From Tigers to Tombs

and all things heritage…..a trip covering the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.

Jantar Mantar-unraveling the mysteries of the universe.

From the Land of Begums-Bhopal, we arrived at the Land of palaces Jaipur. We we clearly looking forward to visiting Jaipur after hearing  a lot about this wonderful city-its palaces, people, food, culture and it surely lived up to its billing!It was one place, where we immediately got out to explore the city after checking in. Wasting time not unraveling what this city had to offer, seemed like an offense of the highest order.

After visiting the customary sites in Jaipur, we decided to head out to the Jantar Mantar,the only World Heritage Site in the city. It is centrally located adjacent to the entrance to the City Palace, and is walking distance from the Hawa Mahal.  The Jantar Mantar is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments, built by Maharaja Jai Singh II between 1727 and 1734. It is modeled after the one he built in Delhi. He had constructed a total of five such facilities at different locations, with the Jaipur observatory being the largest and best preserved of these. Jantar comes from the word Yantra, which means an instrument. Mantar means formulae or calculations.

We were not really sure what to expect from a trip to an astronomy observatory. With neither of us having any considerable knowledge in the field, we knew we would have to avail the services of a guide to help us appreciate the various instruments and the purpose for which they were created.Unfortunately the guide spoke in such a weird accent that half the time we spent in deciphering what he spoke rather than appreciating what the instruments were made for. In a nutshell, the observatory has fourteen statistical instruments for measuring time, predicting eclipses and to ascertain other astronomical events. The most popular amongst these is the Sundial  (Samrat Yantra), the largest of its kind in the world. It can measure time to an accuracy of two seconds, which is quite remarkable for something that does not work on machines! The structure itself looks like something from outer space, with numerous small steps leading upto a small observatory. Another peculiar structure was the Rashivalya Yantra, which is a collection of twelve zodiac sign instruments, one for each sign of the zodiac. Though we still don’t know what it measures, we were excited to note that each of the zodiacs had their own structure and every tourist out there was proudly posing next to the structure representing their zodiac. There were many more of such interesting and peculiar instruments to identify eclipses, equinox, altitude of celestial objects etc. Unfortunately as mentioned earlier, our limited knowledge of the field and the untraceable accent of our guide, made sure that we left with more questions than answers after seeing these amazing instruments.

But there is one thing, which any layman can appreciate here. That is the zeal and interest the erstwhile founder had for the subject of astronomy. To build these structures,materials for which were sources from all over the modern world, one must have been really passionate to understand the working of the universe. The King clearly had a scientific vision which very few in that era possessed. To understand the workings of these celestial objects, that are light years away, through non-mechanised customized instruments is no mean feat in itself. Another interesting aspect of these instruments were in the field of Vedic astrology. Even to this day, world-renowned astrologers visit this complex to use of the various instruments to understand the positions of Zodiacs and their relative influence on the happenings in the life of man.  Many even consider the observatory as the single most representative work of Vedic thought that still survives, apart from the texts. So if you have an interest in figuring out what lies ahead in life or if calculating distances of celestial objects is your cup of tea then do head out to the Jantar Mantar. If nothing, you can atleast try deciphering an alien accent!

Sanchi-A Spiritual and Architectural bliss!

We continued on the Buddhist leg of our journey with a trip to Sanchi. It is one of the three World Heritage Sites in Madhya Pradesh and just fifty Kilometres from Bhopal. But don’t be fooled by the distance like we were, every bus journey in this part of the country is like an epic voyage! Even at the times of emperor Ashoka, when the Stupa was constructed, people would not have taken three hours to cover those fifty kilometres!

After those arduous three hours of a bus ride, we finally reach Sanchi. The village is situated on the peripheries of the great Stupa. The Stupa is located on a hill, which on climbing, one is treated to an amazing view of the surrounding plains. Enclosing the Stupa are beautiful gardens providing a serene green tinge to the entire complex. A special mention has to be given to Madhya Pradesh Tourism, the lawns were spick and clean, the monument was well maintained and there were adequate amenities in place including audio guides that provided a descriptive account of the history and architectural details of the monument.

