Friday, September 9, 2022

The Phoenix Rises- Commissioning of INS Vikrant



INS  Vikrant

Just over a year ago, the reports of Sea Trials of the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant appeared in the newspapers. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia due to my past association with the earlier aircraft carrier with the same name almost thirty years back. I even wrote a blog post- recounting my association with the ship which was like a second home to me for almost five years that I had served on her. Little did I realize that I would be fortunate amongst a handful of those who would attend the new ship's commissioning on 2 Sep 22.  The thrill of seeing the new ship was akin to a kid being promised a surprise gift. I saw the names of several colleagues and seniors with whom I had rubbed shoulders, and who would be participating in the event.

A Plaque of some brave men who laid down their lives- At the Maritime Museum

The impeccable arrangements by the Navy for the event deserve all the praise. On a preceding day, a visit to the new Maritime Museum which has been created at Fort Kochi was organized. It dwells on the history of how the Navy evolved over the centuries. Some rare collections of models of the ships, actual weapons, beautiful replicas of the seafarers and battle honours are on display. It is a treasure trove for those desiring to know more about maritime history.

The huge hangar side of the ship

Later in the evening, an Icebreaker event of a get-together of the veterans was a perfect occasion to catch up with those with whom I had spent time onboard as well as other locations. In some cases, the faces were recognizable while in others the names were familiar. Regardless, the love and warmth were rekindled despite the flow of time. The flood of memories and recollections of the times made the time fly. When the earlier INS Vikrant was laid to rest in 1997, the captain of the ship had mentioned in his last dispatch to the men that the Phoenix will rise again, and sure enough, it had. The ladies added colour to the event. It was reassuring to see the determined young men and women in the uniform to whom the mantle had been handed down who would be steering the new ship from the next day post-commissioning. On the way back after the party, the silhouette of the massive new INS Vikrant berthed at the Cochin Shipyard came into the view amidst twinkling lights. It looked formidable and majestic.

The ship's crest on the flight deck

At the crack of dawn, the next day, all the invitees for the event had assembled under the tricolour shamiana where the Prime Minister would dedicate the ship in a few hours to the nation. The shipyard had been transformed into an impregnable fortress by the security men. The dignitaries present for the event included the press, school children, veterans, police, paramilitary, the armed forces, bureaucrats, diplomats, the state government, and central government ministers. The pride of joining the ranks of the developed nations who have the capability to make an indigenous aircraft carrier was visible on every face. After, the impressive commissioning and an inspiring speech by the Prime Minister, there were ceremonies on the flight deck of the ship. The new Naval Ensign and the Tricolor were hoisted. A fly-past by different squadrons of helicopters and jets thundered past leaving the audience in awe.

The Prime Minister dedicated the ship to the nation

Most of the information related to the huge ship built indigenously are indicators of the advances made in cutting-edge technologies which a handful of advanced nations possess. A feeling of immense pride swept me off my feet as I explored the lower decks, the mammoth hangar, a massive flight deck with an array of weapons, aircraft and navigational aids.  The name Vikrant means "courageous" and the motto of the ship is "Jayema Sam Yudhi Sprdhah", which is taken from Rigveda and can be translated as "I defeat those who fight against me". The visit will go down memory lane as one of the finest moments of my association with the navy\

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Abode of Gods ( Part 6- Kedarnath)


The journey from Badrinath to Kedarnath commenced when the flakes of first snow were trickling from the October sky. The early snowfall is a rare occurrence but the beauty of watching this spectacle is difficult to describe in words.. The winds picked up and soon the sky cleared as the bus started the descent trough the undulations in the hills.

