Friday, February 24, 2012

The Village Woman By The Riverside

The following article is written as part of the IndiBlogger and Travel Around the World with Expedia Contest (http://www.expedia.co.in/) under the topic -->

Share with us the stories about interesting people you've met when on your travel in India or overseas and what connected you together – a hobby, interest, belief, etc.

Hope you enjoy reading it!

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Wow! It’s simply breathtaking! These are the words that spring to my lips as I slowly walk down the dusty and uneven pathway at a small town in the Himalayas. The Kalp Kedar temple stands above and a large Shiva statue with a trident looks on benignly...

Lord Shiva Temple - Harsil
The Kalp Kedar Temple with the Lord Shiva statue, Harsil

The sentiment was apt for what I was looking at was the gorgeous Ganga as she tumbled and bubbled her way over the rocks at Harsil, a campsite set in an apple orchard, framed against a backdrop of sylvan pine trees reaching the skies and icy mountain peaks. A chance halt at Harsil, on our way down from the pilgrim town of Gangotri had meant me strapping the laces of my running shoes to explore more of the nearby town.

I came out after paying my respects to Lord Shiva at the local Kalp Kedar temple when I heard the gentle swishing sound of the waves – actually it was the River Ganga. Attracted by the sight and with an eager keenness to meet Her, I took the route down. Bordered by thick hedges and apple bushes, intermingled with puzzling paths branching off and seemingly leading to nowhere, the unpaved dirt track was leading me to my destination in sight.

Apple orchards, Harsil in Himalayas
The apple orchards lining my way down towards the banks

Down at the river bank, it was silent, serene and I was overwhelmed by the surreal beauty of the landscape: such remoteness – Is this real or am I dreaming?

There was this light blue-green sacred water making its way downhill through boulders and pebbles and the complementing horizons marked by the magnificent mountains reaching for the skies, some snow capped while others in all shades of browns, greys and greens.

River Ganga - Harsil
Surreal beauty at the river bank

Amid all this beauty, a figure in shades of emerald and crimson caught my eye. In her late fifties, she was short with distinct hilly features, looked a bit frail and her face bared a few wrinkles, proof of the hardships she had encountered in her life. It was a woman from the village cuddled up in a green sweater and a light blue scarf, knelt down with folded hands drinking Gangajal (sacred Ganga water) from the cusp of her hands. Her religious kit consisting of a diya, incense sticks, a match box, vermilion powder, rice flakes, etc all lay scattered neatly besides her. On noticing me, she radiated a pleasing smile and offered a few drops of water to me as well. I gulped it down. The water was crisp and cold, the strong winds striking me hard but the warmth of her smile comforted me.

"Yatri ho? (Pilgrim?)" , she inquired in her brusque Hindi.

I nodded affirmatively adding, "Coming down from Gangotri and going towards Badrinath."

Her weary eyes sparkled as I mentioned the two dhams and she asked me if I was aware of the significance of the place where I was standing. Curious to know more, I knelt down besides her and as if taking cue, she started her narrative –

"Once, Rivers Bhagirathi and Jalandhari had an argument about which was more significant. Lord Vishnu aka Hari intervened by taking the form of a stone or shila (Hari-shila or Harsil), and absorbed their anger. Even today, the waters of the two rivers become a little less turbulent from here onwards. So these stones that you see in the river, these are not ordinary stones, Beti! These stones have life... They are Lord Vishnu. Close your eyes and make a wish. Pray to them with a sincere heart. They will make all your wishes come true!"

I was awestruck by the conviction she exuded in her account.

"Have all your wishes been granted till now?", I asked.

To this, she giggled like a young girl, stood up and turned around. She then lit up her incense stick and holding it in the direction of the river; spoke to me for one last time, very clearly and distinctly –

"Most of them are and I am sure God will answer the rest too. But in His own time and own way!"

A certain sense of peace and divinity was oozing out of her and I felt something pulling me towards her; perhaps it was her childlike simplicity, perhaps it was her unwavering faith and conviction, perhaps it was her utmost devotion; something about her had touched me at the deepest level.

Garwali village Woman in the Himalayas
The Garhwali Woman lost in her prayers

Several questions came popping in my mind – From where was she manifesting her faith and positivity? What was it to live in a small town cut off from all the pleasures of a city life? Had she ever been out of town? But it was too late. She had already lost herself deep in thoughts, imploring God with a silent movement on her lips.