One is immediately awe struck by the imposing structure of the great Stupa upon entering the complex. The Stupa can be considered as a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha, commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BCE. It is surrounded by four Thorans (gateways) placed strategically in four different directions. These majestic gateways contain detailed carvings depicting various Jataka tales (life of Buddha and his past births).  One definitely needs a guide (the audio guides are worth the money!) to actually understand the meaning of the carvings on each of the Thorans. An interesting aspect to note is that the Buddha is never shown in human form in any of these Thorans; his presence was alluded to through symbols. For example, the Lotus was used to symbolize his birth and the Bodhi tree his enlightenment. Some of the other figures there actually helped us to better understand the lifestyles of people who lived during those times, their clothing, housing and modes of transport etc. It’s beyond ones imagination as to how such minute carvings could be completed so meticulously on elevated platform s, nearly 2300 years ago!

After its rediscovery in 1818, there was a sudden influx of treasure hunters here, to locate the ashes of the enlightened one. The Stupa actually has no entrance, and lot of underground digging took place to figure out what exactly lies under this mammoth structure. All these were stopped, and the Stupa and its surrounding structures were restored to their original state in the beginning of the 20th century. Around the main stupa are several smaller Stupas built by later Buddhist kings. Hindu temples also find a place here, indicating the gradual decline of Buddhism in the later stages. Buddhist monasteries are also located in the complex. These were once the abode of esteemed monks who came from all over the country to this important Buddhist pilgrimage site. This hill site provided the monks a perfect place to meditate and the presence of the Lord’s remains further enhanced the holiness of the place.

We were overwhelmed by the time we finished our round of this huge complex. The imposing Stupa, the artistic Thorans, the beautiful lawns and the majestic views of the vast plains make this place, which is steeped in religious history, one of the most fulfilling visits of our trip. No visit to this part of the country can ever be complete without a trip to this holy site. Come and soak in the spiritual atmosphere, which has been enthralling visitors for more than two millennia, and be one with our country’s great heritage.

Bhimbetka – understanding our origins

Bhimbetka was probably the place about which we had least information prior to making the trip. We did recollect it being mentioned in our History textbooks, but never once did it occur to us as a travel destination! It holds a very unique place in understanding the evolution of human life in our country. Human settlement here has been traced from the Paleolothic period (around 30,000 years ago) to the medieval times and each of these settlements has left behind their mark (literally!) in this mountainous terrain right in the middle of our country. The Rock Shelters lie in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, 45 km south of Bhopal at the southern edge of the Vindhyachal hills.

Continuing with our horrid encounters with public transportation in Central India, our ride of 45 kilometres from Bhopal was completed in a rather quick time of three hours. The bus dropped us off the highway from where we had to trek around four kilometres to reach the actual rock shelters. This trek can be avoided if you can hitch a ride with any of the vehicles going along to the tourist spot, but we decided to hike it, so as to take in the flora and fauna of the place as the shelters are actually located in the confines of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. Most of the trees had shed their leaves and were devoid of any greenery at that time of the year and Langurs kept giving us company till we reached the actual rock shelter site.

The moment you reach the site, you can imagine that something special was happening here. The rock formations are very different to those you usually encounter in Southern India. Legend has it that as V. S. Wakankar (famous Indian archaeologist) was traveling by train to Bhopal he saw some rock formations similar to those he had seen in Spain and France. He visited the area along with a team of archaeologists and discovered the prehistoric rock shelters in 1957.These rocks form different shapes and are named accordingly like mushroom rock, turtle rock etc. No wonder man felt the urge to exhibit his creative prowess on the surfaces of these beautifully shaped rocks.

The entire place has been charted and different rock caves have been numbered so as to ensure that visitors do not miss out on any. Adjacent to each cave, sign boards have been placed to inform visitors on what paintings and figures to look out for. Detailed information on which period these were drawn, what tools were used, and who were the inhabitants are also provided in aptly placed signboards. As we moved along from one cave to another, we slowly begin to understand how life would have been for what we simplistically term ‘the early man’. They used to live along the cave shelters, hunt in the nearby forests and prepare various tools for self-protection from the wild. All these activities have been shown in these marvelously preserved frescoes. The most common theme depicted here are animals. Tigers, Elephants, Crocodiles, Bisons, Boars, and Dogs are shown plenty in number. Various human activities, like hunting, dancing, communal drinking, are also depicted. The concept of living as a family also makes an appearance, with images of children with their mothers and pregnant women with their husbands. As societies evolved, so did the rock paintings. Religious symbols start making appearances, so do chariots and war processions indicating the changing nature of life for the inhabitants of the area. The most amazing aspect of the paintings is their wonderful state of preservation. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out how these paintings have managed to withstand the furies of nature for so long, with some attributing it to the mysterious concoction of colored earth, vegetable dyes, roots etc.


