Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Neelkanth Peak in Badrinath

Day 5 : NEELKANTH PEAK - Hanuman Chatti Temple - Exploring Joshimath - Enroute to Rishikesh - Rishikesh (Dayanand Ashram and Temples) - Haridwar (Markets, Har ki Pauri, etc) - Char Dham Trip Concludes Finally....

The frothy white waters of the Alaknanda River, the bewitching beauty of the Badrinath Temple, and a very memorable Diwali evening… in the past one day that I had spent in Badrinath...Really… I had lived many a dream…

And there was just one more left now – The sight of the first rays of the sun enlightening the Neelkanth peak – Hopefully, this too would soon be turning into a reality in a few hours from now… With these thoughts, I closed my eyes and went off to sleep.

Cold had gripped me tight, no amount of warm coverings providing any sort of comfort. Sleep was something that eluded me that night.

Morning greeted me with cold burns all over my face and a very very stiff body. Anticipation helped me loosen up my body a bit; to add to that, the enthusiasm of my brother who was already out of the bed and raring to go was mighty infectious too. I somehow managed to get out of the multiple layers of quilt and dragged my feet out of my room.
Having read a lot of stories of how people craving for one sight of this ‘Garhwal queen’, and despite being in Badrinath for over a week, have had to return back disappointed… I couldn’t help but wonder… Will we be witnessing the sight that has dodged millions before us…?

It was still dark outside. No sign of a single soul out there, no movement – just me overloaded with 2 (or was it more?) thick blankets and my brother, wearing just a jacket (!). Though this was something we both had been eagerly looking forward to, even before the trip began, I must admit, that today, he was more excited of the two of us.

Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Badrinath in Uttarakhand
Renowned mountaineer Frank S. Smythe described this peak
as one of the most beautiful in the whole Himalayas...
Named after Lord Shiva, dressed in luminous white
and known as the Garhwal Queen...
The Neelkanth Peak

We stood there outside our hotel room; waiting… everything seeped in absolute silence. The only thing restless was the frigid frosty air piercing through. The lull was finally broken by a loud scream ‘Look Arti!!!’

For the next ten minutes or so… we did not move, nor spoke… just stood transfixed and gaped in awe and admiration at Nature’s own wonder miracle unfolding before our eyes …

The sight of the Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Badrinath during sunrise
Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Badrinath, Uttarakhand 

during sunrise
Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand during 

The glowing Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand 

during sunrise
The majestic sight of the Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, 

Badrinath during sunrise
The majestic sight of the Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Badrinath during sunrise
The early morning rays of the sun lighting up the Neelkanth Peak in Badrinath

The first rays of the morning sun slowly wiped away the mist… transforming a lifeless stone into a glittering jewel…in its pristine glory! The cap of the great mountain lit up, like those lamps of the Diwali festival… Diwali in Badrinath was not yet over…! Nature’s celebrations had just begun!

A stunning spectacle of the Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal 

Himalayas, Uttarakhand completely lit up during sunrise
Neelkanth peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, Badrinath
The Neelkanth peak is said to resemble the looks of Lord Ganesha,
the God with the elephant head and trunk
(Can you figure that out in any of the above photos?)

Aaahhh! What a sight it was… a true spectacle… can never ever be captured! What a mesmerizing feeling it was… beyond my power to describe it in words…....

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Diwali Celebrations in the Badrinath Temple

A chilly wintry breeze let out by the roaring Alaknanda, colorful lights glowing like a million glowworms and the festive excitement of the biggest of all Hindu festivals – Diwali, the festival of lights – floating in the air…

The Bazaars of Badrinath selling various souvenirs in Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand
Shops lit up for the evening in the lane towards the Badrinath Temple

These sights of the glittering Badrinath Temple coupled with the rhythmic musical beats from the clanging temple bells only added magic to this beautiful evening in the Himalayas as I took a quick glance at my watch – 5.30 pm. The Arti coupon read – ‘Puja ka samay 6.30’ (Prayer to start at 6.30 pm) and I was glad I was here well before time.

A side view of the Badrinath Temple on the Diwali night in Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand
The Badrinath Temple all decked up for the Diwali Night

A colorful rangoli decorated the premises of the temple; the evening exuded a radiant vivacity due to the embers flowing around as people burst crackers and children jumped in joy! Every single soul out there was seen reveling in the ecstasy of the occasion in his own way.

