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You almost feel like you are walking into a chapter of the Ramayana when you enter Ayodhya . To be honest, you feel like you are actually a part of it, as the Ramayana begins and ends here. To the secular world,  it might be just an epic, but for those who live and breathe the word of the sacred, Rama and Seetha still live here while Hanuman guards the city , as every temple and palace here is an ode to the legendary Ayodhya. While the city has been  in the news for the dispute regarding the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, there are several temples in Ayodhya  that gives it the spiritual fervour. It is not just the pilgrims, but several tourists head here for Ayodhya sightseeing.

Ayodhya is indeed one of the seven pilgrimage towns for the Hindus called Sapta-puris. No wonder every pilgrim who visits the Kumbh Mela ends their  journey at Ayodhya after their spiritual dip in the Ganga. I visited Ayodhya too after my visit to the Ardh Kumbh Mela in  Prayagraj and I realized that it was actually a mini Kumbh our here as it was flooded with people and overflowing with devotion.

There are many places to visit in Ayodhya but we were here only for a few hours. Although it was not enough to explore the mythical city, it was enough to imbibe the mystical essence of it.

We could not go to the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi temple and the crowds did not allow us to visit many of the religious sites as well. However we walked around endlessly, just gazing at palaces like the colourful Dashrath Mahal and Janaki Mahal, while listening to chants of Jai Shri Ram.

Every monument here is a leaf out of the lives of Rama and Sita and there are several places to see in Ayodhya that form the backdrop of the Ramayana. One of the places to see in Ayodhya is Treta Ke Thakur , where a temple stands and  it is believed that Rama along with his brothers performed the Ashwamedha Yagna.

My guide Kunal told us about Sita Ki Rasoi, a shrine which is also a traditional humble kitchen dedicated to Sita. We walked past Valmiki Bhavan and Tulsi Smarak Bhavan, some of the places to see in Ayodhya built in the memory of the  saints and poets who have immortalised Ramayana.

And Ramayana lives here even longer than Rama, as a temple built by his son Kush stands here called Nageshwarnath Temple, dedicated to Shiva and the Nagas or serpent deities. There are several temples that are included in a Ayodhya sightseeing itinerary but we have time for just a few of them.

Ayodhya is one of those cities where I would like to walk endlessly and lose myself in its nooks and corners. Faith and devotion oozed out of every lane. Old monuments beckoned me.

Even the ruins had a charm. There were several temples thronged by pilgrims but the small shrines in a lost lane had a divine aura around them.

We had time to visit just three temples but I lost myself in the colours and flavours of the streets that lured me.

The Hanuman Garhi Mandir , one of the places to visit in Ayodhya was the first shrine but it was the crowds that overwhelmed us. It is believed that Hanuman sits here and guards the city as Rama had told him to do so when he decided to leave the world.

The entire steps were so crowded with the pilgrims that we wondered if we would ever be able to climb atop the shrine. Colourful and filled with lore, the temple is the most popular in Ayodhya and is one of the places to visit in Ayodhya.

Our next stop was at Kanak Bhavan. A surreal silence overwhelmed us as we walked into the palace which according to the lore was gifted by queen Kaikayee to Sita when she came to Ayodhya after her marriage.

The charming facade painted in  pastel shades fascinated me as I walked around in silence. Bhavan refers to a home or a dwelling place and although this was a palace, it is now a temple dedicated to Rama and Seetha. It is highly recommended as one of the places to see in Ayodhya.

This is where I met a few pilgrims who had just returned from the Kumbh at Prayagraj as well and an entire family had gathered here to bond and rest before continuing their journey. Chatting with them I realized that temples are not just religious abodes filled with rituals. It is where you renew your spiritual connection with the higher powers and energies that we call deities. Personally for me too, Ayodhya was all about forging my spiritual tryst with the Almighty.

The sun had set and the Sarayu Arati had begun as we watched from the other banks of the river which is literally a part of the Ramayana. One of the poignant moments from the Ramayana is the story of Guhan, the boatman who ferries Rama and Seetha along with Lakshmana to the forest after Kaikayee demands that they be banished for fourteen years. It is the same Sarayu that finally takes Rama with it to his heavenly abode as he entered Jal Samadhi. It is believed that this happened at the Guptaar Ghat.

There are several ghats around the Sarayu and each one tells a story. Ram Ki Paidi is near the Naya Ghats which was built recently and it gave an entire perspective of the river and the ghats . It is one of the places that is always included in an Ayodhya sightseeing tour.

While we were able to see just a handful of monuments, temples and palaces, it was the atmosphere that overwhelmed. Vibrant and colourful, we walked around markets. Every lane bursts into rich hues. I was lost in the old world charm but it was the devotion and faith that overwhelmed me. I would definitely come back to Ayodhya on a less crowded day for a more private and silent tryst with Rama and Seetha, Lakshmana and Hanuman.

The post The Ramayana trail – A day in Ayodhya appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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“It’s the second oldest municipality in the country, ” remarked CP Reddy, my driver and guide as we drove around a nondescript beach town, one of the windswept places near Vizag called Bheemili or Bheemunipatnam. I realized that I had just discovered a little piece of paradise in a small fishing hamlet on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, barely 45 minutes away from Visakhapatnam. Surrounded by hills and oceans, this village , named after the legendary Bheema of the Mahabharata was once a colonial settlement. The Dutch had been here and so had the British and they had left behind lighthouses, cemeteries, churches and other monuments, mostly in ruins around the town.  An old Narasimha temple, probably dating to the medieval period of 14th century stood atop a hill. Most of the hills here had been relics of ancient Buddhist monuments. Bheemili had a story everywhere. But there was a charm around Bheemili that can only be experienced and there was no better way to do it than to stay in the luxurious and elegant Bheemili  Beach Resort, a little hidden gem which  stood right opposite the ocean.

Every room here offered hypnotic views of the sea and I woke up either looking at the pristine sun or at the golden orb of the moon rising from the horizon. Bheemili Resort was so unlike the other resorts that I had been to.

Cosy and intimate, Bheemili Beach Resort was also a picture of luxury and was surrounded by coconut trees and offered a lovely view of the windswept beach. It was the perfect weekend getaway and one of the places to visit near Vizag. Looking out into the sea from the infinity pool on the terrace, I was lost in a world of blues. I almost felt that a wave of serenity had descended upon me.

The infinity pool was located next to the Teppanayaki Resort and I was actually amazed that the chefs were trained by Japanese in the cuisine. The vegetarian option had a great combination of Japanese and Indian dishes, customised to the Indian palate.

And yet the chefs told me that they got most of the ingredients including the sauces from Japan. While this was definitely the surprise element of the resort, the food was absolutely delicious.

And yet everything about Bheemili Beach Resort merged with the milieu, including the pastel shades and the gardens around it. I watched a movie in the private theatre, read loads of books in the garden cafe while sipping cups of tea and wandered away aimlessly around the beach and roamed around along old colonial churches.

