About Kaushal Mathpal
Kaushal Mathpal is an Advocate practicing in Delhi Courts in India but also has a flair for travelling. When he's not in a courtroom, he enjoys exploring various parts of India and the surrounding region. He also writes on his blog http://rediscoveryourdreams.wordpress.com/ and you can follow him on Twitter @KaushalMathpal.
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My travel experiences have made me conclude one thing- nothing goes as planned. Last night I determined to leave Kausani and head to the next Himalayan halt on the first bus in the morning. But all the planning went in vain. I did wake up early to gaze the snow-capped Himalayas; however, the recent fires in the jungles again disrupted my view and I went to sleep again with disappointment.
Then I woke up at around 8 a.m. and rambled on the terrace facing the valley for some time. Finally I headed to the small bunch of ancient temples known as Baijnath Mandir, near Garur on the Bageshwar route.
I waited for around 30 min at the local bus stand for the next bus. As I waited in anticipation, I could hear the loud voices emanating from the speakers on the private jeeps campaigning for the Gram Panchayat elections. The discussion on the candidates, the prevailing corruptions and future expectation appears to have taken leap over all other discussion at every tea joint in the town.
Amidst these burning political debates, I found the transport to take me to my destination – Baijnath Temples. After swirling through the turns of the mountains accompanied by the pleasant views of the pine trees and terraced fields being ploughed by the local ladies , I finally reached the Baijnath Temple.
The entrance to the precincts temple proudly boasted the ‘protected monument’ status by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) but the conditions seemed to be unkempt. A little walk down the road, I was confronted by couple of teenagers wooing to buy food for fishes down in the river. I went down and was not much surprised to find only a few visitors cum devotees.
The small group of Baijnath Temples (18 shrines in total) situated on the banks of river Gomti is supposed to be built by the Katyuri Kings during 9th -12th centuries but there is no concrete proof tracing their origin to Katyuri Empire. At first look, it appears more like the mini Kedarnath temple. The design of shrines is simple yet elegant with a small three levelled spire. The shrines have been built by arranging heavy stone slabs of various sizes and it is believed that urad dal was used as the binder. The size of the various sizes may be different as compared to each other but their basic architecture and design remains the same. One can find meticulous engravings of ‘shiv linga, nandi (the bull of Lord Shiva) and other Hindu gods on grey rocks. The main shrine hosts magnificent statue of Goddess Parvati made from grey schist and a streak of bells hanged by devotees could be seen.
While strolling in the temples, all shrines except the main shrine and another one which houses the statue of Lord Ganesha were empty. I sat under shadow of one of shrines where some of the locals were sitting. After a bit of some friendly discussion, I intentionally questioned them about empty shrines. To this one of the aged responded that earlier all these shrines has statues but in late 70’s some of them were smuggled out of the region and sold in black markets. Thereafter, most of the statues were put in safe custody by ASI. However, he strongly opined that like many other historical architectures in India, the importance of this one is completely lost in dust of time due negligent attitude by the government.
I too was saddened with the ill fate this immaculate ancient architecture is suffering. As it was too hot, I looked to the river for some her to evade the blistering heat.
Finally, it was time for me to move out but I was about to witness one more thing. While walking out, I saw several people tirelessly trying to lift an innocent round shaped rock. I went closer only to discover another legendary story associated to it. Legend says that the rock could be lifted by nine men by using only one finger each and it stands true till date.
Leaving both the legend and legendary stone to stand the test of time to come, I moved ahead on my solo Himalayan voyage with the hope that it will get the attention and fame it is worthy of in future.
I’m finally on a longer vacation than the usual hectic weekend getaways. I have been waiting for this ever since I started my own blog. I must confess that writing and sharing the same over the blog has encouraged and inspired me to travel more and more. Earlier I only dreamt of travelling but those dreams normally succumbed to various work pressures and also to laziness on my part to some extent. But this journey aims to change all of it for once and all.
Although, initially I had many places in mind like Leh-Laddakh, Kullu Manali etc. but then I realized why not to start from my own home state-Uttarakhand also known as Dev Bhoomi (Land of Gods). Secondly, apart from few gleaming tourist destinations Uttarakhand is still unexplored and untouched unlike the neighbour Himanchal Pradesh.
Apart from this I did not finalized anything and left it on the spontaneity when I would actually take the trip.
A Distant View of Kausani
While lying on the bed two days back I just recalled the name Kausani from one of the conversation long time back and the next moment I was packing my bags for Kausani not even knowing in which corner of Uttarakhand it was. Neither, I knew which course my journey would be taking from Kausani- I left all decisions on spontaneity. Next day, I gathered all the required information to reach Kausani and the same night I was on a bus heading to Haldwani. I travelled for 12 hours non-stop from Delhi-Haldwani- Kausani to finally reach the starting point of my journey.
