Following the Ganga – a spiritual journey in India – Part II

Rishikesh

After the good and the bad in Haridwar, we decided to make our way to Rishikesh, another historic Hindu town made holy by the number of rishis (priests and gurus) who meditated for the good and peace in this world, for the betterment of humankind. Rishikesh has the title of being the ‘yoga capital of the world’ and I was excited to take a few yoga classes here. We took a local bus, the ride not as eventful as the bus ride in Goa but saw four grown men on one motorcycle who were only too pleased to be photographed 🙂

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Rishikesh is on the other side of Ganga from the main town and is connected via two pedestrian bridges which are also shared by bicycles, motorcycles (unfortunately), cows, dogs and monkeys! The bridges are called Ram jhoola  and Laxman jhoola. We walked across the river on the Ram jhoola and made our way to the Parmarth Niketan ashram which would be our home for the next 10 days!

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We got a large room for 400 rupees (about $7 a day) with a shared courtyard. Our days consisted of going to daily yoga classes (at 6 in the morning!), getting porridge/muesli breakfasts, reading fiction, drinking chai by the Ganga ghat and feeding the stray dogs and cows, chatting up fellow travelers, and listening to the sermon during the evening artis. We also went to a Sufi concert in this Hindu town! We had a regular chai walla who we would go to every evening, even a regular bindi walla who would sing old Hindi film songs like Teri Bindiya Re while applying bindis on our foreheads :). It was a true vacation and at the very same time, it quickly became a lifestyle that we felt we could adopt when we retire. Only downsides – strictly vegetarian food, they wouldn’t even serve eggs or garlic or onions, and NO alcohol! 😦 In spite of this, Rishikesh was easily my favorite place to visit in India!

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Each ashram is led by a religious guru whose teachings the workers and volunteers in the ashram follow. The guru at Parmarth Niketan was very progressive. His sermon at the evening artis was very secular with emphasis on one God and how the humankind should help each other no matter who they pray to and what they look like. He also stressed on how people should donate to causes that build toilets in India as opposed to more temples. In his words – you can’t go to school before you go to the toilet. He made everyone at the arti pledge to plant a tree and reduce the use of plastic bags – a rather refreshing experience after the Mansa Devi temple in Haridwar!

Raj’s Beena massi and Shyam mama and family came to visit us in Rishikesh for a couple of days. It was fun hanging out by the Ganga with them and hiking out to the nearby Neer Falls 🙂

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I want to share a personal experience while in Rishikesh. One morning, after the yoga class, I took off to get some chai on my own. I went to this café called ‘The Office’ which we frequented during our time there. Ironically, none of the patrons of ‘The Office’ had any work to do :). The place had a nice balcony laid out with sheets and cushions, with a view of the Ganga. A swami dressed in saffron robes with a tikka on his forehead took a seat next to me and I offered to buy him a chai. We ended up conversing for over two hours on life, love and purpose. It was amazing to me how this swami (along with others) left all worldly relationships – his wife, parents and kids, and all material possessions to live a life meditating and praying in Rishikesh, all the time not knowing where the next meal would come from. We discussed fate, highs and lows in life, attachment to materialism, and how the one God would always take care of you no matter where you go and what you do. He shared these words with me, to share with Raj, but I’m sure he’ll be happy to share them with anybody who reads this blog:

Om Namaskar

Life is short

Fix your mind on God

Try to understand yourself

Time is passing fast

Your death is waiting

Follow your intuition

Listen to your inner voice

Believe in God

Surrender to God

Remember God

Open your third eye

Wake up

Everything is possible

God bless you

Universal love

Thank you Ladu Babaji! In speaking with him, I’m back to being agnostic, spiritual even. I went back to Raj at the ashram feeling happy, more in love and ever so grateful.

