Thursday 26 November 2015

Visiting a Temple built by the Pandavas- Hateshwari Mata Temple.

Hateshwari Mata Temple
After my joyful stint at apple harvesting in Ruhil dhar, we boarded a bus back to Kharapathar, where I volunteered for apple grading. The bus was to ply till Hatkoti, from where we had to board another bus going to Kharapathar. That was a great opportunity to visit the famous Hateshwari temple in Hatkoti. My host and I walked for half an hour from the Hatkoti bus stand and reached the temple amidst a slight drizzle of rain.
Main entrance to the temple premises
This ancient temple, built on the banks of the Pabbar river, is dedicated to the Goddess Hateshwari, a form of Goddess Durga. While there are no written records about the construction of the temple, some believed that it was constructed by the Pandavas who spent a considerable amount of time at Hatkoti, during their exile. Some others believe that the temple was built by Adi Shankaracharya. Based on the style of architecture and sculpture, historians claim that the temple must have been built during the reign of the Guptas, between 6th and 9th century AD.  
Exquisite wooden carvings.

Note the intricacy. 

The entire structure, I observed were made either in wood or stone, or a combination of both. I was particularly in awe of the intricate carvings on the wood, especially on the ceiling, inside the temples. And they have been remarkably well preserved, considering that the temple is several thousand years old. Photography wasn’t permitted inside the sanctum sanctorum but I’ll try my best to describe the Deity.
The image of Hateshwari Mata: Photo taken from the FB page of the temple.
The form of Goddess Hateshwari is beautiful with eight arms and is believed to be made of an alloy of eight metals.  It is also said that there are inscriptions in the sanctum sanctorum in the Brahmi script which is yet to be deciphered, but I couldn't spot them as it wasn't very well lit inside. The local people believe that no one has been able to view the feet of the deity, as they believe it touches the river Pabbar, on whose banks the temple stands. Another story which supports this belief is when the Gurkhas, in the early 19th century had established their stronghold in parts of Himachal Pradesh and wanted to move the deity to another place convenient for them. The Gurkhas dug for hours on end and days together, but couldn't move the idol by even an inch, since the feet were buried too deep to be dislodged.
The huge bronze pot tied to the statue of Lord Ganesh
Outside the doorway of the sanctum sanctorum, you cannot miss spotting a huge bronze vessel tied with a chain next to a beautiful idol of Lord Ganesh. Legend says that there used to be two vessels instead of one, at the doorway, but many years ago, a fiery rain storm caused the river Pabbar to overflow and carry away both the vessels. The pujaris (priests) of the temple tried their best to rescue the vessels in the thunder and rain storm but could succeed in finding only one, which is tied near the doorway.
The Shiva temple.

Closer view of the beautifully carved entrance. 

To the left of the sanctum sanctorum is the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, with exquisite carvings on stone and wood. There is a Linga inside, and somehow the ambience, serenity and the dark interiors transported me 1000 years ago, when it would have been just the same, even then.
The five stone structures or 'deols' representing each of the Pandavas. 

A closer view of the carvings.
Further to the left of the temple premises, there are 5 stone structures, locally called ‘Deols’, representing each of the Pandavas. I loved the carvings of figures and motifs on stone on these too. The two majestic bronze statues of lions guarding the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum made for a lovely capture.
The majestic bronze lion.
Feeling awed by the serenity and the rich history and mystery of the temple, we sat inside the premises for some time, before leaving,  enjoying the landscape dotted with the greens of the forest, whites of the clouds and colours of human habitation.
The view from the temple premises.
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Monday 23 November 2015

The People of Spiti Valley.

The innocent children of Spiti.
I had travelled to the Spiti valley, in India in June 2013. The splendour and magnificence of the mountains and the place was matched only by the simplicity and warmth of its people. One must go there to believe that such simple hearted people still exist on Earth. I was a recipient of their kindness and warmth right from the first day I arrived in Spiti. 