In the afternoon, I relaxed in the spa, treating myself to a massage as I felt rejuvenated. It was the perfect holiday. I could not have asked for more, except that I wished that i could be here for a longer period. Personally for me it was one of the best retreats and places to visit near Vizag where one could do just nothing.

I continued exploring the village with Reddy. My favourite haunt was the silent fishing harbour along the picturesque estuary of the river Gosthani as it meandered into a little stream while joining the Bay of Bengal. The fishermen were at work with their nets as I wandered away taking in the beauty of nature.

Reddy told  me that an entire eco system and tourism had actually sprung up around the resort. ” Earlier people used to just come and spend time in the beach which is dangerous for swimming but now we see so many tourists who are interested in the history as well, ” he added saying that tourism had actually helped in getting more employment for the locals as well. I walked up the 200 odd steps of the Narasimha temple and took in the views of the windswept town.

I was here for just a day and it was probably the best holiday I have ever had.  I only wished that it was not so short lived. Long walks on the beach with the breeze on my face, a tryst with the fishermen at the estuary, watching the tides recede, listening to the songs of the birds, hiking up an old temple, losing myself in the ruins of a colonial past – Bheemili’s charm grew on me.  As I sat with a cocktail on my balcony, I closed my eyes listening to the rhythm of the waves. And when I opened them, a beautiful round blood moon stood right in front of me, having just risen from the horizon.

I was hosted by Bheemili Beach Resort, managed by Novotel Vizag and Accor Hotels. People make places for me and it is always inspiring to meet those who are dedicated and sincere and who go out of the way to ensure that you have a wonderful stay. And I am grateful to Reddy, my driver. Besides being my guide who narrated stories around Bheemili, he was also very proactive to ensure that I do not miss my flight. There was a confusion regarding my cab to the Vizag airport, but Reddy was so quick and committed that he immediately drove me there and ensured that he got me in touch with the liaison officer at the airport, Vimal Nayak who checked me in and was waiting for me with the boarding card, when I got there. The drive from the airport from Bheemili Resort is over an hour and it is advisable to always leave early because of traffic . And this incident stayed long in my mind, even as I remembered the song of the waves and the sight of the bright red moon emerging from the horizon.

The post The Bheemli Resort – a hidden gem in a windswept beach town appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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It is the sea that greets you everywhere in the luxurious Novotel Visakhapatnam Varun Beach Hotel. Look out from your room, your breakfast table, your gym, your infinity pool and the ocean is right in front of you. Located  in the heart of the Visakhapatnam, Novotel Vizag stands as a magnificent edifice and is one of the popular hotels in Vizag near RK beach. I was literally lost in the ocean, singing an ode to sunrises and sunsets, while sipping filter coffee and biting into soft pesarrattu ( dosa made with green gram or yellow lentils) with spicy gongura chutney. I was a guest of Novotel Vizag early this year and personally it is one of my favourite 5 star hotels in Visakhapatnam. My days were filled with instagrammable moments. So, I decided to write a post around these beautiful views and experiences showered upon me.

Moment 1 – Touched by a very sweet and personal greeting

It is extremely touching when you walk into your room after a long journey and find a personalised greeting. This is absolutely special. The photographs are actually chocolates and I was told that the F&B team spent almost half a day to choose the photos and make these delicious chocolates. Thank you so much !

Moment 2 – The sun, the sea, the froth and filter coffee

I am not a morning person but I just cannot resist strong frothy filter coffee . So watching the dawn break from the rooftop terrace of Novotel Vizag, I was actually feeling so refreshed with the breeze blowing right in my face. The sun was not very punctual as the clouds had gathered but it was worth the wait. There is a jogging track on the terrace and I actually finished my morning walk . I will also recommend the Infinity Bar and Restaurant on the rooftop terrace but more on that later.

Moment No 3 – Breakfast on the boat

I was not at sea but here I was floating right on land. This was my favourite moment. After the hot and steaming cup of coffee, I was hungry. But instead of heading to The Square, where the breakfast buffet is served, I had a special treat at the Boat. It was beautiful watching the morning glow and binging into a colourful spread of beetroot puris and crispy vadais, hot dosais and pesarattus besides a fruit platter filled with berries served with some pancakes. Yea, I just went for another walk along the beach after the sumptuous royal breakfast.

Moment no 4 – A sea of blues at the Infinity Pool

These are the kind of Monday morning blues that I like. The infinity pool is everyone’s favourite haunt and it is the perfect place to chill and relax on a lovely sunny day.You almost feel like you are floating in the ocean as well.

Moment no 5 – Cocktails at Infinity

Although my favourite restaurant is the Indian Zaffran, I kept heading to Infinity to quench my thirst and to gaze at the oceans endlessly.I just loved the vibe here. I would sit outdoors and sip the cocktails and lose myself in the views of the ocean.

Moment no 6 – You dont always need a drone

It is great to have a room with a view, especially if if looks out into the sea  . But looking down from the rooftop, I also got a view of the empty streets of Vizag and it seems like time has virtually stopped here.

Moment No 7 – Walking along the beach

It almost feels like a private beach, especially when you have it for yourself.  One of the dreamy moments that I can never forget

Which of these are your favourite moments ? I was hosted by Novotel Vizag for a couple of nights and it was my first introduction to the coastal city in Andhra Pradesh. If you are looking for 5 star hotels in Visakhapatnam, then look no further than Novotel Vizag. The luxury hotel with 225 rooms is a landmark by itself and is one of the popular hotels near RK Beach. It is a stone’s throw from the main attractions, especially the museums. I would recommend the Submarine Museum and the TU 142 Aircraft Museum. Besides the RK Beach, there is also the Rusikonda Beach and the Yarada Beach. There are several restaurants and bars including the Infinity and VUE Lounge Bar.  Among the restaurants, Zaffran is one of my favourites besides The Square. And needless to say, I ate like there is no tomorrow and I also brought some local masala and spicy powders from there . Thank you for a lovely trip and some great memories.

The post Seven instagrammable moments in Novotel Vizag appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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Throwback to our first holiday in Europe a decade ago. It was 7 pm and we had just landed in Rome. We had taken a train from Venice and our B&B was a few metro stops away, in a suburb close to the Vatican.Dragging our bags a little clumsily we reached our stop and were just ploughing through to the entrance. The station was dimly lit and there was hardly anyone out there.  I was feeling a bit lost although I had researched quite a bit on  holiday travel tips. Suddenly we saw a man, rather intimidating in fact , walking rather rapidly behind us. My husband felt something amiss and we started walking faster.  The man kept following us at a steady pace.  All of a sudden I found him right behind me and could feel his breath on my neck. And at that moment, a group of people walked in from the other side and this man suddenly vanished into the darkness. For a moment we were shaken although we were very grateful that no untoward incident happened. And yet every time I travel, be it solo or on a holiday, be it abroad or in my country, I am always cautious and wary and I read up on travel safety tips.

