Sunday, July 16, 2017

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met a gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
A rolling stone gathers no moss, makes sense only when uttered by a botanist. Otherwise, I do not know any selfless soul living anywhere in this entire universe who would take interest in growing slimy evils over his well developed gray matter. People who do not travel, consciously or unconsciously end up being static and eventually mossy. Like many of you I too have a step-motherly day job to put up with. But, long back I chose to be a rolling stone, and till date I have not found a single valid reason to dock. You might be wondering why yours truly is force-feeding you with pills of wanderlust instead of narrating the Jhargram travel tale. Well, not everyday you get to meet a passionate motorcyclist who's on the verge of completing his Kashmir to Kanyakumari circuit ride on a humble RE Classic 350! Hold on folks. Catching up with Shashidhar on NH-6, somewhere near Kharagpur was the highlight of my Jhargram ride. Before I get back to Jhargram, let me tell you what this Bangalorean IT guy was up to.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Shashidhar Sunagar, the Bangalorean gentleman motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari!
By now, having ridden a mountainous distance of 12,100 kilometers in 38 days, Shashidhar Sunagar has successfully concluded his dream motorcycle trip of Kashmir to Kanyakumari, covering 16 states and 5 union territories, almost traversing India circumferentially. Anticipating good amount of rainfall I had started off with Benu just after the morning tea. Sky was overcast. Online weather forecasts were not very dry either. Formerly a sub-division town of Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram is the headquarter of newly formed Jhargram district. With dense forests, hills, elements of history and tribal touch arranged proportionately in her platter, Jhargram has marked her presence in the tourist map of Bengal long back. Still when it comes of finalizing a weekend destination, travelers are reluctant to choose Jhargram. Probably, it will take few more years for us to convince ourselves that Maoists reign of terror has faded away from that region.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Jhargram Palace, the hub of tourist attraction at Jhargram was my first hunt of the day.
My objectives in the Jhargram ride were pretty modest: reach Jhargram as early as possible, visit Jhargram Palace, Kanak Durga Temple and Chilkigarh Rajbari, savor a sumptuous lunch, and then return Bardhaman before it gets dark. Benu's second servicing was due. I didn't want to take her to service workshop before clocking 4,000 kilometers. A couple of long day rides seemed necessary at that point. Anyway, the starting of the journey went absolutely trouble-free. NH-2 was partially wet, yet welcoming as always. I was expecting mild drizzle in the first half of the morning, but the monsoon sky took a rain check. Kindness is the last thing a traveler can ask for from the gloomy clouds of July. Calmly cruising at triple digit speeds on NH-6, popularly known as Mumbai Road is a pure bliss for any rider. I had got so engrossed in that act of euphoric mile munching that I missed the right diversion to SH-5 after crossing Kharagpur. That's when I passed by a motorcyclist in riding jacket, driving a RE Classic, hauling substantial luggage, flags and a yellow board at back that read- Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Jhargram Palace still functions as the regal residence of successors of Narasingha Malla Deb.
For salaried professional it's never easy to get such a long leave from his boss. However stringent you maintain your policies as an employer, you simply can not hold back a rolling stone for long. When he was refused a month-long leave from the office, dejected Shashidhar expressed his intention to resign. Guess what? His travel leave was granted! A gentle disclaimer for my readers- This approach had worked for Shashidhar, but it doesn't necessarily mean it'll work for you too. If you're planning to threaten your boss with your letter of resignation, be mindful and calculate the associated risk beforehand. It was 31st day of his marathon tour. He had ascended to the north till Leh taking the west coast of India, and was descending for Kanyakumari following the east coast. He had been documenting his motorcycle journey through a helmet mounted camera. When he was traveling in Ladakh the snow layer on the road was so thick that he couldn't help toppling over more than a few times! As Shashidhar was sharing his trip highlights I could sense nothing but deep-seated satisfaction in his voice.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