At  the Gauri temple at Gaurikund
The distance of approximately 230 km would have taken about 8 hours so we were all braced up for another long journey. The immense beauty of the snow covered peaks , coniferous and pine trees and stray melodies of the birds during the journey made the distance appear like listening to a song.. After about three hours the bus arrived at Rudraprayag. It was a time for a break to stretch the legs. From here onwards the route was  unfamiliar terrain and the beauty of small towns like Augstmuni, and Guptkshi were an absolute treat. By the time we reached Gaurikund,the final destination , the sun was setting. We were fortunate to find shelter for the night at GMVN Guest House, which was comfortable. Very close by there was a hot water spring where we decided totake a dip. It was so refreshing that the tiredness that  had set in just vanished. We had a simple dinner and dozed off quickly.

At hot water spring at Gaurikund
The next morning, I got up early to the chimes of the bells from nearby Durga( Gauri)  Mandir. I took a dip once again, and we visited the temple and offered our prayers. We were all set to go on the long 14 hour trek to one of the most difficult stretches with hardly any other travellers. We were unaware of the vagaries of the weather or the terrain. My seven year old daughter who was undertaking this long trek was thoroughly excited.

En route on 14 km trek to Kedarnath  my companions, daughter and wife
The climb got more and more difficult as we continued our journey on trek. After about two hours we stopped at a shanty for a cup of tea and after a brief rest started yet again. Some times the showers came and forced us to take shelter under the overhang of rocks. After about six hours of climbing the last stretch was extremely tough. The frozen rivulets of stream had wet our socks and shoes and my daughter was struggling. Just before we were about to run out of steam we could see the Kedarnath town and the temple at a distance. With all our last stock of energy we arrived at the town and immediately found a place for the overnight stay.We requested for a bucket of hot water especially for our daughter whose feet were almost numb from the cold. It was a very fdifficut trek and far more strenuous than our daughter had undertaken the previous yea,r when we had gone to Rameswaram and Dhanushkoti.

The Kedarnath shrine
Kedaarnath is one of the holiest shrines dedicated to the Lord Shiva and is perched at an altitude of 3583 m .The shrine is almost a thousand years old. The temple is built on a 6 ft high platform and just outside the main entrance there is a statue of the bull-Nandi. The temple also happens to be one of the Jyotirlingas. The temple is flanked by snow capped peaks all around. 

At the Kedarnath shrine after prayers to Lord Shiva
We visited the temple and it was one of the most enriching soul stirring experience. Never, had I imagined that I would be here one day with my family.  We later explored the tiny townthat had very few shops and small hotels. 

 The next day we started our downward descent of the 14 km trek back to Gaurikund. The journey on return was a bit easier but treacherous all the same as there were no clear defined pathways. Fortunately, it did not rain on the way back. It was very satisfying to reach back Gaurikund. 

Next day we proceeded to Rishikesh and our mesmerizing  adventurous trip had come to an end. The memories stay despite the passage of time as fresh as if it had happened yesterday

PS- This journey was undertaken in Oct 1992 so all images have been digitally enhanced

2. Route map - Kind courtesy Google

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Abode of Gods (Part 5-Badrinath)


Route Map of Badrinath

At daybreak,  Rishikesh was slightly chilly in the month of October! The air was fresh and the crystal clear water of Ganga at Muni Ki Reti, seeped in tranquillity when we boarded the bus heading to Badrinath. It is almost a 300 km distance. We had to break the journey as it would take nine hours, which would be strenuous at a single stretch. After crossing Shivpuri the ascent started getting steeper. The views of lush green mountains, and cold winds were inviting. The cascading Ganga is a sight from which it is difficult to look away, After almost three hours the bus halted at Devprayag, where we had a sumptuous breakfast at a small stall that overlooked the river thundering below at an incredible pace.

