Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fire and Night.

This is a new episode #5 - Read the rest of the blog posts bottom up on the tag: UttarakhandDiary

It is getting hazy and dark, the taste of the halwa puri and another syrupy sweetmeat special to Haridwar first grabs my taste buds, sends pleasure signals shooting to my brain, envelopes my mind for a while and then as I finish it off, the taste lingers on in my tongue. Delirious, as I cross the bridge I can see the river of dark molten watery nothing-ness, caressing the banks, which slowly gets filled with thousands of gathering devotees all eager to look at a daily spectacle that will soon unfold. Ganga Aarati – river worship at the Hari ki Pauri starts around 7 PM every day. A glimpse of the holy fire is supposed to be sacred I guess, that’s why the near stampede; which I become a part of in moments. Until minutes before the fire is lit, agents of the Ganga Mandali are feverishly collecting donations from devotees, loudly calling out names of those who contributed and the amount they contributed. My contribution is meager in comparison with others - which means there are a lot of tourists - but then I don’t believe in comparisons!  

The chief priest starts chanting and then the fire is lit in a brass holder that he holds - smell of camphor and other holy oils never reach my blocked nostrils. People pushing to get forward to be nearer to the fire; as leaping flames become visible in stark contrast to the pitch darkness that has suddenly fallen. I turn around to see another flame behind and little flakes of fire come leaping towards us in the blowing wind; one small fleck sticks to my bag and I realize it has caught fire, I extinguish it with my a few blows. There you go - a permanent mark left on my bag. Burnt? Yes and perhaps blessed!

After the Arati I head towards the market hoping to get a rickshaw but at this time of the night the roads are choked with devotees and the few rickshaws that manage to reach the spot quote bizarrely high prices for a ride. I keep walking as a panoply of vendors and devotees throng the roads, walking through is a difficult experience. Finally I get a rick ready to go for twice the usual rate – might have walked down all the way, I think.

I reach the hotel and ask for what kind of trips they arrange for and the man at the reception hands me a pamphlet, the Rishikesh one looks best for an arranged 1 day trip. I enquire about Kedarnath and Gangotri, these are to the centre and north of Uttarakhand and will take quite some time to reach, Kedarnath I am told has to be trekked for about fourteen KMs to reach. I ask about Joshimath and Badrinath, he asks me to go and speak to a few travel agencies down the road, the GMVN (Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam) office is also nearby (there are two actually, one an office and another is a PRO).

So I wander about until I find a good travel agency – a reasonably knowledgeable guy, who speaks confidently and convinces me! I plan the way he suggests – Badrinath (east Uttarakhand) and then I come southwards to South Garhwal, Joshimath, Rudraprayag. Kedarnath and other places will not happen this time given the time I have available or the lack of it, for this trip. Later I go to the GMVN PRO – it has shut by the time I reach there. I come back and book the ticket to Badrinath (the bus is at 4:30 AM) the trip will take almost 12-14 hours I am told.

The next day I will go to Rishikesh! Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula. I will come back to this later…

Next Day - After I get back from a whole day’s trip to Rishikesh, I go back to the hotel and ask them to wake me up at 3:30 AM in the morning so I can take the bus to Badrinath. I have a sumptuous dinner and then as I switch off the lights to go to sleep, sleep eludes me completely. You would have expected after all the tiring events of the day sleep would come easily – no sir, no such luck. Thoughts and images from the trip to Rishikesh come trooping in – sleep has vanished! And you cannot force sleep. The mind at times behaves in extremely strange ways and gets attached as it were with certain thoughts, events, ideas and people. The mind capture can be so complete that all else is forgotten for that period of time. It is like that example of a transparent crystal taking the colour of the nearest object and completely identifying with it. So finally I fall asleep at around 12:30 am or so and the room service promptly wakes me up at 3:15 am. Groggy, foggy eyed, I get ready, checkout of Hotel Arati and leave in a rickshaw; a chatty rickshaw driver for company.

The bus is supposed to leave at 4:30 am. I call once and am told the bus hasn’t come yet. I wait till 4:20 and then call again – and when I describe where I am the contact person informs me that I am perhaps at the wrong bus stand. I am wary I will miss the bus. Luckily I reach the other bus stand at about a distance of a kilometer, and as I ask for my seat – seat number 10, a young chap gets off the seat number 10 and goes out mumbling.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A true Art Connoisseur

Visit to Dr H K Kejriwal's residence – a fabulous art experience!