Framed by the endless horizon, I stood up to take in the incredible grandeur and breathe in the fresh country air. As I stepped back towards the stones, I found myself valuing the sanctity of the unspoilt place even more - a place that wasn’t even part of my itinerary originally!

I rolled my fingers along the clefts and crevices of the stones,

‘These are not ordinary stones. They have life…
They will make all your wishes come true’

A few minutes back, I had no idea what these stones stood for and now… suddenly they looked magical!

River Ganga - Harsil
Magical splendor!

I closed my eyes... breath became the silent prayer, our belief and faith the holy mantra. It was a complete moment of bliss, a divine moment connecting me with the divine force. I felt completely blessed and I felt happy. Even amid such overwhelming beauty, faith here was more daunting.

What in the world was I doing here? Who was she? Had something beckoned me here? Unable to find any answers, I felt goose pimples on my arms. It was now time to leave... as I began filing, I gazed at her for one last time - her head still bowed, her palms slightly extended, camphor vapors billowing in the breeze dissolving into nothingness - she was wiping her tears...

1 yr on... Though I could never learn her name but my ephemeral meeting with her has left lasting impressions in the chambers of my heart. Walking down the memory lane by writing this piece, I can still feel her — standing by my side, her face - wrinkled and round like the sun, intermingling like an ever changing psychedelic with the currents of the fast flowing river moving beyond us, I still keep hearing her words – sweet, sober and soft; yet strong and steady flawlessly blended with confidence and conviction of the highest degree... And...

the voice from those speaking stones -
they still very much resonate in my ears...

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If you have any such stories to share, please do so in the comment section. Would love to hear them out!

PS: If you are an IndiBlogger and liked reading my article, Please vote for it on IndiVine HERE! Else, please do send across your best wishes for me. :)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Adi Shankaracharya Math, Shringeri in Karnataka

A guest post by Anu Shankar from A Wandering Mind - Her blog title describes her perfectly. Always on the trail, she spends most of her time either traveling to some destination in India or at other times writing about the events and activities revolving around her 8 yr son, Samhith. A writer par excellence and an absolute wanderer at heart, she is one blogger on the Indian blogosphere who essentially needs no introduction. I am very happy to conclude our yatra guest post series with such a senior travel blogger and above all… my inspiration… Read the post and you will know why…

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A young man was sitting on the banks of a river flowing through a lush valley, deep in thought. He had a mission to accomplish, and not too much time with him. He had walked across the Western Ghats, searching for a special place. His instinct told him that somewhere here, amidst these ranges, he would find the place he was looking for. What he had in mind was a place where he, and many others who would follow him, would find spiritual contentment. What he wanted to do was set up an ashram, where he could install his disciples, who would take his teachings further. He had trodden miles and miles across the thickly forested ranges and had stopped to rest on the banks of the river Tunga. The river was a sacred one, and many before him had found peace and contentment on her banks. The great sage Rishyasringa had lived here, and it was his gift of rain which kept the land so fertile. As the young man mused over the river and all the sages who had lived on these hills, his eyes fell upon a strange sight. The time was noon, and the midday sun was at its scorching best! On the bank of the river, was a snake, with its hood raised over a frog. At first glance it appeared as if the snake was about to devour the frog, but a closer look revealed that the snake was, in fact, protecting the frog from the harsh sun! Curious now, he continued to watch, and saw that the snake was indeed shading the frog, which was undergoing labour pains! The moment passed, and the creatures went their way. However, the young man was struck by the sight of a creature being protected by its deadly enemy. He knew then, that this was the place he had been seeking. This is where he would first set his base – a place which would grow in time to become a haven for seekers of the divine.

The young man was Adi Shankara, and the place he had found was Sringeri, in present day Karnataka. There, on the banks of the sacred Tunga, he set up the first of four ashrams or Mathas – the other three were later set up at Joshimath (north), Dwarka (West) and Puri (East).

That was somewhere in the 8th century. Centuries have passed since then, but Sringeri continues to attract seekers even today. Let me take you on a photographic journey through the ashram...

The River Tunga flows through the area, perennially supplying the town with plentiful water for its needs.

