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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Singinawa-A Date with the Nature


There was a shrill call of the ‘crying deer’ and a hush fell. The naturalist who was accompanying us informed that we were close to the ‘tiger’, and if lucky, could spot one. Soon enough, our jeep converged near a water body, where a tiger majestically lay in the water beating the summer heat. In a while, its young cub crawled out of the bushes to join his mother in the swim. It was a priceless moment! You guessed it right, the scene was at Kanha Tiger Reserve,

Singinawa Jungle Lodge
About Singinawa
Most of the visitors come to just have a glimpse of the ‘tiger’. However, the region abounds in art, culture and is a bird watching paradise.  Welcome to Singinawa! A hamlet spread over an area of 110 acres that has many treats to offer. 
A bird perching in the morning
Singinawa offers a world class accommodation.with beautifully appointed cottages, lapped in luxury of the art and culture of the region and yet modestly priced.The excellent hospitality of the knowledgeable and friendly staff will bowl anyone over. A brief tour of the sprawling premises that has 18 cottages in the afforested area, an organic farm. a swimming pool a Spa walks next to the buffer zone of the forest area. is a delight. 
A Spotted Deer
The Tiger Safari
An early morning, safari to the Tiger Reserve in the company of knowledgeable Naturalists will help in understanding about the wildlife better. The safari starts at 5 am at Mukki or Khatia, the two main entry points. Mukki gate is more convenient from Singinawa. The bumpy ride on the narrow dusty roads provides a wonderful opportunity to spot the Barasingha, Spotted deer, Bison, Gaur and of course –the tiger! The gates close by 11 AM, 
The Baiga Dancers
A Village Experience
In the evening, an exploration to nearby villages, like Lagma, provide a vivid glimpse of the lives of Baiga tribes.Here their simple lifestyles are well preserved. The art of brewing ‘Mahua’(a local wine) from the extract of Mahua flowers, can be witnessed.The locals are fond of body tattoos. The beat of drums and a traditional dance is a perfect way to end the day.
An Ant Weavers Nest
Bird Watching 
Next morning, an appointment with the ‘bird watching’ naturalist is a must! This experience affords travelers to learn about the calls and cries of different bird species, spot some rare birds in their natural habitats and ‘shoot them' with cameras’. Over 300 specimens of birds, both resident and migratory, ranging from the Green bee eater, White-throated Kingfisher to Black Drongos grace these environs. It is also not unusual to spot simians, rare spider webs,  Ant weavers nest, and rabbits on their walks!
A local artist Manoj displays An Eye of a Tiger, painting by charcoal
The Local Artists 
Another experience not to be missed is watching local artists displaying their artistic skills of charcoal or 'Gond ' paintings.These artists excel in the art and use mostly organic colors and brushes made of old newspaper cones. 
A sleepy Night Jar spotted during the Night Safari
An Evening and A Night Safari
 A nocturnal safari to the Kanha forest to catch a glimpse of animals that prefer to show themselves after sunset is recommended. Singinawa is the only resort that can take the visitors for a ‘Night Safari’. The buffer zone of the forest can be explored by night to witness the eerie silence, punctuated by a hum of cicadas, a rustle of animals prying on the dead leaves, or many eyes glittering in the dark..The sighting of owls, fruit bats and some rare birds like the ‘Night Jar’is not uncommon.
The Gond Art at the Museum
Singinawa Attractions and Museum
A lesson in meditation, indulging spa, cycle on the premises,well-stocked library, videos on wildlife or a swim in the beautiful pool are other options available to spend the time. Nestled in the premises of Singinawa, Kanha Museum of Life and Art houses a rare collection of art and artifacts of the Gond region.This gem is curated by Dr. Alka Pande, a renowned cultural theorist.
A beautiful Gond painting at the Museum
Singinawa supports the cause of promoting the local arts and protecting the environment. Each visitor is given an opportunity to plant a sapling before he leaves.These experiences will only strengthen the resolve to come back to revisit the place for the rare treats it offers.
Acknowledgements
1 Grateful thanks to Tulika Kedia, MD, Singinawa Jungle Lodge and Philippa Kaye of Indian Experiences for their support in making this trip possible
2. Picture of tiger, kind courtesy David Raju, a well-known Naturalist serving in Singinawa