There is a full-fledged remnant of an old temple beside the new Kanak Durga Temple.
Our destinations were different. Eventually we parted our ways after a highway chitchat. By then I had rode more than ten kilometers from where I was supposed to change route for Jhargram. Better late than never, I took a U-turn. Soon, monsoon started showing its real color. It started all of a sudden and got intense in no time. Before I could dig out the raincoat my clothes were all drenched in rain water. Realizing the futility of searching for a shelter I pushed on, only to discover how efficiently Pirelli tires could hold onto the slippery road, an essential feature which Eurogrip tires had always refused to provide. Nagging rain, wet clothes, thick population of trucks on SH-5 and the ongoing road construction works joined hands to slow down my pace. Despite the unfavorable wetness I tried to appreciate the beauty of woods and red soil on both sides of the road. Taking out the camera was risky. Last year I had to get a fungal growth removed from the camera mirror. Humidity promotes such nuisance. Since then I have learnt to be more protective towards my photographic equipments.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Many devotees take bath in Dulung River before offering their prayers to the idol.
Jhargram Palace, the hub of tourist attraction at Jhargram was my first hunt of the day. Built in 1931, Jhargram Palace presently functions as a heritage tourist accommodation as well as the regal residence of successors of Narasingha Malla Deb. You too can experience a royal sojourn by parting with 3,000 bucks (plus taxes of course). As maintenance works are being undertaken tourists are prohibited from entering the main gate of the palace. Only privileged tourists residing in the cottages managed by West Bengal Tourism are rewarded with special entry pass to explore the beautiful blend of Islamic and Italian architecture. That's loudly unjust! After the security person came to know that I had been traveling all the way from Bardhaman solely for the purpose of visiting that palace (that's what I had told him with extra spoonful of meekness) he was kind enough to oblige me with an unofficial permission to trespass. Apart from the repairing process, abundant bushes surrounding the palace were chaotic enough to kill the overall aesthetic appeal of the majestic architecture. Probably, now is not the good time to visit Jhargram Palace.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Kanak Durga Temple has been built generously over a wide open ground.
Short spell of rain-free weather at Jhargram Palace encouraged me to take few quick snaps and rush towards my second destination- Kanak Durga Temple. This temple is probably 12-15 kilometers from the palace, but I had lost my way in the jungle and kept riding many useless miles. At last, a local guy on a motorcycle helped me out. Remember, Kanak Durga Temple is very near to Jamboni. The entire area around the temple is properly maintained. The path leading to the temple is fenced from both sides with myriad varieties of plant species, some of which did carry their biological name tags. Strychnos nux-vomica caught my attention. Its seeds parent a dangerous poison called Strychnine. The temple has been built generously over a wide open ground. The presiding deity is Devi Durga. There is a full-fledged remnant of an old temple beside the new one. It should be no less than 300 years old! Unfortunately, there was no authentic history available about that ruin. If you farther walk hundred meters down the Kanak Durga Temple you'll be greeted by the serpentine riverscape sketched by the calm Dulung River (a tributary of Subarnarekha). Many devotees take bath in this river before offering their prayers to the idol.