The Neelkanth Peak at Badrinath
The journey continued through the day along some of the most memorable stretches through small hamlets and towns like Srinagar, Karnprayag,Rudraprayag and Gauchar till it was almost sunset. We alighted at Chamoli for the halt at night. While I was still looking around at a few small shops, I spotted an Army jeep where a jawan was loading some vegetables. On enquiry, he revealed that he had come from an Army Transit Mess nearby to buy some groceries. I disclosed my identity as a man in a uniform like him. He readily offered my family and me a lift to the tiny mess a little distance away. The Subedar Major was kind and helped us with accommodation, The food was simple daal and roti with a cup of tea. At that hour it all seemed heavenly after a long journey. The next morning we boarded a bus again heading to Badrinath. As the day was breaking we could see the mighty snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas at a great distance as these peeked from the dense foliage The bus slowly trudged, often panting due to the stress on the engine. We passed by Nandprayag, Pipalkoti and Gopeshwar to arrive at Joshimath. The unhindered views of the Himalayas now were a treat that we had been waiting for. The small roadside Dhaba offered the most succulent 'aloo paratha' and chai that we had tasted lately. Around, lunchtime we reached Badrinath.  The sight of the two snow-covered peaks of Nar and Narayan said to be the dual forms of Lord Vishnu as referred to in religious texts was an awesome sight. The Neelkanth peak in another direction gave us a feeling that we have literally landed in heaven. In the vicinity was a PWD Guest House, which after a little coaxing, the caretaker agreed to give us for the night.

The Badrinath Temple
Badrinath temple has been in existence since the 7th century and has seen calamities like rains, earthquakes, landslides and more and has been razed down several times to be rebuilt again, It is said that the Pandavas after the victory in the war with Kauravas had come to exile in this region and slowly left for their heavenly abode.

My daughter at the PWD Guest House Badrinath

We refreshed ourselves in the hot spring known as 'Tapt Kund' which was  refreshing after a long journey, The tiredness that had set in just vanished in a jiffy. We visited the beautiful Badrinath temple, where the priest offered us Badri/ Tulsi/Basil leaves as the 'prasad'. We were blessed to have reached the place to meet the divinity. It was a surreal experience.

My daughter and I at the Badrinath town

The dome of the temple is almost 50 feet tall with a small cupola on the top, covered with a gold gilt roof. A broad stone stairway with an arched doorway and majestic windows forms the imposing facade. The architecture also resembles a Buddhist vihara with brightly coloured walls, a feature of Buddhist temples. The main hall or the ' Garbhgraha' has a large stone pillared hall. The shrine remains closed for almost six months of winter as it remains inaccessible due to hostile weather.

It was an experience of a lifetime to have a brush with divinity ensconced in the high Himalayan reaches, The next morning we were ready to head back to Gaurikund for the next adventure.

PS- This trip was undertaken in Oct 1992 so all images have been digitally enhanced.

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Abode of the Gods ( Part 4- Narayan Ashram)


Route Map from Dharchula to Narayan Ashram on Kailash Mansarovar Route

Seldom does it happen that trekking goes unrewarded? More so when one is exploring the uncharted routes not frequented by many. My family and I was  trekking in Pithoragarh, in Uttranchal district a few years back. The place is endowed with a generous bounty of nature. It lies ensconced in the centre of the Soar Valley which resembles Kashmir on a miniature scale. It is dotted with pretty villages around its periphery. While exploring the town we walked into the tourist office and came to learn about Narayan Ashram, a small hamlet en route to Kailash Mansarovar yatra. Dharchula is the nearest foothill before the arduous climb for the yatra begins and is around 90 km from Pithoragarh.

The scenic beauty of Dharchula to Narayanashram

The way from Pithoragarh to Dharchula is alongside the river Kali and is a 3 to 3.5-hour journey. The chief modes of transportation are private jeeps and state government buses. The air is filled with the aroma of trees of Oak, Pine, Apple and Deodar as the bus climbs up laboriously. After arriving at Dharchula, we rested for the night.

