Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Visit To Kolkata's Magen David Synagogue

--- Saurabh Goel is a wanderer at heart. He loves to travel, learn news things along the way and stay inspired on the road. His infectious enthusiasm is a joy to behold. He reflects on his journey to Kolkata - city of Joy - in 2014.

I reached Magen David Synagogue quite late in the day.The noon had withered away and the sky was clocking the golden hour.
As usual my routine wanderings in the streets of Calcutta had consumed all my day, and I had kept just about enough time to reach the synagogue by evening somehow.
I had assumed that it would stay open well past the evening, and so I would see it at my leisure; clueless that it was going to prove to be a blunder, soon.

Let me point out here, as to how reaching the synagogue (supposedly a popular destination), without keeping the address handy or navigation on mobile, may turn into a detour; relying on local’s awareness of our monumental heritage would not really help; nor did asking passersby for direction along the way.

However, bypassing all of this and having taken a bit longer than expected, I finally spotted synagogue’s high tower – a tapering hexagonal structure protruding out of the building into the sky, resembling sort of a windmill’s trunk from distance.

But then, as dumbstruck as it left me, to my shock and disappointment, at the entrance, Gafoor(the resident caretaker of the Synagogue) informed me about the mandatory written permission, required to enter the Synagogue.
Adding further how the visiting hours would soon get over too.

The permission letter was to be issued by a popular Jewish bakery called “Nahoum and Sons”, set up 113 years ago in the city, and lay approx 3.5 kms away, which meant almost 30 minutes of commute up n down; however, as soon as I looked around, I could instantly realise that the evening office hours and the ambient hustle and bustle of crowded streets, would easily prolong my travel.
To avoid the immediate rush of the street crowd, I decided to walk a bit, before boarding a taxi. But then adding further to my woes, the legendary Eden Gardens also happened to fall on my way, with an IPL match lined up for the night, and given its mammoth size, the arrangements were being made outside for the crowd that would soon throng and choke it, putting even more strain on the running traffic.

It took me little over 1 hour to return.
By the time I got back, it was almost dusk and I was bit more exhausted by now. But then, weeks before coming to Calcutta, I had planned to visit the Synagogue.

I handed over the letter, and Gafoor let me in.
“What if I would get late, coming back?”, I remember I had asked him, while I was leaving to get the letter. To which he said, “Just get it ASAP”. As though it was not about the timing, but my intention to see it.
Or perhaps he was just happy at the prospect of receiving a visitor from outside the city after some time – his welcoming intent was as much evident from the reassuring reply he had given me earlier, as much from the warmth with which he sort of became my synagogue guide.

I did make it a point to catch up with Gafoor, after my mesmerizing visit to the Synagogue was over, but was dismally surprised to know that given the situation, the synagogue is now forced to fly down the Jewish community from outside the city for their yearly assemblies. From Bombay to Calcutta.
The numbers are so low that holding such an annual prayer is impossible with the leftover Jewry of Calcutta – once home to a thriving Jewish community, but unlike Chinese, Afgans and Anglos, it seems Jews had collectively decided to leave the city, no matter Indian origin or expats.

Call it my personal prejudice(and please excuse me for it) but one thing that struck me almost instantaneously was Gafoor’s name, which for a moment had veered my excitement in a different direction, and so, towards the end of my visit, as I asked him about his experience working in a synagogue, hiding slyly the underlying sentiment, followed by asking for his opinion on an omnipresent sense of resentment between the 2 communities.
To my surprise also. With a fervent display of hope, as one may not probably expect, he quite remarkably said and I still remember and quote him on this: “It is nothing. This problem in Middle East is nothing but just a property dispute between 2 brothers (read: Abraham’s children), and would end soon”.

Built in 1884, by the Ezras for the Ezras(the real estate tycoons of an erstwhile Calcutta), Magen David synagogue is a pride reminder of Jews’ legacy and magnificent past, and of their lofty stature in Calcutta’s history. More than 130 years old and still standing strongly. And so marvelously, when visited from inside.
A two storied structure with a steeple, it wasn’t just built to last, but to visually marvel as well, as it aged, growing more charming with time.

