Saturday, 26 May 2012

Goa in high 'spirits' !!

Goa – the very name is magical. There are scores of other beachy places in India but Goa is Goa – a class apart as sworn by the 3 million annual visitors – with a majority of them being repeats. This smallest State of India sells the biggest dream-holidays every year. No wonder then that Goa is India’s richest State with Tourism being its primary industry!
Maybe it’s the palm-fringed beaches of white sands and sparkling waters.
Maybe it’s the charm of a 600-year old Portuguese colony with its world heritage architecture of Churches and houses.
Maybe it’s the bio-diverse hotspot that it is.
Maybe it’s the zipping around on rented bikes or lazing and strolling aimlessly on the beaches.
Maybe it’s the addicting flea-markets and hangout beach-shacks.
Could it be about all the sunburn and rave Goa beach-parties and discos with low-duty booze? It must be all of the above and more!

The best way to optimize your visit to Goa is to club your visit with a Goan festival. That’s when you can catch the true essence of Goa.
Countless festivals, events and parties dot the Goa calendar all year. This June, Goa would be buzzing with fun and frolic when it celebrates the onset of monsoons (Feast of St. Anthony on the 13th); celebrates newlyweds (Sao Joao Festival on the 24th) and celebrates fishing in the monsoons (Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul on the 29th).
The traditions that are practiced during these festivals truly smack of Goa – interesting and vibrant and very Portuguese!
The Sao Joao Festival which is centuries old is a lively street festival where the Goan youth go berserk with fun activities. Sao Joao Festival or the Feast of St. John’s commemorates the Christening of Lord Jesus Christ in River Jordan. On this day the youth of Goa jump into ponds and wells in remembrance and play games and sing songs and pray. On this day you will find the Goan youth scurrying on the roads from pond to pond and well to well. The newlyweds are given centre-stage by giving them prominent roles on this day of distributing goodies to the others. Mothers-in-law prepare and layout an elaborate meal for their sons-in-law. There is also an annual boat-parade that is held on this day. ‘Copel’ or a tiara made of fresh flowers is worn by the participants all day. There is also a long procession that meanders through the streets of Goa and leads to a Church. Upon reaching the Church there are fireworks, games and other fun activities held. The Goan locals spend the entire day on the streets participating with gusto in a host of events.
Goa is ever-inviting. Question would you like Goa served to you!

 Pix courtsey: Top News, Goodreads, Goa tours and travels, Goaindiatourism, Mygoatour, Festivalsofindia, Indianetzone.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Ganga Dassehra on Ganga Ghats.

Celebrating the reincarnation of River Ganga on Earth is Ganga Dassehra which is celebrated on the first 10 days of the ‘Jyeshtha’ month which falls in the months of May-June. According to Hindu Mythology, Goddess Ganga descending on earth is a festival that is observed as ‘Ganga Dassehra’, ‘Ganga Saptami’ and ‘Akshaya Tritiya’ in different parts of India.
Upon performing intense austerities by King Bhagirath, Goddess Ganga descended onto earth in the form of River Ganga in order to relieve the sins of King Bhagirath’s family. Since then it is a strong belief among Hindus that in order to cleanse oneself of his sins he would have to take a Holy-dip in River Ganga each year especially on Ganga Dassehra.
During these 10 days, River Ganga is venerated by the Hindus as Goddess Ganga through numerous pujas, prayers, rituals and ceremonies. The ‘Aarti of River Ganga’ performed by the Haridwar Priests at twilight while standing on the steps of the Ganga Ghats – few inches away from the ever-flowing humungous river Ganga – is a fascinating sight which is captured by millions of cameras on those days. Lord Shiva is worshipped with special emphasis on these 10 days. On all these 10 days, River Ganga is offered sweets and flowers and small flames in leaf-boats are set afloat on the fast-flowing river with ringing of bells and chanting of ‘shlokas’, ‘kirtans’ and ‘bhajans’. It’s one of the most amazing devotional experiences ever!
Places which are located along the banks of River Ganga such as Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi, Garh-Mukteswar, Prayag, Kanpur etc. are thronged by millions of Hindus and devotees of River Ganga to pay respects to the River as well as to take a Holy Dip in the River and perform puja on all 10 days.
On the days of Ganga Dassehra, it is believed to be a blessing and rewarding to give alms to the needy so all the Hindus who participate in the festival at the River Ganga at various places also do charity.
Facts about the Gigantic River Ganga:
1.    River Ganga originates in the Himalayas in Indian State of Uttarakhand at the confluence of River Bhagirathi and River Alaknanda and flows through India and Bangladesh. Gangotri Glacier is the point of origin of River Ganga. In Bangladesh, River Ganga is called River Padma.
2.    River Ganga is 2525 kms long from the Himalayas right upto the Bay of Bengal where it drains into the sea.
3.    Based on the ‘Volume-Rate’ of the water flow (discharge), River Gangs ranks among the Top 20 rivers in the world.