The Narayan ashram

The next day we started the ascent to Narayan Ashram which is about 14 km from Dharchula, at a height of 2734 m. The climb through the steep rocky terrain was tiring. Sometimes the boulders are so dangerously perched that one wrong step could result in a disaster! The reward for the climb is an unparalleled view of the rising mountains and pristine air and the sight of small rivulets descending down the hills. There are no human habitations except a small village where few people stay. The sun had set when we reached the Ashram, and the fog was slowly setting in. Just as we reached the ashram, the fog cleared and what we saw was an ' absolute heaven'. A lush green haven with a meditation centre, gardens and a stream of crystal clear water, quietly rumbling by

We were unexpected visitors but were greeted by a man with a flowing beard. He took us to meet ‘Mataji’ who was delighted to see us. She was dressed in a white sari and her head was covered. She had a diminutive stature. The hunchback was very prominent and her body was arched. The face had a few wrinkles and the eyes were deep set. She had an expression of unbound love. ‘Mataji’ as everyone addressed her, must have been more than eighty years old.

She told us to take a quick wash and invited us to join her for dinner. It was a simple meal comprising of roti and sabzi. It was more satiating than a four-course meal, after spending the entire day in climbing the hills to reach Narayan Ashram. She offered us the place to settle down for the night and provided the bedding as well. We were dead tired and soon slept off.

The next morning we went around the ashram. It was a sheer visual delight, with a splendid view. All vegetables were grown at the ashram and it was self-sufficient. There was a hall for meditation. The ashram was built with a mix of ‘mud and urd dal’ in 1936. Mataji was a retired Inspector of Schools in UP and the man with the flowing beard we had met the previous evening was a microbiologist from the USA who had settled down there. Around 15 people were staying there and were mostly scholars!!

Mataji offered us tea and ‘upma’ prepared by her as we bid goodbye to start our return journey. It was a heavenly experience and sheer bliss to have travelled to this uncharted destination and will remain etched in memory forever

PS All pictures kind courtesy Google

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Abode of Gods- (Part 3) Kinner Kailash


The Majestic Mount Kinner Kailash

The mountains have a way of rewarding the climbers even if they are novices, in their own ways. A bus trip from Shimla to Kinnaur valley undertaken way back in October 1994, was also no less enchanting. 

Route map from Shimla to Reckong Peo
We had boarded a bus in the wee hours of the morning from Shimla headed for Reckong Peo, almost 200 km away through the mountainous terrain. The drive to Kufri was full of scenic beauty. 
At the Central Potato Research Institute, Kufri(plantation in the background)

We halted briefly to explore the Central Potato Research Institute. We were awe-struck to see the cultivation of over 500 varieties of potatoes on the slopes of the hills.  The journey continued and the climb became more treacherous through winding narrow roads which would at one moment drive almost on the edge of narrow cliffs and at another moment take us to jaw-dropping heights where the heart would miss a beat, the moment you looked out below. The stream of thundering River Sutlej was our companion along with pine trees till the terrain changed to barren lands and cacti from Rampur Bushair onwards. 

At the Cholling Nala, Karcham

We passed by the small township of Bhabha Nagar known for the Hydel project and Tapri. As we neared Cholling Nala at Karcham it was almost sunset, and our bus came to a grinding halt. The driver pointed at a truck laden with goods that had broken down at the mouth of the narrow road blocking the incoming and outgoing traffic. We waited for some time watching huge lizards crawling on the rocks, but soon anxiety took over. How, will we pass the night in the middle of nowhere with our little daughter without food. Then I sighted a soldier and an Army Captain a little distance away. On enquiry, I learnt that he was headed to his unit a little distance away on the other side of the road. I introduced myself and he was happy to assist us and took us with our belongings in his jeep. The camp commandant was a Major and was delighted to meet my family. He arranged a small log cabin for us with hot water to refresh ourselves. Soon a hot dinner was arranged, and we returned to our cabin and fell on the bed. 

At the Reckong Peo Market- notice Mt Kinner Kailash in the backdrop

The next morning as I lifted the curtain, I saw the majestic Mount Kinner Kailash covered with snow staring back at me. The beauty of nature was at its best. It was an unforgettable sight, and I could not resist waking my wife and daughter to soak in the beauty. A short distance away was a small stream and on the other side, River Sutlej flowing with a roar despite being narrow. At breakfast, the Major told us that we could stay for as long as we wanted at the place. An offer so irresistible, that we decided to stay on. 