The best part of our trip to Bhimbetka was the peace and serenity the place offered. Located in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary, the wilderness surrounding it is breathtaking. Standing on those rock formations one can gaze at wide stretches of the wildlife sanctuary. Looking out, one begins to imagine why this was an ideal settlement ground for the earliest inhabitants of our country. The rock shelters provided ideal vantage points to observe the nearby surrounding forests, to search for food and also to prepare against any incoming danger. Only once you come here and experience the surroundings can you begin to understand what inspired our ancestors to display their creative urges on the largest and most natural of all canvases.

 

Khajuraho..A place beyond spirituality

Khajuraho! The name itself elicits a certain response of curiosity, intrigue and mystery, whenever discussed. The usual questions put around are, do they really have those erotic sculptures there? But why would anyone portray such sculptures on temples?Is that all that they have there? To get answers to these questions to understand the frenzied interest that it generates we decided to experience it, first hand.

The Khajuraho temples were built by the Chandela Kings from the period between 950-1150 AD. This period of two hundred years saw a staggering 85 monumental temples built, off which only 25 exist today. Khajuraho today is a small village with a population of twenty thousand but having five 5-star hotels and an international airport, indicating the enormous interest shown by foreign as well as local tourists towards these epic monuments.

Khajuraho consist of three groups of Temples- Western (being the most popular, and the actual World Heritage site), Eastern (predominantly consisting of Jain Temples) and the Southern Group.  The most popular way to go around these groups of temples is bicycles.  The Eastern group consists of the Hindu temples like the Hanuman and Brahma Temples and a walled enclosure housing the Jain Temples.  The Parsvanath and Adinath temples here are some of the finest examples of Jain temple architecture seen anywhere in India. With beautifully adorned sculptures (not erotic) including the popular one of the lady removing a thorn from her foot, these temples soar into the sky giving a glimpse of the fine talent of the local craftsman of those times.

The Southern group is further away from the main town but is no less exquisite. The Duladeo Temple is the largest temple in Khajuraho and is dedicated to Shiva. Surrounded by a large courtyard and next to a small river, this temple has the perfect setting and one can spend quite some time admiring the beautiful sculptures adorning the temple. Further down the road is the Chaturbhuja Temple which contains a colossal 10 ft. figure of Chaturbhuja Vishnu. As per locals the figure has the crown of Shiva, face of Buddha, the body of Vishnu and the stance of Krishna. Never have we seen such an interesting sculpture fusing four different deities in one image.

After finishing the Eastern and Southern group, we headed out to the main Western Group of Temples. The World Heritage site is located very close to the new town and is the most popular amongst the three groups. Once you enter the walled enclosure, you are awed by the number of temples present and their sheer size. These temples are nestled in beautifully maintained lawns (good job, Archaelogical Survey of India!) giving them a royal look surrounded by lush greenery. Most of the temples here have a similar style, but that does not take anything away from the awesomeness of the structures and the mesmerizing sculptures that adorn every inch of space.  The main temples here are the Kandariya Mahadev (KM) Temple, the Lakshmana Temple, the Parvathi and the Varaha temples. The KM temple can easily be considered one of the finest Hindu temples in this country, just for its brilliant architecture.

The Western Group is where; the erotic sculptures take their full shape. Man, women and even animal engaged in coitus and different sexual activities in numerous positions are abound in almost all temples of the Western group. Some of them actually border on the realms of impossibility and you really need to have a wild imagination to figure out how they are actually possible! When we enquired with our guide, as to why do they have these erotic sculptures in these temples, he gave a fairly straightforward answer.  The King just wanted to portray the four aims/goals of Hindu life- Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha and the erotic sculptures were just the Kama aspect of life. This could be true to an extent, since erotic sculptures form just a part of the numerous sculptures abound in Khajuraho. Most of the others were images of Gods and different aspects of human life like marriage, scenes from everyday life etc. There are other theories that the king here subscribed to a tantric form of worship and hence these images.