4.    400 million people inhabit the Ganga River basin (along its route) which makes it the highest populated river basin in the world.
5.    The first mention of River Ganga was in the Late Harappan period in the 2nd Millennium BC. The first official mention of River Ganga was made in the ancient Hindu scriptures – the Vedas dating back to 1500 BC. The first foreigner to have recorded River Ganga is the Greek Ethnographer – Megasthenes (in his book called ‘Indica’) who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya before 298 BC.

6.    According to Hindu Mythology, Goddess Ganga, who is a consort to all three Hindu deities – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva descends to earth in the reincarnation of River Ganga in order to purify and cleanse of sins of all those who take a Holy Dip in this river. Hindu river-pilgrimage and river-worship began with worshipping River Ganga in India. The ‘Maha Kumbh Mela’ is probably the biggest gathering of people in the world as in 2001 approximately 60 million people (of which 1 million people from outside of India) had gathered at Allahabad to worship River Ganga!
Pix courtesy: Wikipedia, Zeenews, Haridwarkumbhmela, Shunya, Geolt12.wordpress, Goldntriangleindiatours.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

800th ‘Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti’ in Ajmer !

More than 4,00,000 Indian and foreign devotees have been and will converge in Ajmer in Rajasthan this week in order to commemorate the death anniversary of the great Sufi  Saint - Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in a commemorative event called the ‘Urs’ which is held at the tomb of the Saint where his mortal remains lie buried. Khwaja Moinuddin is popularly known as ‘Gharib Nawaz’ – the Benefactor of the Poor.

Urs – Ajmer is reckoned with as the largest Muslim gathering in India held during the Islamic calendar month of Rajab – on seeing the moon of Rajab. Upon sighting the moon of Rajab, an official drum-roll would announce the commencement of the Urs and a traditional Urs Flag which is brought by the Gori family from Bhiwara is hoisted amidst flower and confetti shower on the main gate of the Shrine.
The commemoration lasts for 6 days – the 6th day regarded as the most important day when the ‘Shijra’ is read by the Khadims which is followed by ‘Fariyaad’ (prayers). The Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti has been commemorated since 1212 AD which makes it the 800th Urs this year in 2012.
Religious Mehfils, Qawwalis, Poetry Recitation in praise of the Almighty and special Prayers (Fariyaad) would be held 24/7 during all Urs days when devotees offer votive offerings or ‘Nazranas’ such as the chadar, ghilaph and neema at the Shrine. During the Urs, Khwaja’s tomb would be ritually anointed with rosewater and sandalwood paste while Qawwalis are being sung in praise of God.
‘Tabarukh’or sanctified food which is sweet rice garnished with dry fruits and condiments is cooked and served just outside the Shrine premises.
Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti was born in 1141 AD and passed away in 1230 AD and is the most famous Sufi Saint of the Chisti Order in India. Khwaja Moinuddin was a descendant of Prophet Muhammad and was originally from Chisti in Afghanistan. When Khwaja got enlightened, he renounced all worldly things including his entire wealth and property which he gave away to the poor. ‘Anīs al-Arwāḥ’ and ‘Dalīl al-'Ārifīn’ are two of the several books on Islamic Code of Living that Khwaja Moinuddin has authored.