A colorful Rangoli decorating the courtyard of The Badrinath Temple
A colorful Rangoli decorating the veranda of the Badrinath Temple.
(Rangolis are patterns drawn on the floors)

Dazzling display of fireworks outside the Badrinath Temple in the Garhwal Himalayas
Firecrackers distilling the darkness outside the Badrinath Temple

As I made my way towards the main temple entrance, I looked at the paper bag, clutched carefully and tightly in my hands, which my mom had given to me a few minutes earlier – earthen diyas (lamps), ghee and wicks – this was her small Diwali preparation for the night.

A glimpse of the Badrinath Temple on the Diwali night in Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand

A divine glow greeted us as we stepped in the temple hall. Complete darkness had befallen and this being a no moon night (amavasya), the glimmer from the innumerable candles and diyas seemed to radiate the dark surroundings even more. The door of the mandap was closed but that did not deter the fervor of the devotees. The temple was alive with the enthusiasm of the devotees – groups of families from all parts of the India and abroad too - who had come in good numbers to celebrate the festival with their dear Lord. We lit the diyas my mother had bought and joined in the arti (prayer) queue. Amid all the chatters, there was a constant hum, I noticed from the continuous chanting of shlokas, from singing of devotional hymns and from recitation of prayers. Everybody was absorbed in their respective activities while waiting with impatient anticipation for the temple door to open. Somehow that feeling of loneliness, of being away from relatives and friends on this day receded and was overridden by the joyous feeling of being a part of one large family.

The Badrinath Temple glowing in the colorful Diwali lights in Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand

Meanwhile a lot of time had passed by now and the gatekeeper motioned us to get up. A clear indication the gates were about to open. Devotees packed in their belongings and stood up swiftly. Finally the big wooden gates were pushed back and we were let in one by one without any jostling and pushing. The mandap was spic and span, very well readied to receive ‘His’ beloved devotees. Once in, I quickly secured my seat somewhere in the middle which gave me a clear vision of the Lord. I felt really lucky then as there were many who were left standing towards the corners of the room. Gradually, the room packed up completely. The door was shut closed.

The Home of Lord BadriVishal on the Diwali Night in Badrinath in Uttarakhand

I fixed my gaze towards the luminous sanctum area. Oil lamps and diyas were giving it a holy radiant glow that of an order of magnitude so high that it cannot be described in mortal words. The jeweled black stone of Lord BadriVishal sat in a meditative pose along with the other deities presiding over His assembled bhaktas. Pin drop silence filled the room. All eyes were fixed towards the ‘Beloved’… the sense of awe, which had been difficult to overcome throughout our time in the temple, was ever so more now…

The Badrinath Temple glowing in Diwali lights in Uttarakhand

The lull was finally broken by the loud cheer of ‘Bolo BadriVishal ki Jai’ by the Rawal priest and all of us followed suit. He lit a huge lamp, the temple bells started clanging and the arti started…

How to describe it…? The arti might have been slow, graceful and ornate but one could feel the power just beneath the surface. The exquisite melodies formed by the beats resonated within the confines… but it also triggered emotions somehow somewhere instead of just vanishing into a void!

This was not a mandap anymore. It had transformed to something bigger…and even more beautiful… a beautiful space where everyone had become one – ONE BIG FAMILY - united in devotion with smiles and tears…everyone submerged in an ocean of peace and divinity.

Those moments I spent in the hall were incredibly precious…Yes, I did feel connected to that something that unites us all, the beauty, the love…Yes, I did feel transcended to a pure world… Yes, I did feel the presence of God…

The Badrinath Temple at night in Uttarakhand

After spending a good 4 hrs in the temple, I walked through the temple lanes back towards my hotel. A sense of serenity seemed to prevail here. The temple lights soon became hazy in the distance. But the spark of light that it had ignited within me continued to glow…

A Bit more on How Diwali is celebrated, Goddess Laxmi and my Blogger friend's query…

( Note : A couple of months back, my blogger friend ...Petty Witter from Pen and Paper had requested me to put up a post on Goddess Laxmi. Though I couldn't do it then, but since Diwali is related to the Goddess, I thought of extending this post as a reply to her query. I sincerely apologize for the delay in answering your question Tracy.)