Whatever the reasons the temples of Khajuraho definitely leave a lasting impression. Be it the erotic sculptures, or the number of temples or the sheer size and beauty of the architecture, one can never forget this wonderful place. Slowly cycling around the rural belt of heartland India, hopping from one temple to another, we are once again reminded of the cycle of life. This now silent countryside was once filled with the hustle and bustle of fervent temple construction lasting over a period of two hundred years that bore fruit to probably the greatest example of a magnificent temple township, unmatched anywhere in Indian history.

An enlightening experience


Our time in the East drew to a close when we boarded a train to Patna from Guwahati. The concept of confirmed seat bookings on trains in West Bengal and Bihar are as pointless as the intelligent quotient ratings “required” by contestants in a beauty pageant. A three seater bench sometimes seated close to six people. A seat on the commode was more or less the only place you could sit on even after your job was done. When we did get our seats again, we witnessed a middle aged man and his wife gulp down five rasgullas and five gulab jamuns for only twenty rupees. Vendors went about selling unshelled peanuts not as a snack but as an activity called “time-pass”. We were getting the real Indian railways experience.

When we did reach the Patna railway station, we were welcomed by the smell of urine that followed us all the way to the bus stop. We did get some respite when we stuffed our faces with delicious Sattu Parathas at the food plaza in the railway station. The Indian summer was beginning to hit us as we boarded a local bus that was packed to the rafters with people heading to Bodhgaya and other places. Fortunately we got a seat, unfortunately we were still going to be drenched with sweat. We reached Bodh Gaya well after it had got dark. Finding a place wasn’t too difficult, considering the town is very popular on the Buddhist circuit and hence attracts visitors of all classes of income and nationalities. We woke up early next morning to catch the Mahabodhi temple at sunrise.

Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. In approximately 250 BC, about 200 years after the Buddha attained enlightenment, emperor Ashoka visited the Bodhi tree with the intention of establishing a monastery and a shrine. As part of the temple, he built the diamond throne (called the Vajrasana), attempting to mark the exact spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Ashoka is considered the founder of the Mahabodhi temple. The temple has undergone many restorations and changes over the years. The present temple dates from the 5th-6th century. On closer inspection, one can easily see signs of the Mahbodhi temple to be a nineteenth century temple reconstructed by the Archaeological Survey of India(ASI) based on that of a fifth-century structure. What one sees today may not be what Ashoka or any of the 5th-6th century emperors built, but the historical significance of the place is so immense that it would be a shame if ASI did not do anything to preserve it.

The monument today is a neat structure situated right next to a Bodhi tree and the diamond throne. The original Bodhi tree was cut down by Ashoka’s wife who felt that her husband was giving more importance to the tree than to his wife. Fortunately, Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra had carried one of the saplings from the tree to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. The tree that stands today is an offspring of the Sri Lankan Bodhi tree and is protected. The main temple houses a Buddha statue. The gardens surrounding the temple and the tree are ideal for meditation and monks in maroon robes walk in these gardens chanting prayers. At night, the temple was beautifully illuminated giving the structure a nice aura while still maintaining the peace and serenity of the gardens.
Monks from Sri Lanka, Japan, China and India roamed the temple courtyard freely, meditating under the Mahabodhi tree when they chose. Our attempt at enlightenment was short-lived, but sitting cross-legged under the Bodhi tree was such a calming experience that it may just make sense to go back to Bodhgaya and complete the rest of the Buddhist circuit.

Manas- A story of revival against all odds

Manas National Park had one of the most interesting backgrounds amongst the sites we have visited. It was one of the Nine reserves selected to launch Project Tiger in India in 1973. It achieved more recognition when it was selected as a World Heritage Site in the year 1985. However the scene changed drastically from the 1990s. Rampant poaching, militant activities, kidnapping of forest officials almost signaled the demise of this wonderful reserve. UNESCO even went on to place Manas in the ‘world heritage site in danger’ List, making it the only site in India to ever feature in the list.