Monsoon Ride to Jhargram - met the gentleman Motorcycling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Despite all mud and water Benu felt more meaningful than ever...
Sky was getting murky again. I remembered my obligation towards my gut. Yes, lunch was still pending. There are couple of basic eateries on the temple ground. Whatever food they serve you is bound to be cold, because lighting fire is prohibited near the temple. Be watchful of the naughty population of langurs dominating the Kanak Durga Temple complex. Your momentary inattentiveness may cost you your food or other belongings. Before I could wrap up my compromised meal, it started raining. As I left Jamboni, the rain took a furious form. I surrendered my desire of visiting the Chilkigarh Palace. There's always a next time, I had explained myself. I was so wet that I could even pee my pant hundred times without letting anyone discover the grossness. Well, combating with the monsoon continued for first half of my return ride, and I must confess, it was damn tiring. Bounty of the ride was catching up with Shashidhar and the booster dose of motivation obtained from his feat. By the end of the day, Benu had clocked more than 550 kilometers. Despite all mud and water she felt more meaningful than ever. Obviously it made both of us happy!          

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The holy month of Ramadan was finally over. Devout Muslims throughout the world were busy in celebrating the much awaited Eid. Despite being a 'Monday' it was almost a day off for me. One of my staffs had showered his affection right in the early morning with some home cooked semai (vermicelli) and coconut barfi. Definitely that was a good start. A wise man once said, when the tide is high your boat should take a trip. How could I simply pamper my sloth and expect the universe to caress my soul? It is much easier to pretend to be rational than acting one. Although I was relieved of my duty in the first half of the morning, it took me more than few hours to decide how to make my Eid more gratifying. By mid-afternoon, after repeated episodes of procrastination I could convince myself that Chandannagar should be my destination for the leftover day. Chandannagar, the erstwhile French colony nestled at the bank of River Hooghly, barely eighty kilometers away from my home is famous for two things- Jajadhatri Puja and Jolbhora Sandesh.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The alternate episodes of 'drizzle' and 'dry sky' kept accompanying us till Chandannagar.
It was my second visit to Chandannagar, and also the second leisurely ride with Benu, albeit a short one. Her odometer was nearing 3,000 kilometers, but all that bulk had been accumulated by work related commuting. I didn't incorporate her into my family for such lackluster life. If you get a horse would you ride it, or use it for hauling loads? Everything has a primary purpose. Are you getting me? The moment I left Bardhaman, the alternate episodes of 'drizzle' and 'dry sky' kept accompanying me till Chandannagar. That's not a very desirable weather for any rider, but what else would you expect at the end of June? I was already late in commencing my journey. As a reward, the only non-essential item which failed to get a place in my backpack turned out to be the raincoat! Luckily, I'm not allergic to rain, and I hardly mind few bouts of sneezing after getting drenched.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The entire strand road is studded with Pani-puri and other fast-food wheeler stalls.
As you enter Chandannagar, you'd surely get desperate for the riverside. The portion of the sub-divisional headquarter away from the Ganges is quite congested and mundane like any other old town of West Bengal. Surprisingly, as you approach closer to the river, Chandannagar begins to unfold her glory. The town looks more planned and lovingly portrayed. Without much glitches G-Maps guided me to the Strand road. Strand road is not just a point of tourist interest at Chandannagar but its tourist hub. There you'll find a kilometer long, wide and well-maintained promenade by the river bank, partially ornamented with greenery and thoroughly lined by street-lamps. You are free to take a walk, visually absorb the calm riverscape, enjoy fellow-walkers' activities, sniff the historical aroma prominent in the buildings on the other side of the road, or simply excuse those countless young attention-shy couples looking for privacy behind not so opaque park benches.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
As you enter Chandannagar, you'd surely get desperate for the riverside.
Strand area is heart of Chandannagar and indeed the comprehensive testament of its French connection. Look around to discover various vintage structures depicting their French roots, standing amidst modern buildings with unaltered gravity. Apart from the former French Governor's residence (Dupleix Palace) which is presently housing the Chandannagar Museum and Institute for French language study (Institut De Chandernagor), bygone Indo-French essence in the architectures of police station and court is sure to charm any traveler. The museum, established back in 1956 is open everyday for visitors from 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM except on Thursdays and Saturdays. A nominal fee is charged for good. Photography is prohibited inside the museum. You have to document everything by your eyes only. If you're a museum buff unlike me you'll love exploring antics of 19th century, items of Anglo-French War and vivid illustrations of European settlements in India.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
Dupleix Palace and the adjoining Institut De Chandernagor.
Irrespective of your passion for history, some stories from the past are too intriguing to miss. History of Chandannagar falls in that category. Ibrahim Khan, the last Subahdar of Bengal had granted permission to the French to set up a trading post on the bank of Hooghly River. That's how this "The Arab and his camel" story started. Chandernagore (as spelled by the French) turned into a permanent French settlement in 1688. The tussle between French and British resulted in the alternate shifting of the governing authority at Chandannagar till the town was finally handed over to the French in 1816. It's a shame that it took almost another five years post independence to get back our snatched territory from France! Finally, on 2nd October, 1954, Chandannagar was incorporated into the state jurisdiction of West Bengal. The take-home message in today's scenario should be: Do not let anyone control your life in any form. Be your own master. You may offer a sit but not the driver's one.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
The Sacred Heart Church is one of the finest specimens of French architecture in West Bengal.
Once you're strolling in the Chandannagar Strand, you just can't miss out a visit to the Sacred Heart Church at your vicinity. The church established in 1884 still stands tall facing the Ganges, overlooking the boomerang-shaped garden encircling it, is one of the finest specimens of French architecture in West Bengal. If you want to see a bigger church in Bengal, you have to head onto the nearby town of Bandel to find a Portuguese built church- the Basilica of the Holy Rosary, or simply the famous Bandel Church. Apart from its grand size and serene interior, the Sacred Heart Church has beautiful stained glass windows and glass ornamentations to impress you with the aura of French aesthetics of 19th century. The entire strand road is studded with Pani-puri (we call it 'Phuchka') and other fast-food wheeler stalls to tease the monster inside your gut.

