Friday, May 16, 2014

Luxury fit for Gods

This blog is a long-pending compilation of my journeys across India and the decision to finally get cracking on it came on a stormy night during my recent stay at Pushkar Resort in Rajasthan. A hailstorm in a desert is surely meant to be an omen, don't you think. Being the ardent believer that I am, I decided to put my thoughts into the blog and write the memories of destinations, that I had rarely shared with the publications I worked for, afresh.

So, it was hailing outside the plush super deluxe room in the resort at Pushkar. For those that do not know me, I m a bearer of rain in Rajasthan and I am positive that I have a strong past life connect with the state. I never seem to lose my way in Rajasthan. It's almost like I know every grain of dust and every drop in the sacred lakes of the area or as I like to say, the land knows the soil I am made of. But I am drifting from the point yet again. Pushkar Resorts is the oldest resort in the city and has remained an exclusive experience for internatyional visitors for the longest time. In recent years, the resort has opened its doors for domestic travellers as well.

Pastures of the Gods

The trek across Chandrakhani Pass from Rumsu and over the mountain to the mysterious Malana village, is a test for new trekkers while being a good excerise for the experienced

It’s not that I am averse to walking. I love my strolls in the city with speeding cars for company, but there was nothing to prepare me for the trek across Chandrakhani peak. The Pir Panjal has always been wonderful to behold, albeit from a distance and there has been that urge to witness the down below from up above. I simply lacked the incentive to be there. In all honesty, it was a simple romantic notion. Sooner or later, as a favourite movie director quipped, we have to wake up.

So here I was at a quaint little cottage in Naggar called Chateau de Naggar. I had been training to gain stamina for the past month and felt I was in good shape. My fellow trekkers and the organiser from Geck and Co. – the company that had planned the trek – seemed enthusiastic and in equally good shape. I had spent time to buy and pack things I would need for the trek, including a brand new pair of walking shoes to ease the way.

“No good!” said our guide for the way as he shook his head almost sadly as he inspected my walking gear. “You’re not going to get far in those shoes.” He seemed like a nice guy, but at this point in time, I was fuming. If it offered any consolation, he went on to make similar comments on everyone’s gear in the same fashion. Apparently, we were yet another bunch of city slickers with no respect or understanding of the mountains.

It was much after a heavy, laidback lunch at the rooftop restaurant that he came to me with a packet. “These should fit and they will keep you warm. You can return them after the trek,” he said with genuine affection. And so, my pack became a kilogram heavier as I set out the next day for Rumsu, along with my co-trekkers, in a Maruti van.

Prakash Rathi, our guide and the benefactor for the extra kilo in my backpack, has been a man of the mountains for years. He started out as a porter and made his way up – just like we do in a corporate office – to the post of chief guide and head chef. Quiet by nature, he maintained an aura bolstered by his inexplicable all-knowing nods and distant gaze. I had not seen him smile, or talk about anything apart from business. He took the navigator’s seat in the vehicle as we all clambered into the back. Even the organiser didn’t seem to object or question his place among us.

As our group chattered about the view and stopped for a while to take pictures to share our latest adventure across social networking portals, he turned back just once to tell the organiser in a sombre tone, “The rain is coming, We’d better make the most of our time.” I realised then that his word was law. He was the chief guide and he knew best what to do.

The urge for silence
A trekker friend of mine had once said that the quality of quiet is far greater in the company of mountains. I hadn’t realised what he meant, until I set foot in the little village of Rumsu. The vehicle was parked in front of one mud cottage and all of us filed out and waited patiently as our gear was unloaded. That was when it struck me, the chattering had faded away already and each of us seemed to be cocooned in our introspections already.

Packs on our back and having had our fill of water and having attended to nature’s call, it was time to set off. The first leg of the journey would lead us through a mix of meadows and forest. Fifteen minutes into the climb, most of the first-timers, like me, were gasping for breath. “Stand straight and breathe in through your nose,” Rathi suggested. My fellow trekkers and I found it a difficult idea but a sharp breath or two later, I felt myself finding the energy to move on. Rathi walked on comfortably ahead of us, carrying a rucksack almost the same size and weight of himself, on his back like a schoolbag. It was much later that I got used to the thin air and could pause to look at the mountains stretching steeply before me.

