Thursday, March 26, 2015

International Yoga Festival, 2015 at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh: Welcome Home!

It is a chilly evening at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, it feels like a warm evening on the Ghats by the River Ganga. I can see golden yellow lights in the distance rising upwards, towards the sky, as if in awe to the hundreds of hands folded unitedly in celebration of the symphony of the divine Ganga Aarti. I close my eyes, breathe deeply and sense the calming, earthy aroma that seeps from the lighted diyas and the incense-scented yagna fire. The entire arena is wrapped in a high-pitch crescendo of delightful chants and prayerful hymns that seem to perforate even the subtlest of spaces that often lie beyond the ordinary perception of the human eye.

I feel it. It’s an inescapable force…

Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

It was exactly 5 days back when I had expressed wonder at the words ‘Welcome Home’ printed on one of the pages of my journal kit that was handed to me on the day of my registration at the International Yoga Festival (IYF) 2015. After all, Parmarth Niketan Ashram was not my home?! How could it be? Agreed, it was housing people from nearly 60 countries under one roof but still. I mean, here, I knew no one. Moreover, I thought, home has memories… a feeling of togetherness, something that you could hold on to, right? But, this was the first time I was visiting Parmarth Niketan Ashram – ever. So, my memory bank was empty. Then why was I being welcomed as if this was the place I actually belonged?


What did the word home really mean?


Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh - Arjun and Shri Krishna on a chariot

No matter how hard I tried to analyze, the meaning failed my small inquisitive mind. And yet, knowing it to be coming from the insightful brains behind the IYF set-up, I intuitively sensed a great profundity in these seemingly simple words. There was something about the tagline that seemed remarkable besides the fact that I loved the sound of it.

International Yoga Festival 2015 Yoga schedule - Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

Soon enough though, I got busy in understanding the thin booklet of Yoga classes’ event schedule that seemed easier to grasp instead. Days were neatly packed with a variety of Yoga/ satsang/ lifestyle healing/ kirtan/ asana/ pranayama classes from world renowned spiritual masters and world-class Yoga teachers specializing in multiple styles of Yoga including Hatha Yoga, Kundilini Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Power Vinyasa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Shinto Yoga, Sufi, Music, Reiki and so many other such yogic traditions descending from authentic traditional lineages - each of them scheduled in different time slots from 4 in the morning to 9.30 in the night.

International Yoga Festival 2015 classes  - Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

The festival commenced with a loud cheer from Rain Gods above - a heavy mist hung gently swooping over the peaceful Mother Ganga, almost embracing the mighty Himalayan mountains for the first two days. In the beautiful words of the ever-cheerful Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswatiji, the director of the IYF, it meant a blessing of the Aakash Ganga flowing from the Heavens above. To mere mortals like me, however, caught unprepared by the sudden presence of the wintry weather, it meant a lot of shivers. The shivers became particularly visible when it came to the sessions held at the Yoga Ghat where the freezing waters of the Ganga dissipated with the breezy curtains of the hanging clouds to balloon into a chilly breeze.


Overcast sky by the River Ganga at Rishikesh -Parmarth Niketan Ashram

One such shivering instance that I can vividly remember at this point is the interactive session by Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa in the Yoga tent by the River Ganga on the second festival day. We had joined hands with the person sitting next to us and were asked to brandish our hands back and forth like a wave, for 3 continuous minutes. After the end of the activity, we came back to rest pose and closed our eyes. All of a sudden, I felt the warmth of a shawl or a jacket or something on my back. In a flash, I turned back and indeed! It was the jacket of my Canadian partner, with whom I had joined hands a minute ago.


‘You are shivering. Give it to me when you are warm.’

She whispered with a radiant smile – her warmth banishing away the chill off the cold air blowing down on me.