Ride to Chandannagar in search of French connection
It was a day ride to Jhargram and the blog will be published soon.
I settled with bottled juice. Sunset was not far. I could imagine the magical riverscape under the spell of a crimson sun. Famous Jolbhora Sandesh of Chandannagar was yet to be tasted. But, riding on highways in dark is something against my motorcycling code of conduct. With a partial feeling of unfulfillment I left Chandannagar with Benu. If you get to know everything about a place then why would you ever revisit it? Self-rationalization definitely helps. Despite this extremely truncated ride itinerary to the erstwhile French colony my Eid holiday was well spent. I would suggest you to visit Chandannagar as your weekend destination where you'll have the liberty of an overnight halt. Although Benu had clocked a meager 160 kilometers, she seemed to have enjoyed the irregular patches of rain on NH-2. Five days later she accompanied me on a longer ride. It was a day ride to Jhargram and the blog will be published soon.

Friday, June 30, 2017

YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed

YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
After completing my National Trekking Expedition Goa with Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) in December 2013, I had reviewed YHAI trekking programs in the middle of 2014. Many enthusiast trekkers had shown keen interests on my amateurish review post. Apart from blog comments I was sent many personal messages by my readers. As expected, nature and focus of queries were different from one person to another, but there was one apprehension common in majority of those mails- Do I have to pee/poop in the open? Probably there are insufficient online reviews of YHAI trekking programs. So, I decided to publish my old review article in this blog for the ease of compilation and better visibility.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
Tented accommodation set up at Panaji base camp, Goa.
During my Goa trek I was lucky to interact with fellow trekkers who had have several treks with YHAI. I could even gather information from bicyclists who had participated in the biking adventure program in Goa. So, from my own experience and facts assembled from veteran members I'm here to review trekking programs run by YHAI. Let me be fair and confess that I've already enrolled for a life membership with YHAI, as I see many more treks coming my way. But that shouldn't be your yardstick. Better read all pros and cons to decide whether you're game for YHAI trekking programs. Oh I forgot, another biggest concern from my readers was: Are YHAI trekking programs safe for a solo female traveler? Yes, absolutely!
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
Inside view of a typical YHAI tent for 8-10 trekkers.
Youth Hostels Association of India is a non-profit organization and an associate member of the Hostelling International (U.K.), with 23 functional state branches, managing around 95 youth hostels throughout India, and annually organizing more than a dozen of national trekking, biking, family-camping and other environment friendly adventure programs. YHAI claims to be promoting travel, tourism, adventure spirits, national integration, education and health by providing hostels of good standards to millions of youths of modest means during their travel at cheap rates on a sustainable basis and also organizing adventure/educational events, to create understanding among youths about social and developmental issues.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
At higher camps you may need to collect your usable water from such wells.
Things which YHAI keep common in all of their trekking programs:

* An all inclusive package cost (Includes food, boarding, lodging, transportation, equipments, group insurance, guide fee, training/orientation, forest fee, any other permit). Once you reach the base camp it feels as if you returned to hostel and anything that happens to to you shall be taken care of by the warden!

