Backpacking Through North India-5: Kasol

After a hiatus of more than 3 years, I finally got the time to resume my travels. Last 3 years have been really hectic on a personal and professional front and I’m glad that phase is over and I can get back to living my life. Regardless, I just returned from a small but cosmopolitan Himalayan village as a part of a long planned and well deserved break from life and the rest of the world, and I couldn’t be happier to write about it on the blog.

Kasol, when you hear the name, what comes to your mind? Hills, treks, Israeli people, Mediterranean food? Or something notorious that region is known for? Well, a disclaimer; my intention to head there was not for that *something notorious*, but to soak in the cosmopolitan, hippie vibe of the place, to meet some Israelis and most importantly to try their amazing bland/non-spicy food.

Oh wait, I didn’t explain the Israeli connection of Kasol. Situated in the Parvati Valley, the small village of Kasol is the hotspot for Israelis-young and old-in India. Many young Israeli men and women come to Kasol to relax after their mandatory conscription (the cost of carving out a country in the Middle-East surrounded by hostile neighbors). Some like it so much that they find the place like home and end up staying there for a long term; whereas some seasoned travelers spend their 6 months of summer in Kasol after living and working in Israel for the previous 6, thus living on saved money, and they repeat the cycle. It’s all a game of exchange rates. Some Israelis I spoke with said that it’s cheaper to vacation in Kasol than to live in Israel; in effect they save money while vacationing. Now who wouldn’t like that!

Throughout the town, even the signs on the streets are plastered in Hebrew, and at some places, solely in Hebrew.

So, nestled in the heart of the Parvati Valley, to reach Kasol is a task in itself. No direct buses head there from Delhi and one has to get down at a bigger town and catch the local bus to Kasol. It’s that remote.
In the Parvati Valley, apart from Kasol lie some other villages such as Manikaran, Malana, Grahan etc. and breathtaking treks, such as ones to Malana, Chalal, Rashol etc. I didn’t go to all of them as the plan was to relax in this break but I’ll definitely cover the entire valley when I go there next, which could be pretty soon considering that I have moved to Delhi now. Yes, my Bombay days are over. I’m a Delhite now. More on that some other time.
The months of April-October are the right time to go to Kasol if you want to avoid the snow and the extremely chilly weather (though I would advise to visit in the months outside of the above-mentioned window just to enjoy the snow), yet the summer of Kasol is like the winter in the planes; the temperature dipped to 3 degrees one night while I was there. Though it doesn’t snow in Kasol in summer, yet you can see the snow covered peaks of the Sar Pass which are at a higher altitude from the valley.

To get to Kasol, you have to take a bus from Delhi to Bhuntar. Bhuntar is on the Kullu/Manali route so any bus that’ll be going to either of these places will drop you at Bhuntar. As during my last time backpacking in McLeodganj, I again took a Himachal Road Transport bus from Kashmere Gate ISBT in the evening, and after about 14 hours, I was in Bhuntar. The bus navigates through Haryana and Chandigarh before it enters Himachal and the landscape starts changing beautifully from the plains to the mountains. The cities covered on the way include Sonipat, Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra, Ambala and Chandigarh. On the way there are loads of roadside Dhabas serving scrumptious Punjabi food in quantities fit for a king. But then, when around Punjab, you have to eat like a Punjabi.

The outline of the mountains early in the morning from the bus while on the way to Bhuntar.

From Bhuntar one heads to the local bus stop to catch another bus to Kasol. That is the prettiest road to navigate through with the Parvati river flowing with fervor in the valley down below to your left and thick Deodar forests on the mountain to your right. This being a local bus is also frequented by the local Himachali village people, who I maintain, are the sweetest people I’ve observed in this country; so polite, so courteous, and so welcoming towards the travelers. Wherever I’ve met them, in the town, on the hikes in the woods, on the road, they’ve all been genuinely friendly.

The main street of Kasol. Yes, that’s how tiny this village is. So tiny that there’s just one ATM which caters to all the locals and travelers, and which is usually out of money (thanks demonetization) or out of power.

I had booked a hostel for my 8 day stop but due to its renovation, they shifted us to a hotel nearby, sadly I missed out on meeting more travelers on the trip, however I was rewarded with wonderful views of the valley and the night sky from the rooftop of the hotel; and when it rained there, the clouds literally descended on earth. Rains also bought along with them chilly evenings and nights. Imagine the Indian summer during May, and you’re at a place where sometimes the temperature dips to as low as 3 degrees during the night. Delightful!


The closest treks to Kasol are the ones to the villages of Grahan and Thunja. Located around 9 kms uphill, the twin villages are accessible only through a trek via the Deodar forests replete – all uphill – with difficult terrain, and with wild animals like bears and leopards. What’s more? During the winters, they’re not accessible at all because of the snow. Yet there are people who live there, and many make the trip to Kasol and back couple of times a week for supplies and trade.
So it goes this way. The trek I made for leisure and adventure, they have to make it out of necessity multiple times a week. And it’s not an easy trek at all. It might be just 9 kms, but leading to the difficult path, it easily takes 4-5 hours to get there, and the path is so narrow at some places that only one person can walk through it, else there’s the valley on the other side where you can slip in. I feel privileged AF!