But the story of the revival of Manas is one that highlights the resolve of the local people to get back the glory of this wonderful forest.  The locals formed a council to end the militant conflict. Wildlife Fund of India and the Assam Government, decided to improve the forest infrastructure by setting up more outposts in the forest. This kept poachers in check. Some of the poachers were even convinced to work towards the preservation of wildlife rather than its destruction.  Better connectivity to cities like Guwahati was established to improve the tourist inflow and Rhinos were trans-located from Pobitora and Kaziranga to Manas, to revive the Rhino population here. Due to all these efforts, Manas was removed from the UNESCO ‘world heritage site in danger’ List. A great achievement completely dedicated to the resolve of the local population, the conservationists who toiled day in-day out and the officials who made sure that Manas deserved the respect it once enjoyed. We were able to procure all this information, from the Field Director, of Manas himself, who was kind enough to spend some time with us share this story, though we met him on an official holiday.

Sorry, for the rather long introduction, but this amazing revival story had to be told. Our journey to Manas started out with a train ride to Barpeta Road which 60 kilometers from the entrance to the Park (at Bansbari). On the Auto ride, we saw frequent signs of ‘STOP KIDNAPPING AND EXTORTION’, being displayed, a chilling reminder of the bloody past of the locality we were in. We struggled to find accommodation in the four lodges near to the Bansbari entrance as there was sudden influx of tourists due to Kaziranga being shut for their Rhino census. We finally had to settle down in a storage room, sharing our space with unused tables and chairs, which we felt was better than spending the night out in the forest vicinity! It was strange that the place only had four lodges, which were clearly inadequate to absorb a larger influx of tourists.

The next day we went for our safari ride to the forest in a Gypsy. Upon entering the forests itself we immediately realized that we were in a special place. Unlike Kaziranga which is mostly covered in Elephant Grass, Manas was pure forests. Huge tress lined up our roads on both sides, and our Gypsy trudged along the muddy path with us frequently ducking to avoid bumping into low hanging branches. We crossed numerous rivulets seeming to appear out of nowhere and disappearing into dense vegetation. Manas also had the grasslands, but they were far less compared to Kaziranga. We managed to spot the Pied Hornbill, a majestic bird with a large wingspan and an interesting beak. The Hornbill appeared quite a few times later as well, clearly indicating that it prefers this wonderful habitat. Buffaloes stared at us as we passed them through the grassland and the capped Langurs were spotted lazily resting on large tree branches, without being really perturbed by our visit. After almost two hours, we reached a quiet lodge in the middle of the jungle called Mathungari. It’s the only one in the middle of the forest and is situated next to the River Manas. We spent some time on the banks of this serene river across which the forest extended into Bhutan. Darkness had already descended on our way back, but we still managed to spot a Gaur and Sambhars due to the brilliant observations of our security guard (yes, it is compulsory to hire the services of one and he does come with a gun!) and his skills with the flashlight. The gypsy after us claimed of spotting a Black Panther. Though we missed out, the safari was really a unique experience lasting close to four hours, through forests that were a few years back the hideouts of militants and now has returned to its rightful owners, the wildlife.

The next day we tried out the elephant safari, which proved quite painful due to the insufficient cushioning at appropriate places! We still managed to bear through it for an hour and spotted a herd of wild elephants and a large number of Hog deers comfortable resting in the shade to escape the summer heat. The elephant ride did take us to the forest for a while, but it mainly concentrated on covering the grasslands, which were easier to navigate.

Manas, is still in the rebuilding phase. The forest seems to be back to its glory, but the wildlife is still to return in large numbers. The authorities should also ensure that there is adequate infrastructure to support the increasing tourist’s inflow. Every visit here is a way to salute the resolve and dedication of the hundreds who worked selflessly to return this majestic National Park to its past glory. Without their efforts, Manas would have been a just a fable about wonderful creatures that roamed these dense forests, spread on the banks of a beautiful river.

 

On tyres and trunks

Assam tourism is currently on a promotion spree advertising what their state has to offer. An animated one horned rhinoceros urges you to “Come, visit Assam”. Assam has been notorious for separatist activity in the past and this advertisement campaign did ease some nerves when we decided on visiting Kaziranga National Park. From New jalpaiguri (after Darjeeling), we headed to Guwahati to make arrangements for heading to Kaziranga. Guwahati is the most well connected city in the north east of India. While the city probably functions as an efficient gateway to the east, the lack of civic sense amongst the people is evident through a lot of things you see and smell. We were quite sure we wanted to leave for Kaziranga at the first opportunity.