On my first day in Kaza, the main town in Spiti, from where I was to travel to the villages, I was severely ill with altitude sickness. I had puked 5 times and thought my head would explode. And there was no one to attend to me. But I decided to take one moment at a time and opened the door for some fresh air. And a man staying in the adjacent room asked me if I needed some help looking at my red face. He informed the guest house owner who brought medicines for me. Though the guest house didn’t serve food, he still cooked some dal (lentil)-rice because I was too ill to go out and eat. The food came but I couldn’t get myself to eat more than 2 morsels. When I was to check out 2 days later I asked him for the bill and noticed that he had not included the amount for dinner. I was surprised when he said that he had waived off that amount because I had not eaten more than 2 spoons. I insisted that I pay him but he just refused to tell me. I, of course, tipped him an approximate amount, but here was a man who had not taken into consideration the effort he had put in to cook a meal and whatever xyz costs business demands!! Later I was to discover that all Spitians are too simple-hearted, almost unbelievably so.
The kind woman who invited me for breakfast as I was passing by her house. 
Wherever I went people would greet me with a genuine smile and say ‘Julay’ (hello). From a group of little girls who invited me to join them when they realized I was traveling alone, to women who invited me to come and eat in their homes when I greeted them while passing by their homes, or several others (monks, nuns, shamans, medicine men) who took time out to meet me and talk to me, all of them won my heart.
I noticed that everybody in the villages knows everybody else. I saw children from other homes come and have tea or breakfast. Even when we went out to work on the fields the doors were never locked. Everywhere I went, be in homes or monasteries, I was welcomed with copious amounts of tea. I saw the lady of my home-stay carry extra tea and breakfast/lunch and give it to other villagers working in their fields on the way to her own. After a long trek from Komic to Demul, I arrived at my home stay, tired and stiff from the cold. When the lady of home-stay noticed that, she so lovingly and affectionately wrapped me up in warm blankets, brought a huge flask of hot milk and made sure I rested well .I thought to myself that probably this is how life was meant to be lived on Earth. But somewhere down the way, we have terribly messed everything up.
My hosts at the home stay in Langza.
My heart just went out to the kids in Spiti. They are so innocent and unspoilt, unlike city kids. Everywhere in Spiti, kids greet and smile, just like their elders and also wave out, especially if you are in a vehicle. They are extremely well-mannered and say ‘thank-you’ whenever they are offered something. By the second day, I too had caught the ‘waving bug’, and soon I was waving out gleefully to kids, toothless grannies, shepherds, cows, goats, sheep and bikers, and motorcyclists on Harley Davidsons and Royal Enfields. In Langza and I’m assuming in other villages too, kids return home from school at 4 pm, change over and go into the grazing pastures to fetch the cattle at sunset. Every day at Langza, I accompanied my class 7 host, Tenzing, puffing and panting and pleading with him to go slow (it’s amazing to see how even little kids in Spiti go scampering in a jiffy over steep climbs) to the pastures. There Tenzing introduced me to his other classmates and friends. The kids asked me many questions….where I lived, why am I traveling alone, how it was in the cities…etc. There the kids would simply run behind lambs, chase goats, ride donkeys and do cart-wheels. Such simple pleasures of life. They had no access to toys or games like city kids, yet the fun they had was unmatched. Once I told them I wanted to take a picture with a cute little lamb. The boys chased the lamb for 10 minutes leaving me rolling with laughter on the grass. Whenever I distributed chocolates (Luckily I had carried a huge packet to give it to kids in the villages), they made sure that everyone in their group had received and that really touched my heart.
The loving lady at Demul who took good care of me.
Another incident which moved me happened when I was traveling in a car from one village to another. There was some work happening on the road and so the car slowed down. I looked out to see an old toothless granny with a flask of tea sitting on the side of the road, taking a break from the road work. When my eyes met hers, she gave me the most beautiful smile and asked me to come and join her for tea.  Here was a poor woman earning a daily wage and yet she was rich beyond measure to offer tea to a complete stranger like me. In that moment my heart expanded manifold. Each time I experienced the magnanimity of these gentle, peace loving people, my heart too expanded with love and warmth, which gets rekindled every time I fondly remember them and their kindness.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Wall Art for the Entrance of a Community Center- Pune.