Met this young family on the trek to Thunja who gave me some insights about the life in the village.

Nevertheless, the path is beautiful. Almost throughout the trek you hear the gushing sound of the Grahan river (which eventually merges with the Parvati in Kasol) flowing down in the valley as your music. Here are some beautiful images from the trek.

You also encounter the Grahan river on the trek. As it flows directly from the glacier, continuously in the summer because of the melting snow, it has got the clearest water you’d have ever seen in your life. At some places where the depth is low, you might feel like drinking the cold water; and that’s what I did. Filled it up in my bottle, and I’m not exaggerating, it was the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted; flowing straight from the Himalayan glaciers.

On a random hike around the town one afternoon, I met a bunch of young Israelis who, like their compatriots, were fresh out of conscription. We got into talking and apparently ended up discussing politics of the Middle East, life in Israel and India travel destinations, and yes, availability of beef in India. Nevertheless they were a really nice bunch of folks, and ended up offering me Israeli coffee prepared from the river water on their mobile stove. And the coffee was not bad at all!

Coming to the food. One of my major motivations to head to Kasol. For a Mediterranean food buff, this place is a heaven in India. You get anything under the Israeli sun in Kasol. Ranging from the basic Falafels and Hummus, to the exotic Sabih and Shakshouka, you get such variety that you won’t even get in a Mediterranean restaurant in Bombay.

Did I mention the dogs? The Mountain dogs, stray or pet, are the friendliest and the calmest of them all. Over a week spent in Kasol and not one dog I found who growled at anyone.
Even when you have food, they just calmly follow you, sometimes for kilometers on a hike in the woods as well. Some may look fierce but pet them and you got their tails wagging.

4 kilometers from Kasol is the village of Manikaran. Known the most for the Sikh Gurudwara, Manikaran also has many hot water springs. In some within the Gurudwara premises, one can take a dip as well. It’s exhilarating to realize that on one side you have the freezing cold water of the Parvati river while on the other, the boiling water of the hot springs. The water is so hot that even the rice for the Langar at the Gurudwara is boiled by dipping the container in the spring. Don’t be surprised while roaming on the streets of the village you see smoke coming out of the corner of the pavement. It’s just nature at work. Oh, and this town has an ATM, so if the one at Kasol is not working, walk 4 kms along the pretty road to Manikaran and get your money.

On my last day at Kasol, while waiting for the bus near the main square, I got to see this traditional Pahari dance called Naati performed by locals for some forest department event. Such a wonderful end to the trip.

Oh, and did I mention that I’m going to retire in the hills? Well, you never know. 🙂

Backpacking Through North India-4: Delhi

After Attari, Amritsar and McLeodGanj, it was time to head back to Bangalore, Delhi was supposed to be the transit point but I decided that as I was going to be in Delhi, why not stay there a day more and visit couple of historical places from the Mughal era (which Delhi has plenty) apart from meeting some friends based in that city.

So in Delhi, I visited Agrasen Ki Baoli, Jama Masjid and the bylanes of Old Delhi which have their own charm. One point I noticed, travelling in Delhi’s metro is no different than Bombay’s local trains in terms of the enormous crowd. Maybe I felt so because I was around Connaught Place during both my days, that being the busiest station of the city.

Agrasen ki Baoli is a historical step well located surprisingly close to Connaught Place and Jantar Mantar, yet unknown to many. Who constructed it? As the name suggests, it was built by Maharaja Agrasen in 14th century. The main feature of this structure is the long flight of steps that lead down to the step well. The steps are flanked on both sides by thick walls with series of arched corridors. The place is also said to be haunted as back in its day, people used to indulge in suicide by jumping in the well. Now, no water remains and what can be found inside the well is litter caused by the visitors and some stones.


As you enter the structure, you can see the tall commercial buildings of Connaught Place, but as you descend the steps, it vanishes and all you get is silence or echoes and the occasional fluttering of wings of pigeons or residential bats. You can duck through a small opening and go to the actual circular well that was once supposed to be there. If the story of it being haunted is true, then that would be the place where the spirits of the dead roam, if things like spirits exist for that matter.

One can enter the area where the well once stood via this tiny hole in the wall.

This is what lies today in the supposedly haunted well where once there was enough water for people to attempt suicide.

And this is how the sky looks from the bottom of the well.

Next travelling via lifeline of Delhi, i.e. the Metro, I headed to Chawri Bazaar in old Delhi. That busy market is just what I had expected to be like. After having some lip smacking Gol Gappe and savoring some Kebabs (glad I didn’t contract Delhi Belly), I headed on a cycle rickshaw to the magnificent Jama Masjid which is often compared with Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid.

The chaotic streets of Old Delhi. A unique aspect of this part of the town is the cycle rickshaws, a ride on which is a must if you visit these bylanes.

And there you get the first view of the backside of the magnificent mosque. Notice the tangled mesh of electric wires in all the photographs above.

Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century is the largest mosque in India. The complex encompasses this three domed structure and a vast open compound which can accommodate 25,000 people at a time for prayer. Like in Jama Masjid of Ahmedabad, this mosque also comprises of a pool of water at the center of the complex where Muslim men wash their feet and faces before entering the mosque.

The awe inspiring domes always play a host to the pigeons.