River Tunga flowing at the Sringeri math in Karnataka
River Tunga, Sringeri in Karnataka
River Tunga

On the banks of the river stands a small shrine depicting the scene which so captivated the saint – the snake protecting the frog!

Scene depicting the snake protecting the frog
(Image courtesy: sringeri.net)

On the left bank of the river is the Sharada temple. Sharada is a form of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, and it was her that Adi Shankara invoked to watch over this temple of learning.

Sharada Temple at the Sringeri Adi shankacharya math in Karnataka
The Sharda Temple

Originally, this was a simple shrine with an idol of the Goddess made of sandalwood placed over a rock on which Adi Shankara had carved the Sri Chakra (a symbol of the goddess). Later, with the temple gaining popularity as well as royal patronage, it was rebuilt and a golden idol installed in place of the sandalwood one. The original idol has now been placed in another shrine in the ashram.

The most impressive temple in the math complex is the shrine of the sage Vidyashankara, the 10th pontiff of the Math.

Vidyashankara temple from bridge over Tunga, Sringeri in Karnataka
Vidyashankara Temple, Sringeri in Karnataka
Sage Vidyashakara Temple

Built in 1338 AD, it is a blend of Chalukyan and Dravidian architecture. While the temple looks beautiful even from the outside, inside, it is all the more beautiful and detailed. The specialty of this temple is its 12 pillared hall. Each pillar is decorated with a sign of the zodiac, and the pillars are arranged in such a manner that every month, the first rays of the sun fall on the pillar corresponding to the zodiac sign of that particular month! On the floor is a large circle with converging lines indicating the direction of the shadows!

Carvings on the outer wall of the Vidya shankara temple, Sringeri
Carvings outside the Sage Vidyashankara temple

Crossing the river to the other side, it is almost possible to believe that we are in another world, for here are no shrines and crowds thronging them, but a peace and calm which is almost spiritual in nature.

On the other side of the river Tunga, Sringeri in Karnataka
Other side of River Tunga

A path lined with palm trees leads us to a clearing where the present pontiff of the math has his abode. There are no people to tell us to keep quiet, yet silence comes naturally in such a place, and even when filled with people rushing to gain his blessings, there is never a clamor as in the temple!

Path leading to guru's abode in the Sringeri Adi Shankaracharya math in Karnataka
Path leading to the guru's abode, Sringeri in Karnataka
Path leading to the abode of the math pontiff

This side of the river is where the actual ashram activities take place. Here, there are schools taking forward the teachings of Adi Shankara, where small children are taught the Vedas, and adult seekers from across the world come to study Advaita Vedanta. There are cowsheds housing the ashram cows, and even an elephant shed for the two elephants that live here. At one time, there were deer and peacocks too, but these have been removed to safety considering the crowd of local tourists who come here in droves!

Cowsheds in the distance, Sringeri
Cowshed from a distance

Elephant shed 2, Sringeri in Karnataka
Elephant shed 1, Sringeri in Karnataka
The two resident elephants of the math

Adi Shankara, it is believed, continued with his travels once he set up the math at Sringeri. Once he had set up the four maths in the four corners of the country, it is said that he went on his last pilgrimage, and, at the young age of 32, disappeared somewhere in the Himalayas near Kedarnath. Centuries have passed since then, and times have indeed changed, but at Sringeri, it seems his presence lingers.......... in the peace and contentment which sweeps over us as we enter the ashram.......... in the chanting of the students who are learning the Vedas...... and above all, in the eyes of the pontiff as he patiently listens to us and blesses us.

Getting there:

Sringeri is about 360 Km from Bangalore, 110 Km from Mangalore, 80 Km from Udupi, 105 Km from Shimoga, and 100 Km from Chickmangalur. Frequent buses are available from all these places.

Other Temples in and around Sringeri:

The ashram is not the only place of interest at Sringeri. The temple of Rishyasringa at Kigga, about 10 Km away was built in memory of the great sage who gave his name to the area. Even older is the temple of Malahanikareswara, which commemorates the sage Vibhandaka, the father of Rishyasringa. These are even more ancient than the temples at Sringeri, and even more beautiful. Besides, there are also the guardian deities installed by Adi Shankara himself at the four corners of the town.

