Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Backpacker's Guide to his Galaxy.

He stands out from the regular pack of travelers who travel on packaged deals to prominent tourist spots. He mingles-not with tourist masses but rather that he jingles with the locals. While most others set off on cozy holidays, he depends on his shoes, strings and their budget! While they take guided tours, he takes the road less traveled. All hail the Backpacker as he changes your definition of a true vacation.
With a growing need to stretch the buck, travelers are getting more and more creative at exploring new travel dimensions and at extracting the maximum out of a minimalistic holiday.
Backpacking is a state of mind. You certainly have to shed your extravagant ways to find out if you enjoy this new phenomenon. And believe me…. it got its own rugged charm! The essence of backpacking is to get as close to the action as possible – be it the local culture, sightseeing or discovery of newer aspects of the place –while sticking to the least possible budget. So seeking newer economical ways and means to doing so in itself is a thrilling experience. At the end of it all, I’m sure you don’t mind the bank-balance that remains. Ofcourse, this could be difficult to do with kids who would require their personal space during the trips and let’s not forget the other travelers who need their personal space from your kids – especially if you opt for the dormitory accommodation.
Whether it’s another cosmopolitan city that you’re visiting or trekking through dense and rugged jungle terrain or scaling up a 14,000-foot snowy mountain, a backpack can be your soul-mate – holding all your ‘inevitables’ on the trip. Here are a few tips for the backpacking wannabies – straight from the seasoned and the newbies:
1. Research about the place that you’re backpacking to. The season; the weather; the landscape; the type of accommodation; the food culture and the duration of the trip will all determine what and how much you need to pack for this trip. You could also rent camping or trekking or rafting gear from the Tourism Departments or private tour operators which would drastically reduce your backpack load. For instance:
a. Mountain-trekking would demand that you carry winter-wear in all seasons plus canned food and camping tents and mattresses as none of these are available on the mountains.
b. Nature-treks in the jungles in tropical forests which are seen mostly on the Western Ghats demand that you wear socks daily per day of trek as these forests have leeches which manage to crawl into the trekkers’shoes. Socks are to be worn and the pants to be tucked into the socks in order to prevent leeches from getting onto the skin.
c. Decide ahead as to the type of the trip – whether plain leisurely or touristy. I cannot emphasize this enough. Read up travel-blogs online to see how many backpackers regret not planning ahead and leaving behind their professional cameras with tripod; or night-vision binoculars or GPS, assuming they wouldn’t need them and then regretting this decision upon reaching the destination.
d. What you carry in your backpack would be determined by the destination you choose. Click these links for destination-specific backpacking:
Mountains # 1
Mountains # 2

2. Do not compromise on the quality of backpacks or haversacks or your travel experience would get compromised. Especially when you go to remote places such as mountains and national parks where you can’t get an immediate alternative, you can’t afford your backpack giving way to sub-standard. Like a seasoned backpacker would say “you’re only as good as your backpack!”.
3. Packing a backpack is not just an art; it’s also a science these days. Distribute load evenly while packing and refrain from overloading with ‘not-imperative-for-the-trip-items’as you need max space for the ‘must-haves’. While medical associations have mapped the weight of the backpack in accordance to the weight of the person carrying it, maybe you cannot be so precise so avoid the unrequired stuff. One of the important chapters in the Mountaineering Course held at the base camp of the Himalayas is training in load-carrying of backpacks on the mountains. There is a reason why training in load-carrying is emphasized. With exception of few places, you have to carry your own backpacks throughout your trip so your shoulder, neck and knees better be up for it. Infact, the Himalaya Institute of Mountaineering in Darjeeling mandates one month of running and strength-training prior to enrolling in the course of mountaineering. And you should see some of the stuff they make you carry!
Travel-guides, medicines, sunblock, water, camera, umbrella and such must go into the outer pockets while the clothes and the likes go into the main compartment of the backpack.
4. Do not confuse ‘backpacking’with ‘flashpacking’. The difference between the both is that flashpackers are not budget-conscious.
5. Smart accommodation is equal to smart savings. Internet, local tourism departments and friends who’ve been there are your best sources of information on accommodation options such as tourist lodges that are alternate to the regular hotel stays. So be aware that in some places which are extremely remote, hotel and tourist lodges and cottages cost the same. Explore the homestay option with the locals which is cheaper than the rest. Opt for stay and dine option instead of buying food in restaurant which would increase your budget. Refill your water bottle at the place of stay.
6. Local travel must be mostly on foot or by bus whether it is in Kalimpong or Kolkata. Taxis eat up your money without your knowledge. For a quick tour of the place, opt for the State Tourism Department’s guided tours. For specific destinations, ask your own hotel for their travel options as some provide minivans or sumo at nominal charge. In hill stations, choose pony-rides which would cost lesser than taxis as they take longer to reach. In this case you will need to factor-in more time for travel.
7. Here are popular backpacking destinations of India:
       a.    Leh