I have a personal fetish for visiting large abandoned buildings and mills, and the moment I entered the synagogue, I knew I was in for a certain visual and sensory delight.
Its grandness is imposing, which grips and seeps into your senses almost immediately. Like an eagle clutching onto someone from its head. Sitting on top of it. Almost riding and ruling it from there.
So as you step inside from its main doorway, which opens into a small corridor with swiveled stairways on both ends, dimmely lit up by incandescent yellow bulbs on a dilapidated old chandelier hanging in between, a somewhat heavy impersonification of its scale and entity captures your fancy, drawing an equal proportion of awe, endearment and nostalgia of its charm, as you walk up the staircase.

Everything about Magen David was fascinating, be it its altar(bema), arch, balconies or the central hall with windows of different sizes and patterns sporting magnificently large stained Belgian glasses which beautifully colour its walls, each time light hits them from behind and passes through.

I surely wanted more time inside the Synagogue, but then Gafoor was waiting outside for me to come, and to close the Synagogue.. He, for sure, had stretched the visiting hours and was working overtime, just to make sure I had seen around thoroughly.
My visit to Magen David Synagogue was not just over by now, but moreover was complete, in a sense that I had not just seen a glorious heritage building, but had a close brush with another tradition and culture and religion and identity, through a visit and a conversation which was as enriching as some wonderful short journey.

All images and text are by Saurabh Goel. Reuse is strictly prohibited. To read the original write-up and see more images, click here.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hues Of An Indian Summer

India, with its varied topography and climates, sees many forms of plants and life all through the year. In the capital of India, there are flowers that bloom in different seasons and lend their beauty to the otherwise extreme climate. Over the past few years, the climate of New Delhi - like that of the rest of the world - has seen a huge change. On one of our early morning walk with Dilli Meri Jaan, we set out to spot the few beautiful blooms across a section of the city.

Earthern pots resting under a tree are a clear sign of summer. These pots not only help in keeping the water cool but lend a soothing, earthern taste to it. Do try a glass of this water on your visit.

The Amrita Shergill Marg is one of the many lanes in New Delhi that see the bloom of the Amaltas tree in summer. The distinct yellow bloom and occasional shower of yellow flower petals has inspired many poets and writers.

The bright yellow silhouetted against the bright blue sky is a vision!

The blazing red gulmohar had shed much of its sheen in the recent showers. The red, however, still stands out in bits among the green canopy.

The blossom of bougainvillea or the paper flower may not be sweet-smelling but surely makes for a pretty addition our bouquet of memories.

But then again, summer nights in India are defined by the sweet-smelling blooms of jasmine or champa.

The wild flowers are not shy when casting a spell with their scent on tired souls walking down heading home after a long day's work.

The purple tubular flowers seem to glow against the sun! Such fun!

We were a young group of people exploring the bright side of an Indian summer but elders will tell you that what we see is a mere shadow of what remains of the true colours. You are welcome to join us as we explore the sunny side of things across India. We could talk about it or better, let's take a walk in the garden. Who knows what we might find?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sustainable Development Through Tourism Goals 1: No Poverty

The Goal 1 of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development says that no one across the world should be living on less than $1.25 a day by the year 2030 – be it children, women or men. It also talks about ensuring that the national policies and programs are designed and implemented to reduce poverty and vulnerability of every individual.

In India, however, approximately 32.5 per cent the total population of India are living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Keeping in mind that the economic growth of the country is expected to push more people below the $1.25 border, ensuring this goal will surely be a herculean task. The tourism sector in India, which accounted for 6.3% of the nation's GDP in 2015 and growing, will surely have a role to play in meeting this goal. The question is, however, how much of this earning of $120 billion (in 2015) directly benefitted the poor of the country?
Pro-poor tourism (PPT), or tourism that generates tangible benefits for the poor, is an attempt to do just that by putting poor people and poverty at the centre of the debate on sustainable tourism. Tourism can be called pro-poor if it provides:
i. Economic gain through employment or business opportunities with tourism businesses and/or tourists; ƒ
ii. Other livelihood benefits such as access to potable water, roads which bring benefits to poor producers through, for example, improved access to markets, improved health or education etc; and ƒ
iii. Participation in decision-making processes to build tourism economies, so that the poor are able to secure better access to tourists and tourism enterprises.
Thankfully, there are few initiatives across the country that can be called pro-poor tourism projects. Durgapur, a village in the state of Assam is an example of such an initiative by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India and the United Nations Development Programme. A small hamlet of 111 families by the Kaziranga National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the home to the one-horned rhinoceros) has been spruced up to offer an authentic Assamese experience. An outlet has been set-up to offer tourists Assamese and regional tribal delicacies. Village members have been professionally trained in hospitality, local art forms and tourist guide services; and travel agencies have been contacted with readymade travel packages to this unique village.
Tourists have also become conscious about leaving positive footprints to the places they travel. Take the case of Devil on Wheels, a Himalayan travel community started by a software professional, which helps fellow travellers and trekkers visiting the mountains in planning travel, and uses the opportunity to connect them directly to the local community members, who provide services of “local guides, porters, drivers, home stays, small but clean guest houses etc. so that a family or lives belonging to remote/tribal parts of Himalayas gets the actual benefit rather a middle-men who do not even care for the effort put in by the porter and reaps all the butter out of bread from him”.
There are more such initiatives though, that are needed to complement the country’s fight to end poverty. Alpaviram will keep highlighting and promoting such initiatives for responsible travellers to India to embrace, offer support to pro-poor government and private tourism initiatives, and initiate projects where they are none.