Kausani, a small town tucked amidst the dense pine and deodar trees offering splendid view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks from various viewpoints across the hill. Unfortunately, due to foggy weather conditions, I could not have a glimpse of white Himalayan peaks in spite of doing everything possible. But I’m not disheartened as it’s just a start and I will have my view in due course. Further, this small hill town offers serenity and calmness which every city dweller seeks for. Another thing which makes it a perfect retreat is the fact that it’s still not pinned strongly on the tourist map and thus not overly crowded.
The Famous Tea Gardens
Even though I reached well in time in Kausani, I did not hurry like other tourist to cover everything as soon as possible. I leisurely rested for couples of hours, took small jaunts across the market and lonely roads, interacted with the locals, tried food at various joints and again retreated back to the guest house for some more rest. I guess that’s why I would prefer to call myself as “traveller” rather than “tourist”. During my interactions with the locals, I got to know the about the tea gardens for which this hill town is famous. It’s also termed as the “Darjeeling of Uttarakhand”. The light and friendly interactions with the locals helped me finalizing the itinerary for the next day.
Next morning, I woke up slightly shivering to have a glimpse of sunrise. There was negligible noise on the roads except for children strolling up to their schools. The fresh cold breeze on one hand and warms rays of rising sun on the other hand were the perfectly complementing each other. I might have witnessed sunrise on hills numerous times but every time it manages to run a candid feeling through my veins and so was this time.
The sun rose higher into the skies and I went for sleep for couple of more hours. Then I woke up when the friendly lodge owner came to the room to ask for tea. Thereafter, I quickly freshened up and set strolling on the hill roads. I headed to the famous tea gardens of the town on foot. I inquired the locals for the directions and at last found my way down the hill through the village. While ambling through the village, I saw their traditional dwellings built from stone and mud.
The traditional hill house is similar to duplex house with living on the upper one and the place for kitchen and the cattle (locally called ‘goht’). The upper rooms are interconnected through small windows so that doors are not required to be opened during night. All these resurrected the childhood memories when I used to go to my native village during summer holidays. When I saw these people, it appeared as if nothing has changed since then.
As I walked further, I saw few sheep grazing over the mountain while their owner (a traditionally dressed pahari lady) sat peacefully nearby. I sauntered further, I saw local ladies working in their terraced field and all of them shied away when I tried to click them. I would have missed all this if I had taken the wheel and I patted myself for my decision.
A Local Dwelling
After an hours walk, I finally reached the tea gardens of the Uttaranchal Tea Co. (P) Ltd. This is the oldest running tea factory of Uttaranchal and the only one in the area. Above the factory were the long streaks of tea plants spanned over few acres of terraced fields. I sat below a tree among the tea plants in silence to observe the fabulous view of hills in front and also to catch some breathe. Later, I walked down into the factory to learn more about the journey of these teas leafs to cups. But I was informed that due to some issues relating to pricing, the work was temporarily stopped, however, one of the factory worked was kind enough to show me machines and how all the process works. He too was quite worried about the future of factory as livelihood of many workers depends on it. I left the factory premises wishing good luck to worker which was at most I could do.
Some of the Items used by Sumitranandan Pant
From the tea factory, I went to small one room shawl emporium across the road only to find few hand knitting machines with no workers although the shop above it was selling the same. I rambled to few more adjacent shops where many organic products made from the local produce such as plum and apricot jams, wild honey, pickles and other cosmetic items were being sold. I kept myself at bay from these items as I’m on tight budget.
House of Famous Poet Sumitranandan Pant
I roamed around the tea garden for some more time and then again walked backed to my room for some more rest. In the evening, I again went for stroll through this small town. While walking on the roads, I read a sign board showing way to the museum of the renowned Hindi writer and poet Pandit Sumitra Nandan Pant. His paternal home near the main market is now turned into a small museum with some of his pictures, letters and the table and chair where he used to write. The museum normally lies vacant as most of tourists are even unaware who Pandit Sumitra Nandan Pant was.
The Beautiful Forest Rest House
After giving due regards to this eminent Hindi poet and writer, I headed to the Forest Rest House (FRH) located amid the dense pine and deodar forest. The road to the FRH is hidden below the pale brown dry pine leafs giving it a slippery touch and a retro look. As you go deeper into the woods, the echoes of the jungle take the leap and it gives a feeling of being lost. But soon you will see the stunning FRH originally constructed by the British to complement their lavish lifestyle. The beautiful sloped roof tops, the lovely gardens with different flowers and the attractive classic styled rooms make it best place in the town.
