About Puneet Sidhu
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, travel enthusiast and the author of Adrift: A junket junkie in Europe is the youngest of four siblings born into an aristocratic family of Punjab. Dogged in her resistance to conform, and with parental pressure easing sufficiently over the years, she had plenty of freedom of choice. And she chose travel.
She was born in Shimla, and spent her formative years at their home, Windsor Terrace, in Kasumpti while schooling at Convent of Jesus & Mary, Chelsea. The irrepressible wanderlust in her found her changing vocations midstream and she joined Singapore International Airlines to give wing to her passion. She has travelled extensively in Asia, North America, Australia, Europe, South Africa and SE Asia; simultaneously exploring the charms within India.
When she is not travelling, she is writing about it. Over the past decade or so, she has created an impressive writing repertoire for herself: as a columnist with Hindustan Times, as a book reviewer for The Tribune and as a contributor to travel magazines in India and overseas. Her work-in-progress, the documenting of colonial heritage along the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road, is an outcome of her long-standing romance with the Himalayas.
Latest Posts by Puneet Sidhu
It demands more than just a sturdy pair of legs to consider an expedition such as the one Levison Wood embarks upon in Walking The Himalayas. The promise of a Channel 4 series lessens none the daunting challenge at hand. That it has been done before offers little succour either. Because one man’s trudge across the ‘raised eyebrow over India’ (Michael Palin) could well be 1,700 high altitude miles through five (often hostile) countries over six months, for another. Ergo, it requires you to be a hard as nails ex-paratrooper, inhabitant of African and Asian wilds, globetrotter, photographer, and journalist, all rolled into one. Above all it mandates an old-fashioned notion of exploration to take you through what is irrefutably an endurance test rather than enjoyable tryst.
‘I decided that the aim of this expedition wouldn’t be to climb mountains or to try and break any records, but instead to use this opportunity to meet the people who call the Himalayas their home. For me, travelling on foot is the only way to really explore the back country and villages hidden from the main trails and roads. It is the way people have travelled in these regions for millennia and there is a unique bond that unites walkers everywhere’. To accomplish this aspiration, Levison Wood decides to bookend his ‘walk’ between Afghanistan and Bhutan, two of most impervious Himalayan countries; one a consequence of hostile militia; the other, xenophobia.
From Kabul, he pushes into Pakistan through the Wakhan Corridor set high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. He ambles briefly along the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan with China before reaching India. A limping-back-to-post-temblor-normalcy Nepal–where he busts his arm after a 150m car plunge down a cliff–and enigmatic Bhutan wait after. All along he clambers up ice-walls, traverses avalanches, avoids extremist hotbeds, and finds munificent locals, able guides, and stunning scenery. Apparently arming him with a skill nonpareil, that of the appreciation of risk. He talks fondly of Malang his cheerful companion through Afghanistan, of his friend Ash Bhardwaj who joins him in India, and of Binod Pariyar, his travel buddy in Nepal. Having befriended the latter during an earlier visit that coincided with the massacre of the royal family, the author would return to Everest highs in his company yet again.
Walking The Himalayas is packed with high and low (pun unintended) experiences, an epiphany or two, as well as impressions of people and a constantly varying landscape. Not to mention the socio-political complexities he encounters, and stoically braves. All of this, and some more, the author recounts through a well-documented, well-written–being a journalist helps greatly in that department–and insightful narrative. A quick page-turner, it works well both as a vicarious leisure-pleasure, as well as, a rough guide if you’re looking to walk the world’s rooftop and back. Yet a certain ardour that informs a gratifying travel read is woefully missing. Himalayan jaunts, by definition, are said to leave one wanting more. Walking The Himalayas, on the contrary, is likely to leave you, well, merely wanting.
Note: This review has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
“How about a quickie?” a friend had grinned cheekily, emboldened by Dutch courage brought about by more than a few sun-downers. “Why not!” I’d breezed back similarly high-spirited. “Pick a place then!” came his excited riposte. That was all the encouragement I needed. It’d been a while, and I had really begun to miss that fun factor called spontaneity. Time you summoned it, woman, I spurred myself. Next thing, we’re dashing for his car.