Photo credit – Stock photos from Sharaf Maksumov/Shutterstock

Travelling can be fun and exciting, but my antenna are always up when it comes to safety. And there are several reasons why one needs to be cautious these days on the road. Almost every crowded destination is a haven for pick pockets. Even a metro ride is not always safe. I have always felt a bit jittery taking a late night train in NYC or wandering in quiet alleys in Italy. However lets not be very morbid and look at ways to secure ourselves when we are travelling. Here are some safety tips for travellers, including tips for solo female travellers.

1.Have a dummy wallet

I was in Barcelona on a solo travel trip when one of my guides told me that she always carried a dummy wallet with her when she was travelling. She throws in a few fake or expired credit cards and some small change in the dummy wallet.  She said that she kept this usually for small change and used it more in the open, when she was travelling solo. I sometimes do carry two wallets with me, one that has some small amounts of money while the actual cards and currencies are always in another purse. But that said, I always do not carry much currency with me. The credit card is usually accepted everywhere – whether to buy a postcard or a cup of coffee and I hardly take the cash out. In case you are carrying cash, please do not keep them all in the same bag or wallet and split them up. While this can be one of the important tips for solo female travellers, I also think they are very useful travel safety tips.

2. Be wary of your surroundings

This is one of the travel safety tips which is actually a no brainer. Thieves and pickpockets always operate in pairs. So be on the look out for any distraction. It could be the friendly old lady in a train, a charming street performer or even street vendors. While most of them could be really friendly, it is still prudent to stay wary and quiet. One of them might distract you while the other may steal from you. Some of them may start with a friendly conversation and before you know it, they may get aggressive. So always look out for the suspicious or the over friendly characters around you while you are travelling.

3. Read up on the tourist scams.

Personally these are one of the most important holiday travel tips and also important safety tips for travellers, be it families or solo women. There are several scams in each country that you can read about as well. While we were in Milan recently, a friend was almost accosted by a group of men who claimed to tie a friendship band. These men are usually in groups and sometimes they will just thrust it on you and then harass you for payment. They even take you to the closest ATM and demand for money. I had read about it online and when they approached me, I just ignored them and they finally let me be. Every city has a mix of old and new scams targeting tourists. You can actually read about them online before planning your trip and that will help you to recognise these seemingly innocent tactics as actually scams .

Photo Credit – Stock photos from Ira Yapanda/Shutterstock

4. Avoid using debit card overseas

I would not recommend using your debit card overseas and it is one of the best travel safety tips. You may carry it for emergency but I would suggest that you do not keep it in your regular wallet. Use your credit cards wisely and ensure that you have a record of all the transactions. Sometimes I carry a forex card with me as an alternative, just in case I need it as a back up. In case any of your cards get stolen, do let the respective banks know immediately so that they can block it.

5. Get yourself a Travel insurance

For me personally, a travel insurance is the second most important document that I carry with me on my travels, after my passport . And while there are many travel insurances in the market, TATA AIG has emerged as a reliable brand. The biggest advantage is that it gives you quick service abroad as well as it has a large network globally who can give you local assistance. The policy coverage protects you from several other unpredictable situations that may arise during a trip. Claims are given high priority irrespective of the destination that you are in and they promise seamless claim settlement. They have coverage for beyond 80 years for travellers going abroad. There are two kinds of travel insurance – one which is generic travel insurance and includes all kind of travels. The other caters primarily to the needs of travellers going abroad. International travel insurance is an absolute necessity today and it is as important as getting a visa for any destination.

And besides all of these , my favourite  all time travel companion who i rely on a lot is common sense. Let it instinctively guide you on your journeys. Safe and happy travels everyone ! What are the travel safety tips that you recommend ? Please share some holiday travel tips as well

This post is written in partnership with TATA AIG

The post Five simple travel safety tips for your international travels appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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My 48 hours in Prague starts with a gaunt skeleton called Death. I am lost in the annals of time as I stand there along with millions of other tourists watching a spectacle right in the middle of the Old Town Square, one of the places to see in Prague. Death stands ready to toll the bell on the oldest functioning clock – the Astronomical Clock, one of  Prague top attractions. He tells the other figures who represent Greed, Vanity and Lust that their time is up as well, but they refuse to budge. As the Twelve Apostles parade, the entire pageant is over in just 45 seconds.

There is romance and charm oozing all around but we have just two days in Prague. When the Bohemian king Charles IV became the Roman Emperor , the city apparently became a power centre.

Our itinerary of just 48 hours in Prague takes us into the heart of the city where we will get high on beer, say hello to Franz Kafka, go on a ferry ride, do a jig at the Dancing House and meet some golems in the night.

However if you are passionate about a particular aspect of Prague and you want to see it from an insider and an unique perspective then you must definitely sign up WithLocals and go for some amazing Prague private tours led by locals who share the same passion as you.

But first, let me tell you a story which revolves around one of Prague top attractions.

If you are like me, interested in the supernatural then you will love the story of the golem, a virtual symbol of Prague. I was in the Jew Town near the Old Synagogue , one of the places to see in Prague when I heard the tale.

In Jewish folklore, a golem refers to a statue that can be brought to life. The Golem of Prague was created by a Rabbi to protect the Jews from being attacked and killed. But the Golem slowly became a powerful monster. The Rabbi then decided to lock him up in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue and with his magical alchemic powers, he snuffed the life out of him until he became dust.But there are many twists to the tale.

Apparently one of the Rabbis brought him back to life , but another legend says that the attic is believed to be spooked even now, though the relics of the Golem were never found. But if you are walking anywhere in Prague at night, well, you may never know – the Golem may still be lurking somewhere in the dark.

I am just kidding. Prague is beautiful by day or by night. But if you have just two days in Prague then here are some of my suggestions on what cannot be missed.

A view of the universe through The Astronomical Clock

It is not just a show stopper but a mini planetarium in itself.  There is the astronomical dial with the sun, moon and the universe, the zodiac circle with the stars and planets and a calendar dial too. A fascinating story talks of a prisoner, who was a rich noble awaiting his death sentence. But just before his conviction, he saw a sparrow caught in the jaws of Death. When the figure of the Skeleton opened its mouth, the sparrow managed to escape and fly away. And just then as the clock chimed, the noble was set free too by the Council of Prague. For many people, the Skeleton then became a symbol of hope.

Get charmed by The Old Town

There is more to the Old Town than just the Astronomical Clock. At the heart of the Old Town Square stands the Old Town Hall which is a fascinating monument. Climb the 70 metre tall tower and look at the 1000 year old skyline and you will understand why Prague is dubbed as the “The Golden City of Thousand Spires.” Several medieval homes in beautiful colours are stitched together and each one has its own story.

