Lazeez-e-Kashmir, when Gluttony is no sin!

Kashmir has pristine natural beauty to offer us. Even people here are really loving and warm by heart. They truly believe in Atithi Devo Bhava. They go extra mile to see their guests are happy. I had my booking at a hotel in Lal Chowk and within two days got very friendly with the guy who was entrusted to look after to my needs. And after that he simply refused to allow me to stay in the hotel and took me to his house as an honoured guest. Faisal his name, he stays with his younger brother while his family is in some remote village in Pampore. He guided me to locales where no usual tourists visit, treating me to some great food and visiting different temples & mosques while updating me with the local history behind them.

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This article is all about Kashmir’s enticing offering, its food especially Wazwan! Faisal told me that he cannot let me leave Kashmir without treating me to authentic wazwan. It’s usually cooked during some special occasion like marriages. One served in restaurants are really not authentic ones, Faisal said. And I did get the chance!

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Wazwan is the most mouthwatering Kashmiri full-course meal, which makes you believe that Gluttony is no sin. And yes, it’s more than just food. It’s the pride and culture, a symbol of hospitality and is treated with great respect. Its preparation is considered an art. The course has some 30 odd dishes and of those 15-20 are all lamb & chicken preparations.

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Tash Naer, the basin provided to guests to wash hands before starting meal

Wazwan is regarded as the pride of Kashmiri culture and identity. Special cooks called Wazas prepare the full course and take lot of pride for the same. The wazas take up a good part of the night to cook the whole spread and then serve the guests themselves. First the guests are made to wash their hands in Tash Naer, the main course is commenced by the Waza bringing in ornate copper vessels called Traem or Trami, each of which contains enough quantity and variety of food to quench a hungry foodie. Seekh Kebabs, Tabakh maaz, Nudru (lotus stem), Safed Kokur (Chicken), Rogan Josh, Aab gosht, Rista, Methi Maaz (lamb), Methi korma and god knows what all. Can’t even recall the names! It seems like a never ending foodie journey! It’s when the waza brings in Gustaba, you know that’s the ending of the main course which could be way beyond 2hrs from when it’s started. The main course is followed by some absolutely unmissable desserts like Phirni, Halwa, and sweet beverages.

If you are a foodie, make sure not to miss this authentic Kashmiri foodie treat.

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Preparations on from Morning

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Traem or Trami ready to be served.

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And finally you sit down to have Wazwan in their traditional way, seated in groups of four around a communal plate called a Traem or Trami.

 

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The Offbeat Dal Lake tour

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For most, Kashmir connotes violence, bombs and disturbance. But Kashmir is lot more. It’s a place that deserves the name Heaven on earth in true sense. Pristine serene nature, it’s like a fairy tale journey! Before visiting the state I had decided to not just visit the usual touristy places, I had made up my mind to visit the off-beat destinations too. And I was not disappointed. The pristine natural beauty, untouched by the evil effects of pollution, honks or population burst, the lesser known Kashmir portrays the real enigma of this heavenly charm on earth!!

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And one such trip was to visit the backwaters of Dal Lake and see the waterborne rural life of Kashmiris there. 3667342858_c78ec99201_zIt’s the whole stretch between Dal Lak and Nagin Lake, which is crisscrossed by small water lanes which can easily be called as the Venice of India. After my usual shikara ride on Dal, I decided to take the backwater tour. There do exist some security concerns, so I took along with me my local Kashmiri friend with whom I was staying. With continuous disturbance for years they have now learned to live with it. They know how and when or where to go if trouble arise. Continue reading

Shankaracharya Temple Srinagar history & legends

On my journey into learning about Shaivism, I knew once I’ll need to visit Kashmir, the home of Shaivism. And finally when I reached here, my first wish was to visit the Shankaracharya temple. The temple, situated atop the hill Takt-e-Suleiman, was built around 371BC by Raja Gopadatya. The works of Kalhana’s Ranjatarangini gives details about the history of this temple. Adi Shankaracharya stayed here when he visited Kashmir to revive Sanatan Dharma and hence the current name.

The Shankracharya Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is thought to be the oldest shrine in the Kashmir valley. The temple, as it stands today, has undergone many repairs throughout its life. The temple is of great importance, not only from the point of view of religion, but also from architectural viewpoint. A high octagonal platform supports the temple, approached by a flight of approximately 250+ steps. The sidewalls of the steps once bore some valuable inscriptions which are now lost after repairs. There is also a Persian inscription inside the temple.