SDG 1: End poverty and all its forms everywhere
• By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day
• By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions
• Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable
• By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance
• By 2030, build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters
• Ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, in order to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions
• Create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Dhauladhar Mountains Watch Over The Journey Of Self-Discovery Amid Tea Gardens, Gurgling Brooks And Nature At Palampur

--- Neelima Singh is our guest writer this week. When not restricted by office, she spends her time identifying trees and birds and sharing her knowledge with family and friends. She can be contacted at

पठानकोट जंक्शन से शुरू होकर जब हमारी नैरो गेज ट्रेन हिमाचल के पुलों और सुरंगों से गुज़रने लगी तो एक एक करके बेहद खूबसूरत नज़ारे हमारे सामने आने लगे । जितनी बार हमारी ट्रेन अँधेरी सुरंगों से गुज़रती, छोटे बच्चे कौतूहलवश ताली बजाते और बड़े बूढ़े जोर-जोर से सीटियां बजाते। वैसे देखा जाए तो दिल तो सबका ही बच्चों सा होता है - बस कुछ के दिलों के बच्चे बड़े हो जाते हैं और कुछ के नहीं । पठानकोट से पालमपुर तक की यात्रा नैरो गेज से ही करनी चाहिए, तभी आप मैदान से पहाड़ के बीचे की बदलती हवाओं को महसूस कर सकते हैं । रास्ते भर छोटी छोटी नदियां, धान के सीढ़ीनुमा खेत और चीड़ देवदार के पेड़ नज़ारों को बेहद रोमांचक बनाते हैं ।

पालम - मतलब बहुत सारा पानी, जो इसका मतलब न भी जानता हो, वो पालमपुर पहुँच कर खुद ही इस बात का अंदाज़ा लगा सकता है कि कांगड़ा घाटी की इस छोटी सी खूबसूरत जगह को पालमपुर क्यों कहते हैं। छोटी-छोटी चंचल सी अल्हड़ जलधाराएं - इठलाती, बलखाती, गिरती-संभलती, जाने किससे मिलने की जल्दी में एक दूसरे से होड़ लगाए रहती हैं ।

धौलाधार पहाड़ियों की छत्रछाया में बसा यह खूबसूरत-सा शहर जो कि उत्तर भारत के चाय बागानों के लिए मशहूर है, अपने-आप में बेशुमार सौंदर्य और रोमांच समेटे हुए है । लगभग पूरे साल भर धौलाधार की चोटियां बर्फ से सफ़ेद रहती हैं, लगता है मानो यह शहर एक बड़ी-सी पेंटिंग का हिस्सा हो ।

हर जगह के चाय बागान की खूबसूरती अलग प्रकार की होती है - दार्जिलिंग के चाय बागानों की तुलना मुन्नार के चाय बागानों से नहीं की जा सकती | बिलकुल वैसे ही पालमपुर के चाय बागानों की खूबसूरती अपने आप में अनूठी है । यहां के चाय बागान में रुक कर, काँगड़ा स्पेशल चाय की चुस्कियां लेने में एक अगल ही मजा है जो कि शब्दों में बयां नहीं किया जा सकता ।

