Wednesday, 29 February 2012

March Elephants....March.

Temple Festivals of Kerala epitomize royalty, grandeur and carnivals of India. And one of them is the Guruvayur Utsavam (festival) celebrated at the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayur – known as the ‘Dwaraka of the South’- in Kerala starting from 5th of March.

This March, the little town of Guruvayur will bustle with activity as it celebrates the Guruvayur Festivals – Patahadi, Dhwajadi and Ankuradi that last all month. The Temple would be richly decorated by fresh-cut flowers during day and with multi-coloured blinking lights – thousands in a row at night and the streets would be lined with flower and light decorations with spiritual music in Malayalam playing at every nook and corner. Fireworks, decorative arch-ways, bunches of coconuts and plantain trunks which are planted by most doorways is what Guruvayur experiences every March.

Remembered for the elaborate ‘pujas’ in the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple and the majestic Elephant parades in which Elephants adorned with ornate golden caparisons (nettipattam) parade along with hundreds of Lord Krishna devotees and the temple priests doing the drum-roll in the festival procession around the temples, the Guruvayur Festivals in March are dedicated to Lord Krishna and are much-awaited by the locals and tourists. During this month the Temple hosts several cultural programs daily. It is a feast to the eyes and the experience takes you to a whole new level of spirituality even if you’re not a Hindu.

Known to have more than 60 captive Elephants which are an integral part of the Temple Pujas & Processions, the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple Board has constructed an exclusive, one-of-its-kind Elephant Palace to house these regal beings of which Gajarajan Guruvayur Kesavan is the most popular and celebrated elephant for his devout behaviour. Beside pilgrimage people from all over the country visit Guruvayur Temple during this festival because of the unique Elephant Race (Aanayottam) which marks the commencement of the festival where all the elephants along with their respective mahouts race against one another on the streets of Guruvayur.

Besides partaking in the celebration of the Guruvayur Festival, rheumatic patients also pay homage to the temple’s residing deity – Lord Krishna as it is a strong belief that doing so would relieve them of their suffering and ailments.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The summer when we bathed Elephants

When families of three long time friends go on a trip it is a ride with unlimited fun and joy.  That was how one of our trips to Karnataka was.  Summer of 2010 we visited Dubara forest as part of our trip.  We had toured Coorg of Madikeri for two days and left for the Dubara Forest visit around 8 pm on 21 May 2010. We checked in to the already reserved cottages of the Jungle Lodges and Resorts and it was a dark and cloudy night.  We sat outside the cottages sharing horror stories, scaring the kiddos and having a blast of time.  We retired late and woke up early to see the Elephants before it gets hot.
Our cottage was on one bank of the river Cauvery and the Elephant camp on the other. The river was very pleasant, pure and quite.  The trees on the banks of the river were very old and a tree was actually a hybrid of 2 different types and had two kinds of leaves.  We sat under this tree and had our breakfast and after that went on boating to the Elephant camp.

The activities planned spaced across 3 hrs and we did not know how the time went by.  The Elephants were of different sizes and ages and so well trained, behaved and cute. I think Elephant is the only animal that looks cute despite its size.  So to begin with we joined the Naturalist (Trainer) in bathing a couple of Elephants.  He allowed us to oil the trunk, forehead and legs first and asked us to scrub using a tight scrubber.  Children were so excited that they fell all over the place and scrubbed the friendly animals.  When it was time to wash them off, the moment kids started pouring water on them with huge mugs they started showering us in turn using their trunks and it was so much of fun.  We had heard that The Elephants in this camp are well trained and are very human friendly and were pleased to experience more than what we had expected. 
After the bathing came the riding, initially it was scary to get on them but a little help from the Naturalist motivated the kids to go ahead, all this while the trained kept loading us with the daily routine, eating habits and sleeping habits of the Elephants.  It was an informative and enjoyable tour.  
The most interesting part of the day was feeding the Elephants.  Their diet includes porridge made of the flour of Ragi (finger millet).  It is cooked in huge bowls, so huge that I had never seen before. And each time the animal gobbles football sized porridge. We all were allowed to feed it with the instructions of the naturalist.  And it was a great experience to see them eat so much so fast, the tongue of the elephant is so big and thick it felt strange to touch it. And with that the three hour activity of one group was done with and even we were very tired, hungry and ready to leave after all this. 

Monday, 27 February 2012

Yoga-Power in the Yoga-Capital of the world!

It’s raining ‘yogarians’ in Rishikesh this March 1-7 as the International Yoga Festival is going full throttle with the world’s top Yoga-gurus and disciples converging for a trip up the yoga-lane.