b.    Gulmarg
c.    Zanskar
d.    Pahalgam
f.     Dras
g.    Kud
h.    Darjeeling
i.      Lolegaon
j.      Kalimpong
k.    Lava
n.    Haflong
o.    Majuli
p.    Simen Chapori
q.    North Lakhimpur
r.     Tinsukia
s.    Digboi
t.      Nameri National Park
u.    Dibru-Saikhowa National Park
v.    Rishikesh
w.   Shimoga
x.    Coorg
y.    Kalpetta
z.    Vythiri

8. Caution:
a. Do not venture off into the wilderness alone. Professional guides are provided by the local tourism departments and private tour operators. Else, request or hire a local to take you around in the forest or on the mountain.
b. Inform of your backpacking expedition to atleast 5 different people who should send out a search-party or rescue-team should you not return on time.
c. Carry the contact information of the local tourism department, local police department, your hotel or lodge, your folks back home –all written down or printed. Also exchange phone numbers of your co-backpackers if you’re going in a group. Most backpacking places would have no cell phone network so you need to keep your folks informed of that.
d. Carry your medicines and your physician-prescribed tabs for unforeseen circumstances as well. Click here for details. Your own first-aid kit is a must. If you are a diabetic, do consult your physician before your trip. Depending on your trip prepare amply to treat nausea, sea-sickness and altitude-sickness. Read the links above for pointers.
e. You must carry 5 photocopies of your ID & residence proof plus your passport-sized photos in your backpack as they would be required to be submitted at several checkpoints especially in the northeast states of India. Take photocopies of all your credit cards and debit cards and leave one set of all your documents at home with a family member. Foreigners need to keep handy their passport photocopies and passport-size photos for submission at the various checkpoints.
f. Credit cards would not work on most backpacking circuits. Carry enough cash to last the whole trip. As for foreigners, exchange your money in big places while you can.
g. Keep your camera loaded and handy and do carry extra batteries.
h. Learn to use the GPS and the compass. They certainly would come handy on backpacking tours.
i. Load your mobile phone with all your favourite music or pack your Ipod.
j. Walking shoes are of paramount importance. But do not wear brand new shoes. Always wear pre-worn shoes while touring places. You don’t need shoe-bites to slow you down.
If you've had backpacking experiences different than the ones mentioned above, do leave a comment below and I shall add it to the writeup.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Mongmong Festival in Nagaland.

Come September, the extreme eastern state of India – Nagaland would be the perfect place to visit as these agrarian mountain-folk whose lives revolve and depend on agriculture, celebrate the harvest festival – ‘Mongmong’ which in the local ‘Sangtam’ dialect means ‘togetherness forever’. Mongmong is celebrated week-long during the first week of September.

Mongmong Festival celebrates harvest and friendship that has kept these mountain tribes of Nagaland together always. The festival starts off with the village priest (beburu) announcing ‘Zangnyuo Mongmong Nung Eh-Lehe’ or the commencement of the festival with prayers and rituals at midnight.
·        On the first day – which is called ‘Singkithsa’, the oldest person of the area is asked to perform the festival rituals at the well. The villagers spend the day collecting millets, vegetables and firewood from the fields. Livestock (cows, pigs and mithuns) transactions are closed on this day.
·        On the second day, as the gathering of the firewood and the vegetables continues, meat for the festive delicacies is arranged.
·        On the third day which is called ‘MÜSÜYANGTAP’, people worship their three oven stones in belief that these stones represent God (Lijaba). Families eat food only after this worship is done. Local rice beer dancing, tug of war and other merry-making activities take over next.
·        On the fourth day which is called ‘KIKHA-LANGPI’, the Priest and the men-folk spruce up the village by clearing the weeds; clearing the roads and pathways leading to wells and fields and then head to the Priest’s home where a party awaits for all the men who toiled all day in trying to make the village look neat and nice.
·        On the fifth day which is called ‘SHILANG WUBA NYUMONG’, people visit their families and friends in the same village and in the neighbouring villages and exchange drinks and meat as gifts – pretty much like the Muslim custom of ‘Bakrid’.
·        From the sixth day onwards which is called ‘SHILANG WUBA NYUMONG’ the actual harvesting process begins in the fields. People invoke the blessings of God on their crops and their families and pray for a good harvest and good health.