I picked a place I visited about the same time last year. It had included a thoroughly enjoyable ramble through birdsong-replete woodlands I suddenly fancied a repeat of. Never mind it was nearly five hundred kilometres away and would entail daylong drives to and from with a spare thrown in for the hike. But what the heck! Sometimes crazy is so normal.
I’ll skirt all those troublesome details about time taken, distance covered, pit stops and speeds achieved, to save you the ennui even a die-hard road-tripper such as I can experience every now and then. In fact I’ll do better and keep the destination from you as well. Oftentimes, it just doesn’t matter.
It was every bit as pretty as I recalled. The semblance of a stone path played hide and seek with pine-needles cushioning it from view. Mossy boulders and fallen trees presented themselves as rest-a-whiles. Avian chirps from above, crunchy leaves underfoot, cicada whirs, and flitting butterflies, the ambient sights and sounds of forest life, trailed us right through.
Habitation was few and far between–the odd abandoned shelter, a cluster of huts posing as a hamlet, and incredulously enough, a church amidst this entire wilderness. The only other humans we came across were a shepherd tending his tiny flock, a father walking his toddler back from a distantly located school, and a delightful dowager merrily drawing on her hubble-bubble.
Many hours of steady uphill trudging punctuated by quiet talk, companionable silence, content sighs, complaining muscles, and one wrong turn later, we had crested the walk. It was roughly midway and was going to be mostly downhill from here on. A thick-limbed collapsed tree served as timely luncheon furniture.
The solitude was briefly shattered by an agitated sheep dog wary of strangers around his bleating wards. But settled down soon enough once certain of our harmlessness. Besides, it wasn’t averse to sharing our meal.
A few hundred metres into our downward plod the path turned fairly steep and edgy. It stayed that way for the next hour or thereabouts requiring full concentration. Freshly harvested terraces edged by shady groves, our destination, peek-a-boo-ed from afar. When we eventually eased into them, they couldn’t have come a moment sooner for stubbed toes and wincing knees.
For that matter, nor could have the village teashop. Nothing better than a piping chai to enliven walk-weary forms. Not to mention the enervating joy that springs from an accompanying plate of soupy noodles. All of this and more awaits. Long as you permit yourself that much-needed walk on the wild side!
The sea has its moments, yes, but I don’t much care for Goa’s beaches. Nevertheless I gladly wash ashore ever so often for a change of scene and cuisine. Of which the latter, in my mind, remains her irrefutable raison d’être. Languor permitting I have successfully indulged in a spot of exploration in between meals. This is how I ended up making the acquaintance of three enormously ardent men when there a couple of months ago.
They have a whole lot in common. Other than that they are Goan, they share an unimpeachable love for the place they call home. All three have expressed this deep-seated fondness in a most tangible manner. By single-handedly housing their object(s) of affection, indeed muse, in three extraordinarily distinctive repositories. And all three are self-funded. I talk of architect-conservator Gerard da Cunha, erstwhile medic-turned-installation-artist Subodh Kerkar, and restorer-curator Victor Hugo Gomes.
Houses of Goa Museum
A much awarded professional who pioneered green architecture–think Protima Bedi’s stark-stoned gurukul Nrityagram in Bangalore–Gerard is the man behind a schooner-shaped Houses of Goa Museum precariously balanced on a traffic island in Porvorim. Within, the displays tell tales of the perceptible amalgamation of eastern and western influences in Goa’s structural heritage. From images of imposing mansions to imported 16th century tiles to tulsi vrindavans, this one promises to keep you indoors should you wish to play house with a trellised twist.
Visitors will find embellishing every wall, window, column and cranny of this curious three-storey building, rare photographs, perspectives and sketches of Goan houses. Keeping them company are floor-standing glass-encased models. Doors, windows, palisades, building material and furniture, including altars and shrines, take up the mid-level. The topmost floor celebrates the coming together of two distinct architectures that resulted in the Indo-Portuguese style so unique to Goa.
A happy hop away from here is the Mario Gallery where originals, prints, and related merchandise by the inimitable cartoonist Mario Miranda, of whose works Gerard is custodian, can be viewed and purchased. It fronts the architect’s office where a narrow garden hosts a larger-than-life likeness of one of Mario’s iconic characters. The toga-clad padeiro or village baker, a swiftly disappearing sight, sits astride a cycle bearing a trademark basket of freshly baked bread on his head.