A Muslim man washing his feet at the pool of water at the center of the mosque compound.

This little girl was posing for her mother’s camera.

View from the top of one of the minarets.

The vastness of the compound can be comprehended by this bird’s eye view. Notice the Red Fort in the foggy distant.

The streets of old Delhi look equally chaotic from up above as they feel down there.

Couple of destitute men stealing a nap on the steps leading to the mosque.

A little kid watching keenly what his dad is doing, again, on the steps leading to the mosque.

And with Delhi, my North India backpacking trip came to an end (and so do the posts under this series, as of now). Those nine days which took me across three states and exposed me to multitude of accommodating cultures made me see for myself, the diversity of India. It ended with a meeting with couple of friends with whom I wanted to meet since long at New Delhi’s Khan Market. Taking all the experiences and memories, I headed back to Bangalore the next day with the holiday hangover lingering till some time.

As far as Delhi is concerned, it’s rightly said by a Bollywood lyricist:
Ye Shehar nahi, mehfil hai…

Backpacking Through North India-3: McLeodGanj

After covering Attari and Amritsar, via Delhi I headed to McLeodGanj, aka Little Lhasa of India. It’s called so because this cosy little town on the foothills of Dhauladhar range serves as a home to the exiled Tibetan community. Also the home to His Holiness Dalai Lama, this town houses the Tibetan government in exile. Leading to these facts, McLeodGanj’s and Dalai Lama’s place in Buddhism can be analogized to that of the Vatican and the Pope.

The town has extremely polite and courteous people, friendly monks, breath-taking views, a Buddhist monastery, a Church from the British era and some great food. For the first time in my life I saw a mountainous region replete with snow covered peaks, so the experience was definitely unique, plus this being a comfy little town of genuinely friendly and courteous people made my visit even more memorable. Having lived in cities like Bombay and Bangalore, I had forgotten how genuine can people be, McLeodGanj made me realize that.

McLeodGanj is also thronged by Hippies and backpackers, hence this small town has a unique air to it to help cater to their needs, you get multi cuisine food, ranging from Italian to Mediterranean (and Tibetan), bookstores with unique collections in multitude of languages, coffee shops serving lattes and cappuccinos, and of course, people from various nationalities. I was accompanied by a Chinese couple in the bus which seemed funnily odd considering they were visiting the Little Lhasa whereas they could visit the actual city in occupied Tibet. In short, it won’t be wrong to term McLeodGanj as a global village.

Hippies may come to McLeod to experience the spirituality, but the reason for me to include this town in my itinerary was to experience the Tibetan culture, which lately I’ve been fascinated about. I reached there early on a cold, sunny morning with clear skies (which is unusual in January) in a bus from New Delhi. As soon as you get out of the bus, you’re surrounded by representatives of various hotels around the town. They come down towards the main bus stop every morning and based on their luck they’re able to pick up the tourists. Being January, the tariffs were way cheap it being an off season for tourism. I found my abode for the next couple of days at Hotel Victoria House (yes, I’m naming it for my stay there was extremely comfortable and the lady who takes care of it was very hospitable, plus, you have amazing views of the valley from your window). I then set out to explore the town which is small enough to be covered on foot.

View of the valley from the hotel room. Notice the snow covered peak of the Dhauladhar range in the distant.

A view of the Kangra valley from one of the main streets of the town.

And on the other side of the street, stand the mountains.

Centered around the main square, on about 4 main roads, I’d call them lanes, is what the town is based on. For a moment you can forget that you’re at some place in India. You can’t help but notice the presence of monks and Tibetans everywhere, it’s amusing to see such adorable people walking on the roads. Also the presence of Tibetan symbology, viz. national flags, prayer flags, political messages, Buddhists monasteries dotted along the town etc. can’t be missed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  At the end of the Temple road lies Tsuglakhang Monastery where His Holiness Dalai Lama resides, his residential quarters stand opposite to the Buddhist Temple. Tibetans do clockwise circumambulations called Kora around significant religious places like monasteries, mountains (linked to various deities) etc. while reciting their prayers. Likewise, around the monastery there is a narrow, beautiful path to do the Kora, and luckily not many people are aware about it which helps maintain its sanctity. One gets wonderful views of the valley below at one stretch of the path where one can sit on one of the benches and admire the view below. It’s surreal, snow covered peaks to your left and the valley below you.

Friendly monks at the monastery.

Monks also gleefully oblige to have their pictures clicked with the tourists, like this one above posing for the camera of some tourists.

A stretch of the Kora path around the monastery (above and below).

The view od the valley from the Kora path.

Along the path can also be found Tibetan prayer flags. Tibetans put them high up on the trees and it is believed by them that the prayers written on the flags are blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space.

The path is dotted with Prayer wheels which contain Tibetan Mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hun’ and Tibetans believe that one rotation of the wheel is equivalent to chanting the mantra by the person rotating it and corresponding goodwill is endowed upon that person. One can also find dotted along the path, various temples with giant prayer wheels, one rotation of which rings the bell suspended above.

The mantra ’Om Mani Padme Hun’ written in Tibetan (language).

