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

5 Things To Do In Goa India, Off the Beach

January 27, 2016 by  

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Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India

TINY, TROPICAL GOA, on the south west coast of India, was an obligatory stop on the hippie trail of the 1960′s and became known internationally for wild, full-moon parties on the beach. Though there is much more to Goa than hippies on the beach, it’s a reputation the state has never been able to shake. Even I avoided Goa, except for two short beach vacations in the quieter southern half of the state. Above photo: Venite Bar in Fountainhas, the Latin Quarter of Panjim.

But finally I decided to give Goa a chance, and spent almost two weeks touring the state and looking for places and experiences that show the more interesting, sophisticated and discerning side of Goa. What I discovered is that Goa is a historical, cultural, wellness and leisure treasure house. Here are my top five picks.

  • Panjim and Fontainhas
  • Mustard Cafe
  • Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF)
  • Koi Asian Dining and Bar
  • Old Goa

For starters, Goa has a completely unique flavour in India due to colonization by the Portuguese. In fact, the Portuguese have influenced Goan culture for hundreds years, and as a consequence the state has a large population of Catholics and a profusion of Portuguese designed churches and gracious old homes. I love these charming homes, painted in bright colours, and dream of someday owning one with a wide white verandah on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea.

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, food, thali, Portuguese, cuisine

Goa is also a cultural hub, with writers and artists from all over living there, or wintering there. There’s a palpable sense of multiculturalism and being at a crossroads of the world. “Everyone comes here,” my friend writer Anuradha Goyal told me. She moved to Goa after living in some of India’s biggest cities.

So here are some of the highlights of my tour. I hope they give you an idea of all the things you can see and do in Goa that don’t require shaking your groove thang on the beach. Though you can still do that if you want, at beaches like Calangute, Baga, Anjuna and the hippie stronghold, Arambol. (The all-night-long full-moon raves of yesteryear have been outlawed, however.)

BDG TIP

I used the Love Guide to Goa as a resource and guidebook (gifted to me by Yogesh Naik of Goa Tourism!). The book helped me find those things that “make you love” Goa. This is the guiding principle of the Love Guides, which are also available for Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Bangalore and more. Published by Fiona Caulfield. I also relied on Sharell Cook from About India for information and ideas. She really knows her way around Goa and just about everywhere else in India.

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1. Panjim and Fontainhas

Panjim (also known as Paniji or Panji) is the capital of Goa, a small city of only 100,000 people. It strategically and picturesquely occupies the spot where the mighty Mandovi River meets the Arabian Sea. I started my tour with three days in Panjim, which most tourists bypass. I fell in love with this small city, with the colours of the houses, the expanses of water, the colonial character and the thriving arts scene.

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Directly behind my hotel, the Panjim Residency (which faces the Mandovi River), is Fontainhas, Asia’s only Latin Quarter. The Portuguese moved here, and settled around a spring-fed tank, fountain, in the 18th and 19th centuries and many of the houses remain in good condition. The epicentre of Fontainhas is the beautifully restored Panjim Inn and Art Gallery.

Even after dark, I felt completely safe wandering alone around Fontainhas. I ate on the balcony of the Panjim Inn, and stopped by the quirky Venite Bar. The area reminded me a little of both Havana and New Orleans, especially by the way light spilled into the streets from small, lively restaurants, and the by the way everything was enveloped in the warm tropical night air.

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, food

2. Mustard Cafe

There’s much more to Goan cuisine than beach shacks that serve up Goan fish curry and western favourites like pizzas and fries. In fact, there’s a growing foodie scene and a range of fine dining restaurants. One beautiful evening my friend Anuradha Goyal of the travel blog Inditales and I went to Mustard Cafe, in the Calangute area.

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, food

Seated in a candle-lit outdoor courtyard, we sampled a rich, spicy and delicious combination of Bengali and French cuisine, spiced with Goan flavours. Owner Poonam Singh told us she wanted to please both the people who like continental food and those who are happiest with a traditional Indian cuisine. The alchemy works, and I enjoyed every rich, flavourful dish I savoured.

Mustard was my favourite restaurant in Goa, for the romantic ambience and really flavourful, satisfying food. It’s obvious a lot of care, research and attention to detail has gone into every dish. I also liked the live music, a soulful singer named Vamsee Krishna who covered Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (making me, a Canadian, feel very at home!).

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, literature, history, architecture

3. Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF)

One of the most surprising things I learned about Goa is how artsy it is. Numerous artists, writers, photographers, designers — and bloggers — make their home in Goa. As a consequence, there’s also a lot of arts events and festivals. I happened to be in Panjim for the Inaugural Function of GALF, which was held at charming and historic Maquinez Palace.