Among a host of others, Nagaland folk songs, Millet harvesting shows, Paddy sowing shows, fire making, tug of war, war dances and archery competitions are showcased during the festivities. Thousands of people from Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh converge for the festival during these days.

It is a mélange of colourful cultural displays of 15 different tribes under one roof. Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sangtam, Sumi, Yimchunger, Kuki and Zeliang being the largest Naga tribes in Nagaland, converge for this harvest festival Mongmong in Kohima – the State Capital of Nagaland.
Kohima is perched atop a ridge at 4200 feet above sea level (same as Kalimpong in WB) with 70% green cover, and is surrounded by lush green mountains and meadows covered endlessly with emerald hued wild grass and wild flowers. The scenic, serene and fresh environs, the salubrious climate and the lovely sunsets would have you anchored to this place for longer than you scheduled. Kohima is perfect for adventure sports such as mountain-treks; para-gliding; rock-climbing and camping. Mix all this with a cultural fiesta and you’ve got yourself a complete holiday package – the best that your money can buy!

The nearest airport to Kohima is in Dimapur in Nagaland at 74 kms northeast of Kohima. Regular flights from Guwahati in Assam and Imphal in Manipur connect Kohima. The nearest railhead to Kohima is in Dimapur. National Highway 39 connects Kohima to Dimapur on the north and Imphal on the south.
If you can’t make it to Kohima for Mongmong festival during the first week of September, then the next best time to visit Nagaland is during the first week of December for the Hornbill Festival.
Peace Out !

Pix courtesy: the hindu, photoblog.nbcnews, northeasttoday, demotix, govisitnagaland.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Krishna Janmashtami

God-child; prankster; quintessential lover; divine hero; and the Supreme Being – all rolled into one – Lord Krishna -  whose birthday is celebrated on ‘Janmashtami’ - which is also known as ‘Gokulashtami’. His flute, blue-ish skin; peacock-feather crown and yellow coloured dhoti makes Lord Krishna stand apart from all other Hindu Gods.
Spanning two days – the commemoration of Lord Krishna’s birth comprises fasting on the first day; partaking in his worship at Temples till midnight when Lord Krishna is said to have been born; lots of fun and frolic at the Janmashtami festivities during the second day when the Hindu communities all over the world perform dances depicting the various events in Lord Krishna's life and the much awaited ‘Dahi Handi’ festivities.
The High-point of the Janmashtami is the ‘Dahi Handi’ – where clay pot filled with ‘dahi’ (curd) and money are strung up 30-60 feet high in the air in an open-air street or grounds and young boys form human pyramids to reach the height of the pots to smash them open. This sport is performed in remembrance of Lord Krishna’s fondness for butter and curd. Forming human pyramids is not as easy as it appears as these pyramids have 3-6 layers and they require sturdiness and strength from each and every player else the whole pyramid comes crashing down and they would have to regroup again. Most times it takes multiple attempts before they get it right.
The dual-essence of Janmashtami can be best experience at:
·         Mathura – the birthplace of Lord Krishna which is in the present Uttar Pradesh State – on the Delhi-Agra Highway. Mathura is also referred to as ‘Braj-Bhoomi’; ‘Shri Krishna Janma-Bhoomi’ and ‘Madhuvan’. Mathura is where the ‘Kesava Deo Temple’ is – which was built over the prison which was believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna is said to have been born by divine mental transmission from Vasudeva to Devaki. The current ‘Kesava Deo Temple’ was built by the medieval Rajput King - Raja Vir Sinh Bundela of Orchaa, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The original temple is believed to be built about 5000 years ago Vajranabha, the great-grandson of Lord Krishna. According to the sankrit epic of ancient India – Mahabharata, Mathura was the capital of the Surasena Kingdom which was ruled by King Kansa – the maternal uncle of Lord Krishna. The entire present area of Braj-Bhoomi can be divided into 2 distinct units: the Eastern Part in the Trans-Yamuna zone with places like Gokul, Mahavan, Baldeo, Mat and Bajna and the Western Side of the Yamuna covering the Mathura region that encompasses Vrindavan, Govardhan, Kusum Sarovar, Barsana and Nandgaon.
Govardhan Temple - Braj-Bhoomi.