Our five hour journey next morning to the Kohra tourist complex was gloomy. The sky was bright at 5AM but was dark again by 8AM thanks to a very welcome downpour that cooled the entire region for the next two days. On reaching the tourist complex, we were exposed to our first major drawback of not having pre-booked accommodation. The park was to be closed for a rhino census in two days time and hence all accommodation options for the one night we wanted to spend there were either too expensive or full. We dropped our bags off in a highly overpriced room and and booked a gypsy and rode towards rhino gate and into the central range of the park.

India has fantastic diversity from one national park to another and Kaziranga was different yet again. Tropical forests in south India, woody jungles in central India and mangrove forests in the Sunderbans were replaced with rolling grasslands in Kaziranga similar to the African savannahs. If you could not see an animal in front of you, you couldn’t see one three hundred yards away either, but you could see a landscape reaching out so far. The wildlife sightings were far from disappointing. Our first one horned rhinoceros was sighted in a matter of 15 minutes and many more were to follow. Our guide decided that stopping for deer, peacocks and wild buffaloes was not worth it. We did see very many rhinos and wild elephants to stop counting beyond a point. The drive next day into the western range of the park was very interesting too. This area had many more water bodies to support wildlife. Storks standing on one leg, buffaloes rushing towards the water and rhinos grazing by the waters ensured we stopped every now and then. A green vine snake blocked our path for close to five minutes and lay stationary showing off. Two satisfying jeep safaris into the park and yet there was something else that was closer to the true Kaziranga experience. An elephant safari.

With the heavy tourist population in the park, we managed to get a slot early in the morning for the elephant safari in the central range. Being on an elephant is an experience in itself, but being on one to spot wildlife was going to be something. The two of us were given a fairly small elephant defying any logic that had been applied to the allocation. Oh well, we sat on the poor elephant which dint seem to mind and thudded along. It was not the most comfortable seat in the world and the elephant decided when it wanted to stop to eat, excrete or whip us with his tail in the excuse of swatting flies. We got dangerously close to a mother rhino and its calf and the elephant dint flinch. A rhino is capable of overturning a gypsy in its fury and we felt justified to sweat profusely being so close to such an unpredictable animal. The mahout seemed suspect when he was not able to name his elephant and if he decided to hop off and make a run for it, we had a fair mind to do absolutely nothing about it! Our anxiety tempered down a bit when we saw a herd of deer peacefully grazing. The elephant got bored of the deer and veered towards another rhino as we hung on tight. We returned to the elephant stables an hour after we started with our heads held high and bottoms thoroughly numb. We loved it.

In 1985, Kaziranga was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO to help preserve the highest concentration of one horned rhinoceroses in the world. The numbers have definitely shot up thanks to an efficient park management. The one horned rhinoceros in the advertisement campaign asked us to “Come, visit Assam” and we found it very hard to leave it.

Darjeeling- A heady hill station

Our ride from Jorethang in Sikkim to Darjeeling could easily compare to the best roller-coaster rides around,little did we know that our experience at Darjeeling wouldn’t be too different either.
Darjeeling is easily the most popular hill station in this part of the country.Hills adorned with tea plantations, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the air and little girls dressed up in cute convent school uniforms,it ticks off all the boxes required for a hill station.When we landed in Darjeeling we were greeted to a cacophony of blaring horns and cab drivers shouting at the top of their voices. Darjeeling is filled with Cabs, vehicles of all sizes and shapes are parked all over town offering to take you to the remotest of tourist attractions. There were so many off them that navigating through the town proved to be a real hassle. The roads weren’t clean either,crowded, littered and cramped,we were beginning to realise that Darjeeling had another side to it.
One of the must see attractions of Darjeeling is the view point at Tiger Hill. Viewing the sunrise here and being able to catch a glimpse of the lofty Himalayan peaks(Everest included on a clear sky)was something we did not want to miss out on. So we hired a taxi which promptly arrived at our doorsteps at 4 in the morning. Still unsure if we were awake, we boarded the taxi and it sped off to beat the sun to Tiger Hill.Whatever slumber we were in, was shattered by the blaring horns of the gazillion vehicles at the entrance to the hill. Yes!There was actually a traffic jam at four in the morning on this tiny hill. Navigating through the crowd, we managed to buy tickets (the better the viewing point, the higher you had to pay!)to a decent viewing spot. The sea of humans there to great the Sun was a greater spectacle to us than the actual Sunrise.We were half-expecting the people to cheer and do a Mexican Wave as the Sun made its grand entrance. In spite of all the commotion around, nature did not disappoint us and we witnessed a picturesque sunrise bathing the Himalayan peaks in shades of Orange and Red. We were able to locate the Kanchenjunga, but the Everest managed to slip under the clouds and give us a miss.By now were wide awake and the driver also took us to the Ghoom Monastery, one of the oldest in this region and the Gurkha War Memorial dedicated to all the Gurkha soldiers who lost their lives fighting for our country.