* Simple vegetarian nutritious meals. It starts with morning tea, breakfast, lunch, tea-snacks, dinner and then Bournvita drink before you retire. You'll be served welcome drinks as you (though you'll soon develop repulsion for Roohafza) reach higher camps every day. Sometimes you may be offered soup as appetizer before the dinner. Don't be disheartened, at times you'll get boiled eggs too. So, in short , forget starving, you'll rather be overfed.

* Shared tented accommodation or dormitory.

* Common toilets or makeshift ones depending on the remoteness of the camp. You may have to poop behind the bush too, after all you're no common douche-bag... you're a trekker!

* Schedules are maintained pretty strictly by field directors and camp leaders. Like, even if you're free for the day/evening you'll be given a time deadline for reporting the camp.

* No smoking and no alcohol!

* Rules rule the game. This is one of the biggest reasons behind parents sending their children for these programs without much anxiety.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
A typical YHAI dormitory accommodation for trekkers.
Things you'd certainly like in any YHAI trekking program:

* Unbeatable, budget-friendly package! Yes, no other organization/company can quote you similar rates. All this is possible because entire support team in these adventure programs consists of volunteers, who're YHAI members with generous hearts.

* Although food is simple you'll like it for two reasons. First is, once you're doing physical activities the hunger you develop is your best sauce. Secondly, despite the unavailability of raw materials and inadequacy (owing to the low package cost) of funds you'll always feel that YHAI is trying its best to rotate the menu and present you with maximum variations! You can eat as much as your capacity permits.

* A built in environment that automatically keeps you disciplined.

* Equality and lack of prejudice in any form from YHAI. I didn't just talk of equality of cast, creed, race, gender etc. Here people of varied age groups trek with equal eagerness and integrity. Treks are also designed to keep them doable for wide range of participants.

* Strong sense of being in a group. You'll never feel abandoned and insecure unless you're a pathological loner.

* Concern for environment. You may end up picking all plastic wrappers from your path to dump them into their suitable place. Even if you're among those careless bunch who tends to litter craps a lot, you'll surely improve your habit, at least for the sake of your self respect!

* As I mentioned it before, once you're in, logistics and technicalities of the trip are no more your headache. YHAI will take care of all and only obedience is expected from you in return. Just imagine, although you're going for a trek it is okay even if you report without a rucksack as YHAI will provide you one!

* You can trust on the name of the organization and this is a big relief especially for first time participants.

* Due cares are taken for female trekkers so that solo women can join with complete peace of mind.

* At the end of the trek, a dozen of hands won't haunt you for tips.

* Here I'm not mentioning subjects like- advantages of trekking in a group, opportunity to remain in close proximity to unadulterated nature, development of team spirit etc, as those things you can gain by trekking with other agencies as well.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
My YHAI ID Card for the Goa Trek, containing signatures of all camp leaders.
Things you might not like in a YHAI trekking program:

* Toilets/washrooms are public and not sufficient in number. Even in base camps where there's ample opportunity to keep them better maintained, you may find waterlogged bathrooms, stinking latrines and sometimes toilets with half broken doors.

* Tents are too tightly packed, often making it a challenge for tall trekker to find his sleep. 8-10 trekkers may have to share a large tent and I tell you honestly, you'll struggle to drive away your insomnia unless you're an easy sleeper.

* Rigidity with schedule may suffocate you at times and you might momentarily hate being constantly under supervision.

* Large group size (say, 50 trekkers in a group) gives rise to micro groups and at the end of the day unknowingly you may end up backbiting others with the ongoing trend. Yes, if bitching is not in your nature, later you'll suffer from self reproach.

* Apparent bossing of the camp leader. But I tell you, always remind yourself that every human being is different and your camp leader is volunteering out of generosity.