·         Vrindavan (also known as Vraj) - currently a town but is a site of ancient forests – located about 10 kms from Mathura. Lord Krishna’s playful and loving characteristics and his childhood pastimes are attributed to his life here at Vrindavan. Said to be the most romanntic of all Hindu Gods, Lord Krishna along with his beloved Radha spent all their time in merriment, song and dance on the celestial banks of River Yamuna along with the other Gopis - all of which is called the 'Raas Leela'. It is also said that at Vrindavan, Lord Krishna along with his brother Balaram and his cowherd friends stole butter, pulled pranks and fought with demons. Today, Vrindavan is known for its hundreds of temples – mostly dedicated to Lord Krishna.
Govind Dev Temple in Vrindavan.
Lord Krishna with Radha.
Lord Krishna's Raas Leela.

·         Govardhan – about 15 kms from Mathura is another Holy site of Hindu pilgrimage as it is said that Govardhan houses the ‘Govardhan Hill’ which Lord Krishna used to uphold on his little finger in order to save the Hill from the wrath of the Hindu God of rains – Indra. Govardhan is home to numerous Lord Krishna Temples, the ‘Manasi Ganga’ Lake and the river-ghats. Parikrama and Guru Purnima is what Govardhan is famous for apart from Janmashtami. Hindu pilgrim visit Govardhan during Janmashtami as well as Guru Purnima.
·         Mumbai (previously called Bombay) – where celebrations of epic proportions gyrate to a feverish pitch – like nowhere else in the whole world. Here you get to see the most extravagant and fun-filled festivities of Krishnashtami.

·        ISKCON – ‘the International Society for Krishna Consciousness’ is a Gaudiya Vaishnava religious organization which was founded in the New York City in 1966 by His Divine Grace Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Beliefs preached here are based on Srimad Bhagvatam and Bhagavad-Gita – traditional ancient Hindu scriptures. ISKCON today has more than 400 centres worldwide.

On Janmashtami, temples in Mathura install baby cradles with small statues of Lord Krishna (called Baal Mukund) in them and offer prayers, bhajans and recite Lord Krishna deeds. Elaborate rituals are performed on both days of Janmashtami in Mathura. Krishna devotees throng in millions to Mathura for pilgrimage on Janmashtami.
And those who cannot make it to Mathura visit their local Lord Krishna Temples or the ISKCON Temple which is known for spirited worship.
And Ofcourse, Bombay needs no introduction. If you want a mix of both spiritualism and fun on Janmashtami, then it’s Bombay you need to visit this Janmashtami.
Kathakali dancer performing as Lord Krishna.
 Pix Courtsey:;; flickrhivemind; topnews; hindustantimes; bombaystreets;

Thursday, 2 August 2012


According to Islam, the ninth month of the Muslim or ‘Hijri’ calendar – ‘Ramadan’ is the holiest month of the year. During Ramadan, believers of Islam observe strict fasting from dawn to dusk during which period; they abstain from food and drink and spend the days in spiritual reflection. After 30 days of Ramadan is ‘Shawwal’ – the tenth month according to the Hijri calendar. And the first day of the Shawwal month is ‘Eid-ul-Fitr’ – the joyous festival of breaking the 30-day Ramadan fast. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations span three whole days when Muslims worldwide meet all their families and friends in person to partake of the Eid celebrations.
From the sighting of the first crescent of a new moon after the eighth Islamic month, the ninth month – Ramadan begins when Muslims observe fasting, reflection, devotion, sacrifice and generosity – the five Tenets of Islam. Not only do the Muslims comply to this imperative, they feel blessed by this compliance.
The five tenets or pillars of Islam are:
1.    Creed or Testimony or ‘Shahadah’ – where Muslims recite under oath, the Islamic creed - "'ašhadu 'al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa 'ašhadu 'anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh", or "I testify there are no deities other than God alone and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

2.    Prayer or ‘Ṣalāh’ – these are ritual prayers which Muslims perform five times a day at five different periods of the day: Fajr (near dawn); zuhr (noon); asr (afternoon); maghrib (just after sunset) and isha (at nightfall). The Arabic word ‘Salah’ is popularly known by its Persian counterpart – ‘Namaz’ – both of which mean bowing, homage, worship and prayer.