International Yoga Festival 2015 snapshots - Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

While the diversity offered in Yoga classes at any one given time slot would leave us participants divided amongst different groups, the lunch and the dinner times brought each one of us, together. Most of us were strangers, from 60 different countries belonging to a plethora of faiths and religions and it was here, that we huddled together, as one big family. Although at first I thought this was a place I - a thick-skinned introvert - could never really belong but eventually I opened up. I was almost forced to. The whole energy in the environment was so friendly and encouraging that I never realized when I broke open my self-imposed confines of silence to step into a lively retreat. Soon, I was meeting, talking, socializing with a wide variety of people of all age.


I felt a part of the place.

A place that was abuzz, reverberating in giggles and laughter and tales and conversations over pure vegetarian sattvic meals and fresh, frothy hot cups of coffee.


International Yoga Festival 2015 Lunch - Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

So, much to my sheer delight, by the end of the festival, I had chatted with a musician from USA who had recently authored a book on spirituality called ‘The Knowledge of You’ and was here searching for interested publishers, a sadhu who described bathing in the waters of the Ma Ganga as life transforming, a student from Rome trying to decode the meaning of life and a Yoga teacher from Poland trying to hone her passion on topics which ranged from anything to everything, from light-hearted to the more serious ones. Some of these people I conversed with, I never did meet again and today I wonder, if I ever will...


now that I realize the deep impact they left on my memory, deeper on my soul...

A sadhu by the River Ganga at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

To further wash away any perceived physical or racial demarcations that existed within this family, there came the gala celebration of Holi in true international style. Under the mask of colors, no one was dark or fair or wheatish anymore but very simply – Humans – a wonderful creation of the talented Supreme. We danced to the thumping beats of the world-celebrated drummer Sivamani and grinned at the witty remarks by the highly acclaimed Indian Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev.


Holi with Yoga festival delegates at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

There was an unseen bond of love, faith, compassion and unity that, I felt, we touched on not only on the Holi day but over the entire course of the International Yoga Festival. That bond of togetherness, that yoga, the union of self with the other was so full of peace and radiated such celestial warmth that it was easy to get inspired and transcend to an alien world. Alien because this was a world that seemed springing out from a different foundation. This was a world where it was okay to cry like a 5 year old or laugh like waters gone wild. A world where material things had little importance making way for the real beauty taking more prominence, the way things were always meant to be, so that focus rested more on the inward journey as a way to lasting bliss and happiness.


The magnetic charm of Mother Ganga inspired all of us.


Contemplative mood by the river Ganga - Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

The Ganga River... not just any river, but a reservoir of love, warmth and blessings. I loved sitting by Her side, often. Barefeet. Often simply staring at Her flowing from far in the horizons. Listlessly. Letting myself still, with time. In awe and admiration, feeling deepest gratitude for every minute of my intimacy with her.

She danced aesthetically, softly and gently. Unmindful of the rough rocks and bumpy stones that seemed to obstruct, unmindful of the interlinked chains that seemed to restrict - She gushed forth playfully, like a little girl in sheer delight. Every breath of Hers, impregnated in love, kindness, compassion and blessings. Love that was coming directly from Lord Shiva. The Supreme.

I heard no words, there weren't any and yet I could hear every wave of Hers,
giving me a song for life.

Sunset by the River Ganga at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

This was the same life which was reflected in hundreds and thousands of rishis and seekers, over times immemorial, who had found peace and enlightenment in their journey to nirvana. A life which was rooted in love, purity and unconditional acceptance - no matter what background you belonged, what baggage you carried, what scars you revealed - manifested in ever lasting divine love for others as well as your own self.

Whenever I touched Her waters, I felt all my tensions released, instantly. There were no secrets between us, she knew all my fears, all my worries, all my sorrows and yet allowed me, to just be with Her. With every beat of my heart tuned to every note of Hers, a frequency of love, compassion and grace channeled into something that was higher, something that was beyond the mind, the body and the intellect.
……………………

... Sabse Unchi Prem Sagai ...