The locals at Sangla

For the next two days, we explored the beauty of places like Paori, Sangla, Kigli and Reckong Peo. We also trekked to Kamru’s  Fort situated at a height of 2600m  in Sangla, a majestic place in the midst of solitude. 

Kamru Fort in Sangla

The remarkable wooden structure has an idol of Kamakhya Devi( Kamakshi Devi). It was worth seeing and it is believed that the idol was brought from Kamakya Temple in Guwhati, one of the Shaktipeeth! There is also a Badrinath temple situated inside the Kamru Fort, where a fair is held once in three years to honour the deity. The ultimate reward on the return trip from the trek were miles of apple orchards and  the locals gifted us a bagful of these ! Equally, juicy mammoth pears grow in the area. On return from Sangla, we had a company of a flock of sheep that also entered the bus, a truly cattle class experience!

With the Army Bravehearts in Matiana

We stayed for two nights at the Army Mess in Paori which was a short distance away from Karcham. It had some amazing untouched scenic views. We also went for a day trip to Reckong Peo about 20 km away. The local market was interesting and the towering peaks of Kinner provided a staggering view.

How the time flew and it was time to pack the bags and plan for the return trip. We halted at an Army unit at Matiana and were treated to Poori and Aloo with piping hot tea, an unforgettable treat.

I will recount some more of such stunning experiences that I consider rare gifts I am  bestowed with

PS- 1.All pictures are mine and digitally recreated

2. Route map kind courtesy Google

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Abode of Gods( Part-2)- Gangotri


The Route map of Gangotri

The climb of the bus from Lanka to Bharionghati was a steep one and we could feel that the engine was under tremendous strain. We had been driving for more than six hours, since we had left Hanumanchatti and come to Dharasu. The scenic views of the lush green mountains with an occasional glimpse of the snow-clad peaks were soothing to the eyes. There was virtually no traffic except for an occasional bus, or a taxi. We had passed the little townships of Netala, Purali and some more before we reached Harsil. Harsil resembles Switzerland in many ways with deep ravines, meadows and beautiful snow-covered Himalayas at a distance. We instantly made up our minds to stop over at the place on return, without knowing much about the place.

The holy shrine at Gangotri

As we were excited to reach the destination, a short distance away, the bus was filled with smoke. The driver tried to halt but the smoke became unbearable. Then someone lifted the bonnet and pulled out the wire connecting the battery and there was a flash. Luckily there was no fire, but the engine had become unbearably hot and despite the warning from the radiator temperature indicator, the driver had apparently ignored it. We waited for over an hour till the engine cooled down and the radiator was filled with water from a nearby stream, to continue the last leg of the journey.

On the trek to Gaumukh, the temple cave visible at a distance

A little shaken we arrived at Gangotri township, as the sun was about to set. Thankfully we did not have to do any trek and found a place for the overnight stay. Gangotri looked very serene ensconced with mountains all around. We slept off after dinner and the next day woke up to the beautiful sight of a long trail heading to Gaumukh, the origin of River Ganga. The deep gurgling sound of the river Ganga flowing very close was melody to the ears. The water was so clear that we could see the stones and pebbles under the clear stream. After a  quick change, we headed to the beautiful temple of Gangotri to offer our prayers. According to mythology King Bhagirath an ancestor of Lord Rama had worshipped Lord Shiva at this spot for a long time before he agreed to bring River Ganga on his hair from the heaven, to reduce the impact of fall. The river Ganga is also called Bhagirithi for this reason. A temple was built in the eighteenth century at this spot.

After visiting the temple we sat by the side of the river and then decided to climb the trail leading to Gaumukh. It was a long 17 km trek and after about six kilometres of climb, we could sight Gaumakh at a great height of 3400 m. The trek was difficult and tiring, so we decided to turn back. It was a rewarding day as we had seen a lot in the last 24 hours. Later in the evening we spent some time admiring the beauty of the river and the temple till it got cold and the winds became stronger.

