About Mariellen Ward

Mariellen Ward

Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.

Latest Posts by Mariellen Ward

Diwali, an Indian Festival & Treat

November 25, 2015 by  


yoga, ashram, Aurovalley, Diwali, light, festival, fireworks, Rishikesh, travel, spiritual

DIWALI IS INDIA’S Christmas, a festival that’s celebrated in spectacular fashion all across the country by people of all religions, though it’s actually Hindu. Families gather to enjoy time together, to perform Lakshmi Puja, to create rangolis, eat sweets and light candles and fireworks. The origin of Diwali is the epic Ramayana, the tale of Lord Rama, and the lights are meant to help guide him back from exile.

There are five days of Diwali, each with a different significance, and the festival culminates on the night of the new moon, the darkest night of the year. Diwali is also known as the Festival of Light because on this night, diyas (small clay lamps) are placed in rows all along balconies, stairs, rooftops, walls and other places outdoors. After dark, the diyas are lit and people shoot fireworks into the night sky. The entire country lights up in a spectacular display that signifies the triumph of light over dark, and the victory of good over evil.

yoga, ashram, Aurovalley, Diwali, light, festival, fireworks, Rishikesh, travel, spiritual

The dining hall of Aurovalley Ashram lit up for Diwali

I’ve spent three Diwali’s in India — two with my Indian family in Delhi, and the most recent one at Aurovalley Ashram near Rishikesh. I chose to spend Diwali at the ashram because Delhi becomes clogged with traffic and ultra-high levels of air pollution (due to the millions of fireworks ignited) — and because Aurovalley is my other home in India. I’m so glad I did.

On the day of Diwali, everyone staying at the ashram (about 20 people, from Canada, England, Colombia, Russia and of course India) spent the day cleaning, decorating and affixing small candles along pathways, stairs, balconies and walls.

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The Meditation Hall at Aurovalley decorated for Diwali

As always, we spent one hour in collective meditation before dinner. The Meditation Temple was elaborately decorated with flowers and candles, and shone with incredible brightness that seemed to penetrate my consciousness.

Just before dinner, we lit the outdoor candles and watched the ashram glow, while the sounds of firecrackers from the nearby village broke the usual stillness. After dinner, we all went into the World Temple where we watched a music and dance performance. Then we went up to the roof and danced with sparklers and lit fireworks, everyone including Swami Brahmdev beaming with joy and happiness, like children. Finally, someone started playing Bollywood dance tunes and Bhangra, and all the women ran downstairs, onto the World Temple lawn, to dance into the night.

yoga, ashram, Aurovalley, Diwali, light, festival, fireworks, Rishikesh, travel, spiritual

Fireworks on the roof of the World Temple during Diwali

Spiritual significance of Diwali

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Swami Brahmdev during Diwali. Photo Ashleigh Holman.

It was a fun night, and also a significant one. During Satsang, the daily question-and-answer period, I asked Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji) for the spiritual significance of Diwali, and he said: “You are made of light. But you forget. Diwali helps you discover that you are light. The ritual helps to awaken the light within. It helps you journey from darkness to light.

Diwali should be each moment of life.

“Light means consciousness, wisdom. It refers to your higher self, your best self, your true nature. The whole year, you should be remembering your light, not just one day.

“This is the darkest night of the year, and the festival reminds us to light a candle within. Burn your candle on the inside. We are habituated to look outside, but the real work is to burn the inner light. Diwali should be each moment of life.”

I have written about Aurovalley Ashram, as I have been visiting this lovely, peaceful spot for almost 10 years. For those who are cynical about spiritual centres, like ashrams, and “godmen” as they are called in India, I can certainly empathize. There are so many frauds, and so many superficial retreats. In India, there are people who dress up like swamis to cheat the innocent and vulnerable. Among westerners, there are those who take one-month yoga teacher training courses, set themselves up as gurus and open yoga studios and retreats.

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Satchidinanda during Diwali. Photo Ashleigh Holman

Others may not be as cynical, but just may wonder about the purpose of time spent at an ashram. They may think they don’t need it, or that it’s unnecessary, and they don’t see the point.

Well, of course, if you’re not drawn to visit an ashram, there’s probably no point in going. But if you are curious, you may find, like me, there is a kind of luxury at an ashram you won’t find anywhere else, not even at a seven-star tropical resort.

At a place like Aurovalley, there is the luxury of time to be with yourself. By yourself, I mean your inner self, your higher self. An ashram is the one place where you are encouraged to sit quietly and ponder questions such as:

  • How should I live my life?
  • What is the purpose of life?
  • Who am I?
  • How can I bring more consciousness to my life and my work?
  • What is my gift, what am I supposed to manifest in my life?

Aurovalley is a particularly special place because it offers two things in ample amounts: peace and freedom. I would not be surprised to learn there is no other ashram like it in India. It is physically and materially very well made and comfortable, with spacious clean rooms and hot showers, two asana classes per day in a beautiful yoga hall and a stunning library, among other amenities. It’s also well-located halfway between Rishikesh and Haridwar, surrounded by fields, close to the Ganga River and ringed with the mist-covered hills of Rajaji National Park.

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Sunrise at Aurovalley Ashram

But much more importantly, it is a deeply peaceful place, where your entire being can unwind. There is a daily routine, which you are expected to take part in, and you are given the freedom to discover your own unique spiritual path.

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. – Carl Jung

Ashrams give you a break from the daily grind of life — but much more so than any vacation can offer. This is hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. At Aurovalley, the silence and peace allow you to hear your innermost thoughts, to feel your deepest emotions, to sense the movements of your soul … and “to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Your cares are lifted for a time and you have the opportunity to reflect and meditate, and gain increased awareness about your life. Every time I come to Aurovalley, I undergo an important paradigm shift in awareness, and I feel my consciousness expand a little. Cares seem to grow smaller and become more manageable, and I leave with a spring in my step.

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Photo courtesy Ashleigh Holman

Relevance in times of tragedy

You may also wonder: What’s the use of sitting around meditating when there is war, poverty, terrorism and other horrors in the world. Are ashrams and places like them an anachronism is today’s modern world?

The day after the Friday the 13th attacks on Paris, I asked Swami Brahmdev about how we should respond. He said:

“Any kind of catastrophe, horror, attack, tragedy shakes us up. They make us ask ourselves about finding sense and purpose in life. These attacks are a clear sign that we need to grow our consciousness. Sometimes people learn from these incidents.

“We are social animals, and social animals fight. But we have the chance to be more. Every day we have the chance to make changes, to progress, to learn. Change is the most beautiful secret to life. Consciously participate in positive change.”

Then Swamiji recited a short Hindi poem, and translated it. He said, about life, “You’ve given me many ups and downs. But now I’m in charge, I’m calling the tune!”

This powerful and radical message lit a spark in me and has helped move me forward more positively and confidently. I now feel better able to deal with some major challenges in my life. Personally, I think most of us could benefit from a better understanding of how truly powerful we are. And how capable of igniting change.