The melodious voice of Sadhvi Abha Saraswati, more fondly known as Mataji, bursts through the dancing lights twinkling in the inky darkness of the cool wintry night. And, a misty veil descends on the cover of my eyes… just like that. Out of nowhere. I am immersed in a calming confidence; something ticks within… what… I don’t really know. As I bask in the blissfulness of the moments, there’s a flicker within; it’s trickling down from my cheeks, flowing down the face.


I am left shaken, stunned… and speechless.


The elaborate Ganga Arti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh

Tha Ganga Arti has reached its climatic peak and here I am, feeling more than just being a name. Fire offered to the God - Arti. I can feel the heat as if I have always been a part of it. The fire of the arti is slowly melting 'me' away, the me that I had been clinging on, all this while. I feel different. Someone who is more vulnerable, yet beautiful and strong. I am happy just being. Like  a wave. Happy being in commune. By the lap of my mother. In the graceful shadow of my father. In harmony with so many of my brothers and sisters. Dancing to the tunes of the riveting cosmos. At peace with my own self.


I feel like, I have just arrived.
I feel like, I am home.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pyaaz Kachori, Dal-Bati, Jalebi and More: What to Eat in Jaipur and Where!

She is bedecked in ornate havelis, opulent palaces and arched havelis. One glance at her magnetic beauty and be warned: You will be smitten. Love-struck for life. Not that there’s much about it that you can do though. Jaipur is like that, impossible to not fall for: graceful, charming, elegant … and royal – only some of the adjectives that follow her like a troll, in guidebooks, in destination leaflets and also on My Yatra Diary. It’s true too – for all the wonderful sights that she packs in, Jaipur oozes every bit of royalty in every sense of the word.

But, can you guess what makes the city truly royal for me?

Deep fried snacks at Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar, Gheewalon ka Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan

Let me tell you. It’s her crazily delicious food – therein lies the charm in her persona that actually connects her to the common masses on the streets, the Aam Aadmi, despite all the royalty talks. There are so many tantalizing flavors to choose from – Samosas, Kachoris, Jalebis, Lassi, Kanji vadas, Gatte ka saag, Missi roti, etc. – you might as well imagine the whole of the city as one BIG buffet restaurant where you are free to stop, choose, pick, fill your plate and then move on! So, let’s not waste any more time and set out for a finger licking, lip smacking roller coaster gastronomic ride on the streets. Dig in!

BREAKFAST @ SAMRAT FAST FOOD CENTER: PYAAZ KACHORI, SAMOSA, JALEBIS, SPECIAL TEA.

Don’t be fooled by its modest appearance.

At the busy Chaura Rasta, Samrat Fast food eating joint lies bang in the center
of the old city and it’s been standing there for a series of decades now.

Samrat Restaurant, Chaura Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan

Rather, take delight in the crunchy crispy delicacies that it has on offer. They have a decent standing eating area outside along with a takeaway counter and a somewhat cramped seating space inside, both of which cater to hundreds of empty stomachs every morning. The place is fairly clean, prices are unbelievably reasonable and the taste of the dishes extremely appetizing – some of the reasons why it’s so popular with the locals.

What to eat?

At Samrat, there is a lot of fried stuff on offer but it’s their Samosas, Pyaz Kachoris and Jalebis that I love best. What adds to this delightful flavor is the fact that you can actually see the Samosas - boiled, mashed, spiced potato filings in deep fried conical flour case - and Pyaaz Kachoris – again deep fried and punched with a strong Pyaaz or onion essence - coming nice and crisp out of the boiling oil right in front of your eyes.

Kachori being fried, Jaipur Street Food, Samrat Restaurant
Hot piping Kachoris taking a dip in the bubbling oil.
Samosas at Samrat Restaurant, Chaura Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
Crispy, Crunchy Samosas at Samrat's, in Jaipur
Pyaaz Kachori at Samrat Restaurant, Chaura Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
You just can't miss the strong essence of onion in Pyaaz Kachoris.
Of course, this breakfast is not complete unless you help yourself with a generous serving of hot piping Jalebis coated in the sticky-slurpy chasni. These incredibly sweet Jalebis are pretty thin, so you can eat 5-6 pieces at one go and still walk away feeling light on the stomach.

