town. A little ahead is the Gomukh Ghat of Narmada that joins the mainland to the temple island. The Ghat is where you see the might of Narmada flowing through the deep gorge created by erosion of the old volcanic rocks of the Omkareshwar island, the towering temple of Omkareshwar and the reason why this place is named after lord Shiva (the shape of the island is like an Om)

The place as such is simple and doesn’t have much. A long lane of flower vendors, a 3 level temple with around 150 steps or so, the main Linga in a cage, a couple of other smaller shrines and a long queue of devotees. Close buy is an old fort and the village where the flower vendors and the priests reside. Yes, not much right? But it is the Narmada and the aura of the place that is undeniably captivating. I spent the whole evening at the top of the temple observing the beautiful sunset over the dangerous looking but calm river, the busy ghat, the last lot of the boats to the temple, some devotees still crossing the bridge to the island – another way to the temple, and the priests preparing for the evening arti.

Don’t know how much and what power these religious places hold but the whole experience of finding the calm and quiet at dusk, observing everything around and hearing the drums of the arti, created a different kind of silence and was something that made me believe in the aura of the place. God or no god, belief or no belief – Omkareshwar gave me an evening to remember. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rail Yatri - A New Travel Buddy

After years of travelling in India I have realized one this – the best way to explore India is on road and the best connectivity to anywhere in India is via India Railways! Yes, if you want to travel in India you can’t escape these modes of transport since not everywhere you can go via flight, right? But guess what it wasn’t easy using both modes of transport until some years back. Indian railways site probably had the worst server ever that kept crashing almost all the time and road transport was unsafe and super expensive. But thanks to technology and smartphone apps things have changed for good now. On my recent travel – read everywhere this year – I used a couple of really cool applications that made travel easy for me! Today I would be telling you about one and another one in some days.

So first deal is with trains. Frankly I travelled in trains after 3 years in India and not once but 2 times this year already and would be travelling again to Ahmadabad next month in Shatabdi Express. And from finding seat availability on sluggish Indian railways site to checking PNR status to actually getting decent food in trains I found a new help in the town – Rail Yatri! I used their app to get the status of our train during my Orissa trip and book food from a hotel that got delivered in the train. (They have a web version and a mobile application as well and though the review is around the app, the site also works in the same way.) So if you guys are wondering what makes RailYatri such a big help, here are the reasons.

Pros of Rail Yatri

Train Status at a glance
Rail Yatri tells you exactly where a train is and gives you when a train would reach a station and on which platform! Imagine you have to pick someone up, help them with luggage and are totally clueless about where the train is coming and by the time you figure out getting there becomes a task or you reach the station only to figure out trains are late by an hour or two because of maybe the weather. Well, this is where Rail yatri comes to your rescue – it tells you the platform and the time when the train would arrive at a station. Know it all, be at ease right.

Food woes no more!
2.  Food
More Options!
Okay sorry state, yes, but fact - but railway food is horrible still! I personally could never bring myself to consume anything from the railway pantry during my journeys and more than 24 hours in trains scared me for this very reason – food! But Rail Yatri has an awesome solution to the travel food woes – it lets you order your train meals online with options from hotels close to some stations and at pretty reasonable rates. So, you order food with your ticket and forget all the worries of bad food. Like the app already?

Check this out
You can do PNR check and Seat check in seconds which means it is faster than Indian Railways when it comes to these functionalities and well of course efficient! It also helps you by forecasting the chances of seat availability or the chances of your ticket getting confirmed with your PNR number which is based on a tested algorithm created with help of about 15 lakh PNR numbers.
4.  Rail Wisdom
Okay guess you are going to some new place and need a hotel or restaurant really close to the station or to some tourist place, Rail Wisdom of Rail Yatri helps you just there.
Cost Please?
5. Fare
It give you a complete break up of the fare of a ticket. Total transperancy is a good thing right?

There you go - the break up

Cons or con of Rail Yatri
1.   You can’t book a ticket.
Maybe this is something IRCTC wants to keep to itself completely but I really wish Rail Yatri could get the option for booking tickets for its users.
2.   Cost of cancellation.
Indian Railways has increased the rate of cancellation of tickets and they are different for different trains and classes. This month I had to cancel my Gujarat tickets which were actually tentative so it would have really helped to know for which train I would have incurred least loss but I had no way to figure it out and Shatabdi cost me a bomb during cancellation. I wish Rail Yatri had this feature along with its cost estimation feature.