A view of the Himalayas from Harsil

The next morning we left by bus for Harsil which was about 25 km away. In less than two hours we reached the small town with hardly any people and a few shops. After checking out, I came across Garwhal Scouts ( An Army unit). The Officer in charge was kind to accommodate us in the Officer's Mess there. It was a beautiful place with breathtaking views all around.  While exploring the place we were caught amidst a flock of hundreds of sheep as if we were on a mission to hunt the wolf disguised as a sheep. A beautiful experience beyond words.

Caught amidst a flock of sheep at Harsil

The next day we started our return journey, which would have been incomplete without a stopover at Rishikesh. 

The famous Chotiwala restaurant at Rishikesh

We enjoyed the lovely delicacies at the famous ‘ Chotiwala’ restaurant in the holy town

At the The Ramjhoola at Rishikesh

The Itinerary as planned in June 1997

The nostalgic memories of the trip that was undertaken in June 1997 are as fresh as if they happened yesterday . I have dug into my treasure trove of pictures to share some of these memories, so that, the readers can also get the feel of the place. I am also attaching the itinerary as I had planned, from my archives and though a bit mutiliated  is  still readable!The adventures to more destinations will continue in the next posts

PS: 1. All the pictures are mine

      2. Route Map of Gangotri kind courtesy Google

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Abode of Gods ( Part-I)- Yamunotri


The route map of Yamunotri

The last peak had just come in sight as soon as we cleared the hill that we had been trudging for almost six hours with brief moments of respite. We had started soon after having a cup of tea in the shanty stall by the small dusty track at Naradchatti on way to Jankichatti. It was a clear day with cold winds blowing from the snow-covered peaks, which were visible at a distance. A small village 

Onward ascent to  Yamunotri -At Jankichatti

Hanumanchatti, located on the confluence of the rivers Hanuman Ganga and Yamuna is 13 kilometres from Yamunotri at the foothills. It was our overnight halt before taking on the arduous climb to Yamunotri. 

As the day broke we left Hanumanchatti for the trek to Yamunotri by crossing a small wooden bridge.. We had covered almost three kilometers by climbing the hills and admiring nature’s beauty in abundance when we halted at Naradchatti at a small shanty by the dusty path,. We ordered the tea  and aloo paratha and after enjoying the nice breakfast as we stood to pay, the plank on which my wife and I stood creaked and gave way. In a flash we both landed almost 7 m below, in the ravine, that stored husk  which softened the landing. So we were generally unharmed and escaped narrowly. The experience had shaken us but did not deter us, to continue unfazed. We trudged through icy rivulets .steep gradients and braving the  cold winds with brief halts at Jankichatti to reach Yamunotri. The last one kilometer was a very steep climb and exhausting. It was dark so we had a quick bite and covered ourselves in layers of blanket to catch some sleep.


The Source of River Yamuna at Yamunotri

The next morning, the body was still stiff but the view outside was the reward that we had been waiting for. The sight of River Yamuna, trickling from its source from the ice glacier formation with the golden rays of the morning sun still remains etched in my mind. A dense formation of water vapour over the source of Yamuna was an indication of a spring in the vicinity and a dip in these spring water is not only threaupatic but also revitalizing.  The next day we made a return trek retracing our route back to Hanumanchatti all set for yet another adventure. When we passed by the shanty shop where we had a mishap the earlier day, the folks at the tea stall clapped and cheered us

At the temple of Yamunotri

I will recount some more of such stunning experiences that I consider rare gifts I was bestowed with. The trips to the hills are some of the most treasured moments and with the passage of time still make the memories vivid with old photographs

PS: All pictures are mine. This trip was undertaken in June 1997 so most of the pictures have been digitized

2. The Route map is kind courtesy Google