Though the stair’s inscription was not saved, in Kalhana’s work you do get to know the details of the inscriptions. The hill had different names time to time and finally got the current name after a person named Sulaiman (also called Solomon) invaded; he came along with his throne, hence the name Takt-e-Sulaiman. The Persian inscriptions on the stairs said about a visit of a person with the name Yuz Asaf during the reign of Raja Gopadri. He supposedly with his followers renovated the temple. The inscription mentions Yuz Asaf as a prophet from Israel. If you go through Persian literature, you do get to read about a saint named Yuz Asaf. The Jami – uf – Tamarik, Volume II mentions him, you get to read about him also in Agha Mustafa’s “Awhali Shahai-i-paras” that tell of Yuz Asaf’s travels and teachings all over Persia. Continue reading

Khaike Paan Benaras Waala!

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There is a tradition in India of chewing paan.  In Benaras, it becomes integral part of everyone’s life! Benaras always brings forth in mind the “Benarasi Paan”. And every Benarasi gets very emotional when it comes to their Paan. For them anyone can wait but not the Benarasi Paan.

There are interesting stories related to Paan here at Benaras. It’s said once there was a very devoted Benarasi. Every morning he would pray to Kashi Vishwanath with full faith then start with work. One day the Lord, pleased with his devotion, came to him with “Amrit” when he was sitting on the banks of Ganga. He asked the Benarasi to have some of this amrit. But the Benarasi refused saying, “Sorry but how can I have it now?” Lord was surprised; he enquired what the problem was! Benarasi replied calmly, “Maharaj, O Ka Hain Na Ki, abhi eigo benarasi paan ghole hain”. Continue reading

Nostalgic journey down Shimla lanes!

Shimla always evokes a special feeling. Though, Shimla town itself was not where we lived, but all our activities were connected to this British era winter capital. On my last visit to this town, popularly called as Queen of Hills, I decided to take a nostalgic journey to all the points, mainly food joints, which were our favourite ones. Shimla now has all the new joints like Sol, CCD, but the old ones they are still busy ones. We all old “Shimlaites” still swear by those shops. They used to be affordable, fitting perfectly our pockets.

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When I was a toddler my Baba used to take me to Indian Coffee House whenever we would visit the town. While others would sit on those old chairs, I was made to sit on the table. And then Baba would let me drink coffee with a spoon.

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Mehar Chand sweet shop, popularly called as Mehru’s in Lower Bazaar. This is one of the oldest sweet shops in India, established in 1902. This was our favourite spot to have chhole bhature and Jalebi with lassi. Continue reading

Mural Paintings of Ajanta – Where Rocks Talk!

Ajanta Caves consists of a total of 29 Buddhist monasteries and sanctuaries belonging to the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions dating from 2nd century BC to 6th century AD. These caves were hidden away for thousands of years until British soldiers led by John Smith stumbled upon them while on a hunting mission. They were astonished to see the architecture, stupas and the wall paintings and murals. Unfortunately Smith vandalized the caves by scratching his name on these priceless mural paintings.

Lot of the paintings has deteriorated beyond repair and significant damage had been done to the architecture as well. Several attempts have been made in the past to preserve this wonderful architecture but the unscientific methods adopted in the past were not very successful. To make things worse, certain conservationists coated the murals with shellac (kind of varnish) in a later stage which has become very hard to remove.  Climate, Humidity, Ultra-violet radiation, Noise levels, Carbon Dioxide from the exhalation of humans, all such factors affect the conservation of wall paintings.  ASI and USESCO have imposed very strict norms to the visitors now. Number of visitors at a time has been restricted; camera flashes and tripods are banned as well. The natural light and at places tiny LED lights is what you get to capture the mural paintings.

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Majestic Himalayas and revered Kedareshwar!

The temple at Kedarnath enshrining the Jyotirling of Lord Shiva opens only 6 months a year (April-November). The priests then go to Urvimath, where the worship of Kedareshwar is continued during the winter season. The temple sits at the bottom of majestic Himalayas, peaks always covered under snow, it looks beautiful.

Amazing Ancient Architecture Engineering!

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Legend Behind Kedarnath Temple

Legend goes that Nara and Narayana – two incarnations of Vishnu performed severe penance here. Pleased with their devotion, Lord Shiva appeared in front of them and said that they may ask for a boon. Nar and Narayan requested Shiva to take up a permanent abode as a Jyotirling at Kedarnath so that all people who worship Shiva shall be freed from their miseries. According to yet another popular legend, Goddess Parvati worshipped Kedareshwar to unite with Lord Shiva as Ardhanareeswarar. Besides, the Pandavas are believed to have visited this area several times. Arjuna is believed to have come here to pray to Shiva to obtain the coveted Pashupata Astra. Continue reading

The Holy Lake Manasarovar!