So if you ask me, apart from these tiny cons I would really recommend Rail Yatri for all those who are using Indian Railways! It is, in my view, a pretty helpful application. Let me know if you guys know of a similar application which is really helpful while travelling in India.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Just Another Trek - Roopkund

Nature - just like in those windows wallpapers

Travelling – It leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller. 

One of the most clich├ęd quotes on travelling right? But it is true! It does that to me and I am sure a lot of others would agree with it too. But a lot of times we don’t get to hear those stories because a lot of people don’t really write or speak much about it. When I started this blog it was to share my travel stories and to inspire others to share theirs. One such moment has come today! A friend of my brother is a trek junkie and after completing many Sahyadri treks, he has recently started his Himalayan adventures and today is sharing his most recent trek experience on my blog!!

The Experience –

We knew it will be anything but easy
Still shaken due to the cloudburst news some days back, and nervous of meeting and trekking with twenty something new faces, I met my trek team at Kathgodam station and started our journey to the base camp at Lohajung. Little did we know that this ten hours’ drive would give us the taste of the first adventure of our trip. Hardly half way through the journey, I heard a faint rumble and soon our car stopped. Landslide – extremely common in the region but to see the road gone completely and mud and trees reclaiming the path ahead of us was a jolt to reality – the might of the Himalayas. Traffic and our driver’s urge to have a cigarette saved us in a way and we took a detour to reach Lohajung with a two-hour delay. Day one was just about getting acclimatized to the surroundings. The actual trek began on day two!

Green everywhere
Huddled up, and excited we began our trail with a 40 minutes’ car ride ahead of Wan and then the steep climb. I finally knew why we are asked to exercise and stay fit before such long treks – it is tiresome. Crossing Neelganga we finally reached Ghareoli Patal – our first camp. Green everywhere, forests dense and visible around the horizon and occasional clouds and mist –enough reason to fall in love with nature.

Bedni Bugyal Campsite
Next morning, we left for our next campsite-Bedni Bugyal. Soon, the forest began to thin down. On the way, we were told stories about how the place got its name. Bugyal basically means meadow. It is said the Vedas were written over there near a small pond called Bedni Kund. Hence the name Bedni(Vedni) Bugyal. And guess what - it is Asia’s largest meadow! This day was comparatively easier than the previous day due to the gentle ascent. It took me a while to soak it all in. We sat there on the lush green grass of the meadow, admiring one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed. The clouds parted and it seemed like we were looking through a portal into heaven. But that wasn’t possible, because we felt like we were already there. Bedni Bugyal was even more beautiful than I had seen in the photos. The meadow and the sunset connected all of us (trekkers) to nature but more importantly to ourselves and to each other as well. Our mutual love for trekking and nature, and those hours of walking somehow was taking away the ‘strangeness’ of those new faces.

Waking up to this!
Next day, the trek got difficult. There was fog almost everywhere our trek guides (of Indiahikes – they are awesome by the way) anticipated rainfall but we got lucky and reached Ghora(Horse) Lotani(return) – a place after which horses don’t go ahead - pretty much on time. And this marked the end of the greens and start of the rocky territory. High Altitude was here, and this was where our will power would be tested. Steep valley on one side and mountain on the other and fog around – pretty much like movies. With a lot of caution, we managed to reach our next campsite – Pathar Nachauni before lunchtime. Due to the windy, foggy weather and tiredness of the group the day’s trek ended here and we had the local special momos to celebrate the completion of half our trek that day! Okay, maybe it is not of much importance but I loved the momos.

The meadows
Next morning, we had our oxygen level and heart rate readings checked (this actually happened twice everyday) and left Pathar Nachauni campsite. But first it was time for Kalu Vinayak temple and Bhagwabasa where we were told how Pathar Nachauni got its name. There was a king who was on a pilgrimage on this route circa 800 A.D. Apparently, he made Lord Shiva upset, so he turned all the dancers of the King (Apsaras) into stone. Mythology is funny, period. By evening, the weather had cleared up and we got a clear view of Mt. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti close by, well technically.

