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Monday, 22 June 2015

Yaatra 2015 - Part 4

And now, it is time to talk of the highlight of the trip in many ways - our visit to Haridwar and Rishikesh...those holiest of holy places that literally swept us off our feet. And the surprise I promised in Yaatra 2015 - Part 3? A refreshing take on our experiences through the eyes and voice  of my young nephew Shreeharsha - a techie turned MBA, who is also a writer in his own right. 

"The sea: Till when will you keep pouring all your water in me?
The river: Till you become sweet.”

In our case, we ask the Ganga till when she plans to flow, she says, till I take up all your sins.

The Haridwar and Rishikesh trip was my pet project. Mom had put me in charge of doing all the research and planning the trip with my aunt, uncle and cousin. It would be my first overnight trip after moving to Delhi.

A little time surfing the Net showed up many trip plans - some even did it in 24 hours and just cost about 1000 rupees. But for us, soaking in the holiness of the place took priority over time or money. So we decided on a peaceful 2 days and a chose a comfortable cab best suited for us.

We started off early in the day. The ride was on time and as ever I was not. Luckily this time around I had my uncle to share the podium of the “timeless” people. Thanks to the lack of traffic, we made good time. Sticking to my reputation I got sick once in the car before breakfast. To avoid any more episodes I decided to take a long nap till we reached Haridwar.

Haridwar is situated on a flat piece of land. Although it is at the edge of the Himalayas, there are very few hills and valleys in the city itself. We entered the city by noon and caught the glimpse of the Ganga as we made way towards our hotel. We checked into our AC rooms only to realize that Haridwar was a cool place and we could've done without the AC.

The receptionist suggested we have lunch at the Chotiwala hotel. I had first seen this eatery in Rishikesh 15 years ago when a real man wearing blue paint with an upward pointing choti and a south Indian attire sat at the door and invited guests. The Chotiwala is all but clichéd now with dozens of Chotiwalas all over the two holy cities.

Lunch was a north Indian version of south Indian food and following it, we headed out to the Manasa Devi temple. Situated atop the Bilwa Parvat, it is one of the most famous places in Haridwar and can be reached on foot or via ropeway. We chose the latter and were deposited at the temple in less than 2 minutes.

We bowed before the Goddess, received blessing and “beatings” from all the other shrines, made offerings, and gazed at all the threads tied to posts by pilgrims praying for this or that wish to be granted. To me, it seemed like an inventory of human greed….but if you’ve read the last part of the Yaatra series, you know my aunt’s thoughts on this…and….we’ve agreed to disagree.

From the hill, we had a breathtaking view of the entire town of Haridwar and the enormous Ganga and how she has been diverted into the ghats where the evening aarti would be performed.

We witnessed the Ganga Aarti in the evening as it was performed by priests of the Ganga Maata temple. From where we sat among maybe 5000 people, the song was faintly audible but the flames and their reflection in the Ganga was really something. We too offered our prayers using the small aarti boat made of leaves, containing flowers and a lighted wick, watching how far in the water it went. Not that it meant anything, but watching it go felt like letting our ego and attachment to this mortal world go. Among the 5000 odd people, we suddenly felt nothing. The crowd simply faded into nothingness. We could just feel the grace of Ganga Maata and an urge to surrender.

The next day, we went early to the ghats for the Ganga Snaan. The water was ice cold, but the flow and the feeling of it being Ganga overrode the chill. I got out early from the water; one of the disadvantages of being thin is that you get cold very soon. But my cousin really had a great time.

After the bath, morning Sandhyavandanam and breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and started towards Rishikesh. The ride took hardly an hour as we passed various temples and even some south Indian establishments; in fact there were ashrams and temples from all parts of the country. Rishikesh brought out the mountains. We were officially in the Himalayas.

The city of Rishikesh was strikingly different from Haridwar. It seemed more tourism orientated with shops selling books, merchandise, accessories, music CDs among other things. There were a lot of adventure sports establishments, too and rafting, hiking and safari seemed to be very popular. Rishikesh had more foreigners than Haridwar – was it perhaps because of the numerous yoga and wellness centers promising eternal calm? Also, the ghats of Haridwar are famous only from a religious POV whereas Rishikesh is less crowded on the river bank and allows silent siesta.