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Khajuraho: Exploring Thousand Year Old Temples via Bicycle In Search Of My Celestial Nymph (Apsara)

Nov 30th – Dec 4th, 2013

Ever been to a temple in search of enlightenment? Bet you don’t expect to find a couple 69-ing each other (NSFW) on the wall outside. Or perhaps a “Celestial Nymph” enticing you while applying kohl (eyeliner) on her eyes. Now that we got the smut out of the way, we can chat about the deeper significance of these incredibly beautiful, deeply spiritual and amazingly well preserved temples that are over a thousand years old.

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Day 1 and Day 2: The Sound and Light show explaining the Chandela dynasty (Wikipedia) and the Western Group of temples.

Legend has it that one night near the river bank in Khajuraho, a beautiful woman was bathing in the river under the moonlight. The moon god (Chandra) saw her bathing and could not resist her. He descended to earth and they made passionate love all night. As the morning sun approached Chandra had to return to the sky. The maiden implored him to stay as she was unwed and had indulged in passionate love and would be disgraced. Chandra said to her that she would give birth to a son who would bring about a reign of glorious kings and would build beautiful temples. This is how this dynasty got its name The Chandelas.

The Chandelas built in all 85 temples, of which only 25 remain today. The rest deteriorated, were destroyed by invaders or looted by villagers. Once a bustling metropolis and the center of activity during the reign of the Chandelas (950 CE – 1050 CE), Khajuraho is now just a small sleepy tourist town. On the night we arrived it was already too late to go out and see the temples. The western group of temples, which houses about five or six of the best preserved temples inside a beautifully manicured gated lawn puts on a nightly “Sound and Light Show”. The show is an hour long and happens at night when the whole compound is covered in darkness. As the history of each temple is explained along with the history of the Chandelas, each temple lights up in various pastel colors using bright strobes. Very psychedelic! The story of the Chandelas is narrated by famed Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachhan. Anjli, her parents and I watched the show together. Though the piece was well researched, it was made in a very dramatic Bollywood style. The flamboyance kind of took away from the experience. Afterwards, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Anjli’s parents at a restaurant across from the western group. We laughed at and discussed the show and chatted about plans for mom and dad to come and meet us in Cambodia. We enjoyed dinner with mom and dad as this would be the last we would see of them for a few months. We enjoyed the evening over drinks and even brought a couple beers back to the hotel for good measure. 😊

The next morning Anjli and her folks explored the Western Group of temples for a few hours while I booked trains for Anjli and I to Varanasi and then on to Kolkata. The western group of temples is a group of six or seven of the best preserved temples at Khajuraho. After a morning of exploring, it was time to say good bye to Anj’s parents as they headed back to Kanpur. We said our goodbyes and planned to hook back up in Cambodia or Vietnam in a couple months.

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After Anj’s folks left for Kanpur, Anjli and I had planned to check out the western group together. Instead we walked back to our hotel for a quick power nap. Five hours later we awoke to find that the sun had already set and the temples already closed. 😛 I guess we were just exhausted from the long drive from Kanpur to Khajuraho. We had a lovely dinner together and retired for the night.

Day 3: The Western Group of Temples

We woke bright and early the next day and headed on over to the Western Group, which houses four of about six or seven of the best preserved temples:

  • Lakshman Temple
  • Kandariya Mahadev Temple
  • Vishwanath Temple
  • Chitragupta Temple

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Anjli and I sprung for the very informative and very entertaining audio guide (Highly Recommended). We meandered from temple to temple looking at the beautiful sandstone sculptures and admiring the craftsmanship, spiritual depth and marveling at the how well these temples have been preserved. How can something so old survive for such a long time? A millennium is a time frame that is incomprehensible to most of us.

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As an Indian American really exploring India for the first time, you can’t help but feel somehow connected to this past. You start to ask and wonder what these people from a thousand years ago were like. Who was the individual sculptor that was inspired to create each of these beautiful pieces? You feel connected to them. A deep sense of privilege and gratitude takes a hold of you. You look at each sculpture and imagine yourself looking over the shoulder of the sculptor that chiseled away at this piece of sandstone and created this masterpiece by hand. It’s like travelling back in time and feeling his/her presence. Imagining their hands next to the sculpture. Imagining their inspiration. Being at Khajuraho was truly a magical experience.