Next stop was Tibet Museum which is housed within the main gates of the monastery. The museum highlights the atrocities faced by the Tibetans under the Chinese repression since 1949. It contains detailed information on how the Tibetans moved to Dharamsala after the Chinese took over their country and initiated the cultural invasion and how Tibetans indulge in the act of self immolation for protests within Tibet today despite being told not to do so by the Dalai Lama. Also it contains interesting artefacts of the period before the Chinese occupation of Tibet, like old Tibetan currency notes, weapons used by the Khampa tribesmen etc. An interesting feature of the museum is the documentaries they show every afternoon on Tibet. The afternoon I went there, a documentary called ‘Undercover in Tibet’ was on the charts which showed how a young Tibetan in Tibet covertly interacted with Tibetans who told him their plight under the Chinese on camera.


Blood stained clothes of a Tibetan refugee who escaped the Chinese brutality during the early years of the cultural invasion, at the Tibet Museum.

Later that night I went to watch a movie at McLeodGanj’s only 40 seater movie theater ‘Cinemaa 1’. Located in the basement of one building on the Jogibara Road, movie DVDs are projected on the screen. The weekly timetable can be found on all major points of the town. The variety of movies they play are mix of classics and not so latest Hollywood movies, it’s understood that it takes time to get the DVDs of latest movies up to this town, so it takes about a month or more to get the popular movies to play after the release date. That night, luckily on the schedule was 7 Years in Tibet. I was at a perfect place to watch this movie. Again being the off season, there were only 3 people, including me to watch the movie.

The interiors of Cinemaa1.


Markets of McLeodGanj are colorful, targeting the tourists, Tibetans have set up stall at almost all the points of the town, selling items ranging from momos to Tibetan woolenwear, Music CDs to Cards and bookmarks containing Dalai Lama quotes.

Bit on the outskirts of the town lies the Church if St. John’s in the Wilderness. It’s the resting place of the second Viceroy of India, Lord Elgin. The Church, situated amidst thick Deodar trees outside the town stands true to its name, in the wilderness. It may look bit spooky from the outside, but it’s beautiful within (sadly photography is not permitted inside). It’s the kind of a place where one can sit for a long time and do nothing but listen to the silence of the forest around.

This town being secluded amidst the mountains offers a spectacular views of the night sky. With little light pollution, the view you get above is literally out of this world. It took me back to my college days in Ahmedabad when I was interested in amateur astronomy and used to study the night sky regularly. Never had I got such a beautiful view of the sky as in McLeodGanj. The sky is lit up with millions of stars, you can’t get this view in any city. I made a point to spend some time on the rooftop of my hotel every night I was there.

On my last day in the town, while strolling around leisurely on the streets, I came across this crowd awaiting someone; I asked and got to know that His Holiness is going to exit the monastery. Now all this time I didn’t even know that Dalai Lama was in McLeodGanj, for it’s unusual of him to be there as he keeps travelling a lot. And boy, how lucky was I. I got to see him up close. Again, perfect time to be at that place. That made my trip worthwhile.

Now coming to the food. During my entire trip, the most delicious (and also the worst) food that I’ve had was in this town. I am writing about it here in detail for I believe that the tale of McLeodGanj’s culinary delights need to be told…
You can’t help but notice that you get Momos, the Tibetan staple, here on the street side. I tried the steamed ones being sold by a lady outside the Monastery and need I mention, they were delicious.

When visiting the monastery, one must relish the delicious authentic steamed momos sold at the gate.

There is a Café called Black Tent that serves some really good Tibetan and American breakfast, nd apparently, the cappuccino they have there is really good. One unique aspect of all the cafes of McLeodGanj is that they are WiFi enabled and you can bring around your laptops, tablets etc. and work/play in the conducive environment.

Omelette served with Tibetan bread and butter at Cafe Black Tent.

The best Cappuccino I have ever had, again at Cafe Black Tent.

Next I tried the famous Wood Fired Pizza at Carpe Diem. The upper level of Carpe Diem is always preferable for one gets amazing views of the mountains and also it allows you to mingle with fellow travellers.

Wood fired Pizza at Carpe Diem.

For desert, there is always ‘Tibet Quality Bakery’ where you get authentic Tibetan bakery items, and yes, Yak Cheese is also available here. I tried the black forest block made from Yak Milk, it started tasting bit funny towards the end, but was worth a try.

Now coming to the worst food of McLeodGanj, funnily I had it at Café Norling which is certified by NDTV GoodTimes’ Highway On My Plate. Hence, by taking the suggestion of Rocky and Mayur, I ordered Thukpa and Fried Chicken and both turned out to be awful, I’m sure Thukpa must be not that bad. Also the fried chicken didn’t even had the skin removed. I tweeted to Rocky and Mayur after coming back to Bangalore and they too agreed that Norling, once a hard working eatery, has grown worse over the years.

Worst food I had at McLeodGanj, at Norling Restaurant. (Below) Rocky and Mayur second my experience.


This little kid I encountered in the town was named Lhasa. This signifies the nationalism Tibetans harbor for their country.

(Below) Colors of dusk at McLeodGanj.