Jalebis deep fried at Samrat Restaurant, Chaura Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
Jalebis at Samrat Restaurant, Chaura Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
Thin crusty hot piping ultra sweet Jalebis
After gorging on the richly fried stuff, I always wash it down with a cup of Samrat’s special tea which is really good and a great way to wrap up your first morning meal.

Samrat Restaurant  Special Tea, Chaura Raasta, Jaipur


How to get there?

Samrat Fast Food and Caterers is located on the Chaura Rasta, shop number 272, opposite State Bank of Bikaner. Head east from MI Road and turn left at New Gate Circle onto Chaura Raasta. The shop is canopied by a huge tree and shall appear on the right.

+91-9828601904 / +91-9828601904

LUNCH @ HANUMAN DHABA: SUBZI, TAWA PHULKAS, PAPAD AND ACHAAR.

Hanuman dhaba looks like any typical Indian dhaba that you can imagine from the Indian highways, except that this one is located in one of the most prime locations of Jaipur. The ambiance stays true to the name – basic seating arrangement with pictures of God Hanuman adorning the walls.


Hanuman Dhaba hotel in Jaipur


Popular with the locals for serving hot and fresh food, the dhaba has two floors for catering to its wide chain of customers which includes people of all ages and groups – from students to professionals to families and travelers.

What to eat?


Hanuman Dhaba, Jaipur Food, Rajasthan

When I went there last, I ordered sarson ka saag and makki ki roti which was the ‘dish of the day’ along with chana masala and missi roti which tasted quite simply homelike – just what I was looking for. The prices are worth the quality of the meal which left me feeling nice and full.

How to get there?

Hanuman Dhaba is located in the posh Raja Park area in Jaipur at shop numbers 72-77. You can first conveniently reach Raja Park area and from there, take the Vidyalaya Marg. Keep your eye towards the right, Hanuman Dhaba will be there!

LASSI @ OLD FAMOUS LASSIWALA, MI ROAD.

As far as I am concerned, after the lunch, all I need is a cool glass of Lassi at MI Road.

Lassiwala, MI Road, Jaipur since 1944

The shop remains busy for most of the mornings through the afternoon serving heavenly milk based preparation of lassi in small earthen glasses known as kulhads. The place maintains a good standard of cleanliness and hygiene as it popularly caters to not only to the locals and the domestic tourists but the international crowd as well.

What to drink?

What else but Lassi! Sweet sour whipped yoghurt topped with a thick rich creamy layer sometimes scented with a rose flavor, the glass of lassi comes in two sizes – big and small. Though the curdly coolant can be a bit heavy on the palette but the taste is so refreshing and cool that I easily gulp one glass full even when I am there after my meals!

Whipping fresh curd at Lassiwala, MI Road, Jaipur

Beware of duplicate shops though; there are many that have now sprung up in the vicinity. Make sure to head to the one in the far corner Kishan Lal Govind Narain Agarwal, the name of the original proprietor under which the shop has been in the running since 1944.

How to get there?

Reach the MI road and ask the locals for the oldest famous lassiwala, I imagine it would be impossible to find a local who would not know about this place – it’s legendary!

Timings: Till 12.30 in the mornings only.

SNACKS @ BAPU BAZAAR: PANI PURI, SANDWICH, ICE CREAM.

Step in, in any respectable street corner and you will find a thela or hole-in-the-wall shops dishing the savoury spicy insanely tasty North Indian snacks wafting out a tantalizing aroma that are irresistible to miss. These are shops that don’t necessarily have a name and often come across as dubious in their hygiene standards. The best way to figure them out is to select the ones that have a crowd around their cart – if they are famous with the locals, it’s for a reason!

What to eat?