Significance of Diwali

The festival of Diwali holds a very significant place in the Hindu calendar. Also known as Dipavali or the festival of lights, Diwali which spans over 5 days involves the lighting of small earthen lamps (diyas or divas) filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. The day also honors the return of Lord Rama along with His wife, Sita and His brother, Lakshman from His fourteen year long exile after defeating the demon king Ravana.

Goddess Laxmi

In the modern context, the festival brings along loads of joy, festivities, celebrations and not to forget goodies and sweets too for one and all. It is also special because this is the time when Goddess Laxmi, the wife of Lord Vishnu embodying auspiciousness, beauty, peace and wisdom, wealth and prosperity, both material and spiritual, leaves Her heavenly abode and descends on earth to bestow Her blessings on mankind.

Goddess Laxmi photograph
Goddess Laxmi

Cleanliness attracts Her and She steps only in those houses that are pure, hence, people (even the laziest ones, including me!) get down to cleaning their houses well in advance, shopping of prayer items and new clothes, etc is done.

A tray full of litearthen diyas on the night of the Diwali pujan
A tray full of earthen diyas lit up for the Diwali Pujan (Prayer)

Once the festival days kickstart, crackers are burst and Diyas are lit to illuminate Her path and almost everything is decorated with lanterns and lights. Businessmen start off their new financial account books in the hope of a prosperous and a fruitful year ahead.

Goddess Laxmi dislikes people praying to Her solely for monetary gains and never comes to them, so one should always pray to Her with a sincere and a pure heart.

ISKCON Temple in Delhi
A Life size idol of Lord Vishnu with Goddess Laxmi at ISKCON Temple in Delhi

Always seen by the feet of Lord Vishnu, She likes Her Husband’s devotees and whoever pleases Lord Vishnu gets Her favorable blessings too. This also explains why the sacredness of Badrinath, the abode of Lord Vishnu, which is so prominent for the Hindus the year round becomes even more important on this day.

Diwali And Me

For me, Diwali has always been about wearing new clothes, starting off the day by a visit to the local temple, decorating the house with a beautiful rangoli, adorning the windows with colorful lights that twinkle ever so brightly in the dark of the night, taking the blessings of the elders in the house and binging on many of the sweets and other delicacies that are prepared specially for the day.

Diwali fireworks lighting up the dark sky
Life should be a continuous celebration... the whole year around.
Only then you can grow up and blossom - Osho

In the evenings, comes the best part… after offering my prayers to the Goddess, I sit on the balcony staring in the sky… it gets painted with sparks intermittently and there is quite a lot of noise too but I still can find a lot of peace… it probably emanates from the divine glow of the innumerable diyas and... I like to lose myself in it…

I would also love to know, If you live in India how do you celebrate Diwali in your community and if you live outside, have you ever witnessed Diwali celebrations in your part of the world?

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Places to see in the Mana Village (Bhim Pul, Saraswati River, Ganesh Gufa, Vyas Gufa and Others)

Thanks to its proximity to the holy land of Badrinath, Mana Village (the last village on the border with Tibet and 3 kms from Badrinath) not only abounds in natural beauty (as seen in last post) but also has many spiritual tales to share.

A view of the Mana Village near Badrinath
Mana Village... it gets its name after the Manas Putras (Sons),
the biological sons, of Lord Brahma.

History envelops you as you walk through its narrow lanes with traces of ancient tales from the epic Mahabharata spread all around. There is so much of antiquity hidden behind their walls that a fascinating tour of these places actually gives you the feeling of reading a live book!
Attractions of the Mana Village near Badrinath in Uttarakhand
A Board displaying the various touristy attractions of Mana

Saraswati River

The Saraswati river also known as the Goddess of Knowledge has its origination in a mountain near the Mana Village. It is visible and above surface for about 100 mtrs before it submerges underground and travels a distance to finally join the confluence of Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati at Sangam near Allahabad. Numerous sages like Narad, Bhrigu, Vashishta, Vishvamitra, Angira, Bhrigu, King Sagar, Lord Krishna, the Pandava brothers and several others have meditated and attained salvation on the banks of this holy river.

Saraswati river in Mana Village near Badrinath
The milky white waters of the Saraswati River

I had always thought of Sarawati River to be hidden and was unaware that one can actually see it here, at Mana. The bubbly frosty waters of the river were raging down with a tremendous force which my camera couldn’t capture! But believe me, the roaring gush sound coupled with the heavenly sight made for a very stunning spectacle!