We walked over the Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula which are suspended bridges across the Ganga connecting the city to the temples across the river. The Gita Bhawan and Lakshmi Narayan temple were the only places we visited. The boards in the Gita Bhawan were really philosophical – and I mean that in a good way. One such board read "Offer yourself and not any material article;" another visibly placed board said something like “Offer your mind, body, intellect, senses and soul here, and open yourself up to the grace of God." Reading these boards, it seemed to me like the dehydrated walk across the Ram Jhula in the blazing sun had been worth it.

My cousin made friends with touring Tamilians at Rishikesh, Tamil actor Vijay fans to be specific. My aunt and I didn't exactly warm up to this. Perhaps a giving of being adults.

Speaking to my mom just before we left Rishikesh, my aunt said she could live there forever and didn't feel like going back. I was going through the same feeling. I thought I should make a Facebook status of it. Something like "I could get lost in the ghats of Haridwar forever." Thankfully, better sense prevailed because apparently, I could get lost in Haridwar but not lose my Facebook.

Nearly a month later, Vellukudi Krishnan Swami visited Delhi. I was exhilarated and attended all the upanyaasam sessions. Since the sessions were small, he took questions. I made myself ask a small question. "It is important to walk on the footsteps of our elders as it is a tried and tested path, but in today's time, especially for the young, it is also important to keep in pace with modern rationality. How do we strike a balance between the two?"

He looked up and, with an expression that revealed nothing, said, "It will come, you need to listen more. Things won't come that easily, you need to work a little." I kind of exasperatedly wondered why gurus are always mystical? Guess they don’t believe in handing things out on a platter.

This trip had been one such battle of striking balance. Between wanting to get lost in the grace of Ganga to making the Facebook people know what you are thinking, it was a struggle. Between spirituality and society. Why can't one be a part of both? 

That's when it struck me. The Ganga is praised to godliness not just because of mythology but also because of Her service to society. Spiritual gurus have, since ages, showed societies how to lead an ideal life. 

Being spiritual doesn't mean they are removed from society. Similarly, being in society shouldn't mean we are removed from spirituality.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Yaatra 2015 - Part 3

Day 3 proved to us the profoundness of the quote, “Man proposes God disposes.” We left home quite early to avoid traffic and yet, got stuck for a good 45 minutes…at 7.30 in the morning. This ensured we reached Agra with the midday sun for company but that did not stop us from being enthralled over the beauty of the Taj – the picturesque mausoleum on the banks of the Yamuna. The minarets, the marble vaulted dome, the ornate spires were striking to behold. Yet, within the tomb, I sensed a kind of unsettling heaviness that kind of made me glad to move out.

From the Taj Mahal, it was onwards to Mathura – that hallowed part of Braj Bhoomi where Lord Krishna was born. The Keshava Dev temple is built over the prison where the Lord was born and is the highlight of the Krishna Janmabhoomi complex. Entering into the complex itself, we were aware of a calmness descending upon us…mind and body seemed to slow down in complete awareness of being in the presence of the divine.

I found the simple, implicit faith of the devotees thronging to these temples quite touching. And because mobile phones are not allowed inside the complex, there was none of the obsession with photography on display. People either sat silently inside the temple or sang bhajans…both of which were conducive to a holy atmosphere.

Unlike South Indian temples, there is no concept of “archana” in the temples of the North. Which I kind of liked because it does not take one’s attention away from offering a mental prayer. Of course, the subject of the prayer may still be the same – whether with archana or without.

Quite a few cynics often point out how humans have reduced prayer to a business relationship, pleading with the Almighty to grant favors for this or that worldly desire. But my attitude is…even if to ask, at least they are coming towards a source of positivity with such immense faith and sense of surrender! At some time, He Himself will lead them further to a stage of prayer without expectations.