Gandhi Ji’s Anashakti Ashram
Since, I could spend the night there; I decided to spend some time in the garden. Soon, I was joined by the caretaker who enquired my whereabouts. I inquired the caretaker if I was missing anything and he told me about the Anashakti Ashram which had skipped my mind. The ashram more popularly known as the Gandhi Ashram is the place where Mahatma Gandhi wrote the Anashakti treatise. I proceeded to the Ashram quickly as it was already starting to get dark.
I reached the Ashram well in time and first thing I noticed were the monkeys. Although monkeys are usually chased by the locals and their pets but once they are in Ashram precincts, nobody dares to touch them.
The Ashram has several prayer halls, one library and all the boarders are required to strictly attend morning and evening prayers. Besides this, it also has a perfect view point towards the Himalayas making it one of the best spot to see sunrise and catch the glimpse of Himalayas. The Ashram also has Sarla Behn Museum which unfortunately was closed till the time I reached.
I spent rest of my evening in the Ashram- attending the evening prayer, sitting on the bench gazing at the Gandhi statue, watching the monkeys jump, and thinking of my next halt.
This summer, I ventured deeper into my own home state Uttarakhand to explore its beauty, calmness, stillness, quietude etc. which made me feel proud of being a “pahari”. Uttarakhand or, formerly Uttaranchal, is a state in the northern part of India. It is often referred to as the “Land of the gods” due to the many Hindu temples and pilgrimage centres found throughout the state.
I shall share my journey of getting closer and comfortable to some not so well known destinations of Uttarakhand that fits into tourist’s map which in turn make it untouched and leaves you with some mesmerizing experience.
I once again absconded from to the beautiful valleys of Ramgarh (also known as the ‘Fruit Bowl of Kumaon’) in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand and also to my home ground for some travel inspiration. The short trip resurrected the travel bug which nearly was on the verge of collapse under the hectic work schedule.
I commenced my short Himalayan voyage on Friday night to reach Haldwani next morning from where I ascended deeper into the laps of land of uncountable gods. When I entered the bus with cramped leg space heading towards Ramgarh, I sighted many faces – some young, and some wrinkled- all waiting patiently. There was no hurry, no verbal arguments,and no abuses unlike the mornings in Delhi Metro. It was a refreshing dawn- the tiredness of night journey didn’t seem to exist. I was truly excited for this solo venture into the Himalayas.
At last after a wait of 30 minutes, the bus started moving up in the hills. Through the twist and turns around the rich fauna and numerous hoardings of summer cottages and resorts alongside the mountain roads, the bus reached Bhowali, a major halt for buses going on this route. As soon as the bus stopped in the market, my eyes scanned the nearby shops for a one special thing which was one of the many reasons to visit the area at this time.
It was the local fruit known as Kaafal available in the region during summer only. Soon my search was over as I saw a hawker selling these tiny and juicy mountain fruit across the road. I literally ran across the road to grab them before my bus moves. It was merely priced at Rs. 10 for tea cup full of tiny Kaafal sprinkled with salt which made it the best combination of the mountain.
It made me remember the old summer vacations, when we used to visit our villages in the region and how we went into the jungles to pluck them from trees. It had been a very long time since I had these and it was on the top of my to-do-list for this trip. The rest of the trip to Ramgarh passed with much ease and pleasure with the company of Kaafal. In between, there were pleasant views of orchards dangling with apricots, peaches and plums. The area is well known in India as well as abroad for it premium quality apricots, peaches, plums, strawberries most of which is obviously exported to the developed countries.
After a soothing journey of about 1.5 hours, I finally landed my foot on Ramgarh located amongst the one of the finest orchards of the region. Besides the fine orchards, Ramgarh is also famous as Rabindranath Tagore commenced writing his famous work Gitanjali over here, although, the house where this legendary work started is in complete ruins.
There was a gentle calmness in the air- the time seemed to have slowed down as compared to my last morning in Delhi. The few tea cum grocery shops appeared on the both sides of the road appeared to be ‘shopping mall’ of the area. The local men (specifically aged ones) gathered at these tea shops and discussed anything from political affairs of the country to glamour of Bollywood. The best thing was that everybody knew each other well except me who looked for accommodation like an alien.
As I walked ahead, the cluster of tea shops came to an end and I could see the beautiful river bed on one side and the orchards with local dwellings on other. I enjoyed every step I took making me merrier than the last one. While I rambled in search of accommodation, I inquired with one of locals and the conversation sparked between us. He was kind enough to allow me to his house to freshen up and also offered coffee which I had not expected from stranger. Later, he dropped me to the Narayan Swami Ashram down the road and even requested the people there to accommodate me.