3.    Alms-giving or ‘Zakāt’ – it is an act of voluntary alms-giving of a fixed portion of accumulated wealth to help the poor or the needy. Zakāt is to Muslims what ‘Ma’aser Kesafim’ is to Jews and ‘Tithe’ is to Christians. During Ramadan, Muslims donate 2.5% of their personal wealth after ‘nisab’ (meeting essential needs) is reached.

4.    Fasting or ‘Sawm’ – in order to inculcate ‘taqwa’ or ‘God consciousness’, Muslims abstain from food, drinks and sex from dawn (fajr) to sunset (maghrib) during Ramadan. Fasting or abstinence from any indulgence, helps one to empathize with those less fortunate ones. Abstinence also helps gain control over one’s desires and increases focus on devotion to God. Usage of expletives or thinking evil thoughts is strictly avoided during Ramadan. And even before fasting, it is a practice among Muslims to explicitly express their intention to Fast which is called ‘Niyyah’ or ‘Niyyat’ in Arabic. Infact, without the prior outward commitment – Niyyat, even fasting is not considered valid. The emphasis here is to solidify commitment of the person who is fasting towards this tenet of Islam by outward expression.

5.    Pilgrimage or ‘Hajj’ – every Muslim is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia during the 12th month of the Islamic Calendar – Dhu al-Hijjah. Mecca is the holiest place of Islam religion as Mecca is the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad. Mecca is also where the Holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad centuries back. Every Muslim on earth who has the financial and physical capability to travel to Mecca needs to perform Hajj at least once in his lifetime. Millions of Muslims perform Hajj at Mecca each year.
Bound by these Principles of Islam, Muslims believe that they are commanded by Allah – as mentioned in the Holy Quran – to observe fasting right up till the end of Ramadan plus pay ‘Zakāt’ before performing the Eid-ul-Fitr prayer.
Typically, on the day of Eid, Muslims wake up before sunrise offer ‘Salatul Fajr’ (the pre-sunrise prayer) then at the time of offering Eid Prayers they walk up to the Mosque reciting the ‘Takbir’ or incantation until they reach the Mosque or until the ‘Imam’ commences worship.
It is forbidden to fast on Eid so a mini-breakfast – mostly made of dry fruits is had before performing the Eid Prayer. The Eid Feast in India – is a lavish spread of dry fruits, biryani and sweet meats which the women-folk prepare at home. People of other faiths visit their Muslim friends – sometimes many households on the same day, to wish them ‘Eid Mubarak’ and partake of their joy and festivities.
Besides four weeks of austere fasting and heightened piety, Ramadan also is the much awaited month for shoppers of the other faiths as some of the most ostentatious, ornate and attractive apparel and jewelry are sold during this month.
Night-bazar trend is another thing to look forward to during the Ramadan season when brightly illuminated marketplaces display their best wares and solid retailing continues till the wee hours of the morning. ‘Qawwalis’ or Sufi songs are heard on music systems everywhere you go in the market. Especially at places like Delhi and Hyderabad, you would see equal number of non-Muslims shopping at nights during Ramadan when these cities’ shopping places come alive after dark. The marketplaces are overcrowded with shoppers and vehicular traffic is diverted during this month.
‘Haleem’ – a wheat and meat delicacy is made and sold only during the Ramadan. Hyderabad is the ‘Haleem Capital’ of India and is visited by countless Muslims and non-Muslims for the sole purpose of eating Haleem during Ramadan. No wonder then that Haleem alone does a whopping business of Rs. 100 crores during Ramadan in Hyderabad.
Popular Mosques of India are:
1.    Cheraman Juma Masjid – located in Thrissur District of Kerala – is the first Mosque of India built in 629 AD by Malik Ibn Dinar.

2.    Jama Masjid – located in Delhi – is the largest Mosque in India, built in 1650 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The capacity of this Masjid’s courtyard is 25,000 people at one go.

3.    Makkah Masjid – located in Hyderabad – built by bricks which were made from the soil brought from Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi Dynasty – Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah commissioned this Mosque which was completed in 1694. Mosque can hold 10,000 worshippers at a time. IT took about 8000 workers to build this Mosque.

Pix courtesy: Wikipedia, dsaravanane@flickr.