This is the concept of “Drishta drishya vashaat baddaha; drishyaabhaavaat vimuchyate” which means the one who sees is bound by his view of the objects he sees. When a person keeps seeing the Lord, he gets bound to Him and ultimately, this bondage will lead him to the Source itself.

And when He Himself accepts the devotees who come with requests, who am I – a mere mortal – to sit in judgment over them?

Next stop was at the Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan where the image of Krishna is featured as being bent at three places. The darshan of the Lord in this temple is interrupted by drawing the curtain at regular intervals…the belief is that His charm is so great that ordinary mortals cannot bear it continuously. People also say that staring for too long into His eyes can cause a loss of self-consciousness.

Anyway, I did not perceive any such danger because I was following the advice given me long ago by a spiritual guide….when in a temple, look at the feet of the Lord, and try to cultivate the spirit of surrendering to them. Ever noticed how one of Lord Venkateshwara’s hands points at His feet and is inscribed with the words “Maamekam sharanam vraja”? Surrender all to me, is  precisely what the Lord is trying to tell us.

We had a singular experience while visiting this temple. My sister who accompanied us, has been to this temple about 7 times since she relocated from Bangalore to Delhi and she had never seen this temple very crowded. But the day we went, there was a huge group of devotees from Maharashtra who were there as part of Bhaagvath Saptaha ( a week-long study of the Srimad Bhaagavatam) singing bhajans and chanting the Lord’s name and it was in their midst that we had darshan of Banke Bihariji. I felt He had orchestrated this entire sequence of events for me to learn something vital.

Let me explain this. I generally avoid visiting temples when they are crowded because I don’t like the noise and the sense of chaos. But as taught by the learned ones, the Lord is happy when a devotee comes along with other devotees to offer his prayers. So, I saw this incident as a lesson in learning to disregard personal comfort and instead, focus on meeting Him. At the same time, He made me part of a crowd that was full of devotional fervor; the chants of this group were familiar to me because I had grown up listening to them (as I was born and brought up in Goa). And to my pleasant surprise, my focus stayed on the Lord and I didn’t even notice the jostling.

There were other positive results, too. The crowd was so huge that, as we walked through the narrow lanes, visibility was very limited and we were unable to perceive the surroundings… which, I had been warned by well-meaning friends, were quite dirty. Also, as this mass of humanity swept into the temple and out of it, there was no opportunity for anyone to demand any money from us for darshan or prasad …which again, well-wishers had cautioned me about. The crowd also ensured that the notorious monkeys stood no chance of approaching us to snatch our belongings away.

When people had warned me of these unpleasant aspects of the temple visits, I had not really paid attention, deciding to take it as it comes. After my experience at the temple, as I analyzed these aspects, I’m compelled to believe in the adage “Whatever you are aware of, that is where your energy goes and that is what the Universe creates as your reality.” I had made up my mind that my focus was going to be on the Lord and not the external surroundings in which He chooses to dwell…so He was benevolent enough to let me see and experience only Him without fretting over the external trappings.

Yet, I equally strongly feel that from a social point of view, it is important we respect the sanctity of such places by keeping them clean – in the physical as well as moral sense. The devotees must want to see their Lord in conditions that befit His grandeur. This can only be possible if there is actual action to maintain these holy places in good condition without raising demands for money from the devotees who flock to receive His grace.

Besides the Banke Bihari temple, we visited the Prem Mandir – a monument dedicated to divine love – established by Shri Kripaluji Maharaj. Every one of the marble stones that make up the temple has been hand-carved by artisans. This temple is located in the midst of a beautiful garden and the main deities are Radha Krishna and Sita Ram. 
Image courtesy:
Unfortunately, there was not enough time to visit the numerous other significant places in Vrindavan. These, along with places such as Gokul, Nandgaon, Govardhan Parvat and Barsaana are still unchecked on our “must visit” list and I only pray He sees fit to ensure we do so in this lifetime.

Part 4 of Yaatra 2015 will hold a surprise but I’m not telling right now!