A couple who run a community center in Pune requested if I could spruce up and add some colour outside the entrance of their home before Diwali. So I happily did. I painted my own version of giant morning glory flowers and bright orange butterflies. Total painted area was approximately 6.5 feet height x 13 feet width.

Traditional Vegetarian Dishes to try out in Mangalore.

On our way back after a stay in a verdant organic farm in Sullia, we stopped for a day in Mangalore to explore what we could in 24 hours. While I would be writing about Sullia as well Mangalore in the following posts, let me focus on food first. I’ve always enjoyed Karnataka cuisine for its flavours and varieties, and Mangalore was no different. In fact food in Mangalore goes beyond the regular varieties of idli and dosas even for vegetarians like me. If you are in Mangalore next time, do sample these traditional delicacies.
Idlis steamed in banana leaves.
Plantain leaf steamed idlis: Instead of steaming batter in regular idli moulds, the batter is poured into a banana leaf rolled into the shape of a cylindrical holder and then steamed. It was fun to unroll the banana leaf and then dig into cylindrical idlis. We had this as part of our breakfast at New Taj Mahal café.
Mangalore buns
Mangalore buns: This was a true delight to the taste buds. These buns are not baked but are deep fried. Ripe bananas mixed with the dough lend it a mildly sweet taste. These airy, light and fluffy banana puris are served with coconut chutney and sambar. We had this for dinner at a restaurant called Chutney (Hotel Deepa Comforts) and also when are bus stopped enroute Pune.

Biscuit Rotti
Biscuit Rotti: This popular Mangalorean snack is neither a biscuit nor a rotti but an equivalent of a kachori, crisp on the outside and with stuffing inside. The stuffing was made of fried and flavoured grated coconut. We had this as part of our breakfast at New Taj Mahal café.

Ambade: These are fritters or vadas made from ground black gram batter. It reminded me of medu vadas but in a spherical form. It was absolutely delicious, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and bursting with flavours of curry leaves, green chillies, ginger and black pepper.
Neer Dosa
Neer dosa: This is a melt in the mouth soft dosa with a silky smooth texture. As opposed to the regular dosas made out of rice and black gram, this dosa uses only rice and coconut. This was served with coconut chutney too. Wish restaurants in Pune served this too. This one is surely on my try-out list.
Banana podi
Banana podi: These are scrumptious but very oily banana fritters or bhajjis. This is made from the delicious Nenthra pazham abundant in coastal Kerala and Karnataka. I’ve had this in Kerala and my grandma used to make this too.
Special Gadbad.

Pabba's special.
Pabba’s ice creams: Ice-creams, need I say more. But the specialty of Pabba’s is in the variety of flavours and sundaes and milk shakes they come up with. We had the special Gadbad sundae, which had scoops of butterscotch, strawberry and vanilla ice cream interspersed with layers of jelly and fresh and dry fruit. Another one we tried was Pabba’s special where we chose the chikku, butterscotch and roasted almond flavours of ice creams, topped with black currant, chocolate, honey and dry fruits. Need I say they were lip-smacking!!

Image taken from
Nenthra pazham: If you’ve never tasted this variety of banana, make sure you do in Mangalore. It is typically longer than the green bananas with a fruit that has a slight orange and peach tint of colour. This banana is used for making fritters/bhajjis, halva and even kheer/payasam.

Yellow coconuts
Yellow coconuts: The bright yellow of the coconuts on the road side caught my attention. Although I was told that the taste of the coconut water would be no different from the green ones, I still wanted to taste it for the colour J And I did, and you may too if you like yellow!

Filter coffee

Filter coffee
I never miss a chance to wash down my food with a steaming cup of filter coffee and there were plenty in Mangalore. Coffee tastes as delicious from a cup and saucer as in a traditional tumbler and bowl ! 