We just didnt want to stop
But all of that changed that night. At 2 am, I woke up to the sound of rain! We were supposed to leave for Roopkund at 4 am! I woke up at 4:30, but the rain still had not stopped. As a trekker, climate often ruins your plans, I knew that but this was the first time I was going to face the scenario. 6 ‘o ‘clock, the rain stopped and we were 2 hours behind schedule. With all hopes of melting snow not posing an issue for us reaching our final destination – Roopkund, we started our walk and nature appreciated our efforts I guess. The weather cleared up and there was sunlight! Stones, steep ascents, streams on the road and finally I saw Roopkund emerge behind a small slope.

Clear waters of the small glacial lake - Roopkund. Yes this is the lake!
It was surreal. Just standing there, living the moment. The majestic lake to one side and an “above the clouds” view on the other. It was a short 100m path down to the lake. The lake of bones was here. Did you know these bones are dated to 9th century and still no one is sure of whose bones are they? Completely intact human skeletons, some of which still have skin attached to them. Creepy yet fascinating right? It made me wonder about the stories behind the lake and left me completely baffled.  Any ways, we could not make it to Junargali though as we were late and the snow had started melting. So we decided to come back after this once in a life time view and experience.

Happiness is here
The experience would stay with us forever, and the wondering about what happened at this lake would puzzle us all the time but at the same time all the memories we created, friends we made during this trip are priceless and maybe the best part of the journey. Guess that is what travel is about – connection, be it a place or people. And in my case it was both thanks to this fab trip organized by Indiahikes.

Have you been to a trip that has turned you into a storyteller? Let me know in the comments below.

One last campsite

About the Writer -
Shardul Prabhu is a second year student of chemical engineering at Thadomal Sahani College of Engineering, Bandra, Mumbai. His love for mountains has taken him on several local treks in Sahyadris and two Himalayan treks so far. (Brighu lake before Roopkund) He says ‘Trekking has made me realize that it is only when you go to the mountains, you realize how small you are in front of nature.’ Though not a blogger, he chose to share his experience at Roopkund because it was so different from the other treks he had done and because he wanted to express his gratitude toward Indiahikes staff.

That sense of achievement

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ancient Temple of Magic and Energy in Odisha - Chausathi Yogini Temple

Chausathi Yogini Temple, Hirapur

It has been a part of many cultures since ages. Of course in today’s time most of us do not believe in magic, but it still fascinates us right? In India, the earliest form of magic has its roots in Athava veda, but eventually magic or beliefs of magic grew in folklore with tantra vidya and black magic. While black magic is not really considered to be sacred in any form, tantra vidya was related to devis (Hindu Goddesses) had temples and sacred sites where believers supposedly practiced magic. With time maybe tantra vidya is gone completely, or maybe it is still practiced secretly by some people but majority of the temples have vanished with a very few exceptions. Of all the tantric temples the temples with all sixty-four devis (chausathi yogini) were even fewer and today we just know of four – two in Odisha and two in Madhya Pradesh.

The central altar
Last month visited one of them in Hirapur, Odisha which is just 5 kilometres away from Bhubaneshwar. Built somewhere around 9th century during Bramha Dynasty, Chausathi Yogini Temple of Hirapur is believed to be the most preserved yogini temples of India where locals still offer prayers to Goddess Durga. Due to the hypaethral structure of the temple it is believed that nature’s energies and elements were prayed to at this temple and feminine energy was worshiped too according to primordial texts, making this a pagan temple as well.

Devi Statues with their Vahanas
This circular limestone temple has 56 graphite devi idols cascaded in wall cavities inside the temple and 8 devis idols on the 4 sides of the central altar. All the devis are depicted with their vahanas and represent different shades of human life and feminine energy like birth, death, joy, anger, control, power etc. The central altar, though is empty as of today, it is believed that in the olden days a statue of Maha Bhairava was worshiped there, who represented Goddess Shakti (The ultimate power). The inner chakra of 8 devis is believed to represent sankoka or concentration of cosmic energy while the 64 on the other circle represent vikas or expansion of the world.

The temple in form of Shiv Ling
The architecture of the temple without the idols is also turned out to be equally interesting. An old man in the premises of the temple told me that the temple is actually a huge Shiva Lingam which was meant for worshiping the feminine energy of Ardhanareshwar (Half Man Half Woman avatar of Shiva). Later when I thought of what he said, it did make sense. The central altar was the lingam and the circular structure was the supporting kund. Also there was a small pond nearby, a water body which is very common around shiv temples. And after all, the shiv ling is just a representation of cosmic energy! Do you see the parallelism like I did?