Museum of Goa
Subodh Kerkar gave up a flourishing medical practice to give wings to his passion for visual art by setting up the Museum of Goa (MOG) in Pilerne. In response to queries about why he chose the least lucrative over the most minting, he is likely to quip that he was unwilling, after hundreds of years of it, to take any more scat from the British. A tongue-in-cheek reference to dysentery-struck tourists from England he regularly treated at his hospital in Calangute. Clearly their loss!
The expansive multi-level MOG, which also means love in Konkani, is dedicated wholly to contemporary art, and has no permanent exhibits. It opened last year to a showing of sculptures, paintings, installations, and video art centred on Goa’s history. The ocean, from which Subodh himself derives much of his inspiration, is a recurring motif. He borrows heavily from the resulting navigational history–horses, old boats, oars, peppercorns, chillies–to fashion his prize-winning land art.
Taking up one corner at ground level is a catamaran in the original with a large Maui head affecting a bubblegum balloon. This, the artist’s satirical take on (d)evolution of the human race, going from a senses-led navigating Polynesian civilisation to a gum-chewing American one. Jostling for attention amidst Subodh’s brilliant works are some interestingly executed ones by talented newcomers. A slight departure from the prevailing subject though was found in a gallery dedicated to realist paintings by his father Chandrakant Kerkar.
Alarmed at the growing disconnect of a rich past with an indifferent present spurred restorer Victor Hugo Gomes into setting up Goa Chitra, an ethnographic museum in Benaulim. It is housed amidst a working organic farm and fashioned from architectural jetsam and flotsam from hundreds of traditional houses. The private collection, four thousand strong (and swelling) of restored trade tools, agrarian implements, and articles of daily use is a remarkable labour of love, as much of things antiquated. Holding centre-stage is a humongous, 16 feet high ghanno or oil grinder in wood.
Few years after, Victor wheeled in Goa Chakra. Another truly singular space crammed with all manner of non-mechanised carriages from around India. Some go back a century or so, and include beautifully decorated hand, horse, and camel-pulled carts. Differently-sized cradles, prams, palanquins, hearses, freight wagons, a jinricksha and cycle-rickshaw each, sit cheek-by-jowl with a sizeable number of artefacts related to the wheel. Also seen are a variety of spinning wheels. An elegant Victoria, a fashionable choice of transport back in the day, poses coyly just outside the entrance.
At the time of my visit, Victor was putting the finishing touches to Goa Cruti, yet another section promising cultural cornucopia. This time around it came with a colonial makeover and the curator was more than happy to give me a sneak-peek. This assortment comprises clothes including priestly vestments, jewellery, furniture and crockery on the one hand; firearms, musical instruments, legal accoutrements and medical equipment on the other. It honour’s Victor’s longstanding companion, father-figure, and restorer extraordinaire, the late Jaswant Singh.
For the longest time I had been unable to fathom the fascination a dear friend, nay two of them, have long displayed for the dead. They’re both doctorates; I have often wondered if that’s grounds–and avid travelers, though many decades apart in age.
He, formerly a bureaucrat, currently a graver, plans nearly all his trots across India and the globe around beautiful cemeteries, writes about them even. She, when not teaching English Literature to college-goers, plays tombstone tourist wherever she goes. While I have continually accused them of being macabre for their interest in the interred, they’ve always blamed my immunity to taphophillia on dread of death.
Then I went to Surat. Surat, previously known as Suryapur, is a city in the Indian state of Gujarat. It is the administrative capital of the Surat district. This textile and diamond-cutting hub is home to three cemeteries under ASI ‘protection’. Of which the Dutch and Armenian lots are joined at the hip and one hosting the English is a kilometre apart. All three hark back many centuries with the earliest interment recorded in the year 1579.
Mortuary chapel in Armenian Cemetery
This distinction is held by an Armenian lady called Marinas, wife of the priest, whose remains rest just outside a forlorn looking mortuary chapel, the only super structure amidst hundreds of neglect-laden gravestones. This monument appears to be of later vintage, gleaned from the solitary sepulchre of Kalandar, an obviously once-important personage who passed on in 1695, it hosts within.