The Lakeside town of Ajmer would be bustling with activity, events, devotees and tourists this whole week and beyond as the city gears up for the Urs of Khwaja. The Ajmer Bazaar close to the Dargah would display and sell large numbers of flowers, embroidered prayer rugs, decorated chadars, rosaries, prayer caps and silver ware. This bazar would be open till the wee-hours of the morning during the Urs.

The Indian Railways Administration has revved up plying 6 special trains for the Urs and Ajmer Police has stepped up security measures for the safety of the 4, 00,000+ visitors of the Urs. Additional arrangements of drinking water, parking facilities and sanitation are being provided.
Ajmer is 130 kms southwest of Rajasthan State Capital – Jaipur and 200 kms east of Jodhpur and is well connected to both by roads. A 6-lane highway connects Ajmer to Jaipur. Ajmer is also a major railway junction which links Jaipur, Marwar, Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad.
Pix courtesy: PTI News. Ursajmersharif, Hellotravel, Ziaratekhwaja, Travel-packages.

Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri.

Also referred to as the Gundicha Jatra, Ghosa Jatra, Navadina Jatra or Dasavatara Jatra, the Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra, the most important festival of Lord Jagannath, starts on 21st June 2012, and lasts 10 days in the beach-city of Puri which is about 65 kms south of the Odisha State Capital – Bhubaneshwar. Puri ranks one of the top places in India for Hindu pilgrimage and religious tourism.
This Rath Yatra is one of the most colourful, elaborate and grand Hindu festivals in India which attracts millions of devotees from all over India as well as abroad as this Yatra occurs just once a year and because this Darshan is considered very auspicious.

The Yatra comprises one of the largest processions of the world with millions of people pulling and following 50-foot high ornate and decorated wooden chariots on which Lord Jagannath – the Lord of the Universe, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra are paraded throughout the city to give Darshan to all their Devotees. It is said that those who participate in the Jagannath Yatra in Puri earn their ‘passage’ to heaven.
For 15 days prior to the Yatra, 'Snana Pumima' marks the beginning of the Jagannath festival, when the three deities - Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra are given a bath post which they are left in isolation for 15 days - called the period of 'Anabasara' when no public worship is performed. Post 15 days of isolation, the Gods and the Goddess are brought out of the 11th Century-built Jagannath temple in a colourful and musical procession amidst thousands of devotees to board their respective Chariots and then begins the "Rath Yatra'.
Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra Chariots being constructed.
The Chariots of the Rath Yatra deserve a special mention. The 3 towering and royal chariots resemble Lord Jagannath Temple architecture. Lord Jagannath Chariot, which is called the ‘nandighose’ is 35 feet high and has 18 solid wheels to move this heavy chariot. Lord Balabhadra’s chariot – ‘Taladwaja’ is 33 feet high and has 16 wheels and Goddess Shubhadra’s Chariot – ‘Devadalan’ is 30 feet high and has 14 wheels. New chariots are made each year but with the same ancient chariot-specifications. Thousands of devotees pull the chariots by long ropes and thousands struggle to merely touch the Chariot or pull the rope as it is considered lucky and prosperous for the devotee.

The whole Rath Yatra festival of millions surrounding the 3 deities in a large procession amidst loud beating of percussion instruments, gongs and blowing conch shells is a fascinating experience even for non-Hindus and is also the only chance for non-Hindus to see these 3 deities as non-Hindu devotees aren’t allowed into the Jagannath Temple.
As millions of pilgrim and tourists flood the Puri streets during these 10 days, visitors are to take extreme precautions when on the streets as people and lives are known to be lost in the stampede.
Pix courtesy: The Hindu, Amritasinha, Ludhianatravels.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

'Sindhu Darshan' of River Indus.