Monday, May 8, 2017

Friendly Stranger in Geneva

Jet d'eau fountain in Geneva
It was a cold morning as I stepped out onto the balcony of the 6th floor of the Hotel Central, located in the midst of the Old City of Geneva. The previous evening we had landed from Berne.The distant Alps with snow clad peaks looked beautiful. Our breakfast was delivered in the room sharp at 8.30 AM. Armed with all the information provided by the pretty girl at the reception we stepped out. The morning rush hour had begun as we arrived at the Bel Air  bus stop near the hotel. We waited for a tram to take us to Saleve in the direction of Vernier Covane. Mont Saleve is a tourist attraction in French territory from where one can have a panoramic view of France/ Switzerland and the return trip is about 70 km. I tried to take direction from a man who spoke only German.He told us to get on the tram which he also boarded. He got off after a while and told us to follow him. He then brought out a car after the bend and told us to hop in. We were a little concerned with this overtly kind gesture as I enquired if he was a taxi driver. He waved his hand saying no he was not as he started his car. He drove for about 10 minutes before stopping his car near a house. A lady appeared from the house along with this man and spoke in fluent English. She queried as to where we wanted to go and laughed when her husband explained that we mistook him to be a taxi driver. She then informed us that her husband would take us up to Saleve and will drop us back to the tram station. This was the best help we got!!

I was now convinced that there was some divine force at work in Geneva since I had recovered my lost mobile phone the previous day. We thanked them both profusely. The kind gentleman showed us around Saleve. The panoramic view of Geneva and Lake Geneva was unforgettable from Saleve.  After about an hour and a half, he dropped us at the tram station in the city. We could enjoy a nice trip which we had contemplated only previous night in the company of a total stranger was a sure sweet encounter!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Traboules of Lyon


We meandered through the cobbled streets of Vieux( Old) Lyon in France in search of the’ Traboules’ as droplets of rain descended from the heavens. It was a bit cold although, the flavor of the velvety ice cream at the Nardone (one of the best ice cream in the town) had still not left the taste buds. The old Saint-Jean church provided a temporary shelter as we stood on the archway, ‘wishing rain, rain go away…”. After a little shower, the weather cleared and we looked around for the elusive Traboules!

Then we chanced upon one, as we walked a little distance. The word ‘traboule’ is a corruption of the Latin,trans-ambulare', or to ‘pass through’. Between the courtyards and through buildings, secret alleyways, staircases, and passages, these provided a safe and efficient passage to the silk workers of that era, to get their wares unhindered to and from the market. Many of these secret passages worm through several buildings, forming secret passageways. These were built in the 4th century, to allow direct access to town’s fresh water source, then the long winding streets provided. At one time there were more than 400 of these around the old city of which now only about 40 are open to the general public to visit. The ones open to the public have a seal outside the gate, while those that are private and inaccessible are generally behind the locked doors. In the 1990’s the Lyon Department of Urban Planning, started restoration and maintenance to encourage the visitors to have a glimpse of these.

Around the 1830s there was about 25000 silk looms around the city of Lyon. Most of the silk weavers would meet at these ‘traboules’ or the courtyards. These workers rose for a rebellion when their existence was at stake due to the advent of new technology, extortionist merchants, and economic uncertainties. They picked up the weapons to get better wages. Their indefatigable spirit of ‘live free working or die fighting’ is all evident in the stories that abound.

Going through the Traboules is an unforgettable experience as one goes through the narrow alleyways and staircases sometimes even dungeons and very small cramped rooms. A new world of Gothic galleries, ancient wells, fountains, staircases, and wells opens up as one goes around these miracles of medieval engineering. Since most of these ‘traboules’ are private properties, one is expected to maintain decorum and not to create noise, while exploring them.


During the Second World War, these taboule's provided a perfect escape and hiding place to the soldiers to escape the terror unleashed by the ‘Gestapo’. They provided a perfect getaway from the German raids, and safe passage  and shortcuts to give the pursuant a slip. 
The Longest Traboule

La Longue Traboule is the longest one in the town. There are conducted tours too, but with a little bit of detective work by identifying shield shaped bronze plaques, one can find these in the Vieux Lyon area. The effort and discovery of one is a thrilling experience that gets embedded in the memory for all times to come.