It was after three hours of walking in the thin air that we reached the campsite for the first night of the trek. The rain had stopped and a little stream flowed noiselessly down the slope we were to climb the next day. I busied myself with the little joys of living the natural life and splashed the cool mountain water on myself, instantly relieving me of all sense of tiredness. A few sips of the fresh water rejuvenated me and I joined the rest of the group to set up our tents. After a candlelit dinner in the makeshift kitchen, the strains of conversation soon faded away by the bonfire under a star-lit sky. Sleep took over like a blanket and the night passed away in the blink of an eye.

Beyond the meadows

When I woke up the next morning, I found a strange relief in my being, a peace only felt by a sound night’s sleep in the crisp mountain air. I would have turned down the cup of tea I was offered if it wasn’t for the warmth it was offered with. “You’ll need all the warmth you can get,” said Rathi. “Tonight, we will be camping at the snowline.” I looked up the steep slope that lay at the start of the day’s trek, wondering how I would fare in higher altitude. The air would be thinner, the walk more strenuous and the incline more challenging. “You just have to keep walking,” said a fellow trekker. “Just focus on one step at a time.”

Rathi reloaded the contents of his rucksack and headed for the steep climb. We were quick to follow him. It was only an hour later, as I stood catching my breath among the pine trees, that I paused to reflect on how far we had come and realised that we had left the earlier campsite quite some way behind. Our next pit stop still lay a fair distance ahead. The clouds of yesterday were fragments of history, and the sun shone brightly into my eyes as I continued the haul up the steep slope. An hour later we finally reached our pit stop for lunch. To me, it seemed like heaven. A rolling expanse of nature’s meadows alive with colourful little wild flowers, a welcome break for all of us. Each of us found a place to stretch out, united in a now growing familiar silence as Rathi busied himself in handing out the packed lunch packets. We would start again in another half an hour.

My feet were now far more sturdy on the ground than yesterday. I found myself spirited enough to keep pace with Rathi as I headed for the campsite after lunch. I asked him about his journey in life and his village. After a few moments silence he told me that as a young boy, his friends and he would cover our three-day trek in a matter of hours. Sensing my disappointment, he added, “We were young boys and we had enough practice grazing sheep of the village. Besides, this was the best way to see the women from other villages. Love makes us do impossible things.” I asked him later if he was able to realise his love story to which he laughed. He had not. He married a lovely girl from his own village and had four children who he supported with this job.

The conversation lightened my feet and my spirit but all that amounted to nothing as I found myself facing the snow. The rain from the previous night had contributed to a fair amount of snow that we had to walk through today. Being one of the first to arrive, I quickly set about changing into the snow shoes Rathi had provided. These were heavy shoes and it took a little time on my part to get used to them. Soon others from my group had already gone on ahead. I was surprised to find Rathi waiting for me. A few hurdles later, I was able to get past the snow and prepare myself for the following day’s grind.

The sun was close to setting when we finally reached the campsite. Having set up camp, I decided to take a quick nap while the others explored the area and a daring few took on the snow. I had barely snoozed for ten minutes when I heard Rathi calling me. He offered me a cup of hot tea and commented, “It’s not a good idea to sleep now.” Grumbling, I stepped out of the tent and instantly shivered. With the warmth of the sun lost to time, the wind was bitingly cold. I was in for a tough night.

As soon as I had finished dinner, I could no longer keep my eyes open. As I crawled into the sleeping bag all I could hear was the eerie sound of the stream of water freezing over in the wind.

The treasured pass

I had no recollection of time when I woke up the next morning. As I stepped out in the sun to start what was going to be the most rigorous day of the trek, I felt as if I had been reborn. But there was no time for contemplation. Over a power-packed breakfast, we were told that we would be proceeding in order of our performance so far. I was to be second in the chain of trekkers today. Rathi would lead the way while the organiser, a trained trekker, would stand guard the end of the line. The beautiful morning and all elements poetic were soon left behind as we started the treacherous, or so it seemed, trek to the pass. The previous day’s experience helped me to stay sure-footed and comfortable on the ice and Rathi ensured that we stuck to the path he carefully made for us. I kept making good progress but an elderly fellow trekker seemed quite unsure in her footing and we had to make several stops for her to cope. It was during one of these stops that a photographer among us tried to scrabble a little ahead on the snow to get a picture. His efforts caused a bit of a flurry, and his backpack, that he had set aside, was seen hurtling down the mountainside. He tried to go after it and also lost control and kept slipping on the snow. In a matter of seconds, Rathi rushed past us and was successfully able to hold him and his bag in check. Thankfully, we had no other adventures after that.