‘Sênggê Zangbo’ means ‘Lion River’ in Tibetan.
‘Abāsin’ means ‘Father of Rivers’ in Pashto.      
Both names are referring to the mighty River Indus or River Sindh – a trans-boundary River that originates in Tibet and flows through Pakistan (93%), India (5%) and China (2%).
Indus (3,180 kms), Brahmaputra (2900 kms) and Ganges (2525 kms) are the top 3 rivers of the 16 major rivers of the Himalayan River System in India. River Indus is world’s 21st largest River in terms of annual flow being fed by glaciers and snow of the Himalayas.
River Indus has two main tributaries – Zanskar (in Ladakh with 2 tributaries – Doda & Lungnak) and Chenab (which flows from J&K to Punjab into 5 tributaries namely Chenab, Beas, Ravi, Sutlej and Jhelum).
River Indus is the very lifeline for millions of people in Tibet, China, Jammu & Kashmir; Punjab and Pakistan. River Indus drives the Economy of the countries especially of that of Pakistan and is the backbone of Industries such as Agriculture, Hydropower, Fisheries, River-Tourism and Transport. River-pilgrimage is central to Hindu Religion and culture all over the world.
The world-famous 'Chadar Trek' refers to a 10-day intensive trek on Zanskar - one of the 2 main tributaries of River Indus which entails trekking on 9-inch thick sheet of river through Zanskar Gorges for kilometres at 20, 000 feet altitude in -40 degrees Celsius.

The Indus Valley Civilization, the Rig Veda and the Greek King – Alexander the Great all throw evidence that River Indus has been around since ancient history, dating back to more than 5000 years. India has been named after this River Indus as River Indus was the cradle of Indian Civilization. No wonder then that this River Indus is revered, feared and worshipped in India.
‘Sindhu Darshan’ is a 3-day festival celebrated in honour of River Indus (also called River Sindh) from 1 – 3 June each year on the banks of River Indus (River Sindhu) at Shey Manla – 8 kms south of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir. The event basically heralds River Indus as an icon of National Integrity and Communal Harmony.  
A joint association of Ladakh Buddhist Association; Christian Moravian Church; Hindu Trust; Shia Majlis; Sunni Anjuman and Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee organize the ceremonies, rituals and programs on all 3 days of the festival. The celebrations include:
  • A Prayer conducted on the river banks by 50 senior Buddhist Lamas.
  • A sightseeing tour of River Indus and its environs plus a bonfire by the river.
  • Cultural Programs performed by artists from various parts of the country.
  • Puja of River Indus.
  • Symbolic representation of mingling cultures – people from other parts of the country bring water from their respective rivers and pour into River Indus symbolizing unity in diversity.
If you’re planning a vacation to Leh / Ladakh in June then be there for the Sindhu Darshan festival when you can see people of multi-faith backgrounds converging at River Indus to pay respects to the River. You’re guaranteed to get some Kodak-moments here.

Pix courtesy Parallelozero, Nomadier, Thrillophili.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Hemis Festival in June 2012.

The largest Buddhist Institution in Ladakh – located in the highland town of Hemis at 11,000 feet altitude, 40 kms from Leh – the Hemis Monastery celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava in a grand and elaborate annual 2-day festival held in the Hemis Monastery on 29th & 30th of June this year.

The high-point of the Hemis Festival is the performance in the Monastery courtyard by the Lamas of the Monastery – a Mask Dance which depicts the victory of good over evil. The brightly coloured costumes and large multi-coloured masks constitute the performers’ attire during the Hemis Festival Dances performances which stretch for two days. The over-sized and grotesque masks are the main aspects of the slow and graceful dance. Few other Lamas provide the music for the Hemis Festival with percussion instruments such as the drums, cymbals and long trumpets.

Guru Padmasambhava is also known as Guru Rinpoche and is regarded as the second Buddha by the followers of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism since the 8th Century. Guru Padmasambhava is the first one to have introduced ‘Tantric Buddhism’ to people.

During the 2-day pageant, a 30-foot high painting of Guru Padmasambhava is displayed centre-stage. Several other performances, religious ceremonies and discourses and exhibition of Buddhist relics are a part of the Hemis Festival which is not only attended by the Buddhists from all over Jammu & Kashmir, it is also attended by the non-Buddhist locals of Hemis and Leh.