What began as a handful of ‘Yoga hope-fulls’ in 1999 is today, an International Yoga Festival – an international event that is much awaited by yoga-enthusiasts world over. Participants range from students to practitioners from 30 countries in this week-long conference, where the ‘Yogacharyas’ and spiritual leaders give discourses and demonstrations of Yoga and highlight its practical implementation and its benefits in our current fast-paced lives.

Jointly organized by the Uttarakhand Tourism Department and the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, Kundalini Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Power Vinyasa Yoga and Kriya Yoga among others are to be taught in a rare yoga festival where all forms of World Yoga are showcased in a single international event in Rishikesh.

Some of the presenters at the Yoga International Festival are:

Shankaracharya Swami Divyanand Teerthji – commentary on the Holy Scriptures.

Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji – teacher of Vedanta.

Swami Ramdevji – pranayam & yoga.

Padmashri Bharat Bhushanji – yoga.

Swami Yoganndaji - Sukshma Vyayam Yoga.

Radhanath Swamiji (American born) – community development & yoga.

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa – from Los Angeles, California - Kundalini yoga, meditation and pre- and post-natal yoga training.

Manouso Manos - Iyengar Yoga

Andrew Cohen – spiritual teacher from USA.

Rujuta Diwekar – nutrition and Iyengar and Sivananda yoga.

Marla Apt - from Los Angeles, California – Iyengar Yoga.

Janet Bray Attwood – yoga.

David Wei – Yin & Yang Yoga.

GabrieIa Bozic – from Munic Germany – Jivamukti Yoga.

Emy Blesio – from Italy - Yoga, Pranayama, and Meditation.

Friday, 24 February 2012

What is in your sky tonight?

Ever wonder?

Does it intrigue you enough to make you head to your nearest Planetarium and explore your sky? Were you ever curious about finding out whom you share your skyline with? Did you ever imagine how your sky looks through the eye of a powerful telescope which zooms in celestial bodies which are many light-years away?

My curiosity was evoked so I headed out to the Birla Planetarium in Kolkata.

I did see literature on space-exploration and did hear some intellectual voices preempt the Show content but the actual Space Show out-does all verbal and written descriptions. This picture is truly worth a thousand words and more.

Even before the show had begun, I must highlight the ambience that is created by the physical aspects of the planetarium which creates the right ambience and mood to explore, understand and enjoy the Space. It is 688-seater planetarium with directional seats which allows you to recline back and watch the full spectrum of the sky in 180 degrees-pan. Footsteps are muffled by the thick wall-to-wall carpets. The circular room was air-conditioned and dimly lit. all this heightened my anticipation of what’s to come….

The initially invisible hostess made her presence felt on the mike when she announced that the show would commence in 2 minutes. All piped-down and reclined back and gaped at the sky in silence as the light were turned down and the hostess introduced us to OUR SKY.

It was like nothing before. Simply awesome!!

I felt like an astronaut who drifted from his spaceship and was loosely floating around in space. The telescope zoomed in images of the stars and other space-rocks which were light-years away and magnified them on our concave screen. By the way, one ‘light year’ is a measurement of time wherein it represents the distance covered by light in one year. That’s zillions and zillions and zillion kilometres away! Whoever thought of that!

It so easy to get lost in space…..literally! And I was for those 45 minutes during the show.

The outcome?

Carl Zeiss Home telescope with a tripod… 1 year flat!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

13 Reasons to holiday in Jammu & Kashmir this summer....

Planning your summer vacation?

I'll give you 13 reasons to holiday in Kashmir this year.

1. The roadblock such as political unrest and militancy in Kashmir has fizzled down which is evident in the upsurge of tourism figures of Kashmir in 2011 which state that in the last 20 years, the year 2011 saw the highest number of tourists visiting Kashmir – more than 10 lakh tourists apart from the 1 crore-plus pilgrims who visited Mata Vaishnodevi’s Shrine and the 7 lakh pilgrims who took the Amarnath Yatra. This boost in tourism in Kashmir has revved up the Government’s plan for better tourist trails and trip packages and amenities this year to keep the momentum going and for a strong hold on the long-awaited triumph of Kashmir Tourism.

2. Winter is over and the snowy mountains are friendlier now for adventure snow sports such as snow-strolling, snow-rolling, snow-skiing, snowboarding, sledding and snow-shoeing or just mountain-scaling. Or how about you just hover over the snowy mountains in one of theworld’s highest gondola cable cars? And if you are trained and have nerves of steel, how about you try helicopter skiing at 12,000 feet?