To satisfy my Pani Puri – crispy flour dumplings dunked in tangy water infused with the right amount of spices – (and for shopping, of course) Bapu Bazaar is the place I head to.

Pani Puri vendor at Bapu Bazaar
Pani Puri, Jaipur Street Food, Bapu Bazaar
Pani Puri, anyone?
At the junction of Saraogi mansion, just where Bapu Bazaar starts, there are a few thelas specializing in savory Indian snacks. These push carts are not famous by any name but you can easily spot them by the flocking locals during the afternoon and evening times.

Look out for a Bombay sandwich cart somewhere in there too –
for Rs. 20, this guy makes excellent sandwiches too.

Bombay sandwich at Bapu Bazaar, Jaipur food, Rajasthan

Walk further from the Saraogi-Bapu junction, about 10 shops later, you will find this Indian Ice cream and Kulfi Falooda joint on the left hand side. The goodness of their ice creams can be gauged by the fact that it is a hit with the customers not only in the sweltering heat of the city but even in the winter season!

Indian Kulfi Icecream, Jaipur Street Food, Bapu Bazaar

The mixed Kulfi Falooda cup is a rich creamy gooey delight with all sorts of colors - pink, yellow, white popping out onto you. Topped with slimy falooda noodles, it's worth going for at least once during your trip.

Ice cream at Bapu Bazaar, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
Rich and creamy Indian Kulfi - to beat the heat!

How to get there?

Ask anyone for Saraogi mansion or Bapu Bazaar, both are landmarks in their own right. This no-name hole-in-the-wall little foodie corner is spread right at the junction where Saraogi Mansion stands and the colorful shops of Bapu Bazaar starts.

SNACKS @ SHRI RAM CHAAT BHANDAR: MIRCHI VADAS, KANJI VADAS.

If it’s a truly Rajasthani snack that’s on your mind – try the Kanji Vadas at Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar located at Gheewalon ka Raasta. It’s a small hole in the wall shop lined along the chaotic narrow alley of Ghee walon ka rasta and boasts of its own set of loyal customers passed down through generations.

Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar, Gheewalon ka Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
Mirchi Vadas at Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar, Gheewalon ka Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
A quick glance at Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar @ Gheewalon Ka Raasta
There is a small sit-down eating area inside or if you are in a hurry – you can stand and eat outside too but beware of the never ending traffic. The place is decently clean with the owner, a humble courteous Marwari, serving with a warm hospitality.

What to eat?

My pick of the lot is the extremely fluffy and incredibly light Kanji Vadas which are moong dal dumplings soaked in a spicy, flavorful, mustard liquid that is exceptionally good for the stomach as it is for the senses.

Kanji Vadas at Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar, Gheewalon ka Raasta, Jaipur food, Rajasthan
The soft and fluffy Kanji Vadas dunked in delicious mustard water.
Priced at a modest Rs. 20 per plate, the Kanji Vadas are light and healthy not only on the stomach but on the pocket too. Don’t forget to ask for an extra serving of the tantalizing refreshing liquid Kanji – it’s an amazing digestive concoction that will empty your stomach for more!

How to get there?

Shri Ram Chaat Bhandar is located at shop number 176 in Johri Bazaar near Jain Mandir. Pass the Sanganeri gate and continue straight to reach the Johri Bazaar and Gheewalon Ka Rasta. The shop will be on the right.

(0141)2561472

DINNER @ HOME: AN AUTGHENTIC RAJASTHANI MEAL.

All said and done – like we bloggers always do, I too saved the best for the last. Getting invited to a Rajasthani home for a warm, cozy dinner in the company of a loving family is something that nourishes not only your tummy but also your soul.

Bajra Baati, Jaipur food, Authentic Rajasthan
Churma being cooked, Jaipur food, Authentic Rajasthan
Bajra Bati and Churma being prepared for the home meal.
I consider myself really fortunate to have had a chance to savor such delicious meals serendipitously at places and with people I never thought I ever would.