It was surprisingly warm when we reached the Chandrakhani Pass. The heat of the sun as opposed to the snow and the cold wind was making me dizzy. Rathi looked happy. Now that he had guided his latest flock safely to the pass, he could think about heading home. I followed his footprints to the edge of the mountain and standing at the head of a steep cliff, took in my first impression of the Malana Valley. “Spiti lies beyond those mountains,” he said pointing to my left. “The Malana river flows under this mountain and meets the Parvati river ahead which, in turn, meets the Beas river before Manali.” I stood to gaze at the mountains towering all around me. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Pir Panjal turned out to be worth every bit of the effort that had gone into getting here. And yes, every bit romantic as I had imagined it to be.

A hidden legacy

The stay at the pass was short and understandably silent. We were losing daylight and we still had a grinding downhill trek ahead. Over the loose rocks, we headed straight down the slope. I had been grateful that I had not had much trouble through the climb but it was now that it dawned why the downhill was thus called. It was truly downhill from here. I slipped at every bend and was aching all over from the effort of trying to avert slipping off. To top it all, Rathi kept calling on us to hurry as we had to get to base of the mountain on time. Undoubtedly, this was the biggest challenge of the trek. Thankfully, it passed. It took an eternity to complete the downhill section, but when we did, we still had an hour of daylight left to get to the camp.

We were now in Malana village. There were clear instructions to not interact with the locals as they are not known to be too friendly. When we came across a group of young women by a water pump, I asked them if I could click a picture. Their expression clearly indicated that I should not. Disheartened I carried on to the campsite.

I did not pay heed to anyone’s suggestions that evening and crashed for some shut eye as soon as we had set up our tents. However my growling stomach did not let me rest for more than half an hour. Over dinner, Rathi told us that the residents of Malana are descendants of Alexander The Great. Of the many stories that I had heard of the village, the most famous was of the soil it had. The one that was perfect for growing a particular strain of marijuana called Malana Cream.

The following day was the last day of the trek. We headed through the village, under the watchful eyes of Rathi. We hoped to see the unique headgear that the people are known to sport as a symbol of their legacy from the Greeks but there was none. Rathi stopped at a number of places to formally greet some members of the village whom he had befriended in these years and even got us a close look at a temple. Soon, it was time to head down to the Malana river across which a car waited to ferry us to the bus stop in Naggar for our onward journey to our homes.

The article has been published in Terrascape magazine in May 2014. Photos are by me and Mukul Sharma.

A hue of Tesu

Lord Krishna wasn’t the first one who made the most of Holi and yet there is so much of Him in this festival of spring that calls for celebration

"It was such an exhilarating experience,” she said sipping some tea. For Radhika Chalasani, a New York-based photographer, it was just another visit to capture the colours of India in 2006. She was in Barsana (Uttar Pradesh) to find out more about the famous lathmar Holi. “The normally mute and shy Indian women of the village, with a lath (stick) in their hands, charged at the men without a care,” she laughed recalling the event. “Several men got hurt but the women stopped only to laugh and then hammered away with renewed vigour. Frankly, I thought it was ghastly.” So it seems to anyone who has spent time at the quiet village of Barsana at any other time of the year.

Brutal celebrations
Riddled with tales, the celebration of Holi in the land of Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha is such that any form of insanity is not just welcome, it is an added excuse to take celebration up by a few more notches. “The tradition dates back to the time when Thakurji (Krishna) had crept into the village to pester Radharani a week before Holi. She got all the gopis together and beat him and his friends out of the village,” explained a woman of the custom. The enthusiasm has only grown. For Devika, a new bride who celebrates her first lathmar Holi this year, it is an excuse to gorge. “My mother-in-law has been serving me rich food everyday so that I can beat up more men than any other bride of the village,” she chuckled. The number of men you can beat up at Holi is considered to be auspicious. “Last year, I took down seven men,” said a proud Sunita who has been participating for nearly a decade. While tradition requires the men to hoist a Krishna flag at the Radha Rani temple top to signify their victory, escaping the charge of the women, very few make it anywhere close to the temple precincts. The celebration continues till one man makes his way up the high stairs of the temple and hoists the flag. In return for the lathmar, the men of Gokul and neighbouring villages take their revenge the following day when they raid Barsana again a few days after the lathmar Holi and colour every woman they can find. The celebration begins right after Basant Panchami, the official beginning of spring in Northern India.