* Certainly these trekking programs are not suitable for solo/independent trekkers and also for those who need certain amount of luxury in their trip. Abundant dust in camping grounds may not be suitable for asthmatics and allergy prone individuals too.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
It doesn't really matter where you head on to or, with whom you pair up...
In this review, hopefully I've been able to share pros and cons of YHAI trekking programs in considerable details. Other than garments depending on the trail, few more things which you should carry in any YHAI trek for your personal convenience are- a rectangular lunch box, plate, spoon, mug, water bottle, torch, mosquito repellent ointment, water purifying tablets, portable power bank, few waterproof adhesive bandages, antimicrobial powder, needle, lighter, few plastic packets and a sleeping bag if you have one (though in Himalayan treks YHAI will provide you sleeping bags). Hope my article served it purpose. Now it is entirely your call whether to trek with YHAI or not. Ultimate truth is- it doesn't matter where you head on to or, with whom you pair up, as long as you are traveling and of course clicking photos on the go.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Monsoon is still in her teaser mode and the sadist summer is yet to leave his stage. Wet weather won't support much travel plans, but it'll be far better than this life sucking heat. Despite the never-quenching thirst for traveling, my idiosyncrasies do not always allow me to act like true wanderers. That's why I have been publishing photo stories from my old travelogues of late, instead of vrooming out with the riding jacket on. In my last post I was glorifying Odisha, my less sung neighbor state, as the perfect tourism snippet of incredible India. Today I'm back with another beautiful place of interest, barely ten kilometers away from the fast developing city of Bhubaneswar.

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Despite its poignant history and nature's extravaganza, Dhauligiri (pronounced as 'Dhavalgiri') is popular among day tourists exclusively for the Japanese Peace Pagoda located at the top of the Dhauli Hill. It's a shame that we limit our visit to Shanti Stupa and miss the soul of the place. Even I'm culpable of the same ignorance. Although I had been to Dhauligiri many times before, it was the first place I visited that morning. Yes, first half of the morning is the ideal time to explore Dhauligiri Hill. You may visit there in late afternoon as well. Just avoid the midday sun. An empty tummy parents dumb mind. Before entering the Peace Pagoda I topped up my greedy gut with few delicious vada.

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Dhauligiri Shanti Stupa stands white atop the Dhauli Hill, by the bank of Daya River, where Emperor Ashoka had embraced Buddhism after being mentally shattered by his self created massacre post Kalinga War. Kalinga War fought by the Maurya Empire under the able leadership of Ashoka against the state of Kalinga is considered as one of the most gory and devastating battles in history. It is said that during the course of this battle, River Daya had turned red with human blood, and that violent sight caused inner transformation of the mighty Maurya Emperor. Ashoka had won the battle. But, by then he had realized the futility of war and it was the last battle he ever fought.

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Shanti Stupa has been built in the shape of a dome. As you circumambulate the pagoda you'll come across four large statues of Buddha, each one of them sculpted in different postures depicting various stages of Buddha's life. On a fine day you'll have to compete hard with your fellow tourists to get a clear shot of those divine statues or motifs on the wall. It is nauseating to see how majority of tourists treat monuments and religious sites. You'll find most of them posing with their back towards Buddha statues, which is considered a disrespectful behavior in Buddhism. Some tourists are so gross that they do not mind letting their children sit on those statues to get it clicked. Still, when such manners are criticized by people of more civilized nations we take it on our hollow nationality!