The names are fascinating as well – as you have the Gothic Cock House , the Minute House or you can be  “At the Blue Goose or “At the Red Fox House among many others. If you have the time then head to the Tyn Church, the Baroque Church of St Nicolas, the Rocco Kinsky Palace,  the Jan Hus Monument, Clementium, the Powder Tower, the Municipal House among others.

And if you like quirky museums ,  then visit the Museum of Historical Toilets and Chamber Pots, and the Sex Machines Museum, one of Prague top attractions.

A peek into history at the Jew Town

The Jewish Quarter , one of the best places to visit in Prague has been home to the community since the medieval era and you can visit about six synagogues here. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest while the most ornate is the Spanish synagogue, built in a Moorish style of architecture. Also visit the Franz Kafka monument, dedicated to the author. There is also a museum across the river, in the Lesser Town.

Stories and the Charles Bridge

Named after the Roman Emperor who laid the foundation stone, this is my favorite spot in all of Prague. Standing on this historic bridge, one of Prague tourist attractions and watching the ferries cruise down the Vltava River, I am lost in the atmosphere, filled with artists, street performers and musicians.There are thirty sculptures dotting the bridge and one of them is that of St John of Nepomuk.

He was apparently thrown into the river under the orders of the king as he refused to divulge the secrets of the queen who had confessed to him.   Standing on 15 arches and pillars, the bridge took over 50 years to be completed.

There is one colourful wall that you would not want to miss, which is close by dedicated to John Lennon. If you have just 48 hours in Prague then Charles Bridge must be on the itinerary.

Lesser Town – an ode to beauty

Referred to as Mala Strana, one of the places to see in Prague this settlement lies across the river and it is the prettiest part of Prague. The Nicholas Church is the most popular church here but I would recommend the Carmelite Church.

The wax-coated wooden statue of Infant Jesus is one of the main attractions here as many tourists come to take a peek at the beautiful wardrobe of the little statue designed by Carmelite nuns. While you are here, head to the Petrin Hill , one of Prague top attractions where you can climb the tower to get some great views.

Prague Castle – which is actually a district

It is the largest castle complex in the world where the Bohemian jewels are hidden inside a secret room. You can spend an entire day here. Dating back to the 9th century, the entire castle complex has several churches, palaces, museums, gardens, halls, towers and other monuments spread over 70,000 sq metres of space.

The Church of Virgin Mary was the first to be built here, followed by the Basilica of Saint George and Basilica of St Vitus a century later. The towering St Vitus Cathedral built in the Gothic style dominates the entire castle complex with its magnificent architecture. This is one of the best places to visit in Prague according to me, if you have just 48 hours in Prague.

The 700 year young New Town

The youngest district of Prague dates to the 14th century.  Walk  around the Wenceslas Square , one of the places to see in Prague which was once a horse market. Head to the Dancing House popularly known as Fred and Ginger. The architect was apparently inspired by the dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And before leaving the New Town, stop at Uflecku, one of Prague top attractions. It is believed to be one of the oldest breweries in the city which has been brewing beer continuously for over 500 years and it has over eight halls besides a garden.

Prague is a picture post card come alive and everywhere you go, there is a tryst with history which explodes in nooks and corners, while stories echo from the walls.  I wish I had more than 48 hours in Prague but am sure that I would come back here. What are the best places to visit in Prague according to you ?

The post 48 hours in Prague – with beer, golems and dancing houses appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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There is something special  about curated travel trails. They literally bring a bus load of people from different walks of life bound by a common passion together and leave them with  endearing memories from an unforgettable journey. In a week, strangers become friends as their passion for travel brings them closer. And that to me is  the very essence of the Times Passion Trails who translate the  tag line, Live what you love into memorable journeys. As a traveller, I am constantly travelling, but my trip to explore the cultural heritage of  Odisha with Times Passion Trails was special.

I had been to Odisha before but on this trip, I evolved into a knowledge traveller as our Experience Architect was none other than noted cultural historian and dancer, Navina Jafa. I travelled with real travellers who were dancers to doctors, homemakers to entrepreneurs, artists to engineers and was inspired by their love for heritage and culture. But it was the cultural heritage of Odisha that overwhelmed me – with its rich tapestry of culture, the influence of indigenous communities, its ancient Buddhist roots and the Jain connection.

And Lord Jagannath with his siblings is all pervasive. It is not just about faith and devotion, but an entire economy has flourished around the deity – in art, crafts, architecture , paintings, sarees and even food. Looking back on my trip to Odisha with Times Passion Trails, I realized that travel is more about moments than just sights and sounds. And there are fifteen memorable moments from my tryst with Odisha’s traditional and cultural heritage.

A spiritual moment at Puri Jagannath temple

There can be nothing more serene and spiritual than the darshan of the larger than life deities of Jagannath  and Balabhadra  flanking Subadra in the Puri Jagannath Temple.  The wooden deities carved out of logs of Neem tree stand there, dressed in bright orange and red hues. Our darshan here was arranged by the Times Passion Trail and we got a few seconds only with the deity but  it felt like an eternity. After all, these deities are believed to be chiseled by none other than Lord Vishnu himself. I was just overwhelmed.

Pathachitra of the Puri deities

But it is not just the religious fervour alone that lures me to temples. The architecture, the history, the legends, the myths, the traditions and the quintessential “Indianness’ of these sacred shrines fascinate me.  Spread over 400,000 sq feet, it was built on the ruins of an earlier temple by King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. But legends say that the original temple was built by none other than Vishwakarma himself. After the darshan we had a tour of the kitchen as the deities love their Bhog. It is believed that 58 different food items are prepared for the deities and they have their favourites.

Gotipua dance at Raghurajpur

The entire atmosphere became colourful as soon as I entered the Heritage Crafts Village of Raghurajpur , one of the places to see in Odisha. A short drive of just 15 kms from Puri, I felt  like I had stepped into a virtual art gallery. Every house was a museum and every person living here was an artist. Raghurajpur, is synonymous with the Patachitra – pata means cloth and chitra means painting. Almost every artist here is a Chitrakaar who has been learning the craft since he or she is a child. Raghurajpur is one of the destinations that represents the cultural heritage of Odisha

A patachitra in progress

But talking about children, I was fascinated by the Gotipua dance, one of the traditional dances of Odisha. However it is performed by young boys and not girls. Most of these boys are trained in a Gurukul and they stay here until they reach adolescence. Jagannath and Krishna inspire the dancers. Gotipua was a precursor to the Odissi dance and even the maestro, Kelucharan Mohapatra , who is from Raghurajpur was a Gotipua dancer . The dance with so many acrobatic postures literally took my breath away.