3. The Himalayan rivers and springs run again in Kashmir after a dormant freeze-period making it a happening place for adventure water sports such as river-rafting, kayaking, canoeing,boating and not to mention trout-fishing and fishing in general.

4. The Lakes of Kashmir Mountain-lakes as well as the lakes at the glaciers have thawed and add splendour to the landscape and provide excellent boating, camping and picnic spots.

5. The Mughal Gardens have turned bright plush green and present to you ‘Royal Walks’ in the centuries-old gardens with ponds, waterfalls and fountains. The dense Cedar Woods are waiting to woo you.

6. Multi-coloured flowers are in full bloom for miles together in mountain valleys as well as in the plains. The Tulip Garden in April is like Holland in spring. World’s most expensive spice –Saffron is in full purple-bloom for hundreds of acres. The Rose Gardens add ornamental value to these landscapes with their beautiful multi-coloured presence.

7. The wildlife in these high-altitude National Parks, Sanctuaries and Biospheres is out to soak up the sun and to let you see them and photograph them.

8. The high altitude trekking trails through mountains, valleys and meadows and grasslands are ready to take you places you have never been before. And camp in the most gorgeous never-even-considered-sites of the country.

9. The chill air has cleared up and has made the skies more paragliding-friendly.

10. World’s highest motorable pass Khardung La has gone a little easy on the snow and is waiting to challenge the foreign and domestic dexterous bikers.

11. World’s 7th highest golf course – among the other golf courses in Kashmir, is waiting to play it rough and tough with you at 9000 feet altitude.

12. And shopping!!!!!!!!!! Tibetan handicrafts and Kashmiri handicrafts especially the precious stones-studded silver jewelry and woollen carpets and other wooden and silver handicrafts just keep taking newer and more attractive dimensions to suit global markets. Need I entice you more?

13. And of course, Shri Amarnathji and Goddess Vaishnodevi and Lord Buddha beckon you for an annual visit to their abode on earth!

And when winter sets in again....get set for the world famous and much awaited Chader Trek on the frozen River Zanksar !!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Har Har Mahadev.....

Tryambakam yajaamahe sugandhim pushti-vardhanam |
Urvaarukam Iva bandhanaan mrityor muksheeya maamritaat ||
is the Trayambaka Mantra popular as the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra from Yajurveda.  
Roughly translated it means we bow with respect to the One with a natural fragrance, one who is benevolent to his devoted, and one who is three eyed and we pray Him to maneuver us from this cycle of life and death and guide on to the path of salvation.
With this prayer on our lips we were on our way to Tanjore to visit the Brihadeeshwara Temple.  All that we heard about this temple and read through the net did not prepare us enough to what we found there. It was the sunny midday of 7 January 2012 and we were proceeding from Tiruvannamalai after visiting the Lord Arunachaleshwara and reached the Brihadeeshwara Temple by 1pm. Our trip was meant to visit Lord Siva pilgrimages in advance to Shivaratri which is on 20 Feb 2012. The idea was to to avoid huge crowds thronging in all Siva temples and have a peaceful darshan of the Lord.  
The moment we looked at the entrance was magical.  The entire structure including the boundary wall seemed to possess a great and ancient charm.  We felt as if we were walking into past in a time machine. Only a divine intervention or co-operation would have made such massive structure to be built centuries ago. We were not at all in a hurry and had no energy to run across the vast expanse of the temple premises after a 17km long walk around the Arunachalam Hill or Tiruvannamalai the day before.  We left our footwear at the entrance with the keeper and moved on.  
We stopped by the Temple History displayed and moved slowly across. The beautiful green and soft lawns of the temple premises were very inviting and we all went to relax for 30 minutes as the temples were closed and were to open only by 4pm.  In the meantime we looked around the huge premises and looked around the statue of the Bull.  The platform on which the Bull stands has a roof adorned with beautiful murals in bright blue colour. It is amazing to notice the fast colors not fading till date. Please zoom in to the image of the write up to read all the historical details of the temple.    
The entire length of the temple boundary wall has several small Shiva Lingams and little bulls (Nandi) placed one behind other forming a beeline.  We walked around the temples and found many scriptures in Devnagari and Tamil languages.  There were students from Chennai who were perched up on the walls making notes of the scriptures.  I asked them if they understood what is written on, one of them said that it was their project that each one of them must copy one line from the wall inscriptions and provide meaning.
Time went by so quickly and we realised it was 4pm and the temples were all open.  We went in the queue to visit Lord Ganesh first.  We noticed that these temples were architectural marvels in terms of the beautiful and intricate carvings on every wall and entrance.  Even the idols of the Deities were so lively and attractive.  The beauty of the deity was competing with the divinity in all the temples of Lord Ganesh, Lord Murugan and Goddess Parvati. The peacock on which Lord Murugan was seated looked marvelous with each feather carved with great care to make it appear real.