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Do not forget to savor the soothing panorama of the surroundings from the back of the Shanti Stupa. When you gaze at the vast stretch of greenery below, the narrow strip of meandering Daya cutting through agricultural land might compel you to imagine the bloodbath visuals of Kalinga battlefield and get goosebumps! Conserve your energy to visit the nearby Dhavaleshar Temple and Rock Edicts of Ashoka. Take your time and absorb the essence of Dhauligiri. When you are done either go back to Bhubaneshwar to explore its old world charms, or head onto Puri to witness a vivid sunset over the Bay of Bengal.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Despite offering one of the finest tourism snippets of incredible India, it's a pity, Odisha still remains vastly overshadowed in the tourist map of the subcontinent! Ancient monuments, pilgrimage sites, wildlife reserves, mangrove forests, hill stations, rivers, lakes, coastline - you name it, Odisha has been endowed with it. Like most other travel-obsessed Bengalis I have traveled Odisha more number of times than my lazy brain can recall. Yet, in every two-three years I get an irresistible urge to explore my neighbor state. In my last blog post on Konark Sun Temple I had tried to give an account of that traveler's idiosyncrasy. Visiting Udayagiri Caves was (probably for the fourth time) a tiny fragment of a bigger itinerary sketched back in December, 2015.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Ganesha Gumpha, one of the most significant caves of Udayagiri dates back to 1st century BC.
Not everyday the teenager lobby boy at a busy motel in Bhubaneswar get to run errands for an unshaven solo traveler (more importantly, one who has arrived on a motorcycle). Probably the chap was looking for a trump which would work on me. Sunset was closing in. Although I had just arrived Bhubaneswar after a 450+ kilometers of ride, it seemed shallow to call it a day without even paying a courtesy visit to the nearby Jain caves- Udayagiri and Khandagiri. When the boy came to know of my intention he seconded my thought with a scheming smile, "Sir, as the sun is getting low you'll be rewarded with great views inside Udayagiri Caves". I was too tired to crack a conversation and simply smiled back with an optimistic nod. If you're absolutely free you might fantasize the truth concealed behind his 'great views'.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
There are altogether 18 caves in Udayagiri, most of which comprise a row of cells.
The twin hills located in the outskirt of Bhubaneswar at a close proximity to NH-5, house excavated rock cut caves called Lena in the inscriptions, and were essentially dwelling retreats of Jain ascetics. There are altogether 18 caves in Udayagiri and 15 caves in Khandagiri Hill. These caves were excavated by Kharavela and his successors in 1st century BC. The activities continued till the time of Somavamsis of 10th-11th century AD. Most of the caves comprise a row of cells opening either directly to the verandah or to the open spaces in front. The cells were essentially dormitories, an inference substantiated by a sloping rise of the floor at rear end to serve he purpose of a pillow. Ah hold on! I didn't decode these architectural mysteries. It was plain and simple jotting down of information as provided by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
The Jain Temple perched atop Khandagiri Hill as visible from the top of Udayagiri Hill.
In later periods some of the cells were converted into shrines with minor modifications, such as- increasing the height of the chamber by deepening the floor. The doorway of cells have pilasters on either side with crowning animal figures, and arches over them are decorated with flowers, creepers and animal motifs. Among all 18 caves at Udayagiri, Rani Gumpha and Swargapuri-Manchapuri Gumpha are double storeyed. The famous inscription of Kharavela is found engraved on the brows of the Hathi Gumpha, written in Brahmi script in 17 lines. It records many of his expeditions including the victory over Magadha and retrieval of the Jaina cult image taken over by the Nanda King.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Udayagiri Caves as visible from the top of Khandagiri Hill.
Ganesha Gumpha (Cave-10), one of the most significant caves of Udayagiri dates back to 1st century BC and contains two dwelling cells with a benched verandah in front. The arched doorway of he cells above the railings are relieved with scenes like the abduction scene reminding that of cave-1 and the other scenes representing the popular story of Udayana and Vasavadatta. The cave is named after an image of Ganesha carved inside. The historical significance of this cave lies on a five-lined inscription of 8th century AD. That afternoon I had kept my visit limited to Udayagiri Caves. Entry fee is charged for Udayagiri. There is a thick population of playful langurs on both of these hills. But, do not be too apprehensive of their presence. With time, they have learnt the art of existing harmoniously with hostile human beings.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Modern Bhubaneswar city when viewed from the top of Udayagiri Hill.
You need at least a couple of hours to explore the 'Sunrise Hill' (literal meaning of Udayagiri) properly. Due to imminent sunset I had to cut short my cave tour. By then, I had barely documented Udayagiri Caves, and Khandagiri Caves were left untouched. So, I had to return there the following day to wind up the unfinished trade. Both of my visits were on weekends and I tell you, the whole surrounding was messier than a crashed aircraft site! I am really sorry to say, the majority of tourists flocking there on weekends are far from being half civilized and I bet you won't dig their gross attitude towards such historical heritages. Unfortunately you can't change them. So, if you want to absorb the essence of those caves better schedule your visit on weekdays. The city of Bhubaneswar is a giant chest of monuments and history. I'll pick out another gem from that casket in my coming post. Till then, take good care.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
His colossal chariot is hauled by seven horses and rolls on twelve pairs of stupendous wheels. Despite this majestic imagery, presently the Sun Temple of Konark is nothing more than a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, this magnum opus of Kalinga architecture is no better than excavated remains of a divine ship stranded on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal, abandoned by its sailor long ago. Neither you can find the deity over His dilapidated chariot, nor you'll get aroma of any incense sticks. Still, for amateurs like us it is almost impossible to describe the beauty of the Sun Temple in mere words. We can wonder at best, and revisit every time with an irresistible urge to unwind the mystery behind its endless charm. Unlike most other beautiful things in the universe, the more you try to delve into her power to mesmerize, the less you fathom. Only an exceptional wordsmith like Rabindranath Tagore could have recounted the architectural grandeur of Sun Temple for us- "Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man"!