Behind the Scenes With An Indian Yoga Master…

November 17, 2015 by  


Roughly ten or so years ago I was getting ready to attend a Yoga Conference in Toronto. I flipped through the brochure and saw one teacher from India: Yogrishi Vishvektu. As I was then in throes of planning for my first trip to India, I decided to take his class. It was a revelation, the best asana class I had ever experienced. He led us through the five koshas and by the end, I was in a state of bliss. I walked straight up to him and said, “I am going to study with you in India.”

We have been friends ever since, and I have benefitted from his wisdom, teachings and good humour over the past 10 years. Recently, Vishva-ji (as he his known to friends and students) published a book called Yogasana: The Encyclopedia of Yoga Poses. It was a great excuse to interview him, find out more about his life story, feature some of the extraordinary photos from the book and expand the meaning of yoga for those westerners who think yoga is only exercise.

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Yogrishi Vishvketu demonstrating asana

Q: How and where did you begin to learn about yoga? What’s the essence of yoga for you?

Vishva-ji: I started yoga in childhood. I was practicing at the early age of three. I already knew some things about yoga from my previous lives. And three of my uncles were yogis and that helped to stimulate my interest in yoga. I learned in the foothills of the Himalayas. Vishva-ji: The essence of yoga is to bring freedom. And to believe and trust, to practice, and to help people to connect to their true nature of being fearless, blissful, joyful and playful.

Q: How are your teachings different, or the same, as other types of yoga?

Vishva-ji: When I came to the West, I noticed that the style of yoga practiced by most people was either asana or meditation based, but not both together in the holistic manner. To my understanding asana and meditation are not separate things. In each yoga class we must do all things together to experience Akhanda, whole and indivisible; knowledge, asana, breathing, singing, chanting, meditating. All must be done together, not separately. Asana helps your meditation practice and meditation helps your asana practice. In both we practice and cultivate mindfulness. Also in Akhanda Yoga we are conscious of what we offer the body in the form of food. The best quality of food is optimal for the body. This is also part of yoga.

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Yogrishi Vishvketu demonstrating asana

Q: Is yoga in the West different than in India? How?

Vishva-ji: In the west, most of the practice focuses on the physical aspect of yoga. In India, yoga practice is for internal liberation; it is a spiritual practice. In bringing Akhanda Yoga to the West, I hope to inspire Westerners to practice holistic yoga.

Q: Where do you teach yoga now?

Vishva-ji: My time teaching is divided between India and Canada. In India, I lead Yoga Teacher Trainings (YTT) at Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram where I also offer classes, workshops and retreats. In Canada, I am based in Ottawa, Ontario and I teach at various locations. I also offer retreats and trainings all over the world.

Q:What about your book, Yogasana: The Encyclopedia of Yoga Poses. How did it start?

Vishva-ji: When I came into the West, people were doing so many different yoga asanas and calling them names that do not make sense based on ancient yogic knowledge and Sanskrit language. I often heard people calling different asanas by the wrong names. I realized that there was no single book in existence containing the proper names or which addressed the energetic aspect of yoga.

As a lifelong yoga practitioner with a PhD in Yoga Philosophy and with a background in Sanskrit, I felt it important to share my knowledge and expertise to provide a resource where practitioners of all levels and yoga teachers could learn the correct names and the variations and pronunciations of the asanas. Everyone who worked on the book was a scholar with a PhD or expert in the fields of yoga and Sanskrit.

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Yogrishi Vishvketu demonstrating Surya Namaskar

Yogasana is very visual and easy for teachers and practitioners to see the benefits of the pose. The book features 850 poses from beginner to advanced postures. In addition to the English and Sanskrit names and it includes charts describing the properties of each chakra, and graphics highlighting which chakras are activated by each asana.

It was important to me to make this book because there was a need. I felt the yoga community was struggling with the names of the asanas and their variations. As there is no other reference book like this, I had to do this work and so I did. I wanted the names of the poses to be honoured and pronounced properly. Writing this book was an opportunity to use my knowledge and experience as well as professional connections. This makes it unique, educational and accessible for all levels of practitioners and teachers.

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Himalayan Yoga Master and Founder of Akhanda Yoga, Yogrishi Vishvketu (Vishva-ji) is known for his infectious laughter, playfulness and approachable teaching style. He offers Western teachers, a grounded, knowledge and experience-based and approach to yogic spiritual life and teachings.

Vishva-ji has dedicated his life to sharing the teachings and spirit of Akhanda Yoga to inspire people to connect to their true nature of being fearless, blissful, joyful and playful. He combines all aspects of yoga in a holistic approach including asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, cleansing kriyas, yogic philosophy, and Ayurveda.

Yoga, India, Rishikesh, ashram, spiritual, Anand Prakash, Yogrishi Vishvektu

Yogrishi Vishvketu demonstrating asana

Vishva-ji was born into a family of yogis and Ayurvedic practitioners, and has been immersed in the teachings of Yogic wisdom and science since childhood. Practicing yoga since he was three, he began his formal yogic studies at the early age of eight. He completed an M.A. in Yoga Philosophy as a gold medalist scholar followed by a PhD in Yoga Philosophy at Gurukul Kangri University in Haridwar, India, a major global spiritual center.

His teacher Baba Premnāt once stated, “You will never have a job. You will create jobs for other people.” Yogrishi Vishvketu has since trained thousands of teachers through his Yoga Alliance registered 200 and 300-hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) programs in Rishikesh, India and around the world.

Vishva-ji has lead hundreds of workshops, trainings and retreats globally including in Italy, U.K., India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, U.S., Canada, France and Ireland, creating an international family of yoga practitioners and teachers.

He continues his father’s legacy of charitable works in local communities; In 2007 Vishva-ji co-founded the Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram Charitable Trust in Rishikesh and in 2013 founded Sansar Gyaan Pathshala, a free school for over 250 underserved children in rural Uttar Pradesh, India.


Guide to Traveling to Nepal for the First Time

October 27, 2015 by  


India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

This guest post is by writer, editor, Indiaphile and India traveller Elen Turner, who moved from Australia to Nepal sight unseen to start a new job. Here’s what she discovered, and her tips for first time travellers to Nepal.

I ARRIVED IN KATHMANDU for the first time in the middle of the monsoon. The rain lashed the airplane’s windows as we descended into the grey clouds, eliminating any hope of the famous Himalayan views I’d been told to expect. Instead, my first glimpse of my new home was of the hills of the Kathmandu Valley, bright green and lush, and haphazard brick structures crammed together, fighting for space.

India, Nepal, Kathmandu, travel, female, solo, traveler, trip, differences

At Tribhuvan Airport I clambered into a beat-up taxi that felt, to me, as if it belonged more in sub-Saharan Africa than the South Asia I knew from my previous visits to India. The ring-road to Patan, where I would be living, was muddy, pot-holed and extremely congested. As we crossed the Bagmati River, we encountered a group of military police, clad in blue camouflage and combat boots, breaking up an altercation. We passed one United Nations office after another, many international NGOs, and shared the road with numerous UN and USAID jeeps.