Meeting sand artist, Padma Shri Sudarshan Pattnaik

The heart of Odisha lies in its crafts and sand art is one of them. Meeting Padma Shri Sudarshan Pattanaik was a personal high . When I visited Puri last time, the Sand Art Festival had just got over and I was lucky to see a few of the sand sculptures on the beach. However this time I am grateful to have gotten an opportunity to meet the artist himself.

He had even carved a beautiful depiction of the beauty of Odisha for us on the beaches of Puri. When we spoke to him about his life, he said that he owed everything to Lord Jagannath as he used to work near the temple as a young boy.

Colours of Pipli

It was a kaleidoscope of colours at Pipli, one of the destinations on the cultural hertage of Odisha, where large radiant umbrellas greeted us as soon as we entered Pipli. The artists referred to as tailors or “Darjis” here are known for their applique work where they stitch colourful pieces of cloth together and create beautiful designs. Wall hangings, lamp shades, garden umbrellas, bags and purses are created with colourful fabrics and pieced together with mirrors and embellished with embroidery.  Walking around I saw shops filled with these alluring crafts as some of the girls working in them told me that there were over 100 families who created magic with their fingers. As all arts and crafts of Odisha, the applique work started as a part of the traditions associated with Puri Jagannath Temple.

The Pahala Rasgulla – a Bhog for the gods

You dont visit Odisha and not try the famous Pahala Rasgulla. Located on the Bhubaneshwar – Cuttack highway ,Pahala is a small village on the outskirts of the capital and is known for the sweet shops that line up the highway and is one of the places to see in Odisha.

Odisha and West Bengal have been in a tug of war as to who has the original bragging rights for the  Rasgulla. Odisha claimed that their version had existed for over 600 years as “kheer mohana” in Puri when it was offered as “Bhog” to the deities in the Jagannath temple. It later on apparently evolved into the “Pahala Rasgulla”,  which is creamier than the Bengali white spongy delicacy. The colours were in shades of beige to ochre. According to the legends, a priest from the Jagannath temple saw the villagers from Pahala throwing away the excess milk from their cows. He taught them the recipes of many sweets including the rasgullas. Besides rasgullas, you can also find different sweets made from “chhena” which is similar to panneer called the chhena poda, which is Lord Jagannath’s favourite dish as well. 

A date with the sun at Konark

One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Odisha, the magnificent Konark Temple is an ode to time. Dedicated to Surya, the Sun God, the 13th century shrine was designed like a massive chariot but it was the ornately carved twenty four wheels that caught my attention. The Puri Jagannath temple was referred to as the White Pagoda by the Europeans but the Sun Temple at Konark earned the title of Black Pagoda. The temple has several legends associated with it and for me, the Sound and Light Show narrated them beautifully. There is also an interpretation centre here which gives you an insight into some of the architectural aspect of the temple . While there are several erotic sculptures here , I was most curious by the sculpture of the giraffee – which was apparently an indication of the trade between Odisha and parts of Africa. 

Temples of Bhubaneshwar

One of the prettiest temples in Bhubaneshwar

Think Odisha and you think of the  Jagannath Temple in Puri and the Sun Temple at Konark, but the old town of Bhubaneshwar has several old temples which are all architectural marvels. The city takes its name from Tribhuneshwar, a form of Shiva and most of the old temples of Bhubaneshwar are dedicated to him. The 1000 year old Lingaraja temple dedicated to Harihara is at the centre of the town. The largest temple in the city, the architecture is typical of the Kalinga style with a curvelinear tower. My personal favourites are the Mukteshwar temple, the Raja Rani or the Indreshwar temple and the Brahmeshwara temple.

An introduction to Odisha’s 62 tribes at The Tribal Museum 

Odisha’s indigenous communities are a story by themselves but we had a brief glimpse of their traditions and culture in The Tribal Museum in Bhubaneshwar. The cultural heritage of Odisha actually evolved from their traditions. From jewellery to paintings, there are five galleries here, which showcase their personal belongings, their hunting weapons, their fishing techniques, their agricultural tools among others. I was fascinated by a beautiful anklet with spikes worn by women which also doubled as a defense mechanism to protect them from any attack.

Arts and crafts, music and dance find expression here as well. Besides the Tribal Museum, we also stopped at Kala Bhoomi which showcases the folk and traditional crafts of the artisans of Odisha. This was one of my favourite experiences on the Times Passion Trails. And while these museums were just a tiny peep into the lifestyle of the different indigenous communities, I would one day like to meet them and delve deep into their traditions.

The Sound and Light Show at Dhauli

The story of Samrat Ashoka, his bitter and bloody battle with Kalinga may have been etched in history but the hills of Dhauli surrounded by the River Daya were witness to the bloodbath and atop them, stood  the serene Vishwa Shanti Stupa with a glittering dome, which was built by the Japanese. As we sat in the open on a starry night, the story was narrated to us on a beautifully choreographed Sound and Light show. Dhauli is also famous for Ashoka’s edicts which were imprinted on rock faces here, especially on one of them which was carved like an elephant. This is believed to be the earliest rock cut architecture in India. There were also two edicts here which referred to the Kalinga War.

The Diamond Triangle – Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri

In Ratnagiri monastery

With Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism,  Odisha slowly became one of the main centres of Buddhism in ancient and medieval times. Recent excavations have shown that three sites popularly known as the Buddhist triangle of Odisha – Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udayagiri were once home to several ancient stupas and monasteries  and  monks used to live and study here as well. Lalitgiri even had a relic of Buddha in one of the stupas, which you can see in the museum. However what really fascinated me were the insights shared by Preethi Karwa who was one of the participants on the tour and is a post graduate in Ancient Indian Culture , History and Archaeology. She told us that Guru Padmasambhava , the founder of the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism,  popular in Tibet and Ladakh would have probably been from here. As their sect of Buddhism takes the form of a diamond, these three sites are known as the Diamond Triangle. Personally for me, this was one of the key highlights of the Times Passion Trails and it truly represents the cultural heritage of Odisha.

Excavations in Udayagiri

The Jain Heritage

While Buddhism and Odisha have become rather synonymous because of Ashoka and Kalinga, very little is known of the Jain heritage in Odisha. However there are rock cut caves in Udayagiri and Khandagiri on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar, which have inscriptions that date back to even 1st -2nd century .One of them is referred to as the Hathigumpha inscription which speaks of King Kharavela who was a patron of Jainism. The caves were probably rock shelters for Jaina monks for lived here at one time. Every sculpture here tells a story and sometimes we just need to sit there and listen to them.

Being inspired by Padma Shri Sudarshan Sahoo

It was almost late evening when we walked into the gallery of sculptures chiselled by Padma Shri, Sudarshan Sahoo, a doyen among sculptors who has created the Sudarshan Crafts Museum. Even at the late hour, the sculptors were chipping away at statues of deities in the open. Inside the gallery, every sculptor seemed to be breathing life. He told us that it was a meditative process as he closed his eyes and said a little prayer before starting his work. It was humbling to listen to him speak about his work with so much passion and I am grateful to the team at Times Passion Trails and specifically to Navina Jafa, our Experience Architect who was keen that we interact with all the craftsmen .