Dead Dutchmen (mostly)
In contrast the Dutch Cemetery is teeming with splendid cenotaphs, obelisks and mausoleums. Most note-worthy is that of Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede (died 1691), a top-ranking official of the Dutch East India Company, who also has to his credit the Hortus Malabricus, a 12 volume treatise on the medicinal value of flora along the Malabar Coast from Goa to Kanyakumari.
Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede’s
The handsome octagonal-shaped double-storied structure with solid columns stands on a stepped plinth and has an encircling veranda. A carved wooden door ushers you into a frescoed crypt with a flight of steps leading to an underground vault and another up to a benched parapet surmounted by an enormous cupola.
Where the Oxendens rest
Rivalling this grandiosity are two extremely striking ones still upright in the English lot. George Oxenden (1620-1669) was the Governor of the Bombay Presidency in British-administered India. He had a beautiful tomb built for his brother Christopher in 1659. A decade later, when he himself succumbed to illness, he was buried beside his sibling and a loftier crown was raised in his honour.
Gerald Augnier’s viewed from the Oxendens’ crown
A flight of stairs takes you right to the top for a bird’s-eye view of all the other pinnacle-domed, arched and stucco-embellished sarcophagi dotting the sprawling cemetery. Including that of Gerald Aungier–he succeeded George Oxenden–a mere whisper away. Though much less elaborate in comparison to his predecessor.
Islamic making way for neo-classical (English Cemetery)
When the call (phone, not from above) came I had found it an annoying intrusion. Interrupting as it had an engrossing lesson resplendent with history, art, culture, and astounding aesthetics. It was the waiting cabbie wondering if I still inhabited the living world, unknowingly bringing to the fore sounds of life I had missed not at all.
One of few tomb-chests in the English lot
Not once, in the many hours that had simply flown since I began strolling, peering, photographing, reflecting. The occasional path-crossing with kite-flyers, glue-sniffers, canoodling couples and caretakers notwithstanding, I had up until then been swathed in tranquility so rare that it was almost heartbreaking to have it come to an end. I can’t wait to return. To another. While still alive.
Seldom do I recommend an experience sans encounters of the empirical kind; much less if it involves unsuspecting taste-buds. But I had been hearing such wonderful things about this one the past year, I made a rider-hitched–the messenger requests that she please not be shot–exception for it. Then I sat back many months to await unbiased reviews from knowledgeable palates (not to mention the perfect season for a Goa visit) before I eventually showed up at the charming teal-and-white balcao of the century-old Portuguese villa that houses Mustard.
Besides, a couple of days into our trip and following an unimaginable indulgence of sea creatures in their Cafreal, Xacuti, and Recheado avatars, I was more than just willing to renege on a self-imposed traditional-food-only canon. In addition, an accompanying vegetarian friend needed desperate rescuing from an over-dose of Au Gratin (once, Paneer Butter Masala even) masquerading as a local delicacy. As it turned out, neither one of us could have hoped for a better palate-cleanser than the eponymous condiment and its innovative use at this dual-cuisine cafe.
Our attention that night was completely taken by the Bengali section of a menu that also hosts French fare. It’s a culinary marriage most interesting, convincingly held together by a long list of delectable wows. Mostly mild, some sweet, and a few unexpected scorchers! You should know though that not all dishes here are mustard-flavoured so there’s no danger of excess. For that, turn to their well-stocked bar. I found whisky a good pairing for most of what we ordered as starters: spiced Beetroot Chops, Ghugni (yellow peas curry) with Dalpuri (lentil-stuffed bread), BBQ on Fritters.
The fritters were a fantastic burst of taste and texture with pineapple
cubes sandwiched between tiny corn pancakes and barbecued prawns with a tangy relish. The Mochar Ghonto (steamed banana blossoms) my friend ordered as a main came plated with rice, dal, a mustard-drizzled salad side, and sweet pineapple relish. It was quite superb I have to say, even if mellow in flavour. As was the Shorsher Ullash (mildly spiced pork cubes tossed in grainy mustard sauce) I was fast demolishing. Dessert was a toss-up between Mishti Doi, Malpuas or a more spirited food-chaser. I chose the latter.