PS- All pictures are mine.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

More Indian than you think

A taxi ride from Denpasar airport at Bali where I had arrived a short while ago was a revelation of a kind. The major road intersections had idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. Bali, an island state of Indonesia which is a Muslim country has temples, cultural shows and events with an overwhelming influence from India. I also attended a cultural evening where the ‘Ramayana ‘was staged by the local artists dressed in colorful and vibrant costumes.

The best seller ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert has the main protagonist, spending one part of her life in India. She carries the influence of meditation with her to Italy and Indonesia, where she travels.

The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi of adopting ‘a nonviolent’ path and vegetarian way of life greatly affected the world leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in spearheading the struggles of deprived ones in the USA and South Africa. Among the leading global celebrities who have given up eating animal products to lead a healthier life include former US President Bill Clinton, Hollywood actress Natalie Portman, former US Vice President Al Gore, heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson and TV personality Ellen Degeneres.

It is not unusual to be woken up early morning in a major world city like New York, London, Toronto or a few more by the chime of bells from a nearby ISKON, ‘Hare Krishna ‘ temple. Likewise, streets of cities as diverse as Tel Aviv, Bangkok, Melbourne, Tokyo and San Francisco boast of Indian restaurants like Tandoor, Gaggan, Shiraz, Nirvana, and Dosa on Fillmore satiating the gastronomic urges of people from all over. The number of stores that meet the ever growing needs of spices, Indian tea, and other herbal products is on the increase globally.

While undergoing training in Tel Aviv a few years ago, the training department decided to take the entire class for an Indian dinner in one of the finest restaurants in the city. Later they asked the restaurant owner to play the old hits of the Indian movies of yesteryears. The class danced to the foot tapping rhythms into the wee hours of the morning!

One of the kindest gestures I remember was an incident that happened long back in New York. I was a young Lieutenant serving in the Indian Navy and was sent for training in a firm located in Long Island, New York. On the last day, the company’s Vice President of the International Business asked me if I would like to join the company, as he was impressed with the performance and dedication with which the training was completed in a record time including the testing and acceptance trials of the equipment. I profusely thanked him and told him that I was just 4 years into the Navy, and there was no way I could be released! It is no wonder that many an Indian ranging from Indira Nooyi of Pepsi, Sundar Pichai of Google have become household names for their exemplary leadership skills.

There are many aspects of Indian culture that have spread on a global scale. From computer programs to curries, arts to yoga and self-realization, missiles and space programs and well beyond, the influences are all visible. The popular art of Henna leaves only a transitory impression but influence of India will leave an indelible impression for centuries to come on the human race.(bit.ly/2oQTj8q)

PS: This post is submitted for the Lufthansa/ Indiblogger sponsored contest, 'More Indian than you think' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIgVoRK-A1o&feature=youtu.be

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Road Trip to Leh

Roadmap  from Srinagar to Leh
 It was just within days of my marriage that I went out with my wife to explore the beauty of Kashmir. We had already spent about a week in Kashmir, going around Srinagar, Pahalgam, trekked to Chandanwadi, spent some time in Gulmarg and Khilanmarg. The varied experiences and the beauty of the valley had swept us off our feet. Those days, the valley was calm and terrorism had still not raised its ugly head. One evening when we returned to the Army Transit Mess at Badami Bagh in Srinagar cantonment, we learned that an Army bus was leaving for Leh, the next day. I asked my wife if she was ready for an unplanned adventure. She was a game, so we registered our names as passengers too! We could barely sleep at the night as excitement to handle this trip was overwhelming.

 In the wee hours of the morning, we hopped on the bus with our baggage neatly stowed in the luggage boot. There were just a handful of passengers, the one I most vividly remember was a young Major with his petite wife who had a huge coin sized ‘Bindi’ on her forehead! The face still remains fresh in the memory, though several years have passed. The bus slowly started the climb, as the day was breaking out. The scenic beauty of the meadows, wildflowers and the small sparkling rivulets with almost no traffic on the narrow road appeared to be a heavenly, in comparison to the traffic we were used to! The silence would often be broken with a squeak of the birds or cascading waterfalls. After about 2 hours of drive, the bus stopped at Sonmarg. The place looked like a huge picture postcard! The piping hot ‘kahwa’ (local tea) went excellently with the ‘poori and aloo bhaji’ the Army Mess had packed for us. It was very refreshing.The temperature had started to drop, as a few drops of rain greeted us on the upward climb. Near Baltal, the climb was extremely steep and on either side of the road, there was a wall of snow. I had never in my life witnessed such a scene. 
Serpentine roads