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There are Sadhus and Sadhus and then there are the Naga Sadhus. They are quirky, dramatic, volatile, intimidating and are undoubtedly the show stoppers of the Prayag Kumbh . Among all the sadhus who flock here, all eyes are however on the elusive ash smeared, stark naked Naga Sadhu in Kumbh Mela. I was in Prayag Raj Kumbh last month and here are some of the Naga Sadhu images that I have taken during the trip.

Getting a dramatic Naga Sadhu photo is not easy as they are not always friendly to the camera. Yet every mood is a moment for the lens. Their nude bodies are smeared with ash from burnt wood of dead trees. Sometimes they wrap themselves in rosary beads and flower garlands.

There is an aura around them that is absolutely unmistakable as they smoke cannabis and it is their panache that you cannot miss. Armed with tridents, spears  and other weapons they can be very temperamental.

But who are the Naga Sadhus ? I have always been a bit curious about the Naga Sadhu history and where they came from.  Apparently they were one of the earliest communities of sadhus or saints who are believed to be trained warriors although they have renounced the world.

These celibate men who worship Shiva were athletic and strong and were adept in wrestling . They were considered as an army of saints and the defendants of the Hindu faith against any provocation or invasion.

Apparently most Naga Sadhus live in the caves or mountains or in the forests and they live in their own retreats with little contact with the outside world. Some of them are wandering saints and they go with their community from one place to another.

However they merge with the civilisation only during the Kumbh. It is a sight to see several of the Naga Sadhu in Kumbh Mela where they stay in Akharas – the Niranjani Akharas and the Juna Akharas which were originally created over 1000 years ago.

While we were walking around the Juna Akhara, one of the largest order of  saints in Prayag Kumbh, I met several of them. Some blessed us, some chatted with us, some posed for us while a few chased us away. But most of them were friendly although they will chat you up for a longer time if you offer them money. You can also get the quirky and dramatic Naga Sadhu images that you want to take if you are patient and pay them well.

 

I would have personally liked to spend more time with them , understand what made them give up their normal life . I am told that most of them leave their families, their careers and their regular life to  become a part of the order in their teens. They are accepted only after they are celibate for a fixed period of their lives. Shedding clothes is just a metaphor for shedding their inhibitions . And there are several stories around them and I would like to hear about some of the Naga sadhu miracles that they can perform 

But my guide says that they live in cities like Varanasi in their communes and sometimes they may even merge with the locals , bereft of their identity as a Naga Sadhu. I would however not know that for sure as there are different communities amidst them.

Yet you can find communities of Naga sadhu in Kumbh Mela only. On the auspicious bathing days of the Kumbh Mela called the Shahi Snaan, it is apparently a sight to behold them as they head to the banks of the Ganga. There is a pageant and procession as swords and spears are brandished in the air and the vibrant atmosphere is an experience.

We were however not so lucky to experience this dramatic display . However we got a few photographs of the procession of Naga Sadhu inKumbh Mela  from the UP tourism that I thought I would share them here. Please note that these photos below taken during the Shahi Snaan are courtesy the tourism board.

I do hope that during the next Kumbh I would get a chance to meet and talk to them at length and understand a little bit more about this mystical sect of sadhus. Have you met Naga Sadhus and spoken to them ? What are your impressions about them ? Would you like to share any anecdotes on information on the Naga sadhu history ?

I would like to end the post with this photograph. He is however a Naga Sadhu but I found his eyes both intense and mesmerising. I must say I was a bit unnerved as I asked his permission to take his photograph. And perhaps, a bit intimidated as well.

The post The Sadhus and Naga Sadhus of Prayag Kumbh – A photo essay appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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I was one of the many crore (millions) of people who headed to the Prayag Kumbh 2019 – which was the  Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, earlier known as Allahabad.  Media reports say that the numbers are estimated to be 15 crores this year or 150 million or more this year. And while apparently the Guinness Book of World Records pronounced the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 as the “largest ever gathering of human beings for a single purpose” it is believed that the Ardh Kumbh in Prayagraj this year would have more people thronging the shores of the Sangam – the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism

Kumbh Mela – a melting pot of faith and devotion

Beckoned by “Mother Ganga” or “Ganga Maa”, the  banks of the river is filled with crores of pilgrims who have nothing else to offer but their faith and devotion . An old man clutching his aging wife, a young boy carried by his doting father on his head, a mother with her teenage daughters staying close together  – families bonded by love and duty are here to pray to the goddess river.

At the Sangam it’s their devotion and belief that bathes their minds as they dip into the river. The water is warm , like the affection of a mother welcoming them into an embrace . She welcomes the  crores of people who believe that a mere dip in her lap will wash them off their sins . 

Faith has many dimensions to it and this is probably the most profound aspect of it . And that is the single purpose that has drawn millions of people to the Prayag Kumbh 2019. 

Kumbh Mela – A spiritual journey

However for me it was curiosity that had initially drawn me to the Kumbh Mela. And when I received a media invite from Uttar Pradesh Tourism and Lonely Planet Magazine, I decided to accept it and understand the underlying motivation that bring people in hordes. And waves and waves of them arrived, carrying their bundles upon their heads, holding their near and dear ones close lest they get lost in the madding crowd.

For some one who has had crowd phobia, I stood there, transfixed and watched.Wearing their finest clothes and with beaming smiles, they readily posed for photos as they told us their stories. And while they came from nooks and corners of the country – on foot, on bullock carts, on overcrowded buses and trains, chartered helicopters and flights, they all came for the one single dip in the lap of mother Ganga.

And as I watched them immersed in their faith, something stirred inside me as well. The curious onlooker in me was swept away by the force of spiritual fervour that filled the air. And I was simply overwhelmed.

Just then, the voice of my guide, Sandeep interrupted my reverie as I heard him say , ” All Bollywood films begin with a lost and found story in the Kumbh.” And as we smiled, while we listened to people calling out to their lost loved ones over the loudspeaker, I realized that I had indeed embarked on a different journey this year.

But this post is not about me or my inner journey  and my tryst with spirituality. It is about a guide to the Prayag Kumbh 2019 with some information on the importance of Kumbh mela.  There are three other venues for the Kumbh Melas besides Prayagraj – Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik -Trimbakeshwar being the other three and it is celebrated four times over twelve years. While it is the Sangam of the three rivers in Prayagraj, the venue for the other spiritual festivals is the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar, the Godavari in Nasik and Shipra in Ujjain.