Dance to eternity
As I walked close to Nidhi Van, I was warned to alter my course before nightfall. “The Lord still comes here every night to visit his priyatama (lover),” warned a local. “If you try to interrupt, you will go blind,” he said ominously. This is the legend of Nidhi Van, where Swami Haridas is said to have had a vision of Krishna visiting the forest with Radharani and the gopis. It’s a vision that the locals believe reappears every night. Prod them some more and they will tell you stories of the sounds of ghungroos and the flute that permeate the compounds and how foreigners who tried to sneak into the premises were struck down with disease, deformation or death. In the light of day, Nidhi Van sees hundreds of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Swami Haridas and monkeys who are infamous for making off with spectacles. The priests of the temple decorate the bed for the Gods after the evening aarti, place food and incense for the nocturnal visitors and even leave toothbrushes and other modern amenities for the Gods. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

Raas Leela
There is no way you can miss the glory of the Lord’s leela if you visit the Brajbhoomi during this season. I could see hundreds of devotees dressed up as the flirtatious Krishna, his beloved Radha and the besotted gopis, moving around the city showering colours lured by musical chants of Hare Krishna. The raas leela is performed by trained classical dancers as well as devout villagers. The sound of Lord Krishna’s flute is said to have magical powers. It commanded the undivided attention of every living being, including the women, cows and trees. And when he played his flute on the banks of River Yamuna and made his way through the villages, the women and animals flocked to his side to experience the divine form of love that flowed through the melody. The priests of any temple in Vrindavan, Mathura, Gokul or Nandgaon will tell you that the Lord and his divine love can still be experienced if only you can surrender your soul to him during the raas leela.

Reason to riot
It felt as if I had gone back in time. From the corner of my eye, I thought I caught Krishna disappear around the corner. Was I hallucinating? I couldn’t have been. It’s hard not to get lost in this land of legend. As if on cue, a tea vendor mentioned Pootna in his conversation. As the story goes, the residents of the region were bothered by the demon, Pootna, who fed poisoned milk to infants on the order of Kans, Krishna’s evil uncle. Kans, who feared that his sister’s son might still be alive, set out Pootna to kill all new-borns in the region. It was in the month of spring, close to Holi, that she arrived in Gokul where she found little Krishna and tried to kill him. Only, Krishna killed her before her evil plans were realised. The night before Holi, young men are encouraged to go around the village shouting abuses and making loud noises to keep demons like Pootna at bay. Similarly, the ogress Dhundli, who bothered children in Raghuraj, is also kept at bay by screaming, shouting and boisterous activities carried out by the young men of the region. Hence, at holi, being upto no good isn’t an excuse, it is mandatory.

In search of love
"Love is a concept that you, the generation of instant noodles and solutions at your fingertip, cannot possibly understand,” said the bearded man sitting before me. Behind me the crowd raised its arms and sang the name of the lord. “My wife and I cut costs for 15 years to give our son an international education. He returned six months later as an alcoholic after being jilted in love. What does he know of love? This is not love,” he said disgruntled. At 65, a former superintendent of Archaeological Survey of India, and one of the most senior priests at the Banke Bihari Temple at Vrindavan, Acharya Vijay Goswami is perhaps one of the rare few who understand the concept of love, seeing thousands turn up at the door of the temple of the Lord and through his own years of service. “If you want to know love, the love that the Lord showered, you have to look from His eyes, not yours.” As I made my way back after the evening aarti, I saw what the Acharya meant. Every person in every street of the town of Vridanvan exuberated their own love story with their Thakurji. Brajbhoomi does, still, resonate with the romance that history is still struggling to establish. But to the people of Vrindavan and Mathura, the love of Radha and Krishna is captured in the numerous tales that have passed through centuries and immortalised in little temples dotting the region as a humble tribute.