All of this was a surprise to me.

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A typical guesthouse for trekkers in the Langtang Valley

While Kathmandu was to become my home for the next year, I’d never been there before. My friends and family in Australia knew better than to ask why I would drop everything and move to a country to which I’d never been. I didn’t even stop to ask myself that question. I knew India, and how different could Nepal, its land-locked northern neighbour, be?

Very. I felt it immediately.

Nepal felt unrecognizable. I knew better than to expect a mountain Shangri-la, but I had expected something much more familiar, more like India. Much of the difference between the countries comes down to the fact that Nepal is extremely poor, and is classified as a ‘least developed nation.’ India does a poor job of equitably distributing its wealth, but it does have a lot of wealth and resources.

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The Diwali market at the Janaki Mandir in Janakpur said to be the birthplace of Sita

Here are the differences between India and Nepal that you need to know before visiting.

1. The power situation

Unless you visit during monsoon, which isn’t advisable, Kathmandu suffers from crippling power shortages of the sort that apparently used to be common throughout India, but are not any longer. The hydro dams that produce electricity are low outside of the monsoon months, meaning that scheduled power in the middle of winter can be as little as two hours per day. At other times of the year, this can rise to 8-12 hours per day.

If you’re staying in a hotel in Kathmandu or Pokhara, you’re likely to be supplied with sufficient power from a back-up generator. Be aware that most Nepalis do not have this luxury.

2. If you’re a woman, your experience will be much easier in Nepal

While I’m a staunch supporter of women’s travel in India, the truth is that travelling in Nepal is much more comfortable, most of the time.

In general, Nepalis are a very laid-back people who don’t invade one’s personal space, male or female. Nepali men are not prone to staring or making audible or muttered comments to foreign women. There is less likelihood that a casual chat with a man on a bus or elsewhere in public will be misinterpreted, thus making it easier for foreign women to have genuine, interesting and harmless conversations with Nepali men. It’s still a good idea to dress modestly, but Nepali women—especially the young, in Kathmandu—often show more skin and wear tighter jeans and t-shirts than is common in India. Although still a very patriarchal and male-dominated society, Nepal does not have the same unwritten prohibitions against women in certain parts of the public sphere that India does. If, as a woman, you stumble into a down-market restaurant that’s patronised by men, you shouldn’t feel intimidated.

At first, I thought that these more relaxed gender codes were a mountains-plains divide, as it is often said that travelling in India’s mountainous areas is ‘easier’ as a woman. However, I visited Janakpur, a city on Nepal’s plains, very near the border with Bihar, and I found the atmosphere there very comfortable. Despite looking like a very poor, dusty, flat Uttar Pradeshi or Bihari town, in Janakpur I wandered freely, alone, without even a sideways glance.

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A market in the ancient Newari city of Bhaktapu

3. Vegetarianism

Although the majority of Nepalis are Hindu, most are not vegetarian. As one myself, I love travelling in India as it’s one of the few places in the world where I’m spoilt for choice when I pick up a menu. The same doesn’t always apply in Nepal, where chicken and buffalo are very popular. But it’s still easy to get by, as veg curries and momos are available almost everywhere, even deep in the mountains.

4. The infrastructure

In some respects, such as the network of trekkers’ lodges throughout the mountains, Nepal’s tourism infrastructure is good. In most others, it really is not. The quality of the roads in Kathmandu is extremely poor, as they are in much of the rest of the country. Local buses are old, over-crowded and slow, although very cheap. Faster tourist buses only run along a couple of routes, namely, between Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are practically no railways in Nepal apart from a short strip in the Terai that connects with India, and domestic flights, although frequent and cheap, are often cancelled due to bad weather in the mountains.

Nepal is a very poor, very mountainous country, so this poor infrastructure is entirely understandable. But it does mean that when visiting Nepal, it’s not a good idea to try to do too much, too quickly.

5. It’s not OK to lose your temper

Sometimes, in India, stomping your foot and raising your voice is the only way to get what you want, or be treated the way you should be. In Nepal, this doesn’t fly. In this respect, Nepalis are temperamentally more similar to their East Asian neighbours, where losing one’s temper in public is considered an embarrassment, and the quickest way to alienate people. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to politics, which is governed by its own set of rules and non-rules!)

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At the Neydo Tibetan Monastery in Pharping

6. The permeation of Buddhism

Although more than 80% of Nepalis are Hindus, Buddhism is a very visible part of Nepal’s cultural landscape. Lumbini, on Nepal’s plains, is said to be the birthplace of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha, and the country has several ancient Buddhist pilgrimage sites. In Kathmandu, there are numerous Buddhist stupas, adorned with the elegant, languorous and ever-watchful eyes of Buddha. Fluttering, primary-coloured Tibetan prayer flags are a common sight. The native people of the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars, practice a form of Buddhism that has been strongly influenced by Hinduism. Tibetan Buddhism is visible throughout the high Himalaya, which is inhabited by ethnic groups related to Tibet, and also in Kathmandu, with its significant population of Tibetan refugees.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by all these differences, but because Nepal rarely features in international news (before the earthquake this year), it’s too easy to assume that it is just a more mountainous version of India. Nepal is fascinating and unique, and has as many reasons to return again and again as its larger, harder-to-overlook southern neighbour.

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In Bhaktapur

Contributed by Elen Turner, a New York state based editor and writer who has led previous lives in Nepal, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Sierra Leone and the UK. 

The Unscripted Festival in Twillingate Newfoundland

October 18, 2015 by  


Unscripted Festival. Twillingate, Newfoundland, digital, arts, sea, ocean, rock, travel, photography, blogging

THE SEA IS A moving thing. Just now, outside my window in Twillingate, it’s steel grey with snow-white edging. The horizon blurs softly against the dove grey sky, while the jagged dark rock of the Newfoundland coastline breaks into the ocean like a ship plowing through ice. The wind howls, the rain lashes and streaks of light pick up the mossy green of the hill opposite. The sea surrounds and encompasses this island, and inside too, in the Iceberg Alley Bed and Breakfast, the folks talk about the sea and the industry that depends on it, the fishery.

I’m here in Newfoundland for the first time as a guest of the first annual Twillingate Unscripted Digital Arts Festival. The festival brought together a variety of digital artists and explorers, from photographers and filmmakers to outdoor adventurers and ipad illustrators. And me, representing travel blogging. I’m giving a presentation about my travel blogging career, and teaching a three-hour workshop on blogging.

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My experience has confirmed my feeling that the Unscripted Festival was a stroke of genius. It brought together creative people in a picturesque and inspiring spot — a Newfoundland outport known for scenic beauty and the towering icebergs that float past in late spring and early summer.

It’s my first time here in Newfoundland, the Canadian province known as “The Rock” for reasons that quickly become obvious. A rocky island that thrusts eastward into the North Atlantic ocean, Newfoundland’s unique landscape and culture is formed by remoteness, rough weather, and dependence on the sea.