The story of Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh is referred to as the sacred pitcher which carried the nectar of immortality or Amrut. The ancient Puranas or the Vedic texts talk about the samudra manthan – the churning of the oceans when the Devas and the Asuras – deities and demons fought over the Kumbh of Amruta or the immortal nectar. According to the legend, Lord Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman called Mohini tricked the demons and gave the nectar to the gods. And as he flew heavenward with the Kumbh, a few drops of the nectar dropped on the four sites. The entire legend takes over twelve days which in human calendar translates into twelve years. And astrologically the dates of the mela are planned keeping in mind the planet positions and the auspicious time. Over the period, the rivers become symbolically filled with the nectar and a mere dip is enough to  cleanse people of all sins.

The origin of Kumbh is not known historically but it was Shri Adi Shankaracharya, the Hindu saint and philosoopher who established the Kumbh Mela and the Ardh Kumbh and brought all the different sections of the Hindu faith together to the Kumbh. The word, “akharas” is believed to have derived from “akhand” which means indivisable. It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya established ten akharas.

The ritualistic dip in the rivers find mention in the travels of Hieun Tsang or Xuanzang who apparently witnessed several devotees celebrate the festival. It is believed to have been identified as of Prayagraj during the reign of King Harsha. However historians are still divided as to whether the Chinese traveller was recording the Kumbh Mela or if it was a Buddhist ritual.

There is the Maha Kumbh which happens every 144 years besides the Kumbh Mela and the Ardh Kumbh . At Prayagraj it is the Ardh Kumbh this year and it is from January 15  to March 4. Although every day is believed to be a divine experience, there are specific auspicious days for bathing – referred to as Shahi Snaan. In Prayagraj Ardh Kumbh the dates are January 15, February 4, February 10, February 19 and March 4. For more Kumbh mela infomation, you can refer the official website and wikipedia as well .

Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism

Kumbh Mela and Naga Sadhus

Coming back to my experience of the Prayagraj Kumbh, I was there during the second Shahi Snaan on February 4. While it was an overwhelming experience to see waves and waves of devotees, the Naga Sadhus are the showstoppers. Out of the millions of people who throng the Kumbh it is amazing how everyone’s attention is veered towards the naked Naga Sadhus .

Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism

Of course they are dramatic in their appearance , sometimes stark naked but at many times covered in rudraksham beads and many have a fancy head gear as well . Smeared in ash from burnt wood of dead trees, they have an aura around them. They are friendly enough but most of them will pose for you and chat you up if you offer them money . And they know the US dollar from the Singapore Dollar .

I would have personally liked to spend more time with them , understand what made them give up their normal life .Shedding clothes is just a metaphor for shedding their inhibitions . While most of them are colourful personalities, I read somewhere that some of them were indeed professionals who had given to their regular life to become Naga Sadhus .

But my guide says that they live in cities like Varanasi in their communes and sometimes they may even merge with the locals , bereft of their identity as a Naga Sadhu. Indeed some of them apparently carry even fancy smart phones and drive cars – but then I have only heard of it from people. Perhaps one day I will get to speak to a couple of Naga Sadhus and understand the mysticism around them .

My Kumbh Mela Experience

However it was the entire atmosphere of positive energy that overwhelmed me. And I am not just referring to the pilgrims. Even though we are a media group, we walked around for miles and merged with the milieu. From the smiling cops to the selfless cleaners, everyone was so selflessly dedicated to the Kumbh Mela. I am completely impressed by the immaculate arrangements. I walked around for miles and everywhere it was clean and spotless. From toilets to tents, there were facilities for every kind of traveller and pilgrim. There are even helicopters that will fly you to the Sangam .

Everything functioned as clockwork. There was security everywhere , even police on horseback. CCTVs are installed everywhere. Helpful and friendly voices reached out to you , if you were lost. I have a phobia of crowds and yet I could barely feel the chaos of the five crore people as crowds were regulated. There were several bathing ghats and boats took you around.

Where to stay in Kumbh ?

Tent cities surrounded the Kumbh and you could stay in luxury or in simple tents with basic accommodation near the sacred site. We stayed in Indraprastha Tent City which was on the other banks of the Kumbh and there were e-rickshaws that would take us to the pontoon bridges which would take you across to the mela grounds.It is better to take the contact of the e-rickshaw driver and ask him to meet you at the pontoon bridge when you head back.

There are many bridges and hence make a note of the number . The administration regulates these bridges based on the crowd and they are always helpful. However a bit of patience is requested from our side. Although it is advisable to stay near the mela grounds, there are shuttle buses from the city to the sacred venue in case you want to stay there.

When to visit the Kumbh Mela ?

While most pilgrims like to visit during the Shahi Snaan days, I would have personally preferred to be here on a regular day to soak in the atmosphere and be more relaxed. However there  are a lot of restrictions on the days of the Shahi Snaan keeping in mind the safety of the crowd and to ensure that there is no stampede.

Pic Courtesy – UP Tourism

It is important to understand the traffic arrangements as well as there are several check points and most of the routes are closed. It is advisable to spend at least a couple of days before and after the Shahi Snaan so that you get to understand these regulations and you can experience the Kumbh Mela without any hassle.

My Kumbh Momemt

My Kumbh moment came actually in Ayodhya and not at Prayagraj. I was overwhelmed by the faith of the millions who had travelled all the way from small villages and towns just to have a dip in the Sangam and then they visited Ayodhya where their pilgrimage is considered to be “complete” . I met a family of 30 members who had come from a small village near Uttar Pradesh – Bihar and Nepal border to Kanakbhavan in Ayodhya after the Shahi Snaan.

The serene temple nestled inside the sprawling palace was believed..

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I wake up to a white world in Araku Valley. It is not snowing but the curtain of fog has descended on the landscape wrapping everything in its fold. The birds however are still singing from the trees although I can neither see the trees nor the birds. Sipping a cup of ginger tea, I watch as the sea of white veils the luxury tents in my camp. This is my first experience of glamping in Araku Valley and it feels like a dream. There are several places to visit in Araku Valley but am content to just experience the Araku Balloon Festival for now. As I wonder if the skies are going to clear any moment soon, a thin fragile layer of mist blows right in front of my face. And just then, the star pilot, Captain Karimulla Syed walked in and looking at the fog said, ” Not to worry, we will fly today. ”

Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh is a secret tucked away in the Eastern Ghats of India and am excited as this is my first Araku Balloon Festival. The fog slowly lifts, uplifting my spirits as well while I sip my second cup of tea. The camp site is now swarming from pilots and their crews who have flown in from fifteen countries – from Malaysia to Brazil, Japan to Australia, Thailand to Netherlands, Slovakia to Germany, United Kingdom to Belgium and the animated chatter continues. Hot air balloons in different sizes and shapes will soon took over the skies once the fog clears.

