Monday, May 31, 2010

Flavors of Gujarat


    Food has always played a major role in the Gujarati society. Primarily vegetarian, their cuisine is a reflection of the community’s cultural links with the past which is probably the reason why they are also very passionate about it. I am personally very fond of Gujarati food… sweet and spicy, hot and tangy… a meticulous blend of a host of different spices ensuring that unique flavor and distinct taste…Ymmm!!

    A traditional Gujarati thali consisting of dal, shaak, theplas, rice, salads, pickles, a bowl of khichdi, basundi topped with a cool glass of chaas…sheer bliss!! But what gets me hooked are their irresistible snacks like the spongy khaman dhoklas, soft khandvis, sweet and spicy patras or the variety of crispy crunchy farsans which are absolutely mouth watering. I got a chance to taste some of these very delectable food items during my trip to Surat and Vadodara.

    As I am writing this, I am already starting to feel hungry and I am sure you are too! So, dig in the array of photos and grab your share of the local flavors of Gujarat before it’s all finished up!!!

Sweet, soft and fluffy - Khaman Dhokla (steamed gram flour cakes), a traditional and the most popular Gujarati snack served with tampering of green chillies and loads of coriander. If you are in Gujarat, you just can’t miss this!

[ Soft and spongy Khaman Dhokla ]

Sweet and spicy patras (skillfully rolled colocasia leaves) served with delicious chutney, another Gujarati starter makes for a wonderful snack.

[ Sweet and spicy Patras ]

And then there is this thin, crisp, crunchy fried farsans which you can get at any of the wayside stalls accompanied with the divine papaya chutney.

[Crisp and crunchy farsans]

A way to beat the sweltering heat of Gujarat…

[ Refreshing Sugarcane Juice with a dash of ginger, lime and masala ]

    Gujarati food is distinctively sweet but I think the Gujjus (as the Gujarati’s are fondly called) are sweeter…their hospitality coupled with the love for their food…a perfect combination making this Gujarati cuisine every gourmet’s delight!
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

EME - A Unique Temple in Vadodara


    When I first heard the name – ‘EME temple’, I thought I had mistaken the word temple. The name sounded more of an educational institute to me rather than a temple. And why not…temples in India are usually named after the deity to which it belongs. But in this case, I was wrong.

    Yes, EME is indeed the name of a temple – a very different and unique place, probably the only one of its kind in India. Located in Fatehganj, Army Cantonment area, about 7 km from the ISKCON temple and near the Vadodara railway junction, the EME temple was built by the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME) unit of the Indian army, hence the name. Even today the temple is under the supervision of the Indian army soldiers who do a fabulous job of managing the place.

    At the entrance, ancient slabs of rectangular stone with elaborate inscriptions welcomed us in. On entering the premises, my reaction was that of sheer amazement and delight. Literally, the length and breadth of the entire area is covered with excavated sculptural remains of various Hindu Gods, Goddesses, saints and kings in addition to some very old Shivlings that the archeological department has unearthed from the various parts of the country over a period of time. Ranging from the 6th to the 18th century, all these remains are neatly arranged in the most picturesque, serene and beautiful surroundings. Seven pairs of Vad (banyan) trees named after the Saptrishis (seven famous Indian saints) and their wives provide ample of shade to these ancient artifacts and accentuate the splendor of the surroundings.

    I was itching to take some photos but sadly photography is strictly prohibited in the premises. The stone pathways led me from one idol to another and I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful pieces of art which give a glimpse into the rich ancient Indian history besides the sculptural tradition of Gujarat.

    Amidst all this stands an architecturally marvelous temple (also known as Dakshinamurthy) dedicated to Lord Shiva seated in south-facing position, who imparts wisdom and teachings to the sages, intuitively in silences. The color of the idol is black and is pleasing to the eye. The temple, wrapped in an air of calmness and stillness, is an ideal place for meditation. Covered entirely in aluminum sheets, the architectural structure of the main temple is such that it symbolizes religious harmony and communal peace. The five main religions in India are represented by different symbols in the structure. The kalash on the top of the dome symbolizes Hinduism, the dome stands for Islam, Christianity is represented by a 22 mtr high tower, the golden-structure above the tower represents Buddhism and the semi-elliptical entrance of the temple stands for Jainism. Surrounding the temple are shrines of a number of Hindu deities: Rama, Krishna, Hanuman and Ganesha as well as Sai Baba and Gautam Buddha.