After all the above deities we lined up for the Darshan of Lord Shiva (Brihadeeshwara) the main deity of the temple.  Though it was very crowded no one was in hurry or pushing.  The interiors of this ancient temple were peaceful and cool with very highly perched roofs.  The wait in the queue was peaceful and we were for a change enjoying the waiting and appreciating the delay. The main deity is in the form of a 3 ft tall Linga which is placed on a high platform.  Serene and holy surroundings added fervor to the Darshan we had of Lord Brihadeeshwara and we left the temple with great satisfaction. Our next destination on the trip was Srirangam temple at Trichy and calls for a detailed blog for itself which will follow. 


Friday, 10 February 2012

Animals forever and ever !

Having your live pet dog prance around you is one thing. Now imagine your pet - stuffed and mounted on the wall in your living room?
Clearly….Taxidermy is NOT for all.
Those unfamiliar with this territory ought to be told that Taxidermy is considered as a fine mix of science and art world over – a process by which dead animals are preserved for educational purpose. Taxidermy is also a fetching profession if you do it right. Full mounts, trophy heads and skins of the deceased animals – popular ones being of Lions, Tigers, Snow Leopards, Crocodiles, Polar Bears, Black Bears, Red Deers, Eagles, Ostriches make a multi-billion dollar industry across all geographies. In fact, the older the ‘mount’ the more it is valued.
If you think this is weird and can’t help making faces, think of the alternative to Taxidermy. Do we just let the dead animals go without a trace? How else to preserve a race? It follows the same principle as does the mummification.
While mummification might have been started by the prehistoric South Americans and Egyptians to ensure that deceased’s soul continues into the afterlife, these same ‘mummies’ are our window into a race, a culture, a kingdom, an era – thousands of years ago!
Who knows? Today’s taxidermy could open a window to our world few millenia from now!
And for now….we can take solace in and marvel at a Taxidermist’s skill at keeping a deceased animal looking alive!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

A pleasant break in a long walk....

We were on our way to do the Circumambulation of Tiruvannamalai and visiting the Lord Arunachaleshwara in Tamil Nadu.  Six of us started off by mid day of 6 Jan 2012, on this 17km walk; it was a hot and sunny day.  We kept crossing many foreigners on our way and one of them a school teacher named Voila from Canada was also walking along with us.  She told us that after reading the teachings of Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi which impressed her deeply, she came down to India to spend a couple of months here. We were pleasantly surprised to note that she is checked into a small home stay at Tiruvannamalai and does walk up and down to the Ramanasramam daily. After walking for 3 hrs we reached Ramanasramam and walked in with lot of expectations. 
First we stopped by the big hoarding detailing the Asram site map. After checking out all the places to visit we went on to Bhagavan Samadhi Shrine.  It is a huge and peaceful hall where a Shiva Linga is placed on the Samadhi of Bhagavan and a close to real life idol is also there.  Black and white life size pictures of Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi adorn the walls of this hall.  Every picture leaves you spell bound as the eyes are so full of life and seem to look through your soul. 
We sat in that hall along with few others and meditated for a while.  It was interesting to note that surroundings make a huge impact on the state of mind, as I found it was easy to focus and meditate positively here than usual.Our next stop was of Mathrubhuteshwara temple which has the remains of Bhagavan’s mother.  This was inaugurated by Ramana Maharshi himself. We found a group of people singing some very pleasant and melodious Tamil songs in the hall of this shrine.  We all found them so interesting and sat for a long time listening to that rhythmic and captivating music despite not understanding the language, it is so true that music has no language barriers to enjoy.

We went ahead and looked around the dining hall, meeting area, well and the residential quarters of the Asram.  Everything is excellently maintained and we found many residents cleaning, sweeping and mopping these places as part of their routine. Then we visited the soul of the Asram, Sri Raman Maharshi’s personal chamber where he used to live and the articles that he used were also kept on display.  The area was kept intact and gave a feeling as if He is still there and spreading some positive energy around. From here we went towards the Cow sheds or Gosalas.  All the animals here are named and reared with love and affection.  The helpers and the residents of the Ashram take good care of these cows and showed us around the place. We fed the cows with the fruits we carried after taking permission to do so, took few pictures and were surprised to see the way each cow responds when called by name.  We were told that even Bhagavan had a favorite cow named Lakshmi that always stayed outside His quarters and grazed around close by.