Anyway, After 3 wonderful days, it was my time to bid goodbye to McLeodGanj, I wish I had planned more days for this town in my itinerary but I didn’t know this town would turn out to be so beyond my expectations. It’s natural to forget that you have to return back in the serene atmosphere of McLeod. With a refreshed mind, I turned towards Delhi, but I didn’t bid bye to this town, for you never bid bye to Dharamsala, you come back…

Now, let me share my two cents on the Tibetan issue. Since the cultural invasion by the Chinese in Tibet, large numbers of Tibetans have thronged to India and Nepal, and India rightfully has given asylum and citizenship to many Tibetans. Tibetans have continued their struggle to return back to Tibet ever since and have setup the government in exile at Dharamsala. Tibetans have suffered many atrocities by the Chinese within their land and hence even today the migration of Tibetans to India continues.

The Chinese have forcefully indulged in the erosion of Tibetan language and culture by changing the official language from Tibetan to Mandarin, and putting restriction on the traditional way of living of rural Tibetans by forcefully shifting them to filthy, congested concrete blocks on the outskirts of the towns from their ancestral grasslands on the pretext of protecting flora and fauna and ecosystem. The Tibetans in cites live under the heavy presence of Chinese police, even at Potala Palace in Lhasa, plain clothed Chinese policemen keep an eye on the monks and tourists alike. Tibetans are not allowed to raise their flag and can be arrested for doing so. Foreign media is virtually banned in Tibet under an unwritten rule. The Chinese have also started migrating in large numbers in Tibet and hence have taken over traditional jobs of the Tibetans. The human rights situation in Tibet is also worse. Many Tibetans also indulge in self-immolation under protest. Gradually demographically, Tibet is turning like America or Australia, where after the influx of the ‘outsiders’ the Red Indians and Aborigines have turned into a minority. But in Tibet’s case, it’s a forced and politically motivated influx, unlike the two examples.
Leading too these reasons, Tibetans don’t promote tourism in their land for they see tourism as promoting the Chinese agenda.

Tibetans today want the Chinese to vacate their country so that they can return back with respect. Now here I am bit confused, the struggle of Tibetans is genuine but sometimes it seems bit unrealistic to me. The Chinese though played the bad boy in 1949 and the following decade but it has helped the region progress economically. Today, in Tibet, almost everything ranging from infrastructure to instant noodle packets comes from China. Economically, Tibet is better off under the Chinese today. I feel Tibetans won’t be able to handle their economy without the Chinese, the country has little natural resources apart from Yak farming and growing turnips; plus, if it ever attains freedom, it will be a theocracy (headed by Dalai Lama) which is not sustainable in todays globalized and interconnected world.
Yes, Tibet functioned before Chinese invasion but it was an isolated land, foreigners were not allowed to enter the ’hermit kingdom’ and the country had little or no connection with outside world. Obviously, this won’t be the country’s model today, still I hope if ever Tibet becomes independent (highly unlikely) Tibetans are efficiently able to manage their country.

And don’t get me wrong, I totally support the Tibetan struggle for independence because for me, human rights comes before anything else, even before a Buddhist theocracy. But the sad part is that no one can help Tibet attain freedom, not even US for fear of souring economic relations with China which is emerging as the economic driver of the region. And China would in no way consider Tibet’s independence as an option, like recently when Barack Obama met Dalai Lama in US, China raised its discontent stating that US should not give Dalai Lama a platform in their territory to engage in anti China separatist activities.

Ending this lengthy post with a brilliant quote by a Tibetan monk: “I miss the spirituality we had before communism, but at least now we have central heating”
Anyway, despite all this I stand for the freedom of Tibet.


Backpacking Through North India–2: Amritsar

Getting up early in the cold of Punjabi plains is a pain in the a** task, and my hotel room, I’d call it cubicle, was unusually cold that foggy morning. I managed to take a bath that early and headed out for Jallianwala Bagh, the site of massacre by British General Reginald Dyer of more than a 1000 Indian civilians in 1919 who had gathered at the spot despite the curfew imposed by Dyer. Enraged, Dyer stormed the venue with his troops and started firing on the unarmed and defenseless protestors for 20 minutes, resulting in death of about 1000 people and injury of many more.
The place belonging to a noble from the court of then Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, was bought by the Indian government in 1920, a year after the massacre.

After reading so much about these historic monuments in History textbooks in school, one tends to develop grandiose images of the same, but it’s bit disappointing when they look like ordinary places, like this one above, situated between commercial shops selling pastries and SIM cards. Though it has a well maintained open space inside.
That morning, being the republic day, the air was awash with the sound of patriotic songs (or maybe they play it everyday).

The historic passage from where General Dyer conducted soldiers for firing on the gathering of protesters.

To escape being hurt by the ammunition, people jumped into this well nearby, now known as Martyr’s Well. About 120 dead bodies were recovered from this well.

A look into the death bed of 120 Indians.

The preserved bullet marks, 28 in total, on one of the walls. This can make one realize the veracity of the incident, specially to the people of later generations, as in, it’s not merely mentioned in History textbooks, but this happened for real, people with flesh and blood died in thousands by this brutal act of the Empire.

The monument built in the memory of martyrs. British Prime Minister David Cameron visited it last year and marked that fateful incident as a ’deeply shameful event’ in British history.

The complex also houses a museum which displays news clippings and other artefacts relating to and involving the people in the incident along with a bookshop from where one can buy books pertaining to this subject. It would be of interest to those who want to get into more details of the massacre.