Lake Mansarovar is a freshwater lake in the Tibet autonomous region. It is very close in distance to the sources of important rivers such as Brahmaputra, Karnali, Sutlej and Indus. The word “Manasarovara” originates from Sanskrit, which is a combination of the words “Manas” & “Sarovara”; manas meaning mind and sarovara meaning lake. According to the Hindu scriptures, the lake was first created in the mind of the Lord Brahma after which it manifested on Earth.

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When you reach Mansarovar Lake, the light blue expanse of water nestled amongst the high Himalayan Mountains looks heavenly.  One of the most serene and sublime beauty will be in front of you.  The first instinct was to go and touch the water and take a dip after the long arduous journey we had taken. Continue reading

The Treat of Eid.

If you are in any Muslim community place during Eid, and if you are a foody, then rest assured to get treated to some really delightful food. All through my life I had Muslim friends and would enjoy treats at their places. But its the street food in all such places which attracts me more. Visit Jama Masjid area during Eid. Or in Hyderabad. All such places to me looks heavenly place for food. I enjoyed Eid in Turkey when posted in Israel. 

And it was same even at Hotan. A Muslim dominated place in South China. And yes, the street food is really yummy!!! 

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Jhator -Gruesome but confronts Death directly!

Buddhist religion has three schools of thoughts or branches and all three have different focus but follow the basic teachings of Buddha. The first one is Theraveda Buddhism, the second, Mahayana Buddhism and the third being Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism, which is mainly followed by the Tibetans, is also known as the Tantric Buddhism due to its reliance on sacred texts called tantras. Of many other rituals, I will stick to one followed by them as part of burial after death, called as “Jhator”.

When death occurs, three forms of burial are used: cremation, water burial, and Jhator. Because of lack of wood/forest, cremation is almost absent in Tibet unless rich. Cities which have flowing rivers do follow the water burial. But majority Tibetans follow Jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds,” or Sky burial, a phrase coined by Europeans.

Tibetan Buddhists believe life is not over at death, but merely entering a rebirth. Monks emphasise this cyclical nature of existence to dispel the fear of death in Tibetan society and help people prepare for a new beginning. They believe that the corpse is nothing more than an empty vessel. The spirit, or the soul, of the deceased has exited the body to be reincarnated into another circle of life. Tibetan people witness sky burial and confront death directly. They know the impermanence of life!!

Interestingly, this is the same teaching that Lord Vasudev passes on to us in Bhagavat Gita, Chapter-2, Verse-22. वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि। तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णान्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही।। Meaning: As a person gives up old and worn out garments and accepts new apparel, similarly the embodied soul giving up old and worn out bodies verily accepts new bodies. Hence this physical body of ours is nothing when the soul leaves it. Continue reading

Five Kailash Yatra!

For past many years I had this wish of visiting all the five Kailash. It is said this gives you salvation. Frankly speaking I don’t think just visiting these Kailash can give you salvation, there’s lot more you’ll need to do. Getting salvation I feel is not so easy.

The Five Kailash Yatras are able to transfer devotees’s physical journey into a spiritual experience, a journey in search of truth. The five Kailash Yatras is perhaps one of the most arduous calling pilgrimages. It entails long pilgrimages to five holy sites in upper reaches of Himalayas to seek the blessing of Lord Shiva who, as per the Hindu scriptures and legends, supposedly reside on the holy mountain peaks. Surrendering yourself through Bhakti lets you experience the oneness of “Jiva and Shiva”, the union of jivatma with parmatma!

  1. Shrikhand Mahadev or Shrikhand Kailash

When Bhasmasur got the boon from Lord Shiva that he can turn anyone into ash by placing his palm on anyone’s head, the Asura wanted to test if the boon really works by testing it on Lord Shiva. So Lord Shiva started running from this Asura. Finally Lord came to Shrikhand and sat down in meditation in the 50ft stone shivling till Lord Vishnu came and killed Bhasmasura by tricking him in putting his hand on his own head. Later Mata Parvati did long Akhanda Upasana to break his Samadhi, whereby she filled Nainsar Lake with her tears; Lord Shiva came out after breaking the shivling. Shrikhand Mahadev is considered to be the abode of Lord Shiva. Its peak is 5155 meters high from main sea level. The journey passes through beautiful mist-laden forests filled with beautiful flowers and huge trees. Then the journey enters the difficult Himalayan terrain where you need to even cross few glaciers.

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Shrikhand Kailash

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Adi Kailash – Lord Shiva’s oldest adobe!