The research on cultural entrepreneurship we are conducting at IIM Bangalore is indeed fortuitous and enlightening for me as we understand the art world dynamics; and add to it the fact that we are getting to meet, interact with and interview some of the best folks in the field and the business of art. 

We had been to Dr H K Kejriwal’s residence today– founder of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, me and my research associate colleague. What a treasure trove of art it is – just fantastic. From works of Amrita Sher Gill, Abanindranath Tagore, Jogen Choudhury, to intricately done Buddhist thankas, murals from 3 BC, sculptures and Chola bronze works, Dancing Ganesha to I don’t know what else; cannot recollect all of them now. Stacks and bookshelves full of books on Art all along the walls. Porcelain cutlery, antique wine glasses, heads of temple figures, Buddha, abstract sculptures - many, many more artistic jewels. Loved the bronze sculptures of Ajit Chakraborty. 

The experience was just visceral and sheer joy - very fulfilling for me. The man himself is very energetic at eighty five and as my legs started aching going through the collections after two hours of walking around and explanations by HKK, he went on eager as ever. He has an evolved aesthetic sense having done the entire interior design himself. He is crazy about Rabindranath Tagore (and Mahatma Gandhi) and had many letters of his, could recite poetry of the Indian bard-poet with great emotion in clear Bengali – having stayed in Calcutta for almost forty years of his formative life, all the while himself to no end praising the poet and and his expressions. From the current industry state, players, insider news and the whole gamut of things we discussed apart from seeing the collection for almost eighty percent of the time. 

A passionate man - believing in beauty and pride in Indian relics and the intellectual prowess, learn-ability and adaptability of Indians. The range of topics that Dr H K Kejriwal could expound on was quite extraordinary and his boundless energy and verve quite unfathomable! Inspiring that we are able to meet him as part of our research endeavour.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hari ki Pauli

Continued from here... [Yet another train to Haridwar]
Or read blog posts bottom up on the tag UttarakhandDiary

As he started off from Hotel Arati sitting in a cycle rickshaw towards Hari ki Pauri – the banks where thousands bathe every day, Mr S felt the drizzle on him – he had expected searing heat – this was so cool – literally! The rickshaw puller experienced considerable agony in pulling Mr S’s bulk through particularly one part of the market where the rickshaw-wallahs can no longer cycle but have to pull the rickshaw and the customer sitting on it as they walk along!

Now we can see Mr S walking across the bridge across the Ganga (Ganges) walking down in the drizzle and then there he is standing on the red paved platform on one side. That’s the Hari ki Pauri. We can see him now as a tiny dot among thousands of worshippers. He seems to be saying “Wow, I love this place, it is drizzling and that makes it even more breathtaking”. Camera in hand he gapes at the thousands of bathers, some changing clothes, some dipping in the holy waters, some getting ready to jump in, some fully drenched. Can you feel the tingle in Mr S’s spine? No - you won’t, you can’t if you have not gone to this place – Hari ki Pauri – Lord Hari’s tank in Haridwar an area where the gushing waters of the Ganga are utilized for bathing and worship.

Mr S speaks to two Sadhus asking them what they are doing here, they retort back to him the same – then they all have a hearty laugh! After looking in wonderment all around for a couple of more minutes, Mr S walks down to the water front and is bending gingerly to take a handful of water in his cupped palm when he hears a strange sound. A Hisssss.


Mr S looks around and doesn’t find anything, apart from people frolicking in the waters - he continues to try and reach the water since if he slips he is going to be in the water, so he is very careful.


“What is it?”, thinks aloud Mr S.


He turns to his left to find a strange creature now visible just above the water surface. It is a strange creamish color water creature – small rounded head, a cup shaped lip, and several tentacles – red tentacles.

“Ah this is something I have seen somewhere”, says Mr S and that’s when he recollects browsing through the Lovely Planet magazine in the airport in Thimpu, six years back. He had gone on a tour through CorningSpar tours and travels. He distinctly remembers his guide Nomit Dhasu. Dhasu was a smart-alecky know-it-all kind of a man, at least in his subject, but had the air of an Indiana Jones about him. He had felt reviled first but the man was knowledgeable.
Anyways here and now he remembered the magazine talked of a Haripauli Gangeticus, scientific name for an octopus - rarest of rare non-oceanic breed found in India and seen only once in four years in and around the Hari ki Pauri. People used to fondly call it ‘Hari ki Pauli’. So this was it, and as the notion went only the most fortunate had sightings of this frothy, odd-looking creature. And apparently it had soothe-saying powers.