We spilt our breakfast, lunch and dinner between two restaurants. One was Chutney, in Hotel Deepa Comforts on MG Road. The place is air-conditioned which could be important as Mangalore could get very sultry. The other restaurant was New Taj Mahal cafe in Kodailbail. It's a no-frill restaurant where there is no menu card. On , people had reviewed the waiters as being very rude, but luckily our waiter was very sweet and even gave suggestions and explained the dishes. I had done some research on traditional Mangalorean cuisine so I knew what to ask for. Or else they would just recommend dosa and idli in the absence of a menu card. Other recommendations for traditional vegetarian Mangalorean cuisine which we got from the locals but couldn't visit were Janata Deluxe, Woodlands, Ayodhya and Kudla Rasa Prakash! Will surely visit these on my next trip if there is!!

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Volunteering for Wall-art at Bhujodi, Kutch.

One of the reasons I went to Kutch was with the idea of volunteering for wall-art. I didn't know how and where but just knew I wanted to and that I would! Luckily the Director of Khamir, Meera, put me in touch with one of the more influential people in Bhujodi village, called Chaman Bhai, and I was all set for my wall-art there.

I went around with Chaman Bhai exploring different options of walls which could be painted and also talking to the village people about what they would like to see on the wall. I wanted an expansive canvas for wall-art and finally found one: the facade of the house belonging to Dayabhai Ala, an award winning weaver. The wall was painted with an advertisement of JK Cement which I got white washed. There was also a notice board on the wall and it was the main wall of the village where people would gather for important meetings and to read instructions/notices, etc, on the notice board.

The wall was 22 feet wide and 13 feet height and I completed that in 4 days. At the end of it, each muscle of mine was sore, and I had tanned 5 shades, but every bit was worth it. I stood on a drum to paint the upper parts of the wall, with a constant buzz of inquisitive children, village elders and wandering cows, who tried to chew the cardboard box in which I had kept the paints, twice.

Bhujodi is a village entirely of handloom weavers. And they also follow the legacy of the 15th century saint-poet, Kabir. So some of the motifs they wanted on the wall was Sant Kabir, a loom, a doha of the saint, and the motifs used in weaving which is typically geometric patterns, as you will see in the images. The doha the village people wanted was 'Patta toota daali se, le gayi pawan udaye, abke bichhde kab mile, dur padenge jaaye', which means leaves fall from trees and the wind carries them far away, and that is the way of life too. In the earlier days, the weaver community  had a symbiotic relationship with the nomadic Rabari community of shepherds. The shepherds would provide wool for weaving to the weavers and the weavers would in turn provide temporary shelter to the nomads. So I also incorporated motifs of the nomadic tribes in the wall-art. Let me take you through the images.

The completed wall. 

Vankar Dayabhai Ala, the house owner and award winning artisan/weaver.

Peacock and bird motifs used in embroidery by the nomadic Rabari community.

The Rabari herdsman with a camel and goat. The cactus represents the vegetation of the region. 

The Tree of Life made with weaving motifs. 

Sant Kabir and his tanpura. 

Add caption

The sun and the clouds.

Sant Kabir's doha, Patta toota daali se, le gayi pawan udaye, abke bichhde kab mile, dur padenge jaaye, which means leaves fall from trees and the wind carries them far away, and that is the way of life too. 

The loom. 

That's me beaming that the mural is finally over. 

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Wonders of Abdominal Breathing.

If you’ve met me in the last one year, chances are you would have received an unsolicited lecture on abdominal breathing. I can ‘see’ some of you smiling! I thought I must share this with a wider audience as this may benefit some others as it has benefitted me. It was 2 years ago that my husband and I learnt Kriya yoga. While I don’t practice the entire breathing sequence, what stuck to me is abdominal breathing which is used in Kriya yoga.

So let me tell you how I discovered this magical tool which is available anywhere, anytime and free of cost! Last year in November, I was diagnosed with dengue and was hospitalized. Although I knew about belly breathing, it did not occur to me how it had benefitted me until I was discharged from the hospital. In the hospital, my husband stood by my bedside asking me to take deep breaths through my stomach. Though I was weak, I did as much and for as long as I could. As soon as I was discharged from the hospital I was up and about. I did not feel excessively weak as is the case with dengue cases (which I realized much later). I was discharged on 25th November evening and 27th early morning at 5 am I was off with my husband to attend the Passing Out Parade (POP) at the National Defense Academy (NDA). My Mother thought I was crazy. But that was an event I was looking forward to for many months and I was feeling well enough to go.