The small village pond closeby
To know that so much thought went into creating these temples and just four of them have survived the test of time was kind of sad. The Chausathi Yogini temples, although, are one of the rarest of ancient sites of Indian History, all of them are pretty offbeat and not known to many. This temple in particular was pretty much lost in time and known only to locals till about 10 years back. In 2006, an Odishi Dancer named Pratibha Panda started a dance festival in the temple premises. After the festival was formally recognized by Odisha Government in 2010, the temple came into limelight and made its way to Odisha tourist maps. Though still offbeat and less known, the place now does see a lot of visitors from 23rd-25th of December every year – when the dance festival is held. So in case you are planning to travel to Odisha in December, you know of a place you might want to visit.

Prayers are offered to the pond too!

One of the very few completely intact statues
How to get there –
You can ask any auto or taxi to drop you at Hirapur Yogini Temple. It is 5 KM from Raja Rani Temple and a trip there can be combined with a visit to Dhauligiri or Old Bhubaneshwar. You would need maximum half an hour to explore the site. It is not advisable to go to that area post 6:00 PM.

Other Chausathi Yogini Temples.
1.   Ranipur-Jharial in Balangir district, Odisha
2.  Western group of temples in Khajuraho in Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh
3.  Chaunsath Yogini Mandir in Bhedaghat in Jabalpur district, Madhya Pradesh 

The outer circle of the tempe

Sunday, July 24, 2016

White Water Rafting in Mhadei River

View from the road 
Monsoon is here and it is time for Rafting in Goa!!! Yes, you heard it right – Goa for rafting. I have traveled to Goa in literally every season and explored many shades of the state till date, but it was last year - same time, when my most adventurous trip to Goa till date happened. Well not the entire trip, but I did rafting, white water rafting, and it was the most 'adventurous' Goa has been to me so far.

It had just begun
Last year during monsoons, I did white water rafting in Mhadei River courtesy Goa Tourism. While rafting on Tilari River has always been a thing in Goa, in recent years, Goa Tourism has started endorsing rafting on Mhadei River near Valpoi and luckily I, along with some other media personals, was treated with the splashing cold waters on an overcast day.

All prepped up!
Long drive from Panjim to Valpoi, tree canopy all the way, amidst which we actually got lost twice, and then somehow managed to reach a tiny restaurant called The Earthen Pot. A dainty village, openness around, this tiny restaurant that didn’t serve normal stuff like tea, coffee or fritters and said most of the food came from town side and absolutely no hint of any river close by – all this made me wonder, where exactly does rafting happen?

Just look at the water!
From there we were driven to another place, about 10 km away with another group of enthusiastic Chinese who, perhaps, also had the same questions in their mind. Lush green forest, uneven half washed roads and then there was a faint distant gurgle of water, like from a stream and our questions were answered. After we got down from our small van we had to walk another kilometre or so and could finally see the Mhadei river – small rapids, fleeting flow and noisy in its meandering course.

And then I decided to take a dip
After a good 15 mins of prepping and instructions, the rafting chronicles finally began. 10 mins or so, nothing fast, nothing crazy – compared to my earlier experience in Teesta (Sikkim) and Ganga (Rishikesh), Mhadei seemed kind of timid. Guess the river found it insulting and we met our first rapid within minutes and guess what, it was a grade II rapid. And from there on, for the next forty minutes or so, we met several such rapids in close proximity of each other.

Drenched in the overly generous sprays of water, tired of the constant paddling, looking at the playful sun – I was happy and ready for the end of the raft but was only surprised to know there was almost another 45 minutes remaining but this stretch luckily had grade I rapids and a lot of breathable, floatable area. *Phew*

When the others decided to swim
The whole rafting happens on the stretch of the river between Valpoi Village and Mhadei River Bird Sanctuary and if you are lucky you might get to see a lot of beautiful birds all the way! For us, I was overjoyed at the sight of two spirited great hornbills that kept us company for almost an hour – playing, dancing, flying from tree to tree, chasing each other. To see these birds at wild was a priceless sight (no photos since I didn’t carry my camera during rafting).