We took lots of pictures and stood for hours in front of sculptures admiring, imagining, contemplating and reflecting. We finished about 5 hours later and still felt like we could spend days there. Alas, time was short and we had to move on. We had another amazing dinner on the rooftop of our hotel looking up at the sky, talking about our favorite sculptures and how beautifully they were carved.

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Day 4: Exploring the other temples via bicycle and finally finding my Apsara

You may be wondering exactly what is an Apsara? In Hindu mythology, an Apsara is a beautiful, supernatural female beings. They are youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing. They are often the wives of Gandharvas, who are the court musicians of the rain god Indra. They are often depicted taking flight and in service to gods. Apsaras are found depicted in temples and dance across India, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia (Source: Wikipedia) One could compare them to angels. Anjli liked to think of them as fairies. 🙂

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Anjli and I left that morning on the back of bicycles to explore the other temples around the neighboring villages. We cycled from temple to temple, dodging touts, stray dogs, stray cows (yes, that’s a thing!), and village goats. We explored beautiful temple after beautiful temple. And after another day of exploring, I had dinner with my Apsara. Here’s a picture of her posing in front of one of the temples. 🙂

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Bombay, meri jaan

Nov 1st – 10th, 2013

Meri jaan is a Hindi expression that translates to ‘my life’ and is often used to address a loved one. Bombay, meri jaan comes from an old Bollywood movie song that talks about how it is difficult to live in this city, this city that is my life.

I love coming home to Bombay! Our daily routine consisted of getting pampered by my wonderful parents, pleasant evening walks, great conversations all day especially over candle lit dinners in the balcony under a star-filled sky, and excellent food and drinks!

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Bombay was extra special this time since our stay coincided with Diwali. The last time I spent Diwali at home was in 2000! Mom went all out! We bought flowers to make homemade garlands that are used to decorate the front door of the house. In the picture below, Mom is too concerned for me falling off the stool to smile J We also made some rangoli right outside the front door but it wasn’t pretty enough to warrant pictures on the blog 😉 plus it was put to shame by our neighbor’s beautiful colored patterns the same evening. Well, at least Mom and I had a good laugh about it!

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We spent Diwali day at my maternal grandparents’ house. Ravi Uncle and Asha Maasi also came by which made for a really nice family reunion. Nani made sure there was enough food that no one felt the need to eat anything that evening!

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We came back home that evening for Laxmi Pooja and to light fireworks alongside the neighbors in the building! Raj had a gala time firing up the ‘rockets’ while I was more comfortable with the seemingly less dangerous ‘anars’ (flower pots).

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I got pretty sick right after Diwali presumably from something I ate in Goa, so much so that we had to change my flights for Delhi. Mom and Dad were happy that I got sick at home rather than in random hotel rooms and also that we got a little extra time together!

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Can’t wait to see you again soon, Mum and Dad! Love and Hugs!

GOAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

Oct 25th – 31st, 2013

I grew up in Bombay. I attended school and college in Bombay and yet I had never been to Goa – a mere 40 minutes away by plane. So, when the opportunity came along to visit Goa, I jumped on it. Even though it meant that we had to leave Seattle at 6am the morning after our last day of work and cut short some of our travel time in Europe. And wow, was it worth it!

We flew business class from Copenhagen to Mumbai (just 30,000 miles each thanks to Mr. Mago’s research #balleronabudget ) with a pit stop in London to see my cousins Pooja and Zen, and my beautiful little niece Maya! Sending the evening with my aunt and uncle who flew in the same aaaevening was a bonus! My awesome parents came to the Mumbai airport during our four hour stopover to pick up our pea coats and wool sweaters which we wouldn’t need for a few months (yay!). They also brought us fresh coconut water 🙂

We reached Panjim the next morning. Raj had spent two months in Panjim back in 2005 for an IT training. So, our 24 hours there were spent walking along some of the same streets and going to some of the same bars and restaurants that Raj and his friend Dominic would frequent. I heard stories about where Raj stayed, how hard he studied, the places he liked to eat at and the bars he went to to meet pretty girls. Dominic – your name came up every few minutes! Here are a couple of pictures of the famous Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church in Panjim. Funnily enough, Raj had never seen the inside of this church before. Isn’t it interesting how we barely ‘travel’ through the places we live in?