Tourism & Tour operators design tours of Leh which include a visit to the Hemis Monastery and its adjoining Hemis National Park (India’s largest National Park) during the Hemis Festival as this is the best time of the year to see Hemis. You will also find the media and photographers from all over the world witnessing to cover this event. Visitors of Hemis stay at Leh which is at 40 kms and do a day trip to Hemis.

In the backdrop of the Ladakh Mountains that overlook the Hemis town, the Hemis Monastery with its multi-coloured splendour gives a fascinating appearance and experience.
Pix courtesy: James Gritz, Baiyu, vkiran_2000 @ flickr, wikipedia & ABOUT.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Amarnathji Yatra 2012.

The toughest Yatra of them all – the Amarnath Yatra – the Hindu Annual Pilgrimage of Lord ‘Shiva Linga’ is here, beckoning all the strong-willed on a spiritual journey all the way up to13,000 feet altitude to the 130-foot high Amarnath Cave where the ice Shiva Linga naturally forms every year. The Amarnath Cave is set amidst snowy Kashmiri mountains where the air loses its oxygen count at -50 Celsius.
Amarnath Yatra is open for 37 days this year between 25 June and 2 August. Registrations – online and over the counter are open. On-spot registrations are also possible.
Visiting the Amarnath Cave is practically an adventure sport in itself as it entails strenuous trekking-trails through challenging rocky, verdant and snowy mountainous terrain and camping in the mountain wilderness. Involving 50 kilometres of near-vertical mountain-climb and spanning 4 days (one way) is this mother-of-all-Yatras for Hindus all over the world.

The base camps for this Yatra are Chandanwari and Baltal. Both these places are approached via Jammu. The routes being:
1.    Jammu > Pahalgam (315 kms from Jammu to Pahalgam) > Chandanwari > Pissu Top > Sheshnag > Panchtarni > Amarnath Cave – 50 kms from Chandanwari to the Holy Cave.
2.    Jammu > Udhampur > Patnitop > Kud > Ramban > Banihal > Qazigund > Anantnag > Srinagar > Baltal (414 kms from Jammu to Baltal) > Amarnath Cave – 14 kms from Baltal to the Holy Cave.

Pilgrims can also complete this Yatra in a shorter span by availing of the Helicopter rides which start at Pahalgam and at Baltal and back. Ponies are another alternative for people who can’t walk or fly in Helicopters.
6, 34,000 people from all over India and the world visited Amarnath Yatra in 2011 – the highest ever!

Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department along with the Bhole Bhandari Charitable Trust are gearing up for more visitors in 2012. Registration Counters have been increased from 149 to 274 counter and additional tent-accommodation facilities are underway – being freely offered by Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department, Bhole Bhandari Charitable Trust and many other non-Government Charitable Organizations. Helicopter fare from Pahalgam and Baltal to Amarnath Cave has been slashed by 40% in order to make it more convenient for aged pilgrims who are daring this Yatra these days. Security has been revved up along the route to make it naturally safe for the pilgrims.

The one thing that is reiterated as mandatory by the Shrine Board is a fitness test and a medical certificate issued by Registered Medical Practitioner for the pilgrim, without which, the pilgrim is not allowed on the Yatra as 107 pilgrims lost their lives due to Cardiac arrest on Amarnath Yatra in 2011 and the Shrine Board is concerned for the safety of the pilgrims. So, take this seriously people.
Besides the Darshan of the Shiva Linga in Amarnath Cave, the amazing aspect of this Yatra is the route to the Holy Amarnath Cave which is awesome and overwhelming and gives a sample of the glorious Kashmir terrain. And reciting what my colleague recently taught me - Bol Har Har Mahadev!
Pix courtesy Wikipedia & Amarnathjiyatra.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Mother's Day - the day of the Juggler !