The speakers referred to Goa as a peaceful cultural centre of India. They talked about how writers interact warmly at GALF, and how the festival provides a stress-free place to relax. They also referred to the multicultural aspect of Goa: “From a sand and surf destination to a place where east and west meet.”

Unveiling the festival poster, exclusive art work by Loretti Pinto

After listening to the opening night speakers — poets, artists, authors and journalists — I only wish I had time to attend the entire festival.

GALF highlights a couple of countries each year, and in 2015 it was Singapore and Bangladesh. (I hope they put the spotlight on Canada one of these days as we have many fine homegrown and immigrant writers from Michael Ondaatje to Rohinton Mistry.)

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4. Koi Asian Dining & Bar

The most sophisticated of the fine dining restaurants I experienced in Goa, Koi is a journey through Southeast Asia. Owner Shefali and her team lavished careful attention to detail on Koi to create a chic restaurant right in the heart of bustling Calangute. From specially designed crockery to stunning murals to an inspired and comprehensive menu, Koi takes a bespoke approach to fine dining.

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, food, fish

Though not on the beach, Koi is a destination restaurant with a stunning interior space and garden seating. My lunch date Anuradha Goyal of Inditales and I sampled an array of their dishes, focusing on vegetarian and fish. I was particularly delighted to find Japanese favourites like sushi on the menu — though we both agreed that the Thai curry was the most outstanding dish. But I also loved deep fried sushi, crackling spinach and sticky rice.

Kudos to Koi for creating a sophisticated space that serves inspired Southeast Asian cuisine that’s both beautifully presented and full of authentic flavour. A visit to Koi is a journey through the Spice Route of Asia.

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, church, Old Goa, St Francis Xavier

5. Old Goa

The 15th century Church of Bom Jesus is the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called Old Goa. Several churches and a cathedral range around a wide expanse of lawns and gardens. This was the power base of the Catholic Church during the Portuguese colonial era.

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, church, Old Goa

Bom Jesus is known for being the final resting place of St. Francis Xavier, who died in China in 1552 and wanted to be buried in Goa. After his remains were shipped to India, it was discovered his body miraculously showed no signs of decomposition. The body apparently has remained intact and is now on display in a glass casket that sits above eye level in an alcove to the left of the altar. I was actually quite reticent to visit this church, as I find this quite ghoulish, but the casket is tastefully removed from close inspection. Thank goodness.

The other churches, and the general area, are quite lovely and of course historically significant. I enjoyed walking leisurely among them and stopping for a cold drink at a simple stand under a huge tree with a massive canopy. Goa is lush!

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, church, Panjim, Fountainhas

Goa, restaurant, travel, culture, attractions, India, church, Panjim, Fountainhas

Welcome to the Magical Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan

December 8, 2015 by  

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Camels, crowds, culture and conmen gather under the full moon in Pushkar. 

I WAS ATTRACTED TO the Pushkar Camel Fair by romantic ideas about camels and camel traders journeying across the vast deserts of Rajasthan in a time immemorial fashion to meet, socialize and trade. And indeed that is the historical truth of the Pushkar Camel Fair. There was a time in storied Rajasthan when camels were an integral part of every day life.

Camels were an agricultural mainstay; they supplied milk, leather and other products; they were elaborately decorated for weddings and other rituals. The romantic image of camels loping across the desert in Rajasthan is based in truth and fact. But, sadly, this way of life is waning as mechanization, water shortages and government policies against camel grazing are taking their toll. explore the Camel Fair, the town and much more.

The Pushkar Camel Fair continues to celebrate the camel’s place in Rajasthan. It is only one of many camel fairs in Rajasthan (and not even the biggest), but it is the one that has become a tourist attraction. Yes, camel traders still do come here to do business, but not in the same numbers (and mostly before the fair even starts). And the tourism part of the fair — the ferris wheels, displays, competitions and cotton candy — have eclipsed the original purpose. It is said there are now more photographers than camels at the Pushkar Camel Fair.

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Ashok Tak, “the Camel Man,” with Raj his beloved camel in full regalia

The Pushkar Camel Fair is also timed to coincide with the Kartik Purnima (full moon). At this time, Hindu pilgrims flock to Pushkar to take a dip in the sacred lake, which they believe will cleanse them of their sins.

Pushkar is the site of the only Brahma Temple in India, and the small town rings lovely Lake Pushkar, which is a deeply serene place to be at sunrise — and one of my favourite Incredible India experiences. However, during the five days leading up to Kartik Purnima, the small town of 15,000 swells to at least 250,000.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

I had to stand on a truck to get this shot of the camel decorating contest

So, because of the combination of pilgrims, sadhus, camel traders, tourists and ubiquitous Pushkar hippies, the narrow market lane, ghats and mela (fair) grounds swarm with people, and the town’s usual serenity is lost in the melee. It’s still fun and interesting to be in Pushkar at this time, but beware that hotel rates go up (in some cases, way up), there are way more than the usual assortment of beggars, street kids, conmen and gypsies scamming for money and the authenticity factor of the fair may be lacking for some.