“Hey what is it that you are saying”, said Mr S trying to listen more keenly.


“You mean inches?” asked Mr S looking at his pot belly, frowning; then straining his ears, bringing them closer, slipping once almost on the verge of a fall as careful as he was.

“Princesssss, you will see the princess,” said Pauli distinctly.

“Tomorrow,” he added.

“Who, where, when?” shouted out Mr S amidst the deafening roar of the mighty river, his interest now sufficiently piqued.

“The princess in disguise. However there is a condition”, said Pauli – a smile spreading across its brown, grainy and white bulbous head, eyes blinking.

“What condition?” Mr S yelled, unable to control his excitement now.

“Don’t yell. Let me tell. You have to climb the stairs to reach the Manasa Devi temple. There that way”, Pauli raised one of its blood red tipped tentacle.

“Oh really, great!” said Mr S, blood now rushing up to his face.

“Bye then, have a great time ahead”, said Pauli now waving all its tentacles.

It was a wonderful sight that is still etched in Mr S’s memory. He waved back and within seconds it had disappeared as if assimilated within the spray of the gushing waters.

He ran up the stairs and back across the bridge and started walking towards where the rickshaw wallah had told him the stairs to the Manasa Devi temple began. No big deal he thought, he had no idea why Pauli had thrown him this challenge. Was it a joke? Or was it true? Who was this princess? In disguise he had said. Was he sleepy and day dreaming? He could hardly wait till tomorrow…

He started climbing up the stairs, and he went on climbing, and climbing and climbing and climbing! At one point he got so totally breathless that he gulped down a bottle full of water mistaking his breathlessness for thirst! There were hawkers asking him to buy Prasad or holy offerings to the goddess every few hundred or two hundred steps. When he reached the destination it was a revelation. People thronged in great numbers which meant they had all climbed too. Had they?

After the visit to the temple, he asked and someone informed him that there is a ropeway but it was not operational for the next two hours due to gusty winds. That meant he had to climb down the stairs. He was much more prepared now, once he was near the end he asked two people and they told him that he had climbed eight hundred and fifty steps. The stairs had become slippery and muddy in the rains and he could slip anytime so carefully he came down and promptly walked into an eatery in the market place. He could hardly eat anything when sleep started to envelop him. He now realized that he must have slept for one or two hours in the train from Delhi. He quickly finished gulping down some food and hurried back to the Hotel Arati.

Sleep overcame him as he locked the door of his room from inside; he lay motionless in bed, after having tossed the camera on one side of the bed. None of the photographs had picked up any trace of Pauli – the octopus Gangeticus, he discovered later. In his dreams he jogged through the alleys of his memory, Nomit Dhasu and the adventures at Thimpu.

It was evening. Princess Sa Ri Ta had reached Rishikesh the same day, the dusky complexioned, full bodied beauty, with dark pouty lips was staring at the distant something, sitting in the balcony of Hotel Ganga across the table with her mother and they were sipping tea. The two of them were to tour Rishikesh the following day in a bus booked by her dad back in Gwalior. The same bus that Mr S would take – he didn’t even know if he was going to Rishikesh the next day or somewhere else, but then coincidence or otherwise, things happen...


Sunday, July 04, 2010

Yet another train to Haridwar

Continued from here... [Train to Haridwar]

Before I enter Hotel Arati let me abruptly pause for a while here and hop onto another train. This time it is a train of thoughts that travels far and wide to everywhere!

Why am I here in Haridwar? What brings me here? To start with was it a conscious decision – of course triggered or by an impulse - that started it all? Or was it pre planned, beyond my volition? The latter is too farfetched to be imagined being true! At least I refuse to believe it although some part of my brain is instructing exactly the opposite – saying this is a part of my destiny – it had to happen…

Going by the easiest explanation first - it was an escape hatch from the banal life of the city that is Bangalore – academics and work combined had merely intellectual stimulation to offer. Get away, anywhere, now! It was a short break of four weeks (the longest we get between years) between the second year of my post graduation and the next quarter when I had exactly a week left. It was an urgency and impatience to grab this opportunity to travel to some place and I finally chose Uttaranchal, and to start with Haridwar. See? That was easy.