Many think the Om Parvat is in itself the Adi Kailash. That is not the case. Om Parvat is located near Nabhidhang while Adi Kailash is located at different place, near Sin La pass and near Brahma Parvat. As per mythology, Pandavas had stayed here with Sage Vyaasa and meditated for a long period. Even Ravana, a great devote of Shiva, is said to have come from far off Lanka to pray to Lord Shiva here. This Kailash is considered to be the oldest adobe of our Lord Shiva and Parvati.

Adi Kailash area is full of great natural beauty, peace and serenity. Though in a very remote area, the Darshan (view) of Lord Shiva’s abode is well worth the effort it takes to get there. With the roar of urban life receding to the background one finds the healing quietude of this region conducive enough to turn inward and be one’s own listener.

The trek was really treacherous at places especially when you reach Budhi passing Malpa. It was like a test of our endurance. At Malpa we did stop for few minutes to pray for the souls of all those travelers who died while in sleep during the Uttarakhand deluge after a cloud burst.

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Art on Varanasi Ghats

Unsanctioned arts on streets have been condemned too many times. But for me they are always piece of art. Something we need to appreciate. I had earlier posted about same in Israel. Israel Graffiti. Now for another place!

The ghats of Varanasi have always been an attraction to visitors. You always find it buzzing with people busy in different activities. The boat rides along the colourful and lively ghats, funeral pyres by the river’s edge, twisting lanes full of people, cows, bicycles and hole-in-the-wall shops selling tea, local sweets, spices and devotional bling, that’s what you see here. And in all this you invariably fail to notice many wall arts on the ghats.

Though many like me might like these arts/paintings but they might get removed from the ghats soon. Varanasi is considered as the heritage city of India. There are many heritage buildings on the ghats. The ghats itself are considered to be part of heritage status of this city. Defacing century’s old stone walls of the ghats along the Ganga by random graffiti, paintings and designs made of harmful chemicals is causing harm to the structures. Removal of these paintings has already been initiated with ASI, BHU and few other organization joining hands. Continue reading

The Little known Masroor Rock Cut Temple!

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30 odd km from Kangra town, there is this rock cut temple, which is hardly known to even people of that district. It is the Masroor Rock Cut Temples which many call as Himachal Pyramids or Elloras of Himachal.

These rock cut temples of Masroor have been carved out of the sandstone monoliths which make up the landscape. No one seems to know who carved them. There are many legendary stories that go round.  Few locals say it was built by Pandavas. There’s another legend attached to the construction of this temple, it is said that these temples were carved out at night, and work had to be halted when it was morning, which is why some shrines remained unfinished. Historians have identified that sculptures in the Masroor temples have been shaped in late Gupta style, most likely in the second half of the 8th century. There are not known inscriptions in the temple and no written accounts about this temple – thus it is rather a guess.

Legends apart, it is the architecture of the temple that is awe-inspiring. It has been built in Nagara style. This is very important style in Hindu temple architecture, with characteristic beehive formed towers. Every design is intricately carved. The temple has black stone idols of Ram Lakshman and Sita. But in the centre of the temple is a figure of shiva which brings a theory that possibly the temple originally was of Mahadev. The shikhars of some of the temples remain standing and are a supreme display of the craftsmen of the 7th -8th century who overcame the limitations of the existing rock structures to shape and carve their creations. The rock-cut style started in the reign of the Pallava King, Narsingha Varman (630-668 AD) during the 1st half of the 7th century.  It reached its climax in the Kailasha Temple at Ellora.  Though rock-cut caves are common in South India, yet, temples cut out of free standing rocks, known to archaeologists and art critics, are only 4 in number – Rathas of Mammalapuram, Kailashas at Ellora, Dharmanatha temples in Dharmnar and this one as Masroor. The Rathas & Kailashas are built in the Dravidian style, whereas the Masroor and Dharmnar ones are in the Nagara style. Continue reading

Rani ka Vav – The Unesco World Heritage Site

Ancient architectures have always fascinated me. In Gujarat I am getting to see some really great spellbinding architecture that is bound to leave anyone in awe. Rani ka Vav is among those which was built more than thousand years ago. Vav means stepwell and because it was built by Rani Udayamati in memory of her husband the Solanki ruler Bhimdev between 1022-1063 AD , it’s called Rani ki Vav. In reality, it is so beautiful I guess it would be equally appropriate to call it Vav ki Rani!

The step-well later got flooded and eventually remained buried under the earth for many hundred years! Believe it or not, it was excavated by Archaeological Survey of India only in the recent 1980’s! You will not believe your eyes (I did not, and you may feel free to blame me in case I underestimated your capability by an unwarranted extrapolation) to see how the carvings still looked so fresh, no way look to have been buried under earth and how on earth ASI has carried out such a marvellous work of excavation without damaging the structures! Continue reading