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”.

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For me too, a meethi paan, YES that’s perfect! After a meal, after breakfast, after a chai, after 10 o clock, after a nice walk, well, any time of the day it’s perfect! In Benaras, Paan is for all and for anytime of the day. Paan doesn’t discriminate between rich & poor, stupid & intelligent, young & old, hindu & muslim. And the best place to have Pa9764023643_f29446473a_oan in Benaras – none other than Keshav Tambul Bhandar!

After adding all the ingredients, the paan is finally folded into a triangle, as neatly as possible, and nailed together with a clove. This in itself is an art. It could then be coated with a ‘chandi ka varak’ (edible beaten silver). Once you start chewing the paan, you’ll instantly feel the sweet juices burst into your mouth. It’s a tantalizing mix of flavors and textures. The first taste is of the rose paste-very sweet. The ingredients are crunchy. It’s like twigs and gooey gel wrapped in a leaf. Once the sweetness subsides one can begin to taste the refreshing cardamom, the peppery betel leaf, the biting clove, the tangy flavor of fennel, & the mint. You keep chewing to release the juices. After about 10 mins, all that remains is the leafy core. The experience is beyond words!!

And yes, never ever ask a Benarasi why they have so many Paan throughout the day. The answer could be:

Koi tu log se poochhe ki saans kaahe lete ho to jawaab ka deba?

It’s bhery sensitive question!

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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

Somnath – The Spectacular Resurrected Temple.

The temple city of Somnath or Prabhas Patan is situated in the state of Gujarat on the Arabian Sea. This is the first among the twelve Jyotirlings. Since ancient times, Prabhas Patan has been a pilgrimage center, being the confluence of the mythological Saraswati, Hiranya and Kapila. Legend has it that Lord Shiva’s Kalbhairav linga is situated at Prabhas. It is also associated with the moon as the Moon God is also said to have worshipped this Shivling. This is also the reason why this temple is popularly known as Somnath, the one named after the moon. The present temple, Kailash Mahameru Prasad is built in the Chalukya style of temple architecture and reflects the inherent skill of sompuras, Gujarat’s master masons. It has the shikhara, the Garbhagriha, the sabha mandap and the nritya mandap.

On the Southern side of the temple, on the wall at the sea shore, there is a pillar. It is called “Baanstambh” बाणस्तंभ्. On the top of the pillar is placed a globe of Earth and an arrow pierces through it. On the pole is inscribed “Aasmudrant Dakshindhuvparyant Abaadhit Jyotirmarga”. It means If you start travelling from Somnath Temple towards South in Arabian Sea, you will not meet any land until you reach the South Pole or the Antarctica. The temple has been built in such a position that there is no land between the Somnath temple and Antarctica.

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Baanstambh

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Incredible Bioengineering by Khasi Hill tribesmen!

The Khasi hills receive lot of rains throughout the year. It’s fair to say that this part of the world gets a hell of a lot of rain. And here you find the acclaimed Living Root Bridges which are specialty of the Khasis. Bridges always bring to our mind concrete and iron bars. But these bridges are different; they are not “Made” but “Grown”.

All around, even on the banks of high velocity streams, Ficus tree (Rubber Tree), thrive and flourishes a lot in the Khasi hills. These trees can even perch themselves strongly over boulders on the banks of streams. They have adapted themselves well from soil erosions around these rivers and streams. These trees shoot out many secondary roots. The War-Khasis, a tribe in Meghalaya, long ago noticed this tree and saw in its powerful roots, an opportunity to easily cross the rivers. Now, whenever and wherever the need arises, they simply grow their bridges.

By realizing they could tap into the power of these roots and use them to their own advantage, they started manipulating and directing the secondary roots to create ultra-strong living bridges with which to cross streams and rivers. To make a tree grow in a certain direction, the tribes’ people use the trunks of a betul nut tree, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, as a guidance system. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree are placed so they grow in the direction of the tree trunk rather than fanning out. Eventually, the roots reach the other side of the river and grow into the soil. Or they would take two trees on both sides so as to make the roots move and meet in the centre of the trunk. Continue reading

The Pitcher Plant scare!

It was during a walk through the wild of Shillong outskirts that I came across these plants. At first glance I was not sure what exactly it was but curiosity made me go near and check. On seeing them at close quarters I realized it was none other than Pitcher Plants that we studied so much in details in school. These plants are more of vine and these pitchers are hanging from it. There was a lid at the top of each pitcher. Inside it was filled with a liquid. Whatever I recall of my botany lectures, this liquid contains enzymes that digests food and is similar to one present in our own stomach.

Initially I was bit scared to touch the plant. Not sure of what might really happen if I do so. Considering its size I was sure of one thing, it CANNOT eat me! 😀 But what if my hand or finger gets trapped! Garnering lot of courage I touched the tip of the pitcher’s mouth with a quick movement. Nothing happens! That helped my confidence and I next touched the pitcher properly, holding it to see exactly how it looks.

The pitchers are hard and the top mouth is quite stiff, almost woody in many of the pitchers. I touched the inside wall and found it slippery. The liquid was not exactly thick but a bit sticky. It seemed more like a gel. There was the cover, like a lid which was movable. In one pitcher I found the lid closed while other I could move it to close the pitcher. Maybe when it catches the insect, this lid closes over the mouth so that it cannot escape.

I local boy was passing by and he stopped to join me and explained more about how they use these pitchers. The vines of this plant are supposed to be very strong and the locals use it for tying up things. Even the pitcher is used to cook food. They pour out the liquid and wash it properly. A special kind of steamed rice with chicken is made by filling the same in this pitcher and then heating.

Here are few photographs of the Pitcher Plant. You can click on the images to view the enlarged version. Continue reading