The Ashram is located a bit away from the road among the woods and offers serene and apt surrounding for meditation and even escaping from the busyness of the metros. There was only one condition of stay in this elegant Ashram– you have to follow the rules of the house.
Rule No. 1- Every day in evening there was a “yagya” by Ashram residents and everyone had to attend it.
Rule No. 2- In evening, there were spiritual lectures (more specifically from Mahabharata or Ramayana) to be attended by all.
Rule No. 3- Everyone had to reach for morning yoga and meditation sessions by 4 pm sharp
Rule No. 4- The food was simple with negligible spices and it was strictly as per timings.
Rule No. 3 was the most difficult one to comply with but I managed to be on time for these sessions and I was fortunate to attend the same. When I interacted with the Ashram people, I came to know many of them were yoga teachers in China and Hong Kong. It was really great to learn some yoga and meditation techniques from these professionals.
After attending the morning yoga sessions, I wandered in the fresh morning breeze along with the river, in the fields and on the roads. I sat on rocks wherever I liked, took pictures of whatever pleased my eyes and loved the stillness of place. I don’t remember, when was I had such a great time with myself.
Although, I wished to explore more but time seemed to run with double speed and I had to unwillingly retreat back to from where I started.
Recently, I sneaked out with my “wandering shoes” to the city which proudly boasts and promotes itself with the caption “Welcome to the city of UNESCO World Heritage Sites”. Although, there are many other places which hosts World Heritage Sites, but the homeland of the elegant Taj Mahal i.e. Agra has found a unique way to express it with boards displaying the caption all across the city to catch attention.
My earlier reminiscence of city was shabby one with garbage bins, potholes, narrow filthy lanes etc. but this time I realized that it was confined to only some old corners of city and those areas too have improvised a lot in the last few years. But the quintessential thing that literally drags tourist from all nationalities to this “not so glamorous” city is the majestic Taj Mahal which has made the city shine apart on the world map.
Royal Entrance of Taj Mahal- Great Gate
I prepared to visit the monument early in the morning in order to avoid the crowd and the heat but when I reached the gates of Taj Mahal at 8.45 am, it was already bubbling with tourists from almost all nationalities including the native ones. It was a relief to see the ticket tariffs with whooping difference among the tariffs for Indian and foreign nationals but soon I experienced the backdrops. The exorbitant ticket tariff for foreign nationals allowed them easier access to Taj Mahal while the Indian national were struck on long queues at the entrance. After jostling up with the few fellow tourists and security clearance, I finally reached the gigantic royal entrance (also known as “Great Gate” or “Darwaza-i-Rauza”) of this great monument.
The first look of the entrance made me whisper to myself “awesome” and it truly fits into that description. The beautifully crafted structure has profuse inlay work of white marble and precious stones into the red sandstone surface. The entrance is decked by graceful “chattris” (dome shaped pavilions) on the corners. The top of gate has eleven small domes (11 on other side, 22 in total) depicting the years took to complete the Taj Mahal. The verse from Holy Quran and floral design around the arches just adds to its beauty.
I entered through the royal entrance and found some old chandelier and some more floral design on interior of the gate. Finally, upon admiring the architecture, I moved ahead to have a real encounter with the one of the most fascinated wonders of the world. Even though I had seen numerous photographs and read a lot in our school curriculum of the glory of Taj Mahal yet seeing it live made blood circulation faster through my nerves in excitement. The feeling that was transpiring throughout me can’t be explained in words. Ever since I commenced travel writing, I have been always advised to stay away from clichés, but, the beauty and elegance of Taj Mahal is much superior to all those clichés.
I ambled inside and found it overwhelming with tourists from different cultures, religions and part of India and world who posed for their ever lasting memories with the white monument. Some of tourist tried to adjust incessantly with their cameras to hold the peak of the dome of Taj Mahal. I even clicked few for my memories and then strolled further on the walkway through the lush green gardens (also known as “Charbagh”) with fountain in the middle. It was really unfortunate to see that none of the fountains were functional and it felt that it needed some urgent maintenance.
As I walked closer to Taj Mahal, it started to grow in size astronomically with each step making me realize its grandiosity and architectural bravura. I strolled further until the guards diverted me towards the Jamat Khanah, a place for welcoming guests. The structure is believed to be constructed to preserve the identical symmetry of the mosque on the other side. The structure made with red stone flanked with marble works and octagonal chattris and beautiful designs on its walls are truly commendable.