    There is also a miniature replica artificial cave, modeled on the famed Amarnath Gufa (cave). The darkness, the dripping water, the snow covered lingam and the continuous Shiva mantra chanting inside the cave gave it a real feel and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    The temple is open to all from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Do carry your photo-ids which are required as the temple is located in the army premises. I just loved this fascinating place, it was like taking a stroll in a wonderfully managed open air museum containing relics of old India- which unfortunately today remains the stuff of only our history textbooks!!

    For a unique and memorable experience in Vadodara, I suggest you definitely pay a visit to the ‘EME temple’ and take my word for it you wont be disappointed!
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Monday, May 24, 2010

A Beautiful City - Vadodara

    After exploring Kabirvad, we headed towards Vadodara, one of the prominent towns of Gujarat. It is situated on the banks of river Vishwamitri, named after the great saint Vishwamitra. The ancient town of Vadodara (also known as Baroda) was called Vadpatra due to the abundance of Banyan trees on the banks of river Vishwamitri.

    Vadodara has many and varied attractions – beautiful majestic palaces like Laxmi Vilas palace and museums for the historically inclined, art and picture galleries for the art lover, temples like EME for people with a religious bent of mind and wonderful gardens like Sayaji Baug for those who just want to spend a relaxing time in the peaceful city – there’s something for everybody.

[ A colorful decoration known as rangoli 
depicting Dandiya Raas ]

    I think the best time to visit the city is around October when the entire city gets traditionally dressed in the festive colours of Navratri. During the nine nights of Navratri, people perform traditional dances called Garba and Dandiya Raas to please Goddess Amba. This is the time when Vadodara, the Cultural capital of Gujarat, becomes the focus of the state.

Vadodara is around 140 km and 450 km from Surat and Mumbai respectively. Vadodara is well connected to major cities of India by excellent roadways, trains and air.

ISKCON, Vadodara

    Situated at Gotri road, the ISKCON Temple in Vadodara is about 2 km from the railway station.

[ Entrance to the ISKCON Temple, Vadodara ]

 
[ ISKCON Temple, Vadodara ]

The magnificent temple stands amidst beautiful gardens and green surroundings. The temple area comes alive in the evenings when it is filled with people and divine prasadam is distributed to all.

[ Govinda's Restaurant and snack counter ]

[ Snack counter serving a variety of delicacies ]

[ Families enjoying a sunday evening 
at the garden in  ISKCON ]

    In the premises, there is a Govinda’s restaurant serving traditional Gujarati thali just above the snacks counter. The snacks counter serves a whole host of gujarati and south indian items out of which I found their dahiwadas and samosas very tasty. The food is very hygienic, ambience good and the prices reasonable.

[ Tulsi - An eternal associate of Lord Krishna ]

    In the garden, there is a plant of Tulsi (Holy basil), considered very sacred by the Hindus. Its leaves are considered uniquely auspicious in all the Hindu Vedic scriptures and are offered to Lord Krishna everyday - the main deity of the temple. The bhaktas maintain a large gaushala for cows, bulls and calves. Each of them is given a distinct name - Godavari, Radha, Saraswati, etc. 

    The rooms are clean and comfortable and we decided to spend the night here. Life members are charged Rs.100/day (non a/c) and Rs. 400 (a/c) while the other guests are accommodated against a further donation.