The heart missed the beat when I looked out of the window of the bus! The deep valleys, protruding hills and the serpentine road made the view unmatched. From Baltal, one can take a route to visit Amarnath, the legendary cave of the snow Shiv- Linga. However, we were content just to see the trail that went down to this great destination. 
At Gumri
A little later in the afternoon, we reached Gumri the second coldest place after Verkhoyansk in Russia. The treacherous glaciers on which we attempted to walk still remains firmly etched in the memory. On the entire route, there was hardly any vegetation or human presence. The barren beauty was only interrupted with a picket of the Indian Army where a lone jawan stood guarding our border valiantly.  We crossed ‘ Dras’, the scene of a bloody battle many years later.  By 5 PM the bus reached, Kargil a major Army outpost. It halted at the Transit Camp where we were to stay overnight! The mess orderly showed us our room that was perched on the hilltop overlooking a frozen river. We could see a barbed fence that was just a short distance away, and were informed was the border of Pakistan! Never had I expected that I would be this close, to the neighbor country. The beauty and snow covered hills all around with chilly winds is beyond words. To add the icing to the cake the mess havaldar appeared with  cups of steaming coffee and  ‘pakoras.’ Later we explored the small village at Kargil, had a taste of the tea, prepared by Yak’s milk, a novelty. We could barely sleep due to howling winds at night and constant screech of the tin shed roof. Next morning the journey continued through the barren hills at high altitude through villages of Sarkas, Larmayuru, Alchi and Phey. The sight of locals, Buddhist monasteries, Gompas and yaks from time to time were the only companions besides BEACON ( Border Roads Organization) and Army personnel.  By late evening we reached the Transit Mess at Leh, overlooking the airfield. The Officer In Charge, a Major, greeted us and informed that we were the second one from Navy to have visited the place beside the Chief of the Naval Staff who had been there a month earlier. The time spent at Leh deserves another post!

PS- Map Kind Courtesy Google. 
2. Old pictures digitized for this post

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Trek to Chandanwadi



 We stepped out of our tent to look at the clear blue skies and the silver clouds drifting across. The sun had still not risen. The distant snow clad peaks shimmered from the light at the daybreak as the golden sky kissed the peaks. The chirping of birds and the ruffling of the leaves by the wind were the only sounds that could be heard. The thick foliage of the trees and undulating slopes with a carpet of velvet green grass made the environment truly romantic! My wife was beside me. We were married less than a week earlier. The location was somewhere off Pahalgam at the Army Adventure Camp.

We had arrived there the previous evening after gathering the details of the place from the Transit camp at Srinagar. There was a cluster of olive-green tents for accommodation in the midst of the jungle where a sparkling river flowed.
With Col Manjit Singh
‘Hello! How are you doing?’ a voice from behind our backs started us. A tall Sikh gentleman almost six foot high with a silver beard and a rucksack on his back looked at us as he smiled.
‘We are fine sir, ‘I replied.
‘I am Col Manjeet Singh, retired from the Army in 1971 ‘he introduced himself.
We too introduced ourselves and he was amazed that just after our marriage we were there. We too were equally amazed to see the spirited retired Army officer roughing it out, full of zest. He had a married daughter who was settled abroad and his wife had passed away a few years ago. He was an avid traveler and fond of trekking. He was planning to leave for Chandanwadi which was about 16 km from the camp.’ Wow! What a coincidence! We too are leaving an hour from now’ I told him. He had interesting experiences to share as we chatted with him over the breakfast of aloo poori and tea prepared for us by the mess havaldar. It was very well prepared and after polishing off the breakfast we got our packed lunch from him and left. The colonel was in a fit physical shape and soon overtook us.
My wife was still to get used to the new way of life and with a high level of energy, we both continued meandering through the unfamiliar path. Soon we reached a hilltop as we had strayed from the track. Luckily a local girl who was grazing sheep came to our rescue and we were back on track again!
After four hours we reached Chandanwadi and saw a lot of people having tea and lunch in dhabas. They were going on pilgrimage to Amarnath. It was good to see human faces again!  Col Singh was there too and waved at us. He had reached more than an hour earlier and was enjoying his lunch. We ordered tea and then opened our packed lunch as we were almost famished after the trek. Chandanwadi was a small hamlet with a few dhabas where people usually had sojourn en route to Amarnath. The wind was chilly and the spray of water from the gushing water rivulet nearby added to the beauty. We rested for an hour and Col Singh bid us goodbye as he started the return journey. I asked my wife if she was willing to walk back.