People who came to visit me at home were surprised when I myself opened the door and was helping my Mom in the kitchen. They expected to see me bed-ridden. Exactly a week after I was discharged, we met two dear Army friends. The gentleman remarked that he couldn’t believe I was in the hospital just last week as he had seen many able bodied Army men look like zombies for 2 months after a dengue attack. Another hilarious incident happened when 2 weeks after returning from the hospital, my brother-in-law from Chennai, decided to pay a surprise visit to see how I was recuperating. I had just returned from a jog and was cooking breakfast when he came. He looked really confused about my condition. My Mother kept informing me of people who even two months later enquired very sympathetically about my health.

It was then I wondered about why I had literally and almost instantly sprung back to good health. The answer was clear: Belly breathing! Since then I have been practicing belly breathing for all ailments and physical and emotional too and giving unsolicited lectures on it to unsuspecting people ;-)
Whether it’s an itchy throat signaling the onset of fever (in my case), or a headache, or even indigestion or feeling stuffed after overeating, I do abdominal breathing and I’m back to normal. In May sometime, I went for a jog without a warm up (don’t ask me why), and suddenly while jogging I felt a shooting pain on my right calf muscle. I had to stop and limp back to my house. For 2 days I went around limping and no amount of stretching or pain balms helped. I don’t know why but only on the 3rd day it occurred to me that I should try belly breathing. I did and next day onwards I was walking normally and 3rd day onwards I was back to jogging. I was surprised! Now my husband too had a knee injury from running since January and medicines and Physiotherapy wasn’t helping too. So after breathing had cured me of my severe catch on my leg, I asked my husband to try that for his knee. Without exaggeration, the pain which had been with him for 5 months disappeared in less than a week’s time!

Even right before my Himachal trip, just a week before, I had sprained my right ankle by missing a step. As soon as I fell down, my first thought was, “Gosh my trip is in 6 days”. Almost instantly I remembered the abdominal breathing and did that almost continuously. And needless to say, I did go on my trip, walked a lot, climbed trees, etc. My ankle did feel wobbly at times and I pacified it with breathing.

Fast forward to 2 days back. On Thursday, last week, I cut my tongue while eating, and it was very painful. I saw that there was a boil like growth where it was painful and I had slurred speech on Thursday and Friday. I was worried about how I would host guests who were visiting the next 2 days. I decided to try the breathing on the boil. I sat down and did a 100 breaths and went about my work. Suddenly while talking to my husband, I realized I wasn’t slurring and there was no pain. I rolled my tongue on the roof of mouth and still no pain. The boil had disappeared! This was really a miracle!

Another important and remarkable recovery was that of my Father-in-laws’. Around two years ago, he was diagnosed with the first stages of Parkinson’s disease. And when he came to visit us in Pune last year in August, he was already around 10 months into the illness and had been on medication for the same. My husband taught him belly breathing and insisted that he must do 100 breaths each day without fail. And within two months there was no trace of Parkinson’s!

Even when I’m emotionally disturbed or angry or even when I sense anger/frustration rising in me, I just breathe and I’m fine and able to be more objective about the situation. And yes, breathing has made me happier!

Now-a-days, I breathe through the belly whenever I remember and I’m conscious of it, like, while I’m typing this. If I am not regularly breathing through the stomach, I sit down and do belly breathing for as long as possible, sometimes for upto one hour. Whenever I have tried it, it has worked and I am still discovering its benefits with each passing day.

How to do it: Doesn’t matter if you are sitting, standing, sleeping! Just take deep breaths through the belly. It means, feel your belly expanding and contracting with each breath. For any ailment in a specific part of the body, you need to use your imagination a bit. For example; if I am having knee pain, I imagine my knee breathing in and out, although I continue breathing through the abdomen. If you find it difficult to imagine this, place your palm on the ailing part and breathe through the belly, at the same time bringing your awareness on that part of the body.