Address:
Sri Sri Radha Shyamsunder Mandir,
ISKCON Temple
Gotri Road,
Baroda Gujarat 390021 INDIA

Telephone Numbers:
+91-265-2310630
+91-09898304958
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Sunday, May 16, 2010

One of the Oldest living Banyan tree - Kabirvad

Bura Jo Dekhan Main Chala, Bura Naa Milya Koye
Jo Munn Khoja Apnaa, To Mujhse Bura Naa Koye - A Doha by Saint Kabir

English Translation-
I searched for the corrupt man, met not a single one,
Then searched myself, "I" found the corrupt one

    En route from Surat to Vadodra, about 80 kms from Surat, 16 kms from Bharuch and a km ahead of Shuklatirth, a small signpost guides you to a very interesting and historical island called Kabir Vad. Situated on the banks of the holy river Narmada, it is a religious and a picnic spot. Dedicated to the famed Indian poet-saint Kabir, it is full of Vad trees (Banyan trees) - hence the name, Kabir Vad. A remarkable fact is that all of these have originated from a single trunk. Having visited his birthplace, Lahartara in Varanasi, I was eager to know more about this place too.

[ A Doha by Saint Kabir ]

    To reach there one has to take a boat (Rs. 35/person, to and fro) which plies every 20-30 minutes. As soon as I stepped on to the boat, memories of the boat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi came rushing back to me. However this time the sun was beating down and the boat was full of people. But I enjoyed it nevertheless.

[ Boat that took me to Kabir Vad ]

[ View of the  Narmada River and the picturesque bank from the boat ]

    It takes about 15 minutes for the boat to reach the other side of the river, after which one has to walk a distance of about one km to reach the place. Along the way, a number of shacks selling a variety of items like sugarcane juice, sweet corn, biscuits, etc keep one company.

[ Shacks lining up the Narmada bank ]

[ Sweet corn boiled in the waters of River Narmada ]

[ Entrance to Kabir Vad ]

    Finally I reached the actual spot - Kabir Vad. Spread in an area of approximately one km, it’s probably the only place within India to boast of such a vast expanse of banyan trees - all having originated from a single trunk. The main trunk’s aerial roots over the years grew laterally into thick woody trunks and have now become completely indistinguishable from the main trunk. The mother tree is believed to be over 600 years old.

[ Scenic views of Kabir Vad ]

The view was simply amazing and all I could see was branches spread out far and wide, aerial roots, monkeys playing on them and thousands of bats hanging upside down (try spotting them in the pictures).

    As with most of ancient places, several stories do the rounds here. According to one very interesting story, once Saint Kabir had planted a Datun (twig used as a toothbrush in ancient times) here. The same twig took the form of a huge Vad tree (mother trunk) which later gave rise to the adjoining ones. Another story goes that Saint Kabir had meditated under the Banyan tree during one of his pilgrimage trips. That tree never aged and subsequently multiplied in number.

    Maintained by the Gujarat Forest Dept., the place is not overtly clean but, I guess, that is what you come to expect of the Indian authorities. But then the blame also lies with the tourists who do not think twice before littering the place.

[ Lotus shaped marble temple dedicated to Saint Kabir ]

[ Idol of Saint Kabir in the Temple ]

    There is a small museum in the premises which gives a bit of insight of this astonishing place. There is also a beautiful lotus shaped temple which houses an idol of the great saint Kabir Das. Ironically, he was strictly against any form of idol worship (read more of him here) and today, man has built a temple even in his name!!!
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

On the banks of River Narmada - Shuklatirth

River Narmada

    Believed to be older than River Ganga, River Narmada is one of the most sacred rivers of the seven holy rivers of India (other six being Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Sindhu, Kaveri and Godavari). She is worshipped as a living Goddess in the country and flows through parts of Gujarat and central India. Her mere divine sight is said to purify a person of all his sins. She finds a mention in ancient Hindu texts and is believed to be the daughter of Lord Shiva. Great saints liks Bhrigu, Atri, Vyas and Shukdev are said to have meditated on the holy banks of this river and achieved great spiritual powers here. Such is the divine charm of this river.

[ Sacred River Narmada ]

There are many places of pilgrimage on the banks of this holy river – Chandod, Karnali, Omkarnath besides Shuklatirth and Kabirvad which I have visited and am describing them in a 2 part series, this being the first.