After striking Jallianwala Bagh off my itinerary, I headed to the Golden Temple nearby, which for many is Amritsar’s star attraction. Completed in 1604, the holiest shrine of Sikhs contains Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of Sikhism. The temple attracts millions of visitors every year. But unfortunately the place has seen some bloodshed and bad phases of history. The temple which throughout its history has been attacked by Afghans and the Mughals, was invaded by the Indian army in 1984 by the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during Operation Blue Star. The aim of the operation was to remove Sikh separatists – who want to call for a separate state for Sikhs called Khalistan – who had amassed weapons in the temple complex. Following the strike, the temple grounds were heavily damaged and the death toll was more than 500. The decision to attack the temple proved fatal for Indira who was then murdered by her Sikh bodyguard and this resulted in widespread anti Sikh riots throughout the country, bringing into highlight the vulnerability of India’s religious and ethnic tolerance.
The troubles are left behind and the temple is a peaceful place today and a great spot to visit if one is in Amritsar.

Outside the temple, you get free literature on various topics like Introduction to Sikhism, Sikhism in Politics, Codes and Conventions of Sikhs etc.

As a standard convention in Indian temples, one is supposed to take out one’s shoes. Here they have volunteers to collect the shoes, stack them and return them after the visit to the temple based on the token they provide. Often the volunteers are the elderly; it didn’t feel right to me, handing my shoes to them and they picking it up with their hands. I don’t know but it seemed to me like a disrespect to them by letting them touch my dirty shoes.

Before entering the temple you need to cover your head with a du-rag which is sold outside the temple, even if you don’t have your own, there is a big basket of du-rags outside the temple from where you can pick one up. As you enter the premises, you can see the grand temple in the middle of the ‘pool of nectar’. Before entering the temple, many Sikhs take a dip in the waters of the pool. I saw people even making their infants take a dip in the chilling waters, who naturally were wailing because of this act. Now here I would like to make a comment. I understand that this act has religious significance, but why make the infant suffer by inhumanely dipping him in the cold waters in the middle of January? He’s a baby and he doesn’t understand religion yet. And the cries of the infant do not affect the parents. Indeed, religion makes you oblivious to the reality.

A man selling du-rags outside the Temple.

And there it is, the first view of the shimmering monument in the middle of the ’pool of nectar’.

A little kid posing for his parents‘ camera.

People taking a dip in the chilling waters of the pool in the cold of January.

The water, purified by a plant made in the USA harbors fish, apparently, a lot of them.

I dipped my feet in the pool and after going round the girth of the complex, joined in the queue to head in the temple; being a Sunday, it was a long queue. Another point to note is the temple complex is enveloped in melodious music called ‘Kirtan’. The finesse of the vocals and synchronism of the melody made me think that this was recorded, and boy was I wrong. When I entered the temple, I got to see that it was being performed live by the men within the temple. Inside the temple below the grand chandelier lies the Adi Granth, the Holy Scripture. The interiors of the temple are breathtakingly beautiful, and needless to say, golden.
Another peculiar feature of the temple is the Langar, i.e. common kitchen, where food for thousands of people is prepared and served everyday. This is the peculiar aspect of Sikhism – which I genuinely admire – where irrespective of one’s religion, caste or creed, one is welcome to eat at the Langar. Though I didn’t get time to have food at the temple but it is recommended if one visits the temple.

It looks even beautiful by the night.

Coming to the food of Amritsar; in the Punjabi heartland, you’ll definitely get some delicious Punjabi food. I was seriously craving some after having Dosa, Sambhar et al here in Bangalore. The stuffed bread called Kulcha is Amritsar’s specialty. It is straining on the stomach if had with Lassi (Yes, I learnt my lessons in Amritsar) so proceed with caution if you’re not used to such heavy food. But delicious it is indeed. I had the pleasure to have it twice, in the two days I was there.

A Kulcha being prepared at an eatery near Golden Temple.

Kulchas usually are heavily laden with butter, like this one at Amritsar’s famous, ’Bharawan da Dhaba’.

Next day at 3 in the morning, I got up to catch a train to Delhi, from where I headed up to the mountains, to the next stop in my itinerary – Little Lhasa of India, McLeodGanj in Dharamsala district of Himachal Pradesh. More on that in the next post.… Smile

Backpacking Through North India–1: Attari-Wagah Border

Recently I went backpacking solo up north, here’s part 1 of the series of my travelogue.

Punjab, the land of five rivers. Some of them might have dried up but Punjab still is the most fertile land in India, thanks to the extensive canal network developed by the British. This also made Punjab the bone of contention between India and Pakistan during the partition. You can see the beauty of this land even before you’ve landed. Up from the air, minutes before landing at Amritsar, all I could see was lush green fields till where my eye could reach, the irrigation channels and of course, the distant snow-capped mountains of the Himalayan range. That’s how Punjab makes you fall in love with it at the first sight. Amidst colorful turbans and a sweet language, I commenced my Punjab expedition.

My trip commenced from Amritsar, 2nd largest city of the state and closest urban dwelling to Pakistani border. The main reason for including Amritsar in my itinerary was to watch the Retreat Ceremony at Wagah border, which is just about 32 Kms from the city on its outskirts.