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Twillingate, Newfoundland

This morning at breakfast, my hostess Thelma talks in a thick Newfoundland accent — like an Irish brogue coated in molasses and spiked with salt — about the tragedy of the cod, and the farce of the seal protesters. Someone remarks they’re yarnin’ — they’re spinning yarns — which seems to be the favourite local past time. It’s a joy to listen to.

Listening to the locals talk in their distinctive style, about the issues they care about, has been one of the highlights of being here, and makes me wish I could stay longer and listen to the stories, and go out on a fishing boat, and find out what makes hearts beat in this place.

Another highlight was a day-long workshop with renowned local photographer Dennis Minty and his talented wife Antje, learning to see this landscape. We spent the morning at the Anchor Inn Hotel and Suites in Twillingate — the central hub for the Unscripted Festival — learning the basics of photography and then went out into the wind and sunshine on a photography walk. We didn’t have to walk far to find scenic beauty, just across the street and down a lane to the outer coast.

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Here we practiced applying the tips we learned about colour and composition, lines and lights, as we tried to capture the natural beauty and cultural whimsy of Twillingate. Afterwards, we trooped back to the Anchor Inn where I ate a bowl of fresh fish chowder for lunch, followed by a hands-on session in choosing and editing the photos we took.

This synergy, to me, is the essence of the Unscripted Festival and the genius. Our work was inspired by the locality and created onsite with the help of a talented and generous presenter — and I learned to see this unique place with new eyes and new photographic appreciation.

Unscripted Festival. Twillingate, Newfoundland, digital, arts, sea, ocean, rock, travel, photography, blogging

Twillingate, Newfoundland

Ottawa Canada Has Some Magic For Everyone!

October 2, 2015 by  


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WE TURNED THE CORNER on a side street in Ottawa, and boom, there they were, in all their High Victorian Gothic glory, embellished by gargoyles and grotesques, topped by green-tinged copper and intricate spires, every stone of Canada’s Parliament Buildings inspiring awe and patriotism. I watched my friend Ajay stand quietly before them. Originally from India, Ajay became a Canadian citizen only a year ago, and he was seeing Ottawa and the Parliament Buildings for the first time.

Ottawa is Canada’s capital, a small city of about one million people that spreads out from the scenic place where three rivers meet. This is the political heart of Canada, a storied area with sweeping views, steeped in history, and the perfect place to begin travels in Canada.

“Ottawa is beautiful, the best of Canada is here.”

Ajay and I spent about three days exploring Ottawa, and learning about the history of the country and some of the many attractions this city has to offer. “Ottawa is beautiful, the best of Canada is here,” he said. Here’s our personal guide to exploring Ottawa for tourists, newcomers, first time visitors and new Canadians.

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Inside the stunning Library of Parliament

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Parliament Hill is a great place to start your Ottawa tour. That’s what we did. We walked around the entire hill, on the promenade that runs along the Ottawa River shoreline. You get great views of the Parliament Buildings from below and the Canadian Museum of History across the river. Eventually you get to the mouth of the Rideau Canal, where it meets the river. It’s a scenic spot bordered on one side by the majestic Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel and on the other by the modest, but very interesting, ByTown Museum.

After our walk around the back of the Parliament Buildings, we walked to the front, and stood near the Centennial Flame. In front of us was Centre Block, with East and West Blocks on either side. It’s a very grand site, massive Victorian Gothic buildings flanking a huge expanse of lawn.

The House of Commons, Senate, Library of Parliament, Peace Tower and Memorial Chamber are in the Centre Block, and this is what most tourists come to see. The Parliament Buildings offer free guided tours of the Centre Block and the East Block, on a first come, first served basis. You can learn more by visiting the Parliament of Canada website’s Visitor Information page.

We loved the tour. Our tour guide Andrew was very friendly and informative and he told many compelling stories. A highlight was walking into the eye-popping Library of Parliament. This gorgeous building was saved from the fire that ravaged the Centre Block in 1916 because the librarian had the smarts to shut the heavy iron doors. It houses more than half a million books and documents for use by senators and members of Parliament.

The Cloth Hall, Ypres, James Kerr-Lawson, war, painting, Canada, senate

The Cloth Hall, Ypres by James Kerr-Lawson

Another highlight is the War Paintings in the Senate Chamber. I was particularly moved by a painting from the Battle of Ypres because my grandfather was there as a Canadian soldier. Ajay loved going up to the top of the Peace Tower, which offers 360 degree views of the Ottawa region. The final stop was the Memorial Chamber, another moving moment, as this sunny, uplifting room, the colours of heaven, contains the names of all Canadian soldiers who fell in battle. The word Ypres is inscribed in this room, and I had a silent thoughtful moment remembering my grandfather again.

“From the outset, Parliament Hill was designed not just as a workplace for parliamentarians, but also as a place where everyone could come to meet, talk or just relax in a beautiful outdoor setting.”

The next morning, we went back to Parliament Hill to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Visitors to Canada might be surprised to see our take on this British custom, with dozens of guards in scarlet tunics and bear fur hats (it takes an entire bear skin to make one hat!) marching on the lawns of Parliament Hill. This colourful ceremony takes place every day at 10 am from the beginning of June through to the end of August. It’s a fun way thing to watch before touring the buildings.

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Ajay in the Memorial Chamber, Parliament Buildings

A river runs through it … and so do many trails and pathways

One of the reasons Ottawa is such a beautiful and scenic city is its location on the mighty Ottawa River. On our second evening in Ottawa, we took a boat ride at dusk on the Ottawa River and loved the cool breeze (it was a very hot day!), the beautiful views of the sunset and also all the landmarks we passed. Ajay and I were impressed with the young woman who was providing a guided narration as we boated along.

We passed the Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court, the Museum of History, the National Gallery of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Prime Minister’s residence, Rideau Falls and many more places of interest, and learned a lot of interesting facts and stories about each. After disembarking, we walked along the Rideau Canal and enjoyed the early evening lights shimmering on the water and lighting up many impressive buildings, like the Fairmont Chateau Laurier — designed to look like a French chateau.

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The Rideau Canal, locks and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier

We spent much of our three days in Ottawa walking along bike trails and pathways, and in lively urban areas like the Sparks Street pedestrian mall and the ByWard Market. The ByWard Market is Ottawa’s oldest neighbourhood and has housed an open-air market since the 1840s. It’s a very fun part of town, one of the best places to find a wide variety of restaurants, shops and food stalls.

In fact, we even went on a walking tour. Last time I was in Ottawa, I went on an Irish heritage walking tour, as I was researching my Irish ancestral roots at the time. This time, we went on an Indigenous Walks tour. We met our guide Christine at the Human Rights Monument and walked through downtown Ottawa, stopping at points of interest while she told us about the history, culture and characters that helped shape Canada from an Indigenous perspective. It was an entertaining and fascinating tour, and I especially loved the art and sculptures we saw.