More Temples around Sringeri:

Around Sringeri are even more temples to visit.... Udupi, with its Krishna temple, the Mookambika Temple at Kollur, the Annapoorna temple at Horanadu, the Shiva temple at Kalasa, the Ganesha temple at Anegudde, the Manjunatha Temple at Dharmasthala and the Naga Subramanya temple at Kukke Subramanya, all are easily accessible from Sringeri.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Guest Posts On The Two Dhams - Gangotri and Badrinath

Apart from featuring some of the best bloggers as guests in My Yatra Diary..., the past few months have also given me the honor of being featured as one as well. Yes, I had an opportunity of two guest posting instances which I would like to share here, with all of you.

Guest Post Excerpts

1. MAHINDRA HOMESTAYS BLOG

The first one was a photo essay for Mahindra Homestays India Travel Blog (in return of which they did one guest post for us as well - First time travel tips for India) on my trip to Badrinath to celebrate the festival of Diwali.

Here is an excerpt:

Markets of Badrinath
Lanes leading to the Badrinath temple

Silent tones greeted me as I took my first steps in the town. The lanes were quiet. Shopkeepers lazily put up their wares on display. A scant number of people populated the streets. Such quietness… I had wondered to myself? But then, it was reasonably justified as well...

To read the entire article, please follow this link - A Call to the Heavenly Abode, Badrinath.

2. ART OF LEO

The second guest post was for my blogger friend, Leo (Vinay) of Art of Leo. This was more of a personal essay on my experience in the Himalayan pilgrim town of Gangotri.

Here is an excerpt:

River Ganga in Gangotri, Uttarakhand Himalayas
River Ganga @Gangotri

As I removed my shoes and tip toed on the smooth icy rocks, a melodious music of silence filled my ears. Mixed in it were gurgling rhythmic beats of Her waters and before I could gather anything, I found myself drifting away in a trance...

To read the entire article, please follow this link - Tranquility in the Waters: My Trip to Gangotri.

Do check them out and please let me know how they were, am anxiously waiting to hear your feedback on them.

A Word of Thanks!

Finally, before I get down to penning another one of my yatras, a quick note of thanks to all our guest bloggers this month - Santosh BS, Team G Square and Jitaditya Narzary - for being kind enough to take out some time from their schedules and grace our little yatra diary with their wonderful content on my request. It was a real delightful experience and a pleasure hosting all of you and kindly let me excused if there were any shortcomings from my side.

Also, thank you to all my loving readers for giving them such a warm welcome and showering them with as much love as you do to me. Thank you!

Here are the links to their Guest Posts in case you missed them or wish to go over them again -

3. Valley of Flowers: Paradise Found - Jitaditya Narzary

Friday, February 3, 2012

Valley of Flowers: Paradise Found

Our guest blogger for today, Jitaditya Narzary from Travelling Slacker is an occasional traveler and a photographer par excellence. His travelogues are always comprehensive with loads of detailing and awe inspiring photographs and an FAQ section at the end to help all the prospective backpackers. And this guest post from him is no different. So here goes the article, where he talks about the Valley of Flowers in the Garhwal Himalayas and nearly takes us into paradise...

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It was the summer of 2010, June to be precise. I finally decided to shrug off all my problems, inhibitions and procrastinations; took a longish leave and set out towards the place that has always had a mythical aura around itself, at least for me. I’d decided to do it all alone because it was not only a trek but a voyage fueled by a desperate need to avoid middle class banality and conformism that plagues most of the world around me. I spent 10 days to and from Mumbai in my pursuit of salvation (I’d not like disclose whether I achieved it or not). With a bit of better planning one can wrap it up within a week.

Trek Route to the Valley of Flowers

As for my trip, I have already written my heart out in my travelogue but as Arti asked me to do one here, I think I will try to be more objective and try to be as helpful as possible for the prospective travelers. So I am taking all practical aspects of this trek and discussing them one by one. I hope my first hand experience will help you and I also hope you enjoy these photographs. Most of these images are being published for the first time.

Charting the route:

Keep at least a week in hand for the visit, if possible a couple of days more for a relaxing trip. The best way in my opinion is to reach Delhi first. If you already live in Delhi that’s good for you! From Delhi you will get enough trains and buses to Haridwar or Rishikesh. Haridwar is also worth a visit but if you are running out of time, you can bypass it and move directly to Rishikesh and spend the night there.