I sauntered more through the rear side of the Taj Mahal to finally reach the long queue waiting to enter the main area. The ticket tariffs played a role here too as the foreigners were given precedence. Braving all the odds, I was at last standing in front façade of this architectural wonder called “Taj Mahal”. All the patience in waiting in long queues had finally paid off with abundant interest. The arched opening bordered by Quran verses, calligraphy, designs etc. makes it appear magical.
The flawless craftsmanship of the workers defeats the modern technologies. It took time to build Taj Mahal but there was not even an iota of compromise on any facets and it will not be an exaggeration to call it ‘perfect’. The latticed screen on façade from each side allows the sunlight to illuminate the interiors of the mausoleum.
I waited for my turn to have a peek of inside of the Taj Mahal as guards only allowed tourist in small bunches in order to prevent crammed situation. My turn came and everybody in our bunch bumped into each other to sneak inside. The guides took their clients to small corners or whatever space they could find to explain. I also took one corner to have a satisfactory look at the interiors which were decorated with similar designs, calligraphy and Quran verses as the exterior. The central portion has two marble cenotaphs of the creator (Shahjahan) and his wife (Mumtaz Mahal) encompassed by octagonal marble lattice screen with intricate designs. The original graves are preserved in the base to which entry is prohibited.
Soon my view was interrupted by guards who were continuously requesting our bunch to move out as there another standing by. I slowly ambled out of the mausoleum from the rear side. The rear side opened to the panoramic view of river Yamuna which once mirrored its elegant image in full moonlights but at present was dried and infected with the growing pollution in the vicinity areas.
After spending some “Wah Taj” moments with the white monument, I ambled my way out through the Taj gardens but was halted by a board displaying way to Taj Museum. Not many tourists visit the Taj Museum which was clear from the meagre number of people in the museum. The museum is set up inside the one of the “Jal Mahal” (Water Palace) situated on Eastern and Western sides of Taj Garden which were constructed as a part of Taj complex.
The Water Palace is as beautiful as rest of structures in the complex with ornamental arches on first floor and latticed opening on the ground floor. The slightly extended and decorated parapets add more flavour to its charm. I entered the museum and was glad to see some really well preserved relics and texts. It showcased the entire architectural plan design at that time with some ancient text books keeping records of the material and labour used. Some precious stones and tools used to construct the Taj Mahal were also on exhibit. Although many tourists skip this area but I strongly recommend to pay a visit to this museum to understand minute planning and detailing behind the Taj complex.
I rambled for some more time in lush green meadows, took rest and appreciated the flawless efforts over the span of two decades to construct this masterpiece. I also saw the uncountable expression of anxiety, excitement, astonishment, admiration, surprise, happiness and many more expressions on the faces of the tourist which truly explains the reason for it being the one of the wonders in the world. Finally, as all good things come to end, it was time to bid goodbye but by now I had gathered ample memories of this ‘wonder’ to cherish for long.
Recently, I was absolutely confident that I needed to take my ‘wandering shoes’ out of Delhi for some fresh breeze but I wasn’t really sure to where. My idea was to spend some time in peace keeping at bay from the swarming tourist destinations. I was being accompanied by one of my friend (let’s call him ‘G’) and we had lot of discussion and disagreements as to the destination.
Finally, I had to surrender to G’s choice and we backpacked for a short weekend trip to Kasauli in Himanchal Pradesh. We commenced our journey on Friday night via train, changed two buses in morning to reach the renowned hill station. Initially, when we had decided to head to Kasauli, I was a bit disappointed as I didn’t expect the peace I urged for due to its proximity to ‘Queen of Hills’ (Shimla). However, by the end of the voyage, all my pre-conceived expectations were completely shattered by this serene hill station.
We reached this cantonment town at around 7.30 am in the morning. The pine trees spread across the town were still covered by the morning dew. The roads were absolutely mute as if vehicles never existed in this town. The fresh morning breeze gently landed again and again on my face leaving me refreshed and contended to the core. This small hill town had excelled beyond my expectations and completely took my heart with its natural quietude and elegance.
We immediately started the search for some suitable accommodation but none was available within our financial reach. The weekend had surged the prices enormously and secondly it was early morning and most of guest had not checked out yet. We rambled aimlessly around the city, inquiring every hotel, querying the locals but nothing seemed to materialize until one local guided us to a homestay on one extreme end of the town.