 

In the afternoon, we decided to visit the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park,commonly known as the Darjeeling Zoo. The zoo is located in a fairly large 65 acre plot in the outskirts of the town. We were able to observe a variety of wildlife that were unique to the Himalayan region like the Himalayan Tahr, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Monal, Grey Peacock Pheasant, Himalayan Salamander, Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, Snow leopards, Red pandas and  Gorals (mountain goat). We did spend an extra few minutes in observing the Royal Bengal Tiger, the quest after which this humble blog has been named. The Zoo is also know for its conservation efforts of the Red Panda,the state animal of Sikkim, a timid creature which is usually found in the lower Himalayas. One of the points that caught our attention, were the large open spaces available to some of the animals to freely roam around (the wild ones were obviously caged). It was a refreshing change to the cramped up environments we are so used to seeing in other zoos.

 

The next day we finally decided to take a ride on the famed Darjeeling Mountain Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage, and the actual purpose of our visit here.The Darjeeling Railways operates both Diesel as well as Steam rail engines. The former ones are called the TOY rides and the latter the JOY rides. We could not understand this unique classification as the JOY of traveling on a steam powered coach was not in our destiny. Tickets for these were already sold out, so we decided to enjoy the diesel-powered TOY ride. These ones are used by the general public for transportation to the New Jalpaiguri and Kurseong Stations, while the steam ones are only used as Novelty rides to Ghoom and back (2 hours ride to cover a distance of 13 kms). Like everything else in Darjeeling, the train compartments were filled with people, all there to capture the excitement of a mountain railway train ride. Fortunately we had reservations and navigated our way through the maze to our seats. The train meandered through Darjeeling town at its own leisurely pace. All vehicles next to the tracks were stopped to give way to the Grand Old Man of Indian Railways. It was actually quite a sight, all the cab drivers, who were generally always shouting as their vehicles overtook one another, were now quietly waiting in line for the Heritage train to pass. We were able to catch glimpses of more tea plantations, and numerous Monasteries on the way. The train ride, was indeed a unique experience, more so for the fact that we were able to ride on one of the oldest trains in India through some of the busiest mountain traffic in the country.


We cannot end this article without mentioning one of the best bakeries we have ever set foot in -Glenary’s. Set right in the centre of town, on Motor Road, the pastries and patties here are truly to die for. Over the course of our two day stay, Glenary’s would not have seen more gluttony tourists before. Spicy chilly chicken patties, tender pork sausages,melting-in your mouth paneer patties, custard oozing cream rolls,soft as fluffy sweet buns, sugar sprinkled donuts and chocolate dripping pastries, nothing was left unsampled.Darjeeling should just advertise this as their main attraction!


Darjeeling does have its charm, its just that its getting harder to find it.With the tourist inflow increasing by infinite bounds, we just hope that this once-quiet mountain town retains its hill station heritage in the years to come. Till then, lets bear with the noisy Cab drivers as you enjoy your mouth watering cream roll, while staring at the lazy heritage train pass by.

Mangroves and man-eaters

A trip to the Sunderbans national park was always going to be a highlight of this three month journey across India. The largest delta in the world, mangrove forests, tides creating and destroying forests at different times in the day, salt water and fresh water having no boundaries were enough reasons for us to visit this hostile environment. There was also this one other tiny excuse to visit this place feared by outsiders and locals alike:The Royal Bengal Tiger. The forest is known to have the largest concentration of dedicated man-eaters. Fishermen and honey collectors wear masks on the back of their heads to avoid an ambush attack by the 220 kg killing machines. The impenetrable forests make it difficult for people to go in and even more difficult to come out. Just being in these forests, knowing that you could be attacked alike from water and land have led the Hindus and Muslims to worship a common goddess, Bonbibi.