Monday, 8 June 2015

Yaatra 2015 - Part 2

Quite a few readers felt Yaatra 2015 - Part 1 was like a trailer and have been eagerly inquiring about when the next part is coming. This has inspired me to post this at the earliest and I hope you enjoy reading it just as much as Part 1.

Our activities on day 2 began a little later than scheduled but surprisingly, not as late as I had feared. By 9.45 am, we were off in an Eco taxi with a friendly driver who was quite willing to answer queries with detailed information. When he realized we are from Bangalore, he shared with us his expert opinion of our hometown… garnered from spending two months there….first, that it has great weather and second, that Bangaloreans are very simple and so, they feel people from Delhi are clever (read as street smart). The first part is the unqualified truth…about the latter, I’m not so sure, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spoil his naïve fantasy. 

We began the day with prayers to Lord Narasimha at the Ahobila Matham at Karol Bagh. Undaunted by the midday heat and fortifying ourselves with some cold lassi, we then walked around the historic Red Fort, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in such royal grandeur. The place was filled with tourists and yet, there was that typical Indian bonhomie that allows complete strangers to strike up an uninhibited conversation. In an interaction that was hard to ignore, we witnessed two women, who until then were strangers to each other, exchanging notes about where they purchased their outfits.  And they even promised to help each other out in doing the same when they visited the other’s place.

Deciding to ride in a cycle rickshaw from the Red Fort entrance to the parking lot was quite agonizing for me. On the one hand, it seemed inhuman to make someone undertake such difficult physical labor. On the other, refusing to hire the vehicle also meant depriving him of a small sum of money that was significant to him. And even as I felt sad to think that such a mode of transport still exists in our country, I also felt a sense of being moved by the cycle rickshaw driver’s willingness to thus struggle to eke out an honest living.

Post-lunch we paid respects to our martyrs at India Gate, had an outside view of the power corridors of Parliament and admired the architectural beauty of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Last on the day’s itinerary was the Qutub Minar with its rustless iron pillar. I am not attempting a description of these places for what could I add to what you already know from history lessons, guidebooks or Google?

You may wonder why other important places in Delhi…Humayun’s tomb, Lotus temple, Akshardham, Raj Ghat etc etc don’t figure here…and what of shopping at Connaught Place? I’d like to clarify. Teachers may have long vacations, but an entrepreneur can take only so many days off from his fledgling business…and when time is a constraint, prioritizing can be amazingly simple..

All in all, visiting these places served to reinforce my impression of Delhi being a place of grandeur, majesty and power as perceived during the previous night’s drive from the airport. But I’m tempted to believe this aura is not just the result of the historically important places and the well-planned layout of those parts of the city. In my opinion, it is also a result of the fact that being the capital city, this place is the heart of the country’s political arena and that lends the unique feeling of entitlement…a kind of action-oriented raajasik vibe. 

The only sour note during this day for me was struck by the self and selfie – obsessed youth everywhere we went. The history, the beauty and the magnificence of these places was totally lost on these tourists – it seemed like they were there solely to click photographs of themselves and their friends and share it on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. 

I find it infinitely depressing to think that our youngsters are so consumed by this kind of social media frenzy that they are losing the ability to experience the here and now and find joy in it. Even today, if I close my eyes and think of the Red Fort or India Gate, I can picture the dignity it exudes and feel an upsurge of patriotism. I can’t help but wonder what such an exercise will conjure up for the selfie-obsessed young men and women….a remembrance of how many likes their picture got? Or the comments about their looks or their dress or hairstyle? Or their companion in the picture? 

But I guess everything has its pros and cons. Perhaps Aamir Khan had better focus on Snapdeal ads rather than the Atulya Bharat ones! Because, now that our youth are so busy with their smartphones, maybe our monuments are finally safe from being defaced by etchings that profess undying passion to an ephemeral sweetheart.  