Home meal in Rajasthan Food
Food being cooked and smiles being swapped - bliss!
These homes might seem very basic - somewhere off the track, on dirty mud tracks, lighted with oil lanterns – but they are infused with such a heavy dose of love and warmth that you simply won’t find elsewhere. The same energy is further passed on in the meals they cook – which is doused in traditional Rajasthani flavors using a lot of gram flour, pulses, dried vegetables and pure ghee in their preparations.

Home meal, Jaipur food, Authentic Rajasthan
A traditional simple Rajasthani meal (Gatte ki Sabji, phulka, Kadhi, Churma and curry)
Yummilicious food along with tales swapped together make for a memorable evening worth relishing for a lifetime.


***************************

These are my foodie picks from the city of Jaipur and
I know there's a lot that I have missed out here!
So, let's move on to you -
Do you have any recommendations other than the options mentioned above
that I should try the next time I am in Jaipur?
Street food joints, hole in the wall shops, restaurants for buffet lunch
or buffet dinner in Jaipurit could be anything - write away!


Friday, March 13, 2015

The Temple of Confluences: Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

Just a few minutes walk from the Bhairavnath Temple lies one of the most ancient temples of Saswad in Pune: Sangameshwar Temple. The temple dates back to the Yadav ruled era around the 10th century and you cross a small bridge to reach the place.

When we reach the place, the sun is high above the mountains hushing the temple in its mid-noon siesta.

The temple is a stony affair, built entirely in massive and serene stones adding to its rustic charisma. In contrast to the boulder-ed temple, it's surroundings are exquisite, scenic and full of greenery. Huge trees provide shady canopies overlooking the enormous confluence (sangam) stream of Karha and Chameli Rivers flowing through the seismic town.

A view of the Sangameshwar Temple, Saswad, Pune

A flight of steep stairs bring you to the temple’s pavilion area where you can rest and enjoy the scenery. A scenery, which transports you back in time – some ten centuries back.

Steep flight of stairs at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

The ancient Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

The sight of small spires ejecting heavenwards from the mini temples around, a coiling stream merging with the olive vegetation far in the distance, and grayish mountains standing guard in the backdrop is a very calming experience – a blissful sight indeed!

Adjoining Temple of the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

As you walk into the temple, you are immediately bought face to face with a grand life-size Nandi, in black stone, His eyes fixed on His Master Shiva.

Life like Nandi Bull at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad entrance, Pune

The pavilion opens up into a sabhamandap (temple hall) where you come across one more Nandi, this time ornately painted in colors and right across the main temple hall, the garbhagriha.

The colorful ornate Nandi Bull at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

Just outside the sanctum sanctorum sits Lord Ganesh and other guardian deities carved in the niches of the rugged walls.

Lord Ganesha at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune
Carvings at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

The garbhagriha is a dark roomed cellar, with a lone diya over the Shivling spreading its radiance around. You can see Goddess Parvati and Lord Ganesha in the background; a picture of Saint Sopandev painted on the sidewall looks on. The sanctum room breathes in pin-drop silence wrapping the air in a mystical enigma.

The ancient Shivling at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

The temple is a very ancient one alright but what I personally find most impressive about the temple is its name - Sangameshwar - one look around and the name rings true in every direction my eyes can see...

Be it in the confluence of the Karha and the Chameli Rivers...

The canal at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

Be it the integrating contrast of the lifeless stones and the colorful foliage that formed a wonderful panorama...

The beautiful views from the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

Be it the imposing intricately carved shikhara beneath the deep blue sky… 

The ancient stony Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

Be it the mini black colored Shivling wrapped in the fragrance of a bright red rose offered by a devout…

A Shivling at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

Don't they seem to remind of the myriad contrasts?

... like black and white,
like dark and light,
like joys and sorrows,
like hope and despair,

The green foliage at the Sangameshwar Shiva Temple, Saswad, Pune

... a different kind of a sangam perhaps ...
of those, that make up this thing called life.

Previous Posts from Pune:



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