I returned for lunch a couple of days later, only to ensure that sense of content and well-being I doggy-bagged the other night was not a consequence of generous libations. It wasn’t. The piquant punch their Tentul Joler Sherbet (tamarind, mint, honey on ice) packed kept me sober right through the Chicken Blanquette a la Moutarde. The homey stewed chicken with rice was as close to comfort food as the India-seared French group on an adjoining table could possibly have wanted. Their sighs of contentment were as telling as my greedy shovelling.
Then along came the Creme Brulee; first bite later I thought I’d died and gone to foodie heaven. After crunching through a perfectly torched caramel crust to get to that creamy, perfectly sweetened custard heart. Enough said. Another sweet-treat on the menu is what at first glance appears to be a most unlikely match–Brownie or Carrot Cake with sweetened mustard sauce. You’re in for such a surprise, trust me. Complete the indelible experience by washing it all down with a freshly brewed cuppa in the delightfully green backyard where, come Wednesdays, a rather dishy Krishna Vamsee also sings.
In short, when in Goa, you must Mustard.
Cobra in the Bath – Adventures in Less Travelled Lands, readers will find, is many things but what it is not however is your everyday travelogue. Au contraire, this here is an engaging chronicle of a near-seven decade expedition–one that has an uncanny knack of catapulting headlong into history-shaping geographies across several continents. It revs up in an India on the cusp of her freedom, and then yaws along to Mossadegh-era Iran after hovering momentarily over an exhausted post-war England. It is found idling on pristine Greek beaches–celebrating surviving that most terrifying of British institutions, boarding school, and Oxford–before eventually parking itself firmly in financial adventuring.
Morland’s early travels were a consequence of his father, a British naval commander, being posted in India. In fact, it was in the suffocating heat of a Delhi afternoon that he chanced upon the eponymous cobra in the bath at age four. Later, subsequent to the divorce of his parents, he accompanies his mother and stepfather (s) to Tehran where they were gainfully employed; the first by a fast diminishing British Empire, the second as Italy’s Ambassador. Given he was barely seven years at the time the author summons an elephantine memory to describe this phase of his life with incredible intensity–his first flight, witnessing Shi’ite ceremonies, setting the garden afire, surviving a riot.
Adulthood was defined by aimless days as a mini-bus driver in Greece followed by a brief stint on Fleet Street where he turned down a column to review corporate companies as his ‘ignorance of matters financial was total’. Only to land a job at John Govett despite having no idea what the difference between a stock and bond was. ‘They sounded boring too, and I did not know what an investment analyst was either…’ This boredom, as it turns out, lent itself to more than twenty years in matchless money-management in London and Wall Street, starting Blakeney Management that pioneered investments in hitherto untouched African markets, co-founding Development Partners International, a core African PE firm, and setting up of the Miles Morland Foundation with a purpose to promote African writing.
The author’s career milestones were interposed by impetus outings, like chucking up his job at First Boston in 1989 to explore France, a pied, with wife Guislane. That though is another story, The Man Who Broke Out of the Bank. While business interests found Morland testing waters at the Cairo Stock Exchange ‘a grand circular marble hall with ornate pillars in which sat three old men wearing fezzes, sipping Arabic coffee and dreaming of 1955’, similarly at Accra, Casablanca, Nairobi, Tunis, Amman, Bahrain, and Oman, he wilfully hops onto a train at London to witness history in the making in a crumbling East Europe. A riot here and a demonstration there later, his arrival in Bucharest coincides with Ceausescu’s orders to seal borders and he is turned back at gunpoint. He would return though, at age 47, after he decides to buy himself a motorbike ‘to celebrate his menopause’! This acquisition uncovered the latent biker in him and led to many momentous excursions across Europe, India (closest to assisted suicide is how he describes it), South America to partly retrace Che Guevara’s treads, and finally Japan where he is ambushed by a typhoon.