I remember in one of Lobsang Rampa’s books, he had mentioned that pain in any part of the body occurs because of a lack of oxygen supply to that part. May be that’s why bringing one’s awareness to that part and breathing through the abdomen works so well. I also remember a scene from the movie ‘Black Swan’ where Natalie Portman goes to the doctor for a strain in a muscle and the doctor tells her “Breathe into it” (into that part of the body).
Even babies and Rishis naturally breathe through their abdomen. Maybe we need to re-learn the natural way of breathing. It surely has helped me. Try it out and do let me know if it helps you!

Sunday 18 October 2015

Why I Like to Travel Solo.

Romancing the Clouds in Korigad Fort.
Every solo traveller, worth his or her salt, especially a female, has a post on her blog about why they travel solo. My first solo trip was to Jammu in 2011. My husband was to go on a 10 day official trip abroad. Being a free lancer, I didn't have any issues about leaves and such. Accompanying him wasn't possible on that trip. So, I called a friend working in the Army, who was posted in Jammu and off I went. There was a lot of resistance from my parents who said that a Jammu was a terrorist area and it wouldn't be safe to go. When I think of it, I still laugh. But I’ll reserve that story for another post. Let me tell you very candidly what my reasons for travelling solo are.

Profusion of Beauty.
  • My husband has a regular job so cannot take long leaves. And I’m a believer in slow travel. My travel is not about ticking things off on a check-list of must-do’s in any place. It’s more about soaking up the place, being with Nature, enjoying the food and being touched by the hospitality of the people. And this cannot be done over weekend trip you know or even over 3-4 days. That’s why all my trips have been for a minimum of 10 days. But after returning I always feel I could have extended that.
  • Now, I may sound like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But, my inner world itself is so rich and colourful that I don’t crave company. When I’m travelling my sense perceptions are heightened and every leaf, flower, ray of light, ant everything else is alive for me. It’s like, I enter a world I’ve created where everything talks and interacts. The beauty of everything is amplified manifold and I just want to lose myself in its beauty without any interference. Need I say more, if I need human company?
Soaking up the sunset at Udaipur.
  • I never get bored alone, so that works in my favour. If I may add one more seemingly audacious line, I like my own company the best and never tire of it!! I know I sound like a snob, but that’s true. Even in my school days, after returning from school, I used to spend long hours, alone at home till my Mother returned from work, and those memories are the best when I wrote poems, let my imagination run amok and felt truly happy.
  • Before I started solo travel, I had travelled in groups. I realized that in groups, everybody is talking or busy taking photos and after returning I realized I hardly experienced the place itself fully. The ‘being in the moment’ and soaking it up was disturbed by distractions by the other group members.

  • If you observe some huge groups that travel, you will notice the amount of noise they make without revering the surroundings. It’s not their fault really. Being in a group makes one give in to that ‘mob psychology’. I've been to monasteries and forests and I absolutely detest big groups making noise, talking loudly, hooting, singing (cheap) Bollywood songs, etc and desecrating the place. So I like to travel solo to keep away from these as much as possible (unless I'm going with an environmentally conscious group of people, like I did for Kaas and Bhimashankar).
  • When I travel solo, I have the liberty of going at my own pace, without having to worry about anything else.

  • I'm usually the quietest when commuting from one place to another. That is the time to observe the world as it passes by while being seated in a train/plane/vehicle. I detest small talk and it drains my energy. So travelling solo gives me that time and space to be myself and be charged by the visual inputs.
  • Reading all this may make you think of me as a people hater. But in my defense, let me quote Lord Byron:

"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, 
 There is a rapture on the lonely shore, 
 There is society, where none intrudes, 
 By the deep sea, and music in its roar: 
 I love not man the less, but Nature more, 
 From these our interviews, in which I steal 
 From all I may be, or have been before, 
 To mingle with the Universe, and feel 
 What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

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