Saraswati temple and India's last shop in Mana village near Badrinath
Saraswati Temple and India's last shop besides the Saraswati River

Facing the river, stands a small Saraswati temple and India’s last shop can be spotted too!

Bhim Pul

Above the Saraswati river is the Bhim Pul, another major attraction of the town. It is a natural bridge built from a huge rock by the Pandava brother Bhima for his wife Draupadi. Lying in the interial corners of the town, it is believed that this was the place from where the Pandava brothers started their 'accent to heaven' (swargarohini). During their transit, Draupadi was unable to cross the river and hence Bhima lifted a huge rock and placed it here which today is known as the Bhim Pul.

Bhim Pul on the Saraswati river in Mana Village near the Badrinath dham
Bhim Pul made of a large rock above the Saraswati river

Had never seen a natural rock bridge before! The waters, the rock bridge… everything just completed the entire beautiful picture! One wasn’t allowed going on that bridge since water was in full spate but even from far it looked very interesting and a bit frightening as well!

Ganesh Gufa

A short distance away is Shree Ganesh Gufa where the epic Mahabharta and other ‘Purans’ are said to have been composed by Lord Ganesh.

Ganesh Gufa in Mana village near Badrinath in the Chaar Dhaam Yatra
Shree Ganesh Gufa

The exteriors of the temple have been modified and hence look like a normal pillared temple. Its while circumambulation, that you can get a feel of the cave.

Vyas Gufa

A steep climb up is the Vyas gufa where Ved Vyas is believed to have lived while composing the four Vedas. It is also the place where he is said to have dictated the Mahabharta to Lord Ganesh. A distinct feature of the temple is the roof which resembles the pages from Ved Vyas collection of his Holy Books.

Vyas Gufa in Mana Village near Badrinath tirtha
Ved Vyas Gufa
As it had gone completely dark by now,
I could not capture the pic and hence have taken one from Google.
(image courtesy Google images)

There is also a very interesting story related to the place that explains the broken tusk of Lord Ganesh. When Vyas was composing the Mahabharata, he needed someone to take down his diction and asked the learned Ganesha for the same. Ganesh agreed but he had a condition – That Vyas would not stop even for a moment or else he would stop writing and leave. And what ensued further was a mini competition between the two. Vyas dictating as fast as he could, and Ganesh bent down over the script pages... His pen racing furiously in the wind. Finally, His reed pen broke. To which, He broke off a part of his tusk to be used as a pen thereon.

Further 3 kms upward climb from Vyas Gufa is another cave called the Muchukand Gufa. It is associated with the story of Lord Krishna who had tactfully led to the demise of the demon Kaal Yawan here by Sage Muchukund. It is said that the footprints of Lord Krishna can still be seen in the cave. However, this place was missed by us.

There are numerous treks from this village to various temples of Pandavas. In addition, it is also the base to the Swargarohini pilgrimage trek, which passes through the Vasudhara falls.

Vasudhara Falls

A beautiful 4 kms trek from Mana towards the mountains is the stunning sight of the Vasudhara Falls, a 125 mtrs high waterfall associated with the Pandava brothers. We did not visit the place but Vishwanath briefed us a bit on the same.

Way to swargarohini and the Vasudhara Falls trek in the Mana village in Uttarakhand Himalayas
Way to the Vasudhara Falls

Way to the Vasudhara Falls as seen from the Mana village
...and the Swargarohini trek

He said that the sprinkles from the gushing down water-spray  of the falls will never touch you if you are impure by heart… A person from a city, I couldn’t help letting out a wry smile. He asserted, It’s TRUE! Left me wondering, if there was anyone who ever gets soaked here…?

Further 1 km uphill from Vasudhara, on the route of the Swargarohini trek, is Keshav Prayag, the meeting point of the two sacred rivers Alaknanda (emerging from the Alkapuri glacier) and Saraswati.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Exploring the Last Indian Village in Uttarakhand - Mana Village (Part I)

Day 4 : Badrinath - Alaknanda River and Brahma Kapal Ghat - Tapt Kund and Panch Shilas - Badrinath Temple - EXPLORING THE LAST INDIAN VILLAGE IN UTTARAKHAND, MANA VILLAGE (PART I) - Mana Village - Places to visit (Part II)  - Diwali celebrations in the Badrinath Temple

At 3118 mtrs (10229 ft) above sea level, in the shadows of the holy town Badrinath, is pitched a pretty little village in Uttarakhand - Mana. Better known as the last Indian village before the border with Tibet, the village is famed for the dazzling vistas it offers and the intriguing history that is scattered amongst its rustic lanes and idyllic slopes and to experience this first hand we headed for the Mana village from Badrinath at about 3 in the afternoon after a short nap in the Devlok hotel.