That an endless career in investment banking didn’t cost Miles Morland his humour, or joie de vivre, is most evident, not just in his witty story-telling but also in the spontaneity he summons at life’s many crossroads. Employing vividly recollected anecdotes as a device to take his narration forward, the author recounts his unconventional life–loves and losses included–in a disarmingly self-deprecatory and candid manner. As a result of which you are willing to overlook the many meticulously detailed pages he devotes to his love for machines (ships, planes, cars, trains, and bikes), the boat races at Oxford, and those dedicated to his irrefutably brilliant profession. In all, Cobra in the Bath is a riveting memoir of, by, a man who has continuously lived life to its optimum, on his own terms. Reading it will be time well invested.
Note: This review has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
The refurbished Bastakiya quarter–settled by Persian traders at the turn of the 20th century, now rechristened as Al Fahidi Historic District–is pretty much all that Dubai can pass off as structural heritage. Neighbouring Shindagha where the ruling Al Makhtoum family once lived along the shores of the Dubai Creek is still in the process of receiving its makeover.
Defined by sun-baked mud walls and barjeels (sea-facing rooftop towers that served as air-conditioning vents) and located a short walk from Dubai Museum, itself housed in the Emirate’s oldest surviving building, the 18th century Al Fahidi Fort, the place is populated by a sprinkling of eateries, art galleries, souvenir shops and a generally dozy air.
No surprise then that coffee trader and collector Khalid Al Mulla chose one of these restored homes to enshrine another long-standing Arab tradition, caffeine-quaffing, when he decided to give shape to UAE’s first coffee repository.
Villa 44 is tucked away in a very quiet street within the historic district, and if at first you are unable to sight the strategically placed cart piled high with coffee-bean-stuffed sacks, have no fear, for the olfactory will steer you right in.
Spread across two floors with a central atrium strung with likenesses of flags of coffee-loving nations, this museum is manifold more than your average pick-me-up. It’s a veritable sensual delight, one that has all the trappings of becoming a caffeineaholic dream destination.
At ground level are the museum gift shop, International, and Middle Eastern antiques sections, as also a room made-up majlis-style–traditional floor-seating used for all manner of Arab gatherings.
The exhibits are a gob-smacking array of accessories ranging from grinders, roasters, silos, tins, quirky collectibles, and live demonstrations of roasting and brewing techniques, as well as, serving styles endemic to certain countries.
The dallah, for instance, a curvy metal coffee pot with a long sharp spout, is what the Bedouins use to brew in and dole out their somewhat bitter qahwa. This is usually accompanied by dates in place of sugar.
Ethiopia, the hallowed land to whose 5th century berry-chewing goats each one of us coffee-addicts is forever indebted, employs a spherical-based clay pot with a narrow neck, spout and handle called jebena for the same purpose.
Impossible to miss is however the ever-so-shiny metallic exhibit placed in the Egyptian section. This, interestingly, is a sand-brewer, into which the tiny cezve (pronounced jezz-va) is nestled to roll-boil that strong, thick, unstrained, sickly-sweet, cardamom-infused potion we know as Turkish coffee.The first floor is where you will find a small-ish section dedicated to coffee literature; the prized possession here is the original print of Johann Friedrich von Pfeiffer’s encyclopaedia Corrections published in 1784. Clearly a man who knew his beans, for the German has reputedly devoted nearly 180 pages to the subject!
Adjoining it is a multi-media space airing theme-centric documentaries, a kids’ corner, offices, restrooms and a bespoke brew-bar where a barista will most artfully lay out your favourite cuppa even as you busy yourself with the Story of Coffee lining the walls.
Opening hours: 9am to 5pm, all days except Fridays.
Ayodhya is on the right bank of the river Sarayu, a town closely associated with Rama, seventh incarnation of Vishnu. For the longest time, Ayodhya for the most part was cloaked in indifferent obscurity. Cross referenced every now and then with childhood reminiscences of Amar Chitra Katha comics. They were an early introduction to our cultural heritage, their colour-infused pages peopled with historical and mythological figures.Well-researched story lines, costumes, architectural and factual details that overshadowed the pedagogy of school textbooks helped us ace many a general knowledge test.