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AJay, the spider and the church: outside the National Gallery of Canada

The tour ended near the National Gallery of Canada, and we escaped from the searing heat (I was almost hotter in Ottawa then I have ever been in India!) to visit this monumental building, which houses the finest collection of Canadian art in the country. It’s interesting to walk through the Canadian rooms, which are arranged chronologically, and watch the art change from a European style to very uniquely Canadian imagery when the Group of Seven burst onto the scene in the 1920s. Make sure you spend some time in the Group of Seven rooms and look out for paintings by their contemporaries Tom Thomson and Emily Carr. Canada’s most iconic painting, The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson is here.

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The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson. Image courtesy National Gallery of Canada

After walking through many of the galleries, we relaxed with a pot of tea in the Cafe in the Great Hall, under the towering glass cupolas. The sweeping views of Parliament Hill, the Ottawa River and Nepean Point made for a great way to end our tour of Ottawa.

Note: I was hosted by VIA Rail, Ottawa Tourism and Marriott Hotels. We loved taking the train from Toronto to Ottawa. It’s comfortable and convenient, with WiFi on board, and the selection of foods and beverages in business class was impressive. We felt pampered the entire journey, which is about 4 or 5 hours each way.

A Few Fast Ottawa Facts

♠ Ottawa is located in Eastern Ontario, and was originally a thriving lumber town thanks to its location at the confluence of three rivers: the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau.

♠ About 20 per cent of the city is French speaking, and English and French idioms are often mixed up (resulting in something like Hinglish in India).

♠ The Rideau Canal was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007. In winter, it becomes the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink at 7.8 kilometres.

♠ Beavertails are a local specialty, fried dough pastry that’s hand-stretched to resemble a beaver tail. They are particularly filling and warming while skating on the Rideau Canal.

♠  Ottawa’s Royal Canadian Mint manufactures the purest gold in the world — 99.999 per cent pure. Visitors to the Mint can watch money in the making and see $1 million in gold up close.

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Ajay on Sparks Street

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Canadian Museum of History at sunset from the Ottawa River

A Culture Guide to Top Festivals in India

September 30, 2015 by  


Avid travelers know that INDIA is known for sensory-busting, rambunctious, non-stop festivals. At any time of the year, all over the country, festivals celebrating religion, the phases of the moon, culture, the seasons, India’s epic stories (the Ramayana and the Mahabharat) and who knows what else pop up with astonishing frequency.

They may all celebrate different things, but they have one thing in common: they’re a spectacle to behold. Here are five festivals well worth visiting India to experience.

  • Diwali
  • Holi
  • Durga Puja
  • Ganesh Chaturthi
  • Pushkar Camel Fair

Here you will find everything you need to know to start planning your trip.

Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images

 Photograph by Andrew Adams of Katha Images 

 Diwali, Festival of Light

Diwali is the biggest festival in India, a celebration of the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. The word Diwali means “rows of lighted lamps” and it is also called the Festival of Light. Everyone lights small diyas (lamps) and fireworks to help guide Lord Rama home from exile. Diwali is basically the equivalent of Christmas — a big, festive celebration that brings families together and is the highlight of the holiday season. There are five days of festivities, each marked with different pujas (prayers) and rituals.

Diwali, festival, India

Photo courtesy anshu_si via Compfight

What you need to know:

Like most festivals in India, Diwali’s date changes from year to year as it’s based on the lunar cycle and not a fixed date. This year (2015) it’s November 11. So check the date in advance, and plan accordingly. Diwali ties up traffic like nobody’s business and makes travel challenging.

Top tip: Find a place to celebrate and stay put for the five days of Diwali.

How to celebrate:

Diwali is largely a family celebration, much like Christmas. Stay with Indian friends or book into a homestay or small, family-run guesthouse so you can experience Diwali with a family.

Where to celebrate:

Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is celebrated throughout India, though there are regional differences. Cities like Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and Mumbai go all out on Diwali, and the effect is dazzling … to the point of ear-splitting. I’ve been in Delhi twice for Diwali and found the noise and the pollution caused from all the fireworks to be overwhelming. Next time, I’m going to try a smaller city!

Holi, festival, India

Photo courtesy Dave Bouskill, ThePlanetD.com

Holi, Festival of Colour

Holi is probably the most well-known and beloved festival in India among foreigners and many want to participate in the festivities — which involves throwing coloured powder and water at each other. It’s a celebration of spring and usually takes place in March.

I’ve celebrated Holi successfully three times in India. I say successfully because nothing untoward happened. Twice I was at a private club in South Delhi and once I was at an ashram in Rishikesh. In both cases, the crowd was controlled and I was never in danger of being molested by bhang-drinking male youths.

What you need to know:

Like Diwali, and many other festivals, Holi is based on the lunar calendar. It’s celebrated on the full moon in either February or March, so check the date in advance. In 2016, the date is March 23.

Holi can be very uncomfortable for women. Please read my blog What you need to know about Holi for tips on how to celebrate safely. The key is to stay off the streets, find a controlled group of people to celebrate with and go easy on the bhang lassi (also known as thandai).

How to celebrate:

Finding the right group of people to celebrate Holi with is key. My other tips include covering your skin and hair with oil (such as almond oil) to prevent the colour from staining your skin for a week. And try to use natural, plant-derived and non-synthetic colours if you can find them.

Where to celebrate:

The best place to celebrate Holi is probably Mathura / Vrindavan in North India, the birthplace and childhood home of Krishna. The celebrations here are legendary. There are also many private celebrations such as the Holy Cow festival in Delhi.

Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

Photo of Kumartuli in Kolkata by Andrew Adams

Durga Puja

Durga Puja is truly one of the great festivals of India, and though not as well known as Diwali and Holi, has a lot to offer visitors. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal is THE place to celebrate Durga Puja. The festival honours the goddess Durga, who represents the divine feminine energy, or shakti — the force, power and warrior aspect of the divine mother. Taking place over five days, Durga Puja’s date is tied to the phases of the moon. This year (2015) it’s October 19 to 23.

A year in the planning, Kolkata’s many talented artisans go to great lengths to create pandals — decorated stages that exhibit statues of the goddess Durga. Each night of the festival, crowds of people move from pandal to pandal admiring the art work and enjoying live music. On the last day, the statues are taken by procession for immersion into the Ganga (Ganges) River, known in Kolkata as the Hooghly.

What you need to know:

Durga Puja is as much an arts festival as it is a religious celebration. The festival essentially turns Kolkata into the world’s biggest open-air art gallery. Bengali culture is known for nurturing some of India’s greatest artists, writers and filmmakers (such as the great Satyajit Ray), so the creative nature of the Durga Puja festival should come as no surprise.

How to celebrate:

The best way to celebrate is to go along with the crowds visiting the pandals each evening.

Where to celebrate:

There are other places that celebrate Durga Puja — last year I joined the festivities in South Delhi — but nobody does it better than Kolkata. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that should not be missed.


Photo courtesy TheFirstPost.co.uk

Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh is the beloved elephant-headed god, a favourite throughout India, and Ganesh Chaturthi is the festival that honours him. It runs for 11 days in late August or September, depending on the cycle of the moon. This year (2015) it starts on September 17.