‘Sure, ‘if the old Sardarji can do it I too can’ she replied. So we started our trek back. We completed more than halfway when I realized that I was being unfair. Just because my wife had agreed to rough out with me did not imply that she would do all the soldiering from week one of our marriage.  I looked around and found a truck passing by. I waved at him and the driver stopped at a little distance. He asked us to hop in as he was headed in the direction of Pahalgam. My wife was tired after the long trek. I felt proud of her achievement and seeing her inspired by Col Singh. Later in the evening, we enjoyed a campfire with him and others who too had joined. 

PS: Images restored to the digital format as the technology was non existent at that time



Friday, April 14, 2017

The Land of Krishna

ISKON Temple- Vrindavan

The air was charged and the continuous chant of ‘Hare Krishna’ was getting louder. The drums beat, the devotional songs played amidst chant of bells and air laden with the fragrance of flowers and incense engulfed us. Suddenly, the curtain was raised and the breathtaking sight of Lord Krishna’s idol came into the view and many devotees prostrated. The venue was the Dwarkadish temple at Mathura.

Delhi has several attractions in the vicinity. One of my favorites has been Mathura and Vrindavan and has been visiting these places from my early childhood. The major draw to these places is temples dedicated to Lord Krishna, as it happens to be the birthplace of the lord. Over the years that I have been visiting, it appears that the time has stood still in terms of the lives the people lead here. The changes due to the technology like a mushroom of mobile towers, polluting vehicles, and mobile phones everywhere are all pervading, but the roads are narrow, the streets littered and the ‘pandas’ making a kill as soon as one is near the vicinity of a temple, has not changed. The place is not for the faint-hearted, and as long as one is willing to rough out a little, a glimpse of Lord Krishna at the Dwarkadish Temple or the Krishna Janmabhoomi among a score of other temples is delightful. The marketplace from Holi Darwaza, to the Dwarkadish temple, is lined with sweets, chat, and curio shops besides ware for daily use. It is overflowing with people most of the time and the rickshaw pullers, cows, motorbikes and the pedestrians compete hard to make way in the narrow cobbled streets. The monkeys in the city can be a nuisance sometimes but as long as one guards himself well and do not offer them eats, it is fine. If possible, one should avoid a visit to these places during the festive time as the rush is tremendous and the jostling is definitely a not pleasant experience. 
Dwarkadish temple- Mathura

The river Yamuna flows quietly adjacent to the several ghats of which Vishram ghat is the most prominent one. In the evening, one can witness the ’Aarti’ being performed by the banks of the river and is always a memorable event.
Jalebi and Kachori shop in Mathura

One of the most striking things about the town is the good quality of sweets and savories available at almost every nook and corner, especially the cardamom flavored ‘pedas’. One can have a lovely spread of‘ Jalebi and Kachori’ at breakfast for less than rupees Fifty.
 Banke Bihari Mandir at Vrindavan

A short ride to Vrindavan which is just about 20 km away from Mathura is always fascinating. The place is dotted with several temples dedicated to Lord Krishna. One has to make sure to reach there early as later in the day most of these temples close for the entire afternoon and open only later in the evening. Some of the most visited temples are the Banke Bihari, Rangji, ISKON, and Birla temples. Each of these temples is well worth a visit and the peace and tranquility beside the beautiful d├ęcor leaves spellbound.


If you are planning a weekend trip to Mathura and Vrindavan, do add Bharatpur to the itinerary. The Deeg Palace and the fort, besides the renowned Keoladeo Ghana Bird sanctuary, will not disappoint. A number of other short trips to the adjoining Barsana, Baldeo, Gokul and Govardhan famous for temples and tales connecting Lord Krishna’s life are also worth a visit. Delhi has several modes of transport like luxury buses, taxis and superfast trains connecting the destination. So do make a trip to this temple town, if you happen to be in Delhi next time!