Shuklatirth

    Shuklatirth is a small holy village situated about 65 kms from Vadodara and 16 kms from Bharuch. Located on the banks of Narmada river, this is the most important place of Hindu pilgrimage in the Bharuch district of Gujarat and is believed to be over 2000 years old. Here, one can find many old temples of Lord Shiva, Vishnu and various other Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In the main Temple, there lies a beautiful old idol of chaturbhuj(four hands) Shukla Narayan, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, in white marble believed to have floated up from the Narmada river
    One can easily reach here by car or bus. It is a very serene and tranquil place and I had visited it the last time I travelled here, but since I visited Kabirvad this time, I had to give this temple a miss due to time constraints.
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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sari Shopping in Surat

    Aptly called the textile capital of India – Surat is known all over the world for its beautiful and gorgeous Saris, the traditional dress of India. It is one of the greatest emporiums for sari trade in India. No wonder then, it is also a shopper’s paradise for every Indian woman who loves to drape herself in this classic and elegant 6 meter long cloth. Many of the textile markets here are wholesale in nature but some like New Bombay and Old Bombay textile markets are full of retail shops.

[ A View of the Old Bombay Textile Market in Surat ]

    Enter in any of these markets and all you will see is different types of colorful saris – heavy silks embellished with delicate works of zari, crepes embroidered with elaborate threadwork, printed chiffons, georgettes and many more - all in unique designs and vibrant colors.

[  Beautiful Sarees stacked up for sale ]

    If you bargain tough, chances are you will leave the market smiling with a good quality sari for a very reasonable price. We had entered the Old Bombay textile market just to get a feel of the sari shopping mania. When we left, my mother had her hands full!!

[ Colorful Sarees on display ]
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Local Temples of Surat

    In spite of being situated besides one of the seven sacred rivers Tapi (also known as Tapti), this arc-shaped city is not known so much as a pilgrimage town rather recognized as one of the prosperous centre’s of textile and diamond trade.
We visited the following temples besides the ISKCON temple during our stay in Surat.

Ambika Niketan

    One of the more popular temples of Surat, Ambika Niketan is located in Athwa Lines. A 2 storeyed structure, this temple overlooks the sacred river Tapi flowing nearby.

[ River Tapi flowing by ]

    On the first floor is the main temple which was built in 1969 by a disciple, Bharati Maiya. We reached here during the Sandhya Arti (Evening prayer).

[ People attending the Evening prayer ]

The main deity here is Ashtbhuja (Eight hands) Goddess Amba - a form of shakti. Goddess Amba, seated on her vehicle - the lion, draped in a beautiful red saree, carrying her weapon – the trishul in her hand with a divine smile on her radiant face was a sight to behold. The temple also has mini shrines dedicated to Lord Ram, Sita, Laxmi Narayan and Shiva.

Ram Temple

    Located just besides the ISKCON Temple, according to the locals, the Ram Temple is quite an old temple. The main presiding deity here is Lord Ram. There are several other shrines dedicated to various other Hindu Gods and Goddess in the premises. I tried to find out more about it on the internet but was unable to trace anything. However, judging from the presence of a large number of locals, one thing is for sure - this temple is locally quite famous!

[ Inside the Ram Temple ]
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Weekend Getaway to Gujarat

    In Mid-March, I got an opportunity to visit the state of Gujarat which is dotted with a number of ancient Jain, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim monuments. However, my focal pilgrimage point was a very ancient temple dedicated to Lord Krishna in the Dakor village (More on that in my later posts). On the way to Dakor, I explored a bit of the major cities of Gujarat- Surat and Vadodara as well.

My first stop - Surat

    My first stop was one of the oldest cities of Gujarat - Surat. Surat is well connected to several major cities in Gujarat and the states of western India by rail and road. But the nearest airport is 140 kms away at Vadodara. The road conditions on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway (NH-8) being pretty good, it took us around 5 hrs (326kms) to reach there by car.

ISKCON, Surat

    Also known as Hare Rama Hare Krishna Temple – the ISKCON Guest house in Surat was the place for our first overnight stay…

[ ISKCON Guest House ]

[ ISKCON Temple - Surat ]

[ Morning Prayer inside the Temple ]

[Beautiful views from my balcony ]

Though a little away from the centre of the city, but the clean rooms and the peaceful atmosphere makes for a comfortable stay.


Address:
Sri Sri Radha Damodar Mandir
Rander Road, Jehangirpura
Surat-395 005, India.
Phone: 0261- 2765891, 2663386
E-mail: surat@pamho.net
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