For the first time I set foot on the soil of Punjab that afternoon when I landed at Amritsar on the eve of Indian Republic Day. First thing I did after dumping my rucksack at the hotel was to head to the border. One can reach the border in shared jeeps which ply from outside the Golden Temple, the way towards the border from the city was once a part of the Hippie Trail, and it’s surrounded on both sides by beautiful lustrous fields. This land, as I mentioned, is considered as India’s most fertile land. Also as one moves towards the border, one can listen to Lahore’s FM stations without static. Here on an Amritsar station you have playing Sahotas Brothers ‘Teri Meri Gal Ban Gayi’ and on a Lahore counterpart, Saieen Zahoor’s ‘Allah Hoo’.

The lustrous fields on the way to Wagah Border from Amritsar.

Notice the little kid driving the tractor.

Sad that Lahore being mere 23 Kms away, one can’t visit the city because of the imaginary line that divides the two countries.

The two days I was at Amritsar, I went to the border on both. Being there is a hair raising experience. Little kids all dressed up perform on patriotic numbers such as Lata Mangeshkar’s Vande Mataram, Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawaanon Ka etc. before the actual flag lowering ceremony commences. Being there can bring out the feeling of patriotism in a cold person like me too. The pomp and piety may seem pointless but it’s a distinctive, long running tradition and what fun it is. Here we shout ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ and ‘Vande Mataram’, there they respond by ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘La ilaha illallah’ (though some douchebags on Indian side shout Pakistan Murdabad); here we play ‘Jai Ho’ and there they play ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. It’s basically where the two countries are displaying their might in a mild manner without any accompanying taboos. It all seems so innocuous considering the long standing enmity between the two countries.

The place gets this crowded on weekends.

The kids performing before the flag lowering exercise commences.

The exercise then takes form of a dance fest where only women are allowed to come down on the boulevard and dance on Bollywood numbers.

This old man was enthusiastically waiving the flag throughout the duration of the exercise.

The Indian BSF start off the ceremony with two women soldiers parading towards the gate and doing the clichéd foot thumping act amidst the cheers of the crowd. This is unique on the Indian side because the Pakistani counterpart Sutlej Rangers employs no women for this act. Then begins the actual flag lowering ceremony where BSF soldiers in funny headgears do a disciplined parade towards the gate, slump it open, likewise on the Pakistani side, do the same foot thumping, groin crunching act, shake hands with the corresponding soldier from the Sutlej Rangers, lower the flag, fold it respectfully and shut the gate close with a bang.

This is as close we are allowed to come near the gate after being stopped short by BSF soldiers, though, as it can be seen, on the Pakistani side, people are allowed to come to the level of their gate. The BSF folks seemed to frown when I was waiving to the people across the border. It’s sad, the turn that history has taken, and the politics, because of which the people of the two countries can’t mingle with each other despite the evident curiosity.

A glimpse of the neighbor’s land beyond.

And that’s Pakistan, so close yet so far away. The gate adorned by the picture of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the way India has Gandhi on its gate.

This is the welcome message one gets when entering the Indian territory from Pakistan. To me it seems like India’s message in the lines of ’On your face, Pakistan’, considering Pakistan has been a military dictatorship for the major part of its history. I am sure, this must provide a welcoming relief to the travellers who enter India via this path.
On an unrelated note, this reminds me of Alice Albinia’s Empires of The Indus, she mentions the change of atmosphere once she crosses the border to India, as in the freedom women enjoy in India when compared to Pakistan and people approaching her asking whether she needed alcohol considering she came from an expedition in a dry country.

Want to post a letter? It won’t take much time to reach Lahore when posted here, considering that from this point, Lahore is closer than Amritsar.

Now coming to the gory parts of the experience. This entire ceremony is not at all well managed by BSF. There are no queues, you can be crushed and pushed in the crowd, and BSF folks are responsible for creating a stampede like situation by charging towards people on their horses in the pretext of managing the crowd before the ceremony, the same thing happens after the ceremony where one is treated like cattle by BSF folks near the gate. Don’t mind if you’re shouted on and insulted by a BSF soldier, that’s the norm for them, along with pushing the crowd, hitting them and not even being careful of the elderly. It seems they have utter disregard for the civilians.

Coming to the seating, I’d suggest you to go there only if you manage to get the VIP pass, which if you’re a foreigner, you’ll not need, otherwise in the general area you’ll be made to sit on hot concrete stands far away from the gate and might end up burning your butt. And don’t even go there with the elderly or as a family because men and women have segregated seating areas. The least BSF can have a ticketing system to manage the crowds in a humane way.