That day of ‘Saluting your Mom’ is here people and I hope you’re all set to make it ‘special’ for her. With just a couple of days to count down to Mother’s Day this weekend, take your hand off the panic button and breathe, as this pointer aims at giving you not just directions but also the ‘soul of celebrating’ Mother’s Day.
First let’s define ‘special’ before we decide on how to make it special for your mom. A popular survey conducted last year among moms asking them what they wanted for Mother’s Day revealed startling facts about how moms define the words ‘special day’. Here are excerpts:
§  Majority wanted an ‘NQA Day’ – a ‘no-questions-asked-day’. They just wanted to be left to themselves where they do their own thing without having to check with family first or give explanations later. When asked what they would do in that time, a big chunk of them said they wanted to stay in bed all morning and have breakfast in bed; get a facial, manicure, pedicure, and massage done at a parlour; meet friends over lunch at a fancy restaurant; stroll in malls and do some mindless shopping; watch a movie of their choice; and quickly return home and cuddle-up in bed and read magazines and take a nap. Some even wished that their homes got sorted and tidied-up before they returned home. Get the idea? The ladies want rest.
§  Some moms just wanted to be relieved of their glorified life-long careers of the ‘CEO of the household’ for a day: which meant no waking up at dawn and cooking for the whole family; no setting the ball rolling for everyone in the house early morning; no decisions to be made regarding what food to be cooked or what chores to done for the day; no packing your lunch; no dropping-off kids or grand kids at school; no entertaining your guests by cooking ‘maa ke haath ka mazedaar khaana’; no watering the plants and walking your dogs which she didn’t want in the first place. Basically, she wants ‘Time-Out’ from the daily grind.
§  Many moms wanted to be treated like a Queen. They wanted to be pampered and be made the centre of all your family’s attention for the day. They wanted to be hugged and spoken to. They wanted gifts, gift-coupons, flowers, chauffeur-driven car for the day, some spending-cash, lunch with friends and dinner with family – both in plush 5-star hotels. These ladies have got style.
§  Few moms wanted quality family-time - with all cell-phones off! Family meets at the end of the day in the living room; laze around talking about everything; browsing through photos shot recently when on a vacation or on a business-holiday; discuss important decisions to be taken collectively as a family; eat some nice home-delivered food; take photos together; invite close friends and relatives. Some moms also wanted their siblings and parents invited to the home-dinner. Craving for quality family-time says there isn’t enough of it right now. So get the drift.
§  And some said – and this is interesting – they wanted to do something different and be someplace different. They are talking different latitudes people.
Nett nett….your mom has a mind and choice of her own. On this day, let her have her way.
You can now fairly figure-out your mom and make a fairly good decision as to - what to gift your mom on Mother’s Day?
And as for moms who want to do something different and be someplace different – gift them the much-needed holiday. You could top it up with an extra ticket for her dearly beloved or her dear friend.

Here are a few suggestions:
1.    If your mom’s an adventure-seeker and has the knees and lungs for it then explore this.
2.    If your mom would give an arm and a leg to visit her favourite Temple / Church / Mosque but just can’t get time or family to go with then check these options.
3.    If sea beaches and rivers excite her then this is where she ought to go.
4.    If she’s one with a green thumb and loves serenity and cool climate, this should be your pick.

5.    If you want to surprise her with the real wildlife other than the ‘wildlife’ she feels she's got at home then….here you go.
6.    If she digs history and anthropology then send her here with a map and a spade.
7.    If your mom explicitly prides the national heritage all the time then plenty of options here.
8.    If your mom seeks no-stress – no-plan simple relaxation outdoors then here are some options spreading across different types of landscapes and altitudes.
So let’s get two things straight - the words ‘special day’ mean differently to different people. And your mom’s special day need not involve you or your family in it. And let’s be ok with that coz we’re in ALL of the rest of the days of the year.
The grand question here is – do we pack all the goodies in one day (which by the way lasts just 15 hours tops from day-break to her shut-eye time) or can we as a family take away few daily-tasks from her and clear out her calendar all year long and give some of her life back to her? She’s also got a life you know! Let’s help her live it up folks!
Cheers to Moms!