One such informed about the legend of Rama, prince of Ayodha, central character in the Ramayana, an ancient Indian classic first authored by Valmiki. It tells of how Rama chose to go into a 14-year exile with his wife Sita, and brother Lakshman, to honour his father Dashrath’s wish. While there, his wife is abducted by Ravana, ruler of Lanka.
Rama, Sita, Laksman – enduring motifs
A war ensues and with the help of an army of monkeys led by Hanuman, Sugreeva and his brother Bali, Ravana is vanquished and Sita rescued. At the end of his exile Rama returns to Ayodhya amid much celebration on a day we now know as Diwali. His subsequent reign as a munificent and much-loved king came to be known as Ram Rajya. Simple enough to inform curious young minds to keep the faith, which they did.
Ramayana-themed handicrafts, Tulsi Smarak Bhawan
Then along came adulthood, and current affairs. Ever since, Ayodhya has been about the exactitude of the brick-and-mortar space where her most revered icon could possibly have been birthed. Frankly, this Ayodhya left me cold, appearing as she did, to have permitted a bunch of self-serving types to dictate and demolish the veracity of her many-tiered yet unquestionable historicity.
Guptar Ghat, Faizabad, from where Rama is believed to have ascended to the heavens
And so it was that I showed up at her doorstep a couple of months ago with no small measure of apathy. I found her sound asleep; to be fair, it was an hour past midnight and I couldn’t wait to hit the sack myself.
Saryu Embankment, Ayodhya
Regardless of the whys and wherefores, morning ushered in the irrepressible thrill of waking up in a place previously unfamiliar to me. Morning also brought along an earnest local lad who, I later learnt to my surprise, had taken the day off to simply show me around an Ayodhya less known; one not mired in notoriety, he declared.
Kanchan Mahal – built by a royal devotee with her personal allowance
Hanuman Garhi, perched on a swell–we negotiated over seventy steep steps to get here–in the town’s most constricted neighbourhood, was our first stop. Milling faithful went about the business of supplication even as a chatty priest brought us up to speed with the temple’s structural history–credited to a Muslim ruler’s wife in thanksgiving for curing her husband’s illness–and other legends.
Looking down at Ayodhya’s amorphous sprawls from the temple’s sandstone-clad parapets debunked any ideas I may have harboured of tangible signs of antiquity. Warrens of tight alleys, flanked by higgledy-piggledy houses painted garishly, radiated in every conceivable direction; views of the horizon interposed by mobile towers, temple shikharas. Not far below was Ram Janmabhoomi, the improvised canvas structure where restless visitors–divested of all personal items except money and offerings–queue for a minimum of two hours, are subjected to half a dozen security checks, and then granted a blink-and-miss glimpse of Ramlalla from a considerable distance. Photography not allowed.
In contrast, the Bundela-styled Kanak Bhawan, built by the royal house of Orchha and Tikamgarh in late 19th century, believed to be the site of the palace Kaikeyi gifted her newly-arrived daughter-in-law Sita, was a study in equanimity. A massive chessboard-floored courtyard led to a high-ceilinged, many-arched hall where idols of Rama and Sita watch over the devoted as they lazily break into singing, chanting and clapping every now and then.
This unhurried approach towards faith replicated itself at nearly every temple, ghat and akhara we subsequently visited. No wheedling touts; no demanding priests; no yarn-spinning guides; indeed, none of the commercial crassness I have come to associate with religious centres of this nature. Even the laidback air of the Saryu arti was a refreshing change from the orchestrated show it has become in similar destinations elsewhere.
An akhara temple
It is regrettable that the distorted face Ayodhya presents to the world is so far removed from reality. I sensed, having earlier fallen prey to human weakness, one-upmanship, self-promotion, and divisive politics, she would really just like to be left alone to manage her own affairs. To revert to her longstanding self as a multi-faith centre where co-existence was once a way of life.
Gathering of faith
An achievement her very many enlightened citizens, respected, and well-meaning community leaders are more than capable of fetching; indeed have. I also noted while the jury is still out on whether original histories should be re-written, over-written or rested, Ayodhya is quietly but diligently attempting to make amends. Because, in the end, after all has been said and done, it is she who is answerable to her god.
Sadhus enjoy a Saryu sunset