Similar to Durga Puja, images of Ganesh are made throughout the year and displayed during the 10-day festival. On the 11th day, called Anant Chaturdasi, the images are paraded through the streets, accompanied by singing and dancing, and finally immersed in the sea.

What you need to know:

Ganesh is the god of luck, auspicious beginnings and safe travels, among other things. I launched Breathedreamgo on Ganesh Chaturthi in 2009. The date that year was August 23. Please note, this year (2015), Ganesh Chaturthi begins on September 17, and culminates on September 27.

The festival fills the streets with rowdy crowds and caution is in order.

How to celebrate:

During the festival, Ganesh statues are displayed all over the city, with communities competing with each other. The displays feature music, dancing and feasting.

Where to celebrate:

While Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in about five states, Mumbai is probably the best place to experience it. Thousands of statues are displayed around the city, and devotees gather at Siddhivinayak Temple. The procession to the sea for immersion — called Visarjan — is truly a spectacle to behold.

Pushkar Camel Fair, festival, India

Photo courtesy Koshyk via Compfight.

Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar is a small town in rural Rajasthan famed for the beauty of its lake, the uniqueness of its Brahma Temple (the only one in India) and the chilled-out vibe. Many people come here just to BE … and I am no exception. I once spent about nine days relaxing on the roof of the Inn Seventh Heaven.

The Pushkar Camel Fair takes over the town each autumn, at the time of the Kartik Purnima (full moon festival). This means that a religious festival and livestock fair converge on the small town at the same time and turn it into a giant mela (fair).

This year, the Pushkar Camel Fair takes place from November 14-23. The first thing you need to know about the Pushkar Camel Fair is that it really is a camel fair. Camel traders come from far and wide to buy, sell and trade camels … attended by feasting, cultural shows, competitions such as camel racing and the world’s largest pop-up marketplace.

What you need to know:

Pushkar’s population balloons from about 15,000 to a quarter-million people during the Camel Fair, with tent cities popping up all over the fields that surround the small town. Rates for hotels and luxury tented accommodations also pop up — in fact they quadruple during the Fair, making it a very expensive place to stay. You can find package tours that include transport from Delhi and accommodation, and this is probably the most cost-effective way to go.

How to celebrate:

Immerse yourself in the mirage created in the Rajasthani desert. Enjoy the food, cultural shows, competitions and market place — where artisan-made products are showcased and sold.

Where to celebrate:

The Pushkar Camel Fair is in Pushkar, of course. But you can also join the camel traders headed to Pushkar in the weeks before the festival.


Photo credits: Diwali diyas: anshu_si via Compfightcc Pushkar camels: Koshyk via Compfightcc


Lakshman Sagar for Pure Luxury in the Heart of the Rajasthan Desert

September 8, 2015 by  


DRIVING THROUGH THE scrubby desert of central Rajasthan, we stop to let a herd of goats pass. The goat herder smiles when I step out of the car to take his photo, his deeply lined face topped with a bulbous turban. I’m in rural Rajasthan, driving through the desert, and we’re miles from the nearest town, historic fort or carved haveli. It’s not the kind of place you would expect to find a luxury resort, and that’s the point. This resort has a sublime soul in the heart of Rajasthan India.

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Goat herder in Rajasthan

We drive through the gates and onto the Lakshman Sagar property, bumping along a dirt driveway, past a rocky hill, topped with a small Hindu temple and several prancing peacocks, and we’re there.

Two simple white buildings, with maharaja flourishes, stand gracefully on the edge of a small lake, one low and open-sided, the other tall and white, like hats worn to the Royal Ascot. The low one is the mardana, formerly the men’s quarters and now the al fresco dining room. The tall one, adorned with fluttering silk pennants, like ribbons, was the zenana, the women’s quarters. It’s now a warren of private dining rooms, reading nooks and sunset terraces, with bright purple and pink accents set off against the whitewashed walls.

The idea is to preserve and celebrate the local culture in every detail.

Around the lake, at discreet distances, 12 newly built and artfully designed villas in traditional Rajasthani style blend in among the gently rolling hills of the 32-acre property. Each one has it’s own personal plunge pool, carved from stone, and beckoning with cool, turquoise water.

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Zenana, pool and villa at Lakshman Sagar

I am met by a handsome man in flowing shirt and jodhpurs, who offers me a cooling drink in the dining room. I see binoculars and walking sticks at the ready, and fall in love with the elegant simplicity of the open-air room. Wood furniture, a polished stone floor, accents in green and turquoise, and chiks (bamboo blinds) rolled up above the arches complete the picture. Built in the 19th century by the Thakur of Raipur as a hunting lodge, Lakshman Sagar has a long tradition of hosting nobility and eminent guests.

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Waiting for sunset on the zenana roof

My imagination is already engaged. I have left the world behind and arrived in a fantasy. I know almost immediately that Lakshman Sagar is my kind of place. Small, intimate, comfortable and carefully created, it is a work of art that inspires my imagination. At once I am a maharani relaxing in my summer palace, a Raj-era memsahib on holiday and a glamorous voyager from the “golden age” of travel.

Lakshman Sagar seems almost to have sprung, perfectly formed, from the rich culture and golden sands of Rajasthan. Casually luxurious, the natural environment and the man-made work together, in harmony, to create a peaceful and sublime destination resort. But, in fact, the resort took two years to build. “Green” architects Revati and Kamath took great care to build with local materials, inspired by traditional styles, while Delhi-based designers Sahil and Sarthak spent months in Rajasthan, sourcing local products and discovering novel ways to recycle and reuse.

Lakshman Sagar is not so much a resort as an experience.

My guide walks me past the lake, and up a stony path, to my villa. He uses a large key to open a castle’s pad lock, pushes on the massive wood doors and we step inside: Two spacious, curving rooms, made of all-natural elements like stone and wood, topped with thatch, and decorated with bright, locally made pillows and textiles. The large bathroom is virtually sculptural, with a circular stone shower. Best of all, I have my own private plunge pool, hand hewn from the rocky outcropping, filled with naturally cool water, and over-looking the bird-filled lake.

The bedrooms at Lakshman Sagar

It’s a very hot day, and the first thing I do is immerse into my plunge pool. Recently ploughed nearby fields have released flying insects into the air and I scoop out several handfuls of them from the pool. Luckily, they diminish by the next day — but they are a reminder that I am truly in the countryside and not a fake, antiseptic environment, so I don’t mind.

Then I get down to the serious business of exploring Lakshman Sagar. Over the course of my three days there, I enjoy the natural beauty and deep serenity, the gourmet food and a couple of very special experiences. For, Lakshman Sagar is as much about the experience of being there as it is about the scenic surroundings, tasteful decor, luxurious touches and fine food.