I get a few moments from Captain Karim before he heads out to test his hot air balloon. Captain Karim who represents E Factor Entertainment as a pilot was once working in an event management company before he got fascinated by the world of hot air ballons.  The hot air balloon festival in  Dubai made him change the very course of his career as he went on to become a pilot. Hailing from Guntur, he now divides his time between Dubai, India and the rest of the world, where he flies in different festivals. “Every day is an adventure, ” he says. And echoing his thoughts is our pilot for the day , Captain Wout Bakker, a Dutch who has over 28 years of flying experience.

And so we join them on the plains in Araku Valley where the hot air balloons are all ready to fly high. The entire village is gathered here, filled with awe and excitement .  They are all dressed in their best clothes, with adding to the colour arouund. The sun is now out, having banished the fog and the entire arena is a riot of hues. The paragliders from Italy are also here as they fly low. But I am like the kids in a candy store, lost in the array of balloons. Two little girls look shyly at us as we photograph them, with their own balloons soaring high.

Organised by Andhra Pradesh Tourism and E Factor, the Araku Balloon Festival has over twenty pilots and their crew from fifteen countries. For me however it is the fascinating shapes that beckon me. As I potter around, there is the cute Baby Car, painted in hues of pink, with a little bottle in its hand, getting ready to fly. Baby Car is a hot air balloon from Brazil and the pilot is Captain Jose Eduardo Alves De Souza. He tells me that he calls it Sophie and the idea came to him when his sister was pregnant.

The beautiful baby is my favourite but standing close by is the Flying Honey Bee, dipped in bright yellow and the pilot is Captain Francisco Naccaratio, also from Brazil. I cant have enough of the fluffy Happy Chicken who has flown all the way from Netherlands. But the guy who is grinning from ear to ear and is standing tall is Bruno the Clown from Slovakia.

While these special balloons are additional attractions, the others were no less spectacular. Our balloon helmed by Captain Bakker is the largest among the lot and is painted in psychadellic colours of yellow, red, white and green and orange.

As we take off, the valley reveals itself to us, even as a thin layer of fog remains over the mountains surrounding us. The fields are barren but it is good in a way, if we land says our Captain as we soar over 1500 feet into the sky. Slowly we are surrounded by the other hot air balloons floating around us.

The landscape comes alive as the Clown grins while the Baby Car enjoys a joy ride in the sky. The Happy Chicken is happier in the skies while the Honey Bee is buzzing away happily. The other balloons painted in all the rainbow shades takes off as the winds carry us away, giving us a glimpse of the valley.

The kids scream excitedly as they wave to us. The cattle is however running away a bit helter skelter. The winds carry us away according to their whim as we fly over rivers and hills, fields and forests and land in the middle of nowhere, literally. I realize that there are so many places to visit in Araku Valley and all that I have had is a mere glimpse of its scenic beauty.

The Araku ballon festival is not just about a joy ride though. There are excursions galore that take us into the heart of the Araku Valley. Some of the places to visit in Araku Valley include pottery villages and hamlets with craftsmen. Bambu chicken is the favourite here. But the speciality is Araku Coffee, which was introduced initially by the British in the Eastern Ghats, but it later became an initiative to rehabilitate tribals in the area. While I sip the coffee, its the Araku chocolates that add flavour. I am told that there are strawberry farms as well but I plan to come back later to see the other places to visit in Araku Valley, which can be accessed by rail or road from Visakhapatnam or Vizag, which is the closest city. I am told that the train journey is rather spectacular as well. But if you are driving down from Vizag, which takes around three hours, you can also stop at th spectacular Borra Caves along the way.

The festival comes to life in the nights as the balloons are all lit up. The atmoshere is vibrant and there is so much energy around. Music and dance fill the air as we warm ourselves by the bonfire. Animated conversations echo in the night sky. As dinner is served, we down the tasty food with some drinks and lose ourselves in the lively atmosphere. As sleep beckons, I am back in my luxury tent, curled up with a warm blanket, dreaming of flying in the skies . I hope to be back at the next Araku Balloon Festival.

The post Soaring High at Araku Hot Air Balloon Festival appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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My trip to Oman starts with a ghost story and a haunted fort.  It is a hot afternoon and I am standing  at the foot of a formidable fort, which was built over 700 years ago. The blue sky is cloudless and the sun is rather merciless today. But am in a mood to listen to some haunted tales and folklore related to black magic in Oman. And this when my guide Saleh tells me , “This fort was built by a ghost in just one night.“ I look at him rather incredulously as the amazing story teller that he is stands upon a small mound and begins to narrate. I am at the imposing citadel which is the 13th century Bahla Fort, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites which is around 200 kms from Muscat. According to the story, Bahla Fort Oman was threatened by an attack from a neighbouring kingdom and the ruler reached out to a djinn or a spirit to help them. A formidable fort was built apparently overnight and the opponents beat a hasty retreat after just looking at it.

But the story does not end there. Bahla is surrounded by an aura of occult and magic. Every stone here tells a story. As I huff and puff my way up the fortress which is surrounded by a wall that is 12 kms long, I hear from Saleh that Bahla Fort has several legends of genies and ghosts haunting it. One of the legends relating to black magic in Oman is rather ominous. Apparently there was a man who was stoned to death here thousands of years ago by the locals for practising witchcraft. However people even today believe that his spirit haunts the town as well. Saleh tells us that locals believe that his spirit may be wandering around the narrow alleys of the town, the desolated walls and the old crumbling ruins. He says that even the walls may have an eerie feel to them. But I am told that trees are bewitched and people here believe that if you touch a mere branch , you may just vanish into thin air.

The silence is eerie indeed as we walk around the fort. The occult and the supernatural always fascinate me. There is another story here and this time, Saleh narrates to us the story of a flying mosque that came up around the town. Three Sufi saints lived in a hillock near the fort. It is believed that they could communicate with djinns who flew in a mosque from a neighbouring town  and parked it here. However everything lies in crumbles today and the town, which was once Oman’s capital is now getting a makeover apparently under UNESCO guidance.

The sun gets harsher by the minute and we continue on our journey, If Bahla has an aura of the  supernatural, then the ruins of Al Hamra leave us spellbound. Stark and naked, the ghostly mud houses of the 400 year old abandoned village stand out against the blue sky and the smattering of date palm trees. They look like they have been baked and crumbled under the heat here. The narrow alleys clone each other and it is very easy to lose your way. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by a  sea of ruins.

I look up to see multi storeyed crumbling edifices with holes in them , that would have been windows at one time and for a moment, I feel an eerie presence around me. I walk away hurriedly and turn a little corner to find my guide looking out for me. According to Saleh, Al Hamra Oman was once a prosperous village under the Al Yaaribah dynasty over four centuries ago . There is a museum and a souk here with a lone halwa store and we stop to take a bite before resuming our road trip and listening to more stories.

Have you been on a road trip in Oman ? And do you like ghost stories and towns and haunted tales from an abandoned village ? Do share your experiences.

The post Tales of djinns and black magic from Bahla Fort Oman appeared first on Lakshmi Sharath.

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