The next day, if you have to save your time, you must wake up early and try to reach Joshimath. The distance is around 250 kms but the maximum speed is not more than 30 kmph at any moment of time because of the road conditions. For the same reason, night driving is also not a possibility. This bus ride can be physically exhausting too. If you can spare one more day, I suggest you do a break journey and spend a night in Rudraprayag or Chamoli.


Coming to Joshimath, it is an important point in the Uttarakhand trail from where you can move on towards Badrinath or take the cable car to Auli. It may also be the last place where you will find a functional ATM if you are going to Valley of Flowers. So, I suggest you draw enough cash at that point to save yourself from further trouble. You can either spend the night at Joshimath or quickly move to Govindghat which is around 12 km awayby hiring a car.

Valley of Flowers

Now, the real trek starts at Govindghat. The national highway continues after Govindghat towards Mana Village. But you have to leave the motorable rode and begin the real test of your stamina to Ghangaria. The starting point of the trek also boasts of a small business settlement. There are various shops selling cheap woollens, jackets, caps and other equipment. At this point you will also realize that most of the tourists there are pilgrims heading towards Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh Shrine. To reach both Hemkund and Valley of Flowers you must first travel to Ghangaria from where the road bifurcates towards these two destinations.

Valley of Flowers trek in Uttaranchal

Coming to the trek, you must make one major decision. You may try to test your legs but let me warn you that it is very hectic at high altitudes and you’ll have to stop and catch your breath after every 100 metres. If you are an athlete or of otherwise used to physical labour you may enjoy it otherwise it is advisable to hire a horse or a mule. Local men guide the horses as they walk themselves merrily. They make it look easy but trust me it will be very hard for city dwellers from the plains.  A one way horse/mule ride charges around Rs. 500 and it takes around 3 hours to reach Ghangaria. There are several shacks selling food and water on this trek so that should not be an issue.

Valley of Flowers, Himalayas
Valley of Flowers, Garhwal Himalayas
A waterfall in the Valley of Flowers
Amazing views enroute

At Ghagaria you will find budget hotels, dormitories and restaurants to spend the night. Wake up early next morning and proceed towards the check point from where you enter the national park. You’ll have buy tickets (Rs. 50/60 per head) there. Now, this final patch is around 4 kms and there is no other mode of transportation allowed here including horses. It is a bit tiring and it may take anything between 2 - 4 hours to cover those 4 kms depending on your physical abilities. Nevertheless, the entire stretch is replete with jaw dropping views, some of which can be seen in the photographs I’ve posted here. Eventually when you reach the place, you’ll get a feeling of salvation, a feeling cannot be described in words. It can only be experienced!

Valley of Flowers trek
Beauty of the Valley of Flowers in Uttaranchal
Beautiful red colored flowers in the Valley of Flowers
Bunch of flowers in the Valley of Flowers
A Flower in the Valley of Flowers
Beautiful flowers in the Valley of Flowers
Valley Of Flowers

Things to keep in mind:

Time to visit: June to September with July and August being the peak season.

Food: Mostly vegetarian food is available as expected. The best quick meal is a plate of Maggi which is available everywhere.


Clothing: You will not feel any severe cold during summer. But the nights can be cold at such high altitudes. The hotels will provide you blankets but carry some warm clothing of your own.

Budget:  The entire region is not costly at all. Food, transportation and accommodation are pretty cheap. I personally rounded up my solo trip in Rs.10-12K.

Accommodation: Budget accommodation is available everywhere. But after Joshimath you are unlikely to find luxury hotels even if you are looking for one. Nevertheless, that must not deter you. After all, these artificial comforts are nothing in compared to what you are going to witness.

Booking: I did not make any prior booking for the entire trip. I believe, I went there before the peak season in June. To be on the safer side, you may talk to the agents in Joshimath regarding stay at Ghangaria, especially if you are traveling with the family.

Others: If you are carrying a camera also keep some plastic bags handy because it can rain at any moment and you must protect your expensive gadgets. Also, power cut is frequent here and so charge your phones and batteries wherever you can.

Finally :- Be a responsible traveler, do not throw plastic around the area and help the local administration keep the trek clean.

Related Posts -

From Travelling Slacker... Valley Of Flowers: Into No Man's Land

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