The Green City Dwellings
Although the location was little far away from the main town area but it was all worth it. The windows of the room opened to the spectacular view of Chandigarh, Kalka and nearby hills. We had already trekked a lot up and down the hill town by now and were completely exhausted. The soothing silence that prevailed in our room slowly healed all the exhaustion. It was so quiet and calm that I could listen the tickling of my wrist watch when I closed my eyes and lied on the bed. The only sound I could hear in my room was of us talking otherwise, the whole neighborhood was tranquil like heaven.
We got fresh, took some rest, had delicious home cooked parathas and set out for strolling across the hill town. Our morning rambling helped us to acclimatize with the changed weather enabling us to stroll without losing our breath. As we moved towards the main market (also known as ‘Heritage Market’), I could see some movement across the streets. The shopkeepers were starting to roll out their shops displaying the vivid itineraries from woolens to antique looking chimes.
Heritage Market of Kasauli
I candidly laid my eyes on the itineraries and then moved forward as I was travelling on a strict budget. Soon we were in front of the Kasauli’s oldest church – The Christ Church. This is oldest church and its foundation was laid around 170 years back by Dr. Daniel Wilson in 1844, the Bishop of Calcutta. Its gothic styled architecture to which many additions were made at regular intervals was an absolute winner of everybody’s heart. The Church stands in middle of town and is open tourist all days. It is not dazzling like many similar ones in Europe but its charm lies in its simplicity. The fading grey colors of its walls and never-stopping tower clock are witness of its long presence. Being in center of the town, it always has admirers who would relentlessly pose in every corners of this old Church. Like others, we also added to its list of admirers and posed for few profile pics.
Christ Church- Oldest Church of Kasauli
From there, we marched towards the Upper Mall Road. The upper mall road takes you in the interior of the famous Centre of Research Institute and further connects you to cantonment area which occupies the major portion of Kasauli. While I rambled on the mall, I was frequently encountered by boards displaying the words – “Private Property, Do not Trespass”. Surprisingly, this small town is hub of private estates and summer retreats of elite class. We spotted these private estates in abundance in the area which belonged to the retired army generals and famous personalities such as the veteran writer Khushwant Singh. Such lavish estate amid lap of beautiful serene mountain ranges made me envy their owners every time I passed them.
View of the Kasauli city &TV Tower
We moved further on the road and came across the lovely Kasauli Club. This club set up in 1880 is the oldest one in town. In 2001, it was burnt to ashes in an accident and it took many years to renovate it completely. However, like many pleasant things in Kasauli, entry to this famous club was also restricted. The guards even didn’t let us stand in its vicinity. Although, I liked the overall ambience of the surrounding but the frequent “Private Property” boards and such guards tend to spoil all the fun. The most dismaying part is that all good places in the town is either a ‘private property’ or under the army regime. But, there was nothing I could do to change that.
I rambled further on the mall road until I came across the board showing way to ‘Gilbert Trail’. The rough track seemed to snake unendingly deeper into the mountains flanked by the streak of tall pine trees on one side. It was engulfed with mixed colors of dry grain colored pine leaf and other green leafs. We decided to take this off beaten path only to discover that it was not so ‘off beat’. We met several youngsters and secluded couples on our way.
The trail ended on a stone bench placed on the cliff tucked with mesmerizing view of Kasauli and nearby mountain range. The mountains covered with thick green flora and clusters of white dots (those were dwelling) scattered all across it made a perfect end to this short trail. There was heavenly peace and calmness in the air which hardcore city dwellers like me dearly hunt for in such trips. I sat on the stone bench facing the wide horizon in front of me with an empty mind. I stopped all my thought process and engaged myself with the charm of what lied in front of me. It was so comforting and relaxing experience that I find no words to match it. I and G spent some time in silence without talking and it was really a comforting and soothing experience. Later on I discovered that it’s the famous ‘Lover’s Point’ of Kasauli which aptly justifies the reason for spotting some secluded lovers on our way.
One of the many private villas of town- this one belonged to Retired Major General
The sun was on the brim to bid goodbye for the day when we decided to move back to our accommodation. When we came back, the market was teeming with tourists in all directions. The momos joints were attracting dumpling lovers by its steamy mild aroma and we too could not stop ourselves. We spent some more time in the market and then returned back to our room. The view from our window had changed by now. Now we could see numerous tiny lights glittering from the ‘City Beautiful (Chandigarh)’ which made the view even more impressive than day time.
Chandigarh view from my room
Silent Roads leading to Manki Point
The next morning, we checked out and trekked through the lower mall road for paying visit to the famous temple at ‘Monkey Point’. The lower mall road houses more ‘private property’ boards than the upper mall and it continued to envy me as earlier. As we progressed further, I didn’t find a single monkey (I expected a lot considering the name) until I came across the board showing the way to ‘Manki Point’. Everything made sense now. We candidly trekked 4 kilometers watching the alps, trees, lavish private estates with long alleys until we reached the Air Force Base. The ‘Manki Point’ on which the Lord Hanuman temple is located inside the Air Force Base and no electronic gadgets are allowed inside the base. The climb to the temple is steep but the uninterrupted view from the top is worth all the exercise.