Before it got turbulent
The Rafting experience came to an end with some of us swimming and racing to the bank. Tired and panting, drenched and cold under the setting sun – I only wished to go back and re-live that part of the day again. For about 2 hours or so I had forgotten that I was still in Goa and when I did remember details of the location again, I was in awe of the place even more. Goa is so much more than just beaches and churches!

It was fun!
So if you wish to experience Goa beyond beaches, now might be a good time. For booking the rafting trip, contact is available on Goa Tourism’s official site – the rafting trips are organised by Southern River Adventures & a Sports Pvt Ltd headed by an Englishman, John Pollard. Rafting costs 1800 INR per person and is rated easy to moderate. And if you ask me for my personal opinion – Love Rafting, don’t miss this!

Before the end - whoosh
P.S. - The bookings for Rafting in Mhadei River would be starting soon. Please check Goa Tourism site for it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Indian Monsoon Delight

A standard scene at homes during monsoon.
Monsoon is here and for Indians it is the time to indulge in Masala Chai (Spiced Tea) and Pakodas (Fritters). Imagine that long drive or that tiresome trek and then a cup of steaming tea and piping hot pakodas! Loving it? Or maybe a lazy evening, just catching up with someone or yourself, your thoughts – with a cup of tea whose steam fog your window pane that is being lashed by rains on the outside and you munch on some fritters to enjoy that moment? Sounds totally like an ideal monsoon evening right? Well of late I have been doing this quite often and this Sunday it just got a bit ‘Grand’ with flavours of monsoon served by Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

The set up at Grand Hyatt
Before I confuse you – this is a food blog post, but it has a lot to do with travel. Don’t believe me? Did you know different regions in India have different spices and forms of tea depending on the local spices? While ginger is predominant in Gujrati tea, Cardamom tea rules in the south, Oolong finds its fan base in the east while Kashmiri tea or Kahwah has a totally different set of spices. But more interesting is the story of tea’s companion Pakodas!

Lotus stem fritters famous in Kashmir during Monsoons.
Fritters or pakodas originated in India and travelled to South East Asia, England and Persia with time. Originally from west and South India, pakodas or bhajiyas were made famous in South East Asia by early merchants where they traditionally promoted chillies and bananas in form of fritters; and then picked up by Mughals, the traditional ways to making fritters travelled through north of India and all the way to Persia. Since monsoons in India is relatively cold fritters found way into many seasonal Indian Cuisines like Lucknowi, Kashmiri, Bengali and even Marwadi! 

Daal wadi or Pakodas of pulses!
All the regions made fritters of different ingredients, like Kashmir developed a taste of lotus stem fritters with the traditional Kahwah while, the Mughals adapted fritters of different daals (pulses) and the east created savoury fritters with different edible flowers. With Britishers bringing in new ingredients to Indian Market like Potatoes and Breads, the traditional fritters got innovative with the west soon developing bread pakodas, onion fritters.

The butta (corn) with a twist

You see - Food travels! And food culture of a lot of places tells you so much about the place and the influence of time and nature on those places. I never really indulged much with food travel, but for past some months I have been hooked to a show called Raja Rasoi and Anya Kahaniya which made me realize how much local or adapted food of a place can tell you about the area and people.

The menu of tGrand Hyatt Monsoon Hi-Tea
Anyways coming back to my main point, thanks to Grand Hyatt Monsoon Hi-Tea – I got a flavour of monsoon from various states of India in Mumbai! The monsoon special Hi Tea, which would be served at the hotel till 31st of August lets you taste monsoon in a very diverse way. With Kahwa to Caya, from Samosas to Daal Kachori – I travelled through some states virtually just through food which made me make a mental note – look out for regional cuisine next time you travel somewhere!

Yes well it is Hyatt, so everything is with luxury - the place.
Which place made you realise that the local cuisine is also a huge part of its identity? Or which food item made you think, where has it originated and how has it become a big part of locals somewhere. Let me know in the comments below.

P.S. You too can enjoy some very traditional Indian monsoon favourites with a twist at INR 450/-. So in case you are staying at the hotel or planning to go to Juhu side, you know a quieter classier place to enjoy the monsoon now.

Food for thought - Leaving you to think with some lovely samosas