While heading back to Amritsar in the jeep, I met a Kashmiri guy, a young school teacher. He had come from Srinagar specially to watch the retreat ceremony on Republic Day. This was strange considering the hostility many Kashmiris harbor towards the Indian state. I wanted to talk to him about this and the core Kashmir issue as I wanted to hear from a regular Kashmiri, the hardships they face and their perception of the Indian state. So I started gradually from asking him about tourism in Srinagar and then moved on to talk about the army harassment and the issue of Kashmiri Pundits as we moved closer to Amritsar. His views surprised me because unlike most of the Kashmiris, his views were neutral, or that’s what he portrayed for I can understand that no Kashmiri would express his real sentiments to an Indian while on Indian mainland. He spoke enthusiastically about tourism in Srinagar and Gulmarg, when I ask him how Kashmiris perceive Indian tourists, he said that Kashmiris love their tourists and would literally shed their blood for them if required (I know, this sounds far-fetched); I also tried to get out of him his sentiments of Kashmiris about the army patrolling and the harassment faced by Kashmiris under Indian Army, enforced kidnappings, and what role Omar Abdullah is playing to revoke the draconian AFSPA. He opened up a bit when I made it clear that I am for the Kashmiri cause. We talked about how some luminaries like Arundhati Roy after speaking in favor of the Kashmiris have experienced the brunt of the masses, and polity not being openly involved in the Kashmir issue because of fear of insurgency, losing vote bank and for the safeguarding of the sources of India’s major rivers. He also expressed his surprise on how people at the border were posing with BSF soldiers for clicks after the ceremony, whereas in Kashmir, locals can’t even even talk to the armed forces under the fear of being harassed or insulted. I wanted to talk further but we reached the city center and had to take leave after exchanging Facebook ids.

Next, I headed to Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple-which is the most significant Sikh place of worship, and Jallianwala Bagh, which was the site of mass shooting of non-violent Indian protestors by British General Reginald Dyer. More on that in the next post, along with delicious Kulchas of Amritsar. Smile

Wandering Through Bombay–7: Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar, another treasure in the heart of Muslim Bombay is a 150 year old flea market squeezed between crumbling buildings and dotting mosques and standing since the British era. The name translates to ’Thieves Market’ but this is not what it was intended to be called back in its days. The name is a mispronunciation of ’Shor Bazaar’ (noisy market) by the British and this is how the name has stayed. And to stand true to the name, many stolen goods are also sold here! But the USP of this place is the antique and second hand goods!
Wikipedia states another legend behind the name, it goes like this; some goods of Queen Victoria went missing when she was in Bombay and were later found in the Thieves Market, hence giving it this name. And some goods here are actually from the British era of Bombay. You get everything here, from antique showpieces to stolen car logos to wine glasses to vintage TVs to car spare parts to retro Bollywood movie posters and what not.

The place has generally got a bad reputation and misconceptions among many, i.e. people advise you to be careful, take care of your belongings, beware of pickpockets etc. when visiting there, but when I was there, I found no such reason to be worried, it seemed to me as just another busy market of old Bombay, like Mohammed Ali road for example. And the caution you have to exercise here stands true for any crowded place.

This place can be a photographer’s muse; overwhelming it being, I couldn’t help but get carried away to click and post so many pictures from this visit. Here they are…

The hygiene conditions, as in many places in Bombay, are pathetic here in some corners.

There are many such crumbling buildings around Chor Bazaar; what do I say, they depict old Bombay charm!

Ending the post with some pictures of children who were flying kites atop a car’s roof who got so glad when they saw me clicking their surroundings that they asked me to click some photographs of them too. I have noticed this trait a lot in Bombay among children!
One of the kid asked me what I would be doing this with the pictures; considering his ignorance, I told him that I write articles on the internet and I will be using the pictures for the same. Then he surprised me by asking me to add him on Facebook, and he told me his name complete with the spelling. These kids, they always turn out to be smarter than you think.



This little girl in the pictures above reminds me of the young Latika from the film Slumdog Millionaire.



Wandering Through Bombay–6: Cafe Mondegar

When a place welcomes you with a quote like ‘Reality is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency’, you know it’s one of those friendly neighborhood bars! That’s Cafe Mondegar, also called Mondy’s, which is not a bar actually in conventional terms for it serves regular Indian, Chinese and Continental fare too along with alcohol.
It is situated at a strategic location, at the beginning of Colaba Causeway, near Regal Cinema. Just as Leopold is popular with tourists, Mondy is preferred by old time Bombay locals.
So this Sunday morning I headed there to savor Mondy’s famous breakfast fare, which is served to you with the day’s print.

Mondegar is one interesting place with many features worth noting. To name a few…
(left) The walls, just like that of my office cafeteria, are adorned by Mario Miranda’s graffiti.
Also here you have the famous Mondy’s Jukebox where you can play your favorite classic rock numbers, be it Beatles, Rolling Stones or some Pink Floyd.
Another interesting feature, which is common between Leopold and Mondy is its table top printed menu.
You get to satisfy your cravings for the food which is not commonly available in many restaurants in Bombay, be it beef steaks, prawns or bacon, you’ll get it all here along with pitchers of beer or glasses of sophisticated wines.

Compact seating arrangement at Mondy with tables placed close by. Another example of Bombay’s space crunch? Who minds!

And that on the other end is the famous Mondy’s jukebox!

And this is my breakfast; fried eggs served with bacon, crisps and buttered toast, preceded by Orange juice and followed by a nice, hot cup of coffee. I loved the fare except for the bacon which was way too chewy and dry. Next time when I go there, I’d rather order my breakfast with sausages.

The merchandise they have for sale, ranging from caps to mugs, T shirts to napkins.

So here’s to the good ol’ Mondy. the ancient, timeless streetside cafe; standing since the British were here, and serving Bombayites some good food and beer! (Wow, that rhymed!)