In the end, I enjoyed the town of Pushkar (as I always do), meeting some camel traders, attending a concurrent cultural festival called The Sacred Pushkar, taking part in spiritual rituals, and staying at the brand new Zostel hostel … but the Camel Fair … not so much. It mostly consisted of pale-skinned foreigners pushing and shoving each other to get a good camera angle for the camel decorating contest or the moustache competition or whatever. Poor organization meant that you had to jostle to see what was happening in the competition “pit.”

But for this post, I am highlighting two of the things I enjoyed the most.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

The ferris wheels at the Pushkar Camel Fair

From the camel’s mouth

First and foremost, I wanted to hear from the camel traders themselves. So one morning early in the fair, I went out to the mela grounds and by luck or chance met Gopal. A local man, Gopal takes tourists around the fair on a cart pulled by his camel, Raj. While I wasn’t interested in hiring his camel taxi for touristic reasons, I did want someone to take me out into the desert, someone who could help me interview camel traders and translate. Gopal understood perfectly, so away we went, away from the fair, into the beautiful scrubby desert outside of Pushkar.

The first man we stopped, Ratnaram, was lean and taciturn, and reminded me of an American cowboy, like Gary Cooper in a kurtah. He had a green pagri (turban) wrapped around his head, deeply lined face and when I shook his hand, it was like touching the roughest sandpaper. The sand of desert parches the skin — even I noticed it in a few days, and lathered myself with oil after showering each day.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ratnaram with hisone remaining camel

Ratnaram told me, through Gopal, that he brought five camels to the Pushkar Camel Fair and sold four. He was left with just one camel, a female named Shelly. He said he was happy with the price the camels fetched, and really enjoyed the Camel Fair. It’s the most famous, he said, it’s the best. But he doesn’t enter any of the competitions.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ratnamram

I was interested in finding out more about the life and prospects of a camel trader, and Ratnaram told me he doesn’t buy camels because of the Rajasthan drought. He still has 10 females and one male at home in his village, and will take most of these camels to the Nagur camel fair.

I also wanted to know who bought his camels, as I had heard many were bought by Muslims and slaughtered for meat. Ratnaram told me Hindus bought his four camels. Just at that moment, we saw a Muslim camel trader inspecting some nearby camels.

I thanked Ratnaram, and gave him 10 rupees to take his picture — the standard price at the Pushkar Camel Fair — and he obligingly posed for me.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Kanaram wanted 250 rupees to take his photo. I clicked this one while negotiating.

From there we moved out further into the desert, which was beautiful and peaceful, and met Kanaram. He was making a very delicious looking dish over an open fire, and was willing to talk to us, but wanted 250 rupees to take his photo. Kanaram brought 120 camels to the fair, and sold 40 to a business man who is going to use them for farming, he said. He pointed to some pregnant camels and a couple of baby camels.

I offered him 25 rupees, far above the standard rate, for his photo, but he declined and I walked away. Nearby, we met Ganpatram, who brought 15 camels to the fair and sold 7. He said he was happy with the price, and was generally happy with being a camel trader because his village has a well and they had good rains this year.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ganpatram is a man with a twinkle in his eye

Ganpatram is a man with a twinkle in his eye, and he enjoyed posing for me with one of his camels. He said he really enjoyed the camel fair, and was thinking of entering the camel race competition for the first time. He twinkled even more when he said this, then we posed together, and I left him as the sun was casting long shadows on the desert.

I felt a great sense of satisfaction for having crossed the divide between tourists and camel traders, thanks to the adept skills of Gopal. Until this interaction, there was no exchange whatsoever, due in part to the language barrier but in larger part due to suspicion and skepticism. When I had walked through the camel grounds before, I heard only “money, money” from every local person I met. It was disheartening, though I understand their struggle to survive, and how they must feel about the onslaught of camera-toting tourists.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Gopal translating my questions to Ganpatram

The Sacred Pushkar Festival of Music, Yoga and Meditation

During one of the busy religious rituals in Pushkar, I got caught up in a swarming crowd of pilgrims pushing through the narrow market lane towards the lake. To avoid the crowd, which was causing me some panic, I sprinted towards the much-less crowded ghats on the far side of the lake. A crew of people were setting up VIP seating, which blocked my way. I investigated and discovered they were setting up the first event of The Sacred Pushkar Festival of Music, Yoga and Meditation.