Here are 6 Highlights of my time at Lakshman Sagar:

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A feast of flavour for dinner at Lakshman Sagar


The simplicity of the lovely open-air dining room, facing the lake, belies the quality and delicacy of the food and service. Each night, I was treated to a feast of small courses, gourmet-quality dishes inspired by the local produce and cuisine and featuring seasonal specialties like bindi, brinjal and sweet potatoes. All of the herbs and vegetables, and some of the spices and fruits, are grown on the 32-acre property, and a nearby farm supplies fresh dairy products. The goal is to be completely self-sufficient one day.

Chef Gajendra uses less oil and salt then in traditional Indian food, and makes a custom blend of spices, garam masala, for use in the various dishes. He operates with a “no menu” concept, creating meals inspired by whatever is local and fresh.

One night, as I sat down to eat at a table facing the lake, a three-piece band played traditional Rajasthani folk music as a silvery crescent moon appeared against the very black sky. With no light pollution, Lakshman Sagar is a great place to watch the stars and experience Rajasthani style romance.

2. The POOL in a Serene Setting

Lakshman Sagar, Rajasthan, India, hotel, resort, luxury, pool, bird watching, food, nature, birds, lake, desert

Hand hewn pool filled with naturally cool water


Though only about three years old, Lakshman Sagar has already built up it’s own store of traditions and customs. One of them is to have tea served to guests on the roof-top terrace of the zenana at twilight — the best place to watch the sun set on the flat, desert horizon. I never missed this charming custom, though truth be told, a chilled gin-and tonic stood in for the tea on at least one evening.

Within the zenana, many treasures can be found, from a private dining room to a reading nook complete with an intriguing selection of books. Hand carved from the flat rock outside the zenana’s doors is the swimming pool, filled with naturally cool water, and elegant in its simplicity and brevity of purpose.

Lakshman Sagar, Rajasthan, India, hotel, resort, luxury, pool, bird watching, food, nature, birds, lake, desert

The living room of my villa at Lakshman Sagar

4. The LUXURY of my own VILLA

The villas at Lakshman Sagar are artfully designed and decorated with many charming touches inspired by the local culture. Textile colours pop against the dun-coloured walls, and authentic materials and touches add to the atmosphere. They are also very spacious, at about 900 square feet, and privacy is almost assured. Each villa is similar, but with a different orientation to the landscape.

For me, this is the epitome of luxury. Comfort without stiffness, authentic without artifice, and natural without rustic, staying at Lakshman Sagar can only be described as bucolic.

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At the field breakfast with other guests, Lakshman Sagar


On my second morning at Lakshman Sagar, I was escorted through the fields along with about six other guests to a simple farm building where a table was set up surrounded by charpoys (string beds). Two woman were grinding millet and making rotis, a boy scooped up a lamb from a flock of sheep, and the morning sun slanted through the grasses and trees creating a scene of pastoral bliss.

We sat down to a simple, delicious, filling and authentic breakfast of fresh fruit, millet rotis, freshly churned buttermilk and farm-fresh eggs. It was an enchanting experience and to Lakshman’s Sagar credit, they didn’t tart it up with gourmet food or high-end crockery. Aside from starched white table clothes and colourful bolsters, it was a very authentic breakfast of foods from the field, served in the field.

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Nilgai at Lakshman Sagar


Lakshman Sagar offers numerous experiences, such as village walks and desert safaris. I opted to do a nature walk. Just before sunset I set out with a guide, who was equipped with walking sticks, binoculars and water, for a walk through the countryside and around the lake. It was a bit early in the season for bird-watching. By November, the migratory birds start arriving, and bird watchers can see cormorants, white egrets, geese, ducks, parrots, doves, kingfishers and many more flock to the lake.

As we walked, we saw a herd of nilgai and some of the hundreds of peacocks that live on the Lakshman Sagar grounds, and are fed each evening by Ghopsingh, one of the security guards. Then the sun began to set, a few of the peacocks screeched, the fiery ball lit up the golden hues of the desert and I experienced once of those sublime moments that Lakshman Sagar took such care to create and that we travellers live for.

Lakshman Sagar, Rajasthan, India, hotel, resort, luxury, pool, bird watching, food, nature, birds, lake, desert

NOTE: I was a guest of Lakshman Sagar. All opinions and observations remain my own.

Remnants of Raj & Man-Eating Tigers in the Mountainous Region of India’s Kumaon

July 30, 2015 by  


Himalayas, Junoon in the hills, sunrise, Kumaon, India, photograph

The Himalayas, a man-eating tiger hunter, remnants of the Raj and, oh, those idyllic villages

THE LEGEND OF a man-eating tiger hunter, the world’s highest mountain range and a charming holiday hill station are just some of the attractions of lovely Kumaon. A mountainous region in Uttarakhand, North India, I visited Kumaon in March for the first time. I wrote about my stay at Kosi Valley Retreat with Walk to Himalayas here. From Kosi Valley, I spent a night at a spectacular Junoon in the Hills, a gorgeous Airbnb property with a stunning sunrise view. And then about four days at Abbotsford House (see below). I loved Kumaon as much as I expected to, perhaps more. Here are my top 5 reasons to visit Kumaon now.

Kumaon, tiger, Jim Corbett, India

Jim Corbett successfully hunted the man-eating tigers of Kumaon

#5:  The Jim Corbett legend at home

Man-eaters of Kumaon bookI felt I was with him, stalking man-eating tigers and leopards through the jungles of North India. I spent nights with him, balanced on a tree branch or hiding in a machan, to catch site of the killer by moonlight. From the first book I picked up by Jim Corbett — Man-Eaters of Kumaon — I was hooked, riveted by his story-telling abilities and also by his legend.

Along with being a renowned hunter and best-selling author, Jim Corbett was an early conservationist. One day, after many years of hunting that included killing 33 man-eaters, he put down his rifle and picked up a camera, and from that day forward, he never shot another animal. In fact, he spent the rest of his days writing, lecturing and teaching about the importance of preserving and protecting the natural environment.

As a long-time fan, Jim Corbett was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Kumaon. I wanted to see the places he wrote about so lovingly in his books. For, Kumaon was not only Corbett’s hunting ground, it was his home. He was born in 1875 in Nainital, and lived there until he moved out of India, to Kenya, in 1947 at the time of independence.

Jim Corbett

Living room of Gurney House showing Jim Corbett’s trophies

While in Nainital, I visited Gurney House, where he lived for many years. The “new” owners have kept things almost as they were, and the place is a kind of living shrine. His trophies, fishing rods, books and furniture are still in the house, which has a ramshackle feeling. Unfortunately, the owners seem to be letting the grounds and outer buildings go to wrack-and-ruin, which is a shame. Jim Corbett is a legend and deserves better. I would love to see the house preserved and turned into a museum. Still, worth the visit, a pilgrimage site for hard-core fans.

Abbotsford House, Nainital, India

The drive, entrance and lunch tables at Abbotsford House, Nainital

#4:  Abbotsford House: Raj-era perfection

When I arrived at Abbotsford House in Nainital, the manager showed me to my room — a large, Victoria-era chamber with a vaulted ceiling, fireplace and a circular sitting room — and I let out a little gasp. I had walked into a childhood fantasy. One of my favourite movies was The Little Princess with Shirley Temple playing an orphan in Victorian London. Her kindly old neighbour had an Indian valet, Ram Dass — played by Caesar Romero with turban and parrot — who secretly furnishes her barren room with quilts, a fire, a silk dressing gown and delicious breakfast.