The Sunderbans are a highly protected region with a majority of the area belonging to Bangladesh and the rest with India. Access to this region is based entirely on permission from the forest department and can be best arranged by booking a package tour with the West Bengal tourism department. Opting for a 3d/2n package, we were taken in a bus from Kolkata to the jetty at Sonakhali. We boarded the MV Sarvajaya and settled in as the motor chugged away under the afternoon sun. At Rs 4200 per person, our low expectations were pleasantly dashed when we saw fairly comfortable bunkers, a wide variety of options for food and a generally cheerful staff and tour guide.

After the chaos and crowds of Kolkata, we were looking forward  to some quiet time in the waters and we got just that. There was one attention seeking 8 year old kid who made his presence felt by shouting and stomping his feet on the deck every time we forgot him. We spent many hours plotting how to use him as a bait to lure a tiger to restore the tranquility of the place. Within an hour of entering the waters of the national park, we were fairly certain we wouldn’t see the tiger and settled down to getting used to the idiot. While the place is teeming with wildlife ranging from spotted deer and saltwater crocodiles to many bird species and royal Bengal tigers, the ability to spot them depends on being at the right creek at the right time. With so many small rivulets to meander through, the probability of a tiger showing up on the banks of the water we were moving through was equivalent to threading a needle.

Our stay on the vessel was very enjoyable. Our 3 days comprised of waking up, lounging on the deck chair looking for wildlife, getting off the boat to climb on to watchtowers that were located next to “sweet” water ponds(meant to lure wildlife) and a lot of wholesome eating. The most we ever had to worry about was if dinner would be better than the already good lunch. We did see deer, many types of kingfishers, a giant water monitor lizard and other birds and we did see forests so thick that they were overflowing into the waters. For three days, all we did was walk through caged walkways to watchtowers and just enjoy the breeze on the vessel. Go with no expectations and you shall certainly be rewarded with a good time.

Surya Namaskar at Konark

We (the two of us and three of our friends- Dhruva,Anirudh and Abhinav) arrived at Konark late in the evening all tired and weary.We managed to catch glimpses of the Sun temple then itself, and from what we saw we knew there was something special in store.
As we got to the temple next morning we were just awestruck by this wonder.Built by King Narasimhadeva 1 in the 13th century, the temple has a huge building in the centre that is flanked by twelve chariot wheels. We later on came to know that this main structure was just the mantapa and the actual sanctum was destroyed centuries ago. Apparently with the real sanctum, Konark would have been in the league of the highest temples in the world.Another thing that struck us was the intricate artwork all over the temple complex. The attention to detail in all that imagery just cannot be missed. The temple entrance has the figures of seven horses depicting the seven colours of light and the horses were pulling a chariot made of twelve wheels that represented the twelve months of the year.The chariots also acted as a sundial by which one could judge the time of the day to pin point accuracy. Such attention to detail and scientific data being depicted on a temple cannot be found anywhere else.
One cannot miss the erotic imagery around this amazing temple. Apparently this was done to lure people back into family life as the male population was dwindling (because of the numerous wars) and the few survivors were only interested in becoming sanyasis(hermits)! We cannot authenticate the accuracy of this information provided by our guide, but we can surely say that the images would have clearly made an impact.
Though we reached there quite early (at sunrise), the place started filling up by seven in the morning.  The visitor inflow kept on increasing, clearly proving that its a very popular site for the locals around. Most of them had gathered there early to pay respect to the first rays of the sun.The entrance to the mantapa has been walled, almost 100 years back as the structure would have collapsed if it was left untouched.The huge lawns of the temple were also well maintained and added to the overall beauty of the temple.
Konark was surely an interesting experience. A temple dedicated to the Sun God, adorned with erotic imagery and replete with scientific references was something that pleasantly surprised us. The Temple does stand as one of the greatest example of East Indian Architectural brilliance and gives us a glipmse to a past ruled by a heady mix of religion and reasoning.

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