The next thing is this concept of wanderlust, to explore beyond just guided tours and work related travel. It is a sort of honey that attracts us as if we were bees. Getting lost – going up yonder – the pull of the majestic mountains and the beautiful hills – or the plains or the forests and the seas – infinite possibilities - one life. Notions imbibed from books and experienced in life too.

I had done an anonymous trip to Benaras, a year back and probably that was the source, a reference point. Once you take off on your own – you’re hooked, addicted as if to travelling independently, free from all things, going along, through thick and thin – carefree of the consequences. The ‘just do it’ spirit!

You won’t believe it – it all happened in the span of one day. I made the decision on a Sunday morning, went ahead and bought some travel gear that morning, booked the flight tickets in the afternoon and by midnight was on my way. Swiftness of it all also gives you that kick! Adrenaline high – I am reminded of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s remark: “We travel just to travel”!

More than travel it is my free will asserting itself! It tugs at your innermost core and then you give in! It is not your usual sight-seeing or relaxing in a resort (which incidentally I find repulsive, it has its social value I agree) – it goes beyond; it helps you connect to something beyond just life’s immediate, here and now activities and utilities.

Metaphorically the link of comradeship and love is established with the vast expanses of the universe through these spaces and natural formations such as mountains, seas, forests on planet earth and act as perfect surrogates. Transcendence reached albeit temporarily through these means.

The trailing compartment of this train is the destiny bit – the notion that it had all to be and so it did –destined as it were! Someone even told me this exact thing too, later on in my trip. I don’t deny that some part of my brain is reeling in pleasure at that thought but is it rational? Hmmm... Does everything have to be rational in life?

The train screeches to an abrupt halt. There is a momentary silence.

There erupts the hustle bustle of the Haridwar streets. Walking through a small entrance into a place dungeon-like, I check-in into Hotel Arati.


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Train to Haridwar

Continued from here... [New Delhi Railway Station]

Loads of foreigners in the compartment and also noisy kids; one set spiritually inclined the other decibel-ly! With all this however the train is quite comfortable – AC chair car – with breakfast served. After a few minutes of departure a person comes and sits beside me on the vacant seat and gives me a big smile. In another few minutes we start conversing. I tell him about my limited ticket up to Meerut.

“So when did you buy the ticket, did someone tell you to buy it?” he asked, a twinkle in his eye. This man of a smallish build was well dressed and his black leather shoes were shining; he sat in style beside me.

“Yes, the person at the ticket counter where I was all night,” I replied back, to which he started nodding his head in a gesture of knowingness.

“Good,” he continued, “that was clever of you – unfortunately I came at the last moment and had to speak to the TC to enter without a ticket. So where are you from?”

“I am from Bangalore, I hope I can extend this ticket beyond Meerut; where are you headed to?,” I ask him.

Saharanpur or someplace he tells me and he is without a ticket; and I look more nervous than him – he is perfectly nonchalant; I then realize that many people could be doing this regularly.

The checker comes up and I mention to him if I can get my ticket extended till Haridwar.
“Speak to me in a while – I will let you know,” says he in a gentle voice; my ticket less co-passenger speaks to him in some sign language which I completely fail to fathom and then the TC vanishes! He never comes back.

Meerut arrives and we are told to vacate the seats by a mother-daughter duo perhaps, no - in all probability bengalis I figure. Me and my ticketless friend – apparently he is a manager with some Ayurvedic firm - move on, although I put up a brave face in front of the ladies; ultimately the ladies get the priority you see!

We move into the next compartment and find 2 seats vacant. I am sitting in between two people and they seem to be daily travelers. I feel extreme embarrassment in sitting between them like a ticketless traveler. They are calm and silent - going about their activities, reading the newspaper, having breakfast etc.

After a while another ticket checker arrives and I regain my composure then I go on to narrate the facts glibly – he says he would definitely look into it and vanishes – no other ticket checkers come after that and I give up on worrying. Ticketless has also vanished in the meanwhile, after a while.

I reach Haridwar at about noon while chatting for the last hour of the train travel with a serene and chatty but wise, old man with an ivory white, flowing beard; from Baroda. He is from a yoga ashram there and has extensive knowledge of Reiki and pranic – energy healing! I listen to him sceptically, some of his scientific explanations are quite plausible I must add though!

The Haridwar station is very small, I come out of the station premises and there are so many cycle rickshaws waiting in a queue along the road. The rickshaw wallah takes me to a pricey hotel first which I immediately come out of and then we settle for another one. On its board is written in Bengali script: হোটেল আরতি (Hotel Arati).