Just then, I caught sight of Sanjoy Roy, the energetic and personable managing director of Teamwork Arts, the company organizing The Sacred Pushkar. I had met Sanjoy at the Jaipur Literature Festival last January, and luckily he remembered me. He very kindly gave me an invite to the evening’s performance and put me on the guest list for the other events. So I left the ghats with a skip in my step, marveling at the way things change in India so fast, and how moments of magic happen out of nowhere.

That night, my colleague Derek Freal of The Holi Daze travel blog accompanied me to the first event, an evening of music on Raj Bohra ghat. We took our place on cushions behind the stage, and facing the lake, and settled in for an incredible night. The evening started with a Maha Aarti and Vedic chanting as the sun set. Afterwards, drummers from Rajasthan performed on a different ghat, and then the scene switched back to the Raj Bohra ghat for flautist Sunil Kant Gupta and singer Shubha Mudgal. Fireworks over the lake marked the end of an amazing night.

Six more events in and around Pushkar were lined up over the next three days and I managed to make it to two of them. The following night, Derek and I headed out to the sand dunes on the edge of town for a very different musical evening. This one was more like a concert and featured the Jaisalmer Boys, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and pop singer Kailash Kher. It was also a great evening though perhaps less sublime than the music on the ghats. I especially like the music of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who invented the Mohan Veena and played with incredible intensity and mastery.

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Vishwa Mohan Bhatt plays at The Sacred Pushkar festival

The following morning, I was walking through the market in Pushkar when Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Arts appeared again, somewhat like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, and swept me up with some others who were on their way to join the Heritage Walk. In fact, I had forgotten about it … but when Sanjoy asked if I was lost and looking for it, I said yes — as I had wanted to join in. So, I found myself on the ghats, along with about a dozen others, with Ravi Sharma of Roots of Pushkar Records as our guide. (Readers may remember Ravi as the man who helped me during The Mirabai Expedition when I was looking for the nearby Mirabai temple and museum.)

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Ravi Sharma and local musicians guide us on a heritage walk in Pushkar

Rajasthani musicians played to get things started and accompanied us around the town as Ravi told stories about the town’s mythical and historical past. We learned that Lake Pushkar was created when Brahma dropped a lotus flower there, and that it’s the site of the only Brahma Temple in India because his wife Savitri cursed him after he married a local girl, Gaytri, for religious religions. Pushkar was the first place the Gaytri Mantra was recited, in honour of her.

For about two hours we walked around the lake as Ravi related stories and showed us ancient monuments and exquisite temples I never knew existed, despite having spent a considerable amount of time in Pushkar. Ravi explained how some of the ghats got their names, why Pushkar is famous for roses, and how the five days leading up to and including the full moon in the Hindu month of Kartik are by far the most powerful for gaining Brahma’s blessings. Even the Indian journalists who were on the tour were impressed by some of the things we saw and learned — particularly the Chandraghat Temple, the only moon temple in India.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

Traditional Rajasthani musicians play at temple on the heritage walk

Like everything The Sacred Pushkar presented, the heritage walk was extremely well-organized and well-presented and rich with thoughtful substance. Sanjoy Roy told me it was planned to complement the Camel Fair, and add cultural depth and texture. It does that, they have definitely achieved the goal, and much more. In fact, it’s much better and more enjoyable than the touristy, elbow-butting, crowded and disorganized Camel Fair. I would plan to attend The Sacred Festival again, no question. But I have no desire to experience the Pushkar Camel Fair again.

At the end of the heritage walk, Ravi invited me to take part in a puja on Varah Ghat, where he is one of the presiding pandits. I went that night, and sat right at the front, next to the pandits, on the edge of the lake. I was fully immersed in the sacred element of Lake Pushkar, and felt elated by the energy. Likewise, on the full moon night, Derek and I hiked up to the top of Savitri mountain, to the temple, and watched the moon rise over the town below. These were some of the very special, spiritually oriented experiences that I love Pushkar for. The Camel Fair notwithstanding.

Pushkar, India, Rajasthan, Zostel, Camel Fair, camel, lake, Brahma, The Sacred Pushkar, Teamwork Arts, music,

The full moon — Kartik Purnima — over sacred Pushkar

NOTE: I was a guest of Zostel Hostel and in Pushkar for the Camel Fair to help promote the new location. However, this arrangement did not, and will never, influence my opinion or my remarks. I write this blog with my readers firmly in mind at all times.

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Diwali, an Indian Festival & Treat

November 25, 2015 by  

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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  

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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.

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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  

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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.

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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  

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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.

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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.

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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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Canada, Canadian, Ottawa, citizen, Parliament, capital, trip, travel, tourist, National Gallery of Canada, Sparks Street

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  

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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.

Ganesh

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.

Ganesh

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

 

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