Constitutionally, I hail from a secular country but I am not ashamed to admit that my views were not entirely secular till recently. For me, the term “secularism” was only a method to mint votes during elections and nothing else. However, 6 months back when I took my appetite for travelling and interacting with people seriously, I was compelled to change my perceptions about the most intrinsic community of our country i.e. the Muslim Community which obviously was based on the long communal history of the country.
On my quest, I decided to explore the corners of Delhi, which are the strong base of the Muslim community. I often felt jittery and apprehensive initially but things improved as the interactions became frequent and gradually I started enjoying the whole journey of knowing the community. I will unfold my journey in a series of two encounters which enabled me to comprehend the high values of this religion and gifted me with a new outlook to see things based on real experiences.
1st Encounter- The Saint of Earthen Pot
Gripped with a mixed feeling of apprehension and inquisitiveness echoing in my head, I made myself ready for my first encounter with the community at the mausoleum famously known as “Matka Peer” or The Saint of Earthen Pot at Delhi. The first thing that one notices in this mausoleum is the numerous clay pots placed over the branches of trees, the boundary wall of the buildings and everywhere your eyes could go. These omnipresent clay pots have already puzzled my ‘dome’ by now and I was eager to know the story.
In curiosity to know more, I took a flight of steps up to small porch area of the mausoleum. Since I was a stranger to the notions and beliefs of the community, I was little timid and more vigilant of my every action and move. I washed my hands and entered the mausoleum departing from all my religious beliefs with pure heart to get introduced to an entirely new culture and religion and embrace it unbiased. I ambled in the porch area aimlessly gazing at the clay pots hung from the trees. I was feeling a bit numb at this moment as I didn’t know the way prayers were offered at mausoleum unlike temples. I didn’t desire any actions that might hurt anybody’s sentiments and spoil my first encounter. I tried to watch for other devotees so that I could follow them but unfortunately there were none at that time in the mausoleum.
While I was walking aimlessly looking out for next course of action, I was called by the priest of the mausoleum, Baba Raees, who I guess had sensed and fathomed my numbness and confusion. Baba Raees dressed in peculiar Muslim attire of Kurta-Pyzama with beautiful embroidery on the edges.
He courteously invited me inside the mausoleum for taking the blessing. He was an aged man who been serving at the mausoleum for the last 38 years, a legacy which he inherited from his ancestors continuing uninterrupted for more than 300 years now. The white beard and the curved wrinkles on his face were the indicator of his age and experience. He graciously asked my name and blessed by tapping my head and shoulders with a small bunch of peacock feathers.
Dargah of Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi Haidri Kalandari
On being queried about the custom of offering earthen pots at the mausoleum, he grinned a bit and gladly elaborated an interesting tale behind the tradition to calm my inquisitiveness. I could sense great pride and honour in his voice while he narrated the tale.
He also explained the lifestyle of Sufis (Muslim Saints) and how they helped the masses which somewhat resembled to life of Saints and their noble deeds in Hindu religion with which I was familiar. Albeit, Baba Raees intended to continue on the subject as he was pleased to see the curiosity coming from somebody hailing from a different religion (especially Hindu, considering communal history of country) but was obstructed by a family who had come for attaining the blessing at the mausoleum. Soon, as the number of devotees augmented at the mausoleum, he was joined by a young face, probably his son to help and take their family legacy ahead.
The interaction with Baba Raees made me little comfortable and supressed by numbness which I described earlier. It gave genesis to a new radical thought process inside me based on real experiences and encouraged me to explore it deeper.
2nd Encounter- Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya
The edifying visit to Matka Peer (The Saint of Earthen Pot) stimulated me to amend my earlier perceptions of the community. It made me weave new ideas and opinions about this second most followed religion in the world after Christianity.
Charged with a new outlook and craving for more insights, I prepared myself for the yet another jaunt to one of the holiest places among the Muslims in world – Mausoleum of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. I was accompanied by a local Muslim boy, who was the volunteer of “The Hope Project” which runs some informational tours in the area aimed at unwrapping its hidden treasures for ignorant masses like me.