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We headed south from Panjim to the Park Hyatt for the primary reason of our trip to Goa – our dear friend Sharad’s brother’s wedding. The wedding was soooo grand and Sharad’s friends and family so very receptive. Our experience over the two days at the Park Hyatt was the most luxury Raj and I expect to see over the course of our time off. We were greeted with fresh coconut water and had an outdoor shower attached to our room –wowza!

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We spent this amazing luxurious time eating, hanging with Sharad’s friends and family, eating, drinking, eating, getting dressed for the wedding events, eating, hanging by the pool… Raj and I gained at least a couple of pounds each during the two days, making up for all that walking around in Europe. Thank you Tania, Rahul, Ridhima, Manuj, Devika, Niharika and Karan for new friendships and fun conversations! Thank you Sharad and family for including us on this beautiful occasion. We wish Tarun and Divya our very best and hope to see them back in the States soon!

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After all this luxury, we had to get back to serious, budget conscious, backpacking 😉 We took this quite literally by taking a local bus from a bus station close to the Hyatt to Palolem in south Goa. The bus ride was ‘fun-ish’ – the suspension of bus was surprisingly good even though we were sitting on the seat directly above one of the rear wheels, a couple got in with a 14 inch TV wrapped up in a bed sheet, a lady in front of us kept yelling hello to folks on the streets – she seemed to know a lot of them, and of course the driver put on some jhintak Bollywood music on the blaring speaker. Like I said, the ride was fun-ish 🙂

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Palolem was everything I imagined Goa to be and more. The expected – coconut trees, soft sandy beach, amazing weather, sunsets, Goan fish curry! The unexpected – huts lining the beach front, hammocks, ocean front restaurants, chill-as-can-be vibe, dogs, cows, dolphins! We rented a room right on the beach for just 700 rupees (approximately US$11.50) a night, complete with a patio and hammock, about 50 feet away from the Arabian Sea. The next three days were the definition of chill – it was exactly what we needed after the hustle of Europe, long flights and the non-stop partying at the wedding. Our days included porridge breakfasts, writing postcards, exploring the beach, reading fiction, listening to music on the patio, talking to the friendly locals, Kingfisher beer and multiple dips in the shallow water. It was pretty darn perfect!

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The stray dogs and cows on the beach were hilarious! The dogs would invariably sit under our tables at the ocean front restaurants looking up at us with their beautiful eyes while wagging their tails. If we didn’t feed them for a while, they wouldn’t leave but instead sleep under the table hoping for a bit of morsel to fall on the floor – too cute! I had a fear of stray dogs as a kid but the dogs here were extremely friendly and got a lot of love from the tourists and locals alike. While hanging on the beach one time, I saw a dog plop down by a woman lying on the beach placing his butt right by her head. She gently slapped his butt with her flip-flop but he only moved an inch! Another time, a cow decided to make a meal out of a woman’s sarong – the woman’s partner ran behind the cow trying to shoo him/her away with a bag. The cow turned away for a couple seconds and then tried to discreetly get back to his/her meal. The cows and the dogs got into fights with each other a couple of times with one group chasing the other, much to everyone’s entertainment as long as the fight was happening at a distance. Pretty cool sights that one doesn’t see everyday 🙂

The highlight of our time here was when we took a break from the laziness and rented a kayak to watch the sunset from the water. Instead of watching the sun go down, we saw a group of four dolphins playing in the goldish-pink water. They came close to our boat, as close as 50m away, which was both scary and exciting at the same time. When we got back to the beach, the dude we rented the boat from told us that we were very lucky to spot the dolphins – a dolphin watching excursion that went farther into the ocean at the same time as us didn’t spot a single dolphin. We are fortunate for this beautiful experience!

So long Goa! I’ll definitely be back!