A board displaying the Height of Mana Village in the Himalayas

The drive to Mana was very smooth with some of the best views we have had till now, it just took us around 15 mins to reach the place.

Welcome to Mana Village - the last village on the Indo-Chinese border near Badrinath in Uttarakhand
Amazing scenery as viewed from Mana village in the Himalayas
Smooth roads and spectacular views
encountered during the drive to the Mana village

The first thing I noticed on reaching the place was the stillness in the air. For a town so close to Badrinath, where pilgrims flock in hordes, Mana was completely a laid-back retreat…very calm and quiet… perhaps may be again our off-season-visit had a big role to play in this. It was getting dark by the time we reached the place, the sun was just beginning to take cover behind the mountains, the air was crisp and in no hurry to get anywhere just like the people here.

Beautiful vistas in the Mana Village near Badrinath in Uttarakhand
Dazzling views in the Mana Village near Badrinath in Uttarakhand
Sun ready to take cover in the mountains

Mana is a small village stuck in time – one has to park one’s vehicles at the village border itself and walk around on foot thus giving you a chance for a refreshing walk in the midst of the heavenly Himalayan surroundings – just you and nature!

Breathtaking scenes and scenary in the Mana village near Badrinath
Gorgeous beauty of the Mana Village near Badrinath
The majestic mountains, the sparkling waters and the haunting beauty
all around were only just adding gems to this tiny paradise

The town instantly drew me in with its old world charm that was visible in the traditional houses and the narrow roads that take you through the village.

Narrow walks through the Mana Village in the Himalayas
A walk in the mountains

Most of the houses were sealed (I am not sure if you can see that in the pic), as the village was about to shut down for the winters (for 6 months or so as it gets snow-bound with sub-zero temperatures) and residents had begun to move towards the lower areas.

Houses of the Mana Villagers near Badrinath in the Himalayas
Sealed doors in the Mana Village

The narrow quaint lanes through the beauty of nature and the traditional small woody huts took me further into a world full of peace and tranquility. There were small field like patches outside the houses which the villagers cultivate to grow vegetables and other edible stuff for self consumption.

Fields outside the houses of the Mana people
Field patches cultivated by the Mana villagers in the mountains
Patchy Fields

As I walked further, I noticed that most of the inhabitants of the village (the last generation of the Indo-Mangolian tribes) were engrossed in their respective works…the women were either doing farm activities or wrapping up their household tasks while the men were out in the shops.

Village Women of Mana busy in their daily chores in the Himalayas
A hard day’s work is not yet over… The womenfolk busy in their daily chores

Perched at such a high altitude and leading an almost isolated kind of life, I could not help but admire the √©lan with which they carry on their difficult, hard working and rudimentary existence even in such hard and unfriendly conditions…

Humble houses of the Mana villagers in Uttarakhand
Mana Village at a glance

The Mana people are also reputed for their weaving skills. The hand woven shawls, carpets or durries and sweaters are a masterpiece in themselves.

Hand woven Carpets by the Mana villagers
Fascinating works of art by the Mana people on display

But the best was definitely saved for the last: Potatoes! Yes Mana is famous for its potato produce and this I had well gauged this, the moment we had entered the village. Big potato sacks were neatly arranged, and stacked up for sale right at the entrance itself. I was guessing from the Harsil apple episode that Vishwanath was never going to leave it and never ever going to let us leave from here without taking one! And I was right!
He decided to take the matters in his own hands…

Famous potatoes of the Mana village near Badrinath town in Uttarakhand
Vishwanth (in blue jacket) haggling with the traders

Since it was the village closing time, he wanted them cheaper than the quoted prices…

Potatoes bargain by our driver Vishwanth in the Mana village near Badrinath in the Himalayas
Vishwanth very happy and content with the bargain :)

The sack was humongous, so we split it into two; one for us and one for him. We bought ours back home and relished these pahadi aloos (mountain potatoes) to our heart’s content and distributed it amongst our relatives too.

An incredible evening it was reminding me again of what a wonderful break it is to relish those hushed moments of beauty and silence at its very best!

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