A beautiful pic of the mausoleum
He took me through the twist and turns of narrow lanes of Nizamuddin Basti and showed me the enriching traditions and cultures of the Islamic community thriving in those lanes and enlightened me on various concepts of Islam which were novel to me. During the interaction, the volunteer used many typical Urdu terminologies which completely went above my “dome”, however, he was kind enough to explain them in detail.
Our nurturing walk ended at the sacrosanct mausoleum of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The holy mausoleum gladly embraces devotees irrespective of their religion. The meticulous marble structure topped by beautiful dome gleamed with numerous decorative lights and flower garlands. It was flooding with devotees from all religions and some of traditions at the mausoleum looked familiar to what I have been seeing all my life.
I saw devotees tying wishing threads like in many Hindu temples for fulfilment of their wishes. The beggars were given food like any other religious place in India. Then there was the evening prayer and everyone bowed before the almighty like in any other devotional place. At last, there were a series of Qawallis (a musical way to remember god) in the honour of almighty similar to bhajans (a term for devotional songs) in Hindu temples.
All these time, I tried to find the some substantial difference among both the Hindu and Muslim from a layman point; however, I failed to find any. All the practice though may be different in nomenclature and the manner they are performed but the ultimate purpose was absolutely same. It helped me to understand the religion and shattered most of my delusion about the religion.
By the time we finished the tour, I was taking an entirely fresh image of the community in my heart contradictory to what is portrayed in the communal history.
It was March 2011; my five year law course was coming to an epic end. My buddies had become more emotional of each other now as soon we all would take off in our lives. The overflowing emotions paved the way for one last trip to a destination which was for long in everybody’s mind – Goa and this time there were minimal obstacles.
For me, this trip was the first encounter with the deep blue sea which occupies 70% of earth. My memories were filled with films featuring the stunning sunset poses at the beaches and now it was my time to experience all of it in reality. I waited anxiously for the entire day and reached Vagator beach (one of the perfect sunset spot in Goa) well in time to feed my anxiety. As I reached closer to the beach, the swirling sound of the wind and mighty ocean continued breach my ear dreams and it accelerated the heartbeat.
Finally, the moment arrived – there was nothing between me and the blue sea. The blue sea appeared much superior to my virtual memories and expectations. The frothy sea water kissed my naked feet and went back the next moment. It simply felt awesome to be there at that moment.
Soon, the sky gloomed with the tender orange colour signalling the departure of sun for the day. The entire sky transformed into an orange canvas with sun in the middle. The descending sun’s image was paralleled on the rippling oceanic waves. Almost every soul (including me) on the beach rested themselves on the grainy sand and gazed endlessly at the horizon to capture the moment in their heart forever. Slowly and gradually, the sun sinks behind the perpetual ocean only to rise again the next day leaving the once orange sky dark glittering with stars.
There is a famous saying “Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder”. But some places or things does not require the eyes of the beholder to look beautiful. They are universally accepted as ‘beautiful’ irrespective of the ‘beholder’ and in some cases they tend to define the term ‘beautiful’ in their category.
Recently on one of the journeys, I confronted one such beauty that defines the term ‘beautiful’ for historical monuments. The beauty is also known as the symbol of love and passion and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site attracting tourists from every nationality. I’m pretty sure many must have guessed it by now and for those who didn’t I’ll do the honours. It is the elegant, beautiful, ravishing display of architectural bravura- The Taj Mahal in Agra.
The very mention of name of Taj Mahal displays a picture of white monument with four minarets in everybody’s mind. Being an Indian, I have heard, read and seen many pictures of the white monument in our history books in school. But seeing it live in front of my eyes was all together a different experience. When I entered through the giant royal entrance of the Taj Complex and laid my eyes upon this entrancing monument, my eyes widened to full in excitement. It perfectly fitted all the clichés out there in market.
I slowly walked towards the monument and its magnitude increased astronomically. Finally after taking few turns and jostling up with the overwhelming tourists of all nationalities, I was snaked my way to its façade. The arched opening of the Taj Mahal’s façade flanked by Quran verses, calligraphy, designs etc. enhances its beauty to infinity. The latticed opening on all side lights up interior of the mausoleum which is as beautiful as the exterior. The immaculate floral designs bordered by multi-colour inscription and drawings on the lower walls of the Taj Mahal catches every tourist attention.
The accuracy and detailing with which these designs are made without the help any modern technological tools displays the skill, expertise and knowledge of the artisans of medieval times. There is not even a minute flaw in designs, engravings, inscriptions carried out on the Taj Mahal and it is also identical on all four sides of Taj Mahal. I looked and adored the Taj Mahal in respect for all those who worked on this masterpiece and made it stand out in time.
I spent some more time in its vicinity admiring its everlasting elegance before final goodbye to this great white monument.