अपनी मनपसंद किताबें, इंडोर गेम्स, बैडमिंटन, अपनी इच्छानुसार कोई सा भी गेम खेल सकते हैं । लेकिन एक अनुभव जो आपके मष्तिष्क पर संतुष्टि और शान्ति की छाप छोड़ जाता है वो है बालकनी में बैठ कर चिड़ियों की चहचहाट और झींगुरों के कीर्तन के बीच धौलाधार की हिमाच्छादित चोटियों को देखते हुए चाय पीना । ऐसा माहौल बन जाता है कि दार्शनिक भाव आपने आप जागृत हो जाते हैं - इस विशाल अपार संसार में हमारा अस्तित्व कितना क्षणभंगुर है ।

हर एक पेड़, फूल पत्ती में जान होती है, भावनाएं होती हैं । यह सब हम अक्सर बड़े शहरों की चकाचौंध में भूल जाते हैं, या जानकार भी नज़रअंदाज़ कर देते हैं । ये पहाड़, नदियां, पेड़, वन, जीव-जंतु हमारे ही अभिन्न अंग हैं, यह बातें बताने के लिए काश परमपिता ने पेड़ों के भी आँख, नाक और मुंह बनाये होते - तो शायद प्रकृति हमें यह सब बातें हमारी भाषा में ही समझा पाती ।

आत्मावलोकन के अलावा भी पालमपुर में करने के लिए बहुत कुछ है । अगर आप ज्यादा साहसिक प्रवृत्ति वाले हैं तो आपके लिए हर साल यहां पर पैराग्लाइडिंग और ट्रैकिंग जैसे बहुत से कार्यक्रम आयोजित किये जाते हैं, जिसका आप जी-भर आनंद उठा सकते हैं । इसके अलावा जिनको धर्म के गूढ़ रहस्यों को समझने की ललक हो, उनके लिए पालमपुर और आसपास के इलाकों में (धर्मशाला) बहुत सारे मंदिर और बौद्ध मठ भी हैं, जहां आप मन की शान्ति की खोज के लिए जा सकते हैं । वैसे तो महात्मा बुद्ध की सबसे बड़ी शिक्षा यह थी की - इच्छाएं और अपेक्षाएं मत रखो, फिर भी पालमपुर बार-बार जाने और जाकर वहाँ के चाय बागानों में रुकने की इक्षा को मैं कभी भी दफ़न नहीं कर पाउंगी, जब भी मौका मिला धौलाधार और पालमपुर की सरिताओं से मिलने जरूर जाउंगी ।

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On The Occasion Of Global Day Of Parents, Plan Your Trip To India With Them!

The United Nations declared June 1 to be the annual Global Day of Parents on 2012. "The Global Day provides an opportunity to appreciate all parents in all parts of the world for their selfless commitment to children and their lifelong sacrifice towards nurturing this relationship," the UN website says.

It is not uncommon to leave parents behind when you head out for your travel and yet, there have several heart-rending occasions when children have helped realise their parent's dream to travel to distant places.

India, with its colourful sights and sounds, makes for a great travel experience with your parents. Recently, #Alpaviram hosted Nick and his beautiful wife Stephanie - a Calfornian couple based in Singapore - at the India capital. Both of them enjoyed their trip through the city and kept updating their children about their experience.

After their return, #Alpaviram got in touch with them for inputs on the challenges they faces while in India and here is what Nick had to say:

The main problem that I faced was getting a taxi from the airport to the hotel. This happened both times I arrived at the internal terminal at Delhi (I didn’t need to take a taxi from the international terminal when I first arrived). I booked at the police-approved taxi booth and got into one of the small tuk-tuk-like black taxis. The first time the driver understood the street where the hotel is, but he didn’t know the hotel (the same one where you met us). Luckily I saw it as we drove past.
The second time, we were trying to go to one of the airport hotels near the international terminal to catch our flight early the next morning. The driver did not understand any english (OK, I shouldn’t expect that), but he couldn’t read the map either. He was given instructions by someone at the airport, but didn’t appear to understand them, and didn’t seem to know anything about the airport hotels. This seems crazy to me – how can you be a taxi driver at the airport and not know at least the airport hotels? He just drove without any idea where the hotel was. At every hotel he asked if this was it. We had no idea if we were going in the right direction. Eventually he stopped a policeman, and, amazingly, the policeman was able to point at the hotel, which was just visible at this point. This was a great relief. The driver still managed to enter the hotel the wrong way.
So, I guess my issue is that the police-approved taxi drivers should have at least the basic skills of a big-city taxi driver.

Here's the couple posing at the Iron Pillar at Qutub Minar Complex! Gift your parents a safe and happy experience in India, book your trip with #Alpaviram.