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Yaatra 2015 - Part 1

The much delayed post on my travels during May 2015 is finally ready. In this, I’d like to share with you my experiences as I traveled from Bangalore to Chennai and from there onwards to Delhi, Agra, Mathura, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Kurukshetra. A cursory glance at the names of these places will tell you why this post is called Yaatra 2015….but hang on…let me assure you …it’s not about a pilgrimage as such. And I’m definitely not competing with Wikipedia…

 My focus – as almost always? – will be on my thoughts and experiential learning. And I pray this statement will not make you run even faster from reading on…. because I’m hoping this will hold value for you too.

A week-long trip cannot be crammed into a single blog post for two reasons. First, it is asking too much of you, dear readers, to read beyond a page or two. Secondly, how much interest another person’s journey generates depends largely on how creatively the account is packaged. And I have no illusions about my skill on that count. Not for me the flights of fancy or nifty turns of phrase – all I have to offer is clinical observation coupled with unambiguous introspection presented with unflinching honesty.

So you are going to read about Yaatra 2015 in many parts…how many I cannot say right now..anyway, this preamble itself has already meandered too much so let’s begin.

Day 1 dawned bright and clear and saw the three of us – me, my husband and tween son boarding the train at Bangalore Cantonment Railway Station. Six odd hours later we were in Chennai. A cab driven by a smooth-talking driver deposited us at a “good” restaurant which had noodles available more readily than curd rice.

Post lunch, we officially inaugurated the trip with our prayers to Lord Parthasarathy at Thiruvallikeni. Looking back now, I realize that He must have decided to stick by us, for He did steer our entire trip smoothly, even as He inspired insight.

A 30-minute foray into the waves at Marina Beach later, we were speeding as fast as the evening traffic would permit to the Kamaraj Terminal of Chennai International Airport. An intriguing sight we must have been as we entered – a suave gentleman in jeans with his forehead adorned by Srichurnam, a homely woman with telltale kumkum and flowers in her hair and a sparkly-eyed, Gen Y tween clutching an iPad walking in with an air of supreme confidence. If the airport denizens noticed, they did a good job of concealing it…

On board the flight, the air hostesses ran through their drill of announcements about emergency measures. I remember wondering if they found it tedious....having to do the same thing day in and out. Of course, as a teacher I can empathize with the feeling. But then, at least, I get to choose my words, vary them and infuse them with different levels of enthusiasm…and to their credit, some of my students are genuinely interested and others at least manage to look interested.

On the flight, it seemed to me like hardly any passenger paid real attention. Maybe most of them were frequent fliers and already knew it. Or perhaps it is a testimony to how safe air travel has become that we are able to sit nonchalantly through such an announcement. But I couldn’t help wonder – what if the unthinkable had to happen? Would we be prepared to face it? Which kind of reminded me of that famous question in the Mahabharata that the Yaksha poses to Yudhisthira… “What is the greatest wonder?” to which Yudhisthira replies, “What can be a greater wonder? Day after day, countless people die and yet, the living believe death will pass them by.” In case you are thinking I’m harping on something that’s unlikely to happen, just watch a National Geographic Channel documentary called “Crowd Control – People Don't Listen” and you’ll see how not paying attention to these instructions can reduce an individual’s chances of survival in the event of a mishap.

Fortunately, there was no incident justifying these morbid thoughts and the flight to Delhi was uneventful ….except for some unintended mirth generated by the cabin announcements about the in-house magazine titled “Hello 6E.” Try saying that yourself and you’ll agree....that’s what qualifies as creative, attention-grabbing nomenclature!
My sister’s home is a good 45-minute drive from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. As our taxi sped through the streets of Delhi, it seemed to me like the wide roads and imposing buildings exuded an aura of majestic power quite unlike the comparatively timid vibes given off by the relatively narrow streets of Bangalore. Yet, the sight of the green and yellow colored autorickshaws and the Devanagari script on name boards of commercial establishments were strangely comforting
 …a sort of reminder that this may be an unknown place, but it still is part of this astonishing motherland we call Bharat.

Despite the late hour, we were given an enthusiastic welcome by my sister, brother-in-law and nephew. We settled in pretty soon in this home which was comfortably air-conditioned to beat the Delhi heat. Which was a good thing because this was going to be our roosting spot for the next few days as we explored the other places on our itinerary.