 There is a Veda Pathasala (Vedic School) where the mid day classes were going on.  We waited outside and listened to the clear, rhythmic way of pronouncing the Sanskrit Shlokas. There were many Peacocks around this part of the Asram and we were lucky to see a Peacock dancing in very close quarters, it was so magical that we forgot to capture it on roll.
On our way back we visited the Book stall which stocks Books on Ramana Maharshi, Books written detailing his teachings and many other publications on Hindu religion, Vedic transcripts and many more.  All the above books are available in different languages as well including Telugu, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and English. Cotton hand bags with long strap were on sale here with the logos of the Asram.  They are so useful to carry along that I bought many to gift my friends and family.  I also bought the Diaries that carried Pictures and quotes of Ramana Maharishi.  
With that we walked out of the Ashram and were back on to the Parikrama of the Arunachalam Hill.  My experiences of this walk deserve another blog altogether hence I will detail them later.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Fancy these foxy, full-bodied foursomes?

Call it a fancy or a fixation….but I’ve always wanted to fill up my flute with a fine five-star fermentation and fulp it…..sorry…gulp it! Yup you heard it right.

This is a classic case of fostering a fetish whose facets you know nothing of!

No….I’m not fumbling but consciously stating my super long cherished dream of putting to lip – 4 sips….in the RAW.

A sippa Tea.

A sippa Coffee.

A sippa Saffron.

A sippa Wine.

The first two were relatively easier to find. Tea in Darjeeling and Coffee in Coorg - on my summer vacations to these geographies. But I want the balance two to be more than just a chance happening. I’m going fishing for them to the father (mother doesn’t rhyme here) of all places in which they are available. Pampore for Saffron. And Nashik for Wine.

So why all the fuss over these frinks…sorry drinks…. you ask?

Well….first off…

All four exotically-bitter tasting and liqueurs (minus the alcohol) are among the world’s top ten most expensive productions:

a. It takes 1,75,000 Saffron flowers to make 1 kilogram of consumable saffron and costs about Rs. 75, 000 per kilo.

b. It takes 22, 000 Tea shoots to make 1 kilogram of consumable tea.

c. It takes 800 grapes to make 1 bottle of wine.

d. 100 kilos of coffee beans will produce about 15 kilos of export-ready coffee.

Why? Because I’m worth it. Plus, each of them have health benefits. And last but not the least....I just love all the glamour, pomp and the paraphernalia that comes with the territory of stylishly sipping these ‘raws’ in crystal twist stem glasses.

And one word of advice to the spirited – if it’s one for the road – have coffee! Hic!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

All pine for the Alpine….

My love-affair with mountain ranges and all things alpine started recently and seems to be growing more passionate and diverse by the day. First, I used to browse the blog-sites and view lots of personal videos of true-travelers’ lowdown on high altitudes. Then I remember driving up in the rain to a book store and buying books on mountains of India and the seven summits of the world….just to be able to read about mountains in bed endlessly which is difficult with a laptop. Then came a phase when I started painting, art-journaling and paper-collaging with a central theme of the mountains. By this time….mountain ranges started getting so etched in my mind that I became a virtual curious-tourist so I took a nose-dive into mountaineering and started researching technology that aided humans in discovering and exploring the mountains and their terrain. That’s when I discovered that there is a formal course that teaches the knack of climbing mountains plus all the mountain’s moods which basically decides whether or not one would return from them in one single piece….or…..not at all!

The fact that you’re reading this topic speaks of your ‘inclination’ towards the snowy-slopes. Don’t know which milestone you’re at but maybe you need to lap-up some knowledge and know-how before you sign-up or fizzle-out. Did you know that the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering in Darjeeling offers month-long and on-field training in Mountaineering and costs less than Rs. 5000??? This should put to rest your delusions that mountaineering is for James Bonds and Yash Chopras. Anybody who has a fetish for adventure of treading lesser traveled angular roads running in his veins, has the grit to take on a risky challenge of climbing unpredictable powder slopes, longs for the adrenalin rush that comes with uncertainty of the mood of the mountains and someone who wants to stand closest to the sky….qualifies!
If you’re that someone or you want to know if you’re that someone….there is one good way to find out. Do what I’m going to do. Enroll for mountaineering training.
My inspiration? Jordan Romero, 13 – world’s youngest climber to summit Mount Everest at 29,035 feet altitude.
Source of my confidence? The 4000+ successful climbers who made it to the top of Mount Everest.
My preparation? Relentless training, gaining 360-degree awareness and focus.

They say the best way to focus on a goal is to visualize your goal frequently by forming mental images of your goal in your brain and by recalling them often in a day.
My method? Come to the Tiger Hill Watch-tower. 4 AM. And see for yourself…..