Waking up in this grand room, I did indeed feel like a princess. My hostess, Janhavi Prasada, told me that my room had been her grandmother’s, whose habit it was to recite Gayatri Mantra every morning. The essence of this elegant lady’s piety seems still to linger in the nostalgia-infused room.

Abbotsford House, Nainital, India

My circular, pink sitting room at Abbotsford House

Built in 1876 as the summer home for a British official, Abbotsford House is classic Nainital: A genuine Raj-era home, on the edge of town, with a wide, well-manicured lawn and commanding view of the valley, mountains and forests. The main house is decorated and furnished in a traditional style, with wooden furniture, large portraits and antiquarian books and artifacts. The present owners, Janhavi’s family, the Prasadas — whose ancestors bought the house in 1903 — have made many improvements and additions, including a new wing, The Wordsworth Cottage.

The house is not the only thing classic about Abbotsford. So is the service. Janhavi made sure that every detail was perfect, from our multi-course lunches on the lawn to turn down service (which included a hot water bottle). As well as accommodation, they also offer activities, such as cycling, hiking, sailing, gold and bird watching. Staying at Abbotsford is a great way to experience the Nainital buffet: outdoor activity, history and holiday fun.

Abbotsford House, Nainital, India

Breakfast on the lawn at Abbotsford House, Nainital

#3:  Nainital: The jewel of Kumaon

Nainital is a Victorian-era tourist town in the lower Himalayas with nostalgia and the atmosphere of family holidays in the air. The rambling town rings a jewel-tone lake hemmed in by steep hillsides stacked with houses, hotels and schools.

During the British Raj, Nainital was a hill station, a getaway for people broiling on the plains in Delhi. But it’s much older than that, of course, and has ancient mythological connotations, for the word “nain” refers to the left eye of Shakti. When Lord Shiva was carrying the corpse of Shakti, it is said that her left eye fell here, and to this day there is a Naini Devi Temple at one end of the lake.

Janhavi, owner of Abbotsford House, where I was staying, gave me a personal, guided tour of Nainital. Driving the narrow, winding roads was an experience in terror, punctuated by moments of good fellowship and scenic views. I was lucky to be there in March, when the weather was good and the hordes of tourists hadn’t yet arrived. Yet, the roads were still crammed.

India, travel, trekking, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Kumaon, Nainital, Jim Corbett, tiger, hotel, village

On Lake Nainital in Kumaon

Janhavi’s connections and long-time residence status opened many doors for me in Nainital. She drove me to Gurney House, home of Jim Corbett, and because of her, we were allowed in for a tour. While Janhavi played golf, I toured the Scottish-baronial Raj Bhawan and walked the rolling hills of the thickly forested golf course, stopping at a Grecian-style pavilion to take in the sweeping view, and again to drink tea served by a chai-walla.

From there we drove into town, walked the mall, and had a drink at the Boat House Club before going out for a spin on the lake in a sailboat. The Boat House Club is open to members only, a classic remnant of the Raj era. Renovations left the heavily wooded bar intact, complete with club emblems and uniformed waiters. Finally, we walked over to the Naini Devi Temple, and I soaked up the peaceful, lake-side atmosphere amid swirls of incense and the sound of temple bells. By the end, I felt I had experienced ancient, old and new Nainital all at the same time.

India, travel, trekking, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Kumaon, Nainital, Jim Corbett, tiger, hotel, village

View from above of a Kumaon village in Kosi Valley

#2:  Village life in Kumaon

Walking down a mountain at twilight in Kumaon. Snow peaks in the distance, an owl sitting on a branch above, we come across a small forest temple, an expression of simple sanctity in a natural setting. My guides, Shivraj and Kundan from Walk to Himalayas, remain quiet as golden light sifts through the branches. All I can hear are bird songs among the branches and the crunch of pine needles beneath my feet.

India, travel, trekking, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Kumaon, Nainital, Jim Corbett, tiger, hotel, village

In a Kumaoni village

Soon we reach a scattering of wooden two-storey houses. They are each painted different colours — deep forest green, ochre yellow, sky blue — and have views out across the Kosi Valley. The hillsides and fields, level with the river below, are a study in pastoral beauty, all greens and golds. This is a village in Kumaon, and there are many like it, running one into another, with no clear boundary between them.

At the first house we reach, a stable houses a couple of placid cows, and a girl waves at us as huge dragonflies fill the twilight air, lending the scene a fairy tale quality. Further along, we are invited for tea by the women of the house, and meet a spry 85-year-old named Parvati.

A village walk in Kumaon is lovely thing. The villages I walked through were clean, welcoming and, though rustic, had an air of prosperity and contentment. The people were very friendly and seemed to have enough.

My idyllic moments in Kumaon were of course those of a visitor and it’s very easy to romanticize these scenes. Lack of resources and opportunities often beset villages in India. While in Kumaon, I noticed several women’s cooperatives and other programs. My hosts Walk to Himalayas support a local school and Mahila Haat, which provides skill training and fair trade advocacy for local women.

India, travel, trekking, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Kumaon, Nainital, Jim Corbett, tiger, hotel, village

View of Kumaon Himalayas, with Nanda Devi to the right

#1:  The mighty Himalayan peaks

Can anything compare to seeing the soaring white peaks of the Himalayas, silhouetted against a clear blue sky?

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Himalayas. I spent a red-letter birthday watching the sunrise splash colour across the great white face of Kanchendzonga, the world’s third highest peak, from Tiger Hill in Darjeeling. Flying from Kathmandu to Bhutan, I looked down on Mount Everest. And driving the dizzying roads up, up, up into Kumaon, I was giddy with excitement about seeing Nanda Devi, the tallest and most myth-shrouded peak in Kumaon at 7,816 metres.

And sure enough, we rounded one corner, and there they were, the white peaks of the Kumaoni Himalayas with beautiful Nanda Devi standing prominently among the mighty massifs.

India, travel, trekking, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Kumaon, Nainital, Jim Corbett, tiger, hotel, village

View of Himalayas from Raniket, Kumaon

The Himalaya group is of course one of the world’s great mountain ranges, with nine of the top 10 highest peaks on earth. It traverses a distance of 2,500 kilometres and separates the Indian subcontinent from China and the Tibetan plateau. In Uttarakhand alone, there are at least 10 peaks that are over 7,000 metres high.

Whether for spiritual, sight-seeing, trekking or mountain-climbing reasons, the Himalayas of Kumaon are one of the best reasons to visit this lovely region.

NOTE: I was a guest of Walk to Himalayas and Abbotsford House in Kumaon.

India, travel, trekking, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Kumaon, Nainital, Jim Corbett, tiger, hotel, village

Sunrise from Junoon in the Hills

Photo Credit of Tiger: Rana & Sugandhi via Compfight cc

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