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
Yes, I am one of those spellbound travelers who keep returning to Konark in every few years, with a false hope of breaking into the mist of enigma surrounding this thirteenth century old Sun Temple. My last visit was in December, 2014, part of which I had blogged back then as "Sexual Perversions behind Erotic Sculptures of Konark". Unless a Bong travels at least half a dozen times to Puri (a popular coastal town cum pilgrimage site of Odisha) he is not considered to be a true wanderer. The ideal Bong travels to Puri at different phases of his life and majority of those trips do essentially include the Konark sightseeing. After all, Konark falls in the golden triangle of Odisha with Puri and Bhubaneswar. Puri to Konark, the modest 35 kilometers road on NH-203, brushes the boundary of foamy sea, few beaches, runs through a wildlife sanctuary and doesn't even miss to include a river on its way, a road trip I can certainly vouch for!

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
The Bong kid gets bored when his parents drag him for this monument sightseeing at Konark, as he finds the roaring sea at Puri much more alluring. After few years, the same adolescent boy savors the raunchy part of tourist-guide's narrations, and shuffles his curious yet swift gaze between an erotic sculpture and an adjoining bland one, so that the accompanying parents fail to discover his heinous thought process. Then, after another few years, the young man with his friends appreciate the beauty of Konark sculptures in much more obvious way which goes beyond the level of acceptability of surrounding elderly tourists. This is how the travel-cycle of a Bong to Konark Sun Temple continues till his grandkid astounds him with, "Grandpa, why all of these Gods and Goddesses are posing naked?"

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
'Kona' means corner and 'Arka' stands for sun. So, the name 'Konark' literally means the angled sun. The alignment of the Sun Temple is on east-west direction. Unless the sky is overcast, the first sun-rays of the day always strike the main entrance of Konark Sun Temple. There are three depictions of the Sun God at three different sides of the temple, strategically carved in proper direction to catch the rays of the sun at morning, noon and evening respectively. The twenty-four wheels and seven horses of this chariot shaped temple is closely associated with the elementary geography related to the sun. The seven horses symbolize the 7 days of a week, while twenty-four wheels portray 24 hours of a day. Would you take it as an engineering marvel, or a paragon of medieval art?

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
Each of those exquisitely ornamented wheels comprises eight spokes representing 8 'prahar' of a day. The wheels of the temple are sundials which can be used to calculate time to the precision of a minute, provided you know how to do it. The central hub along with eight spokes of each wheel house amazing carvings on stone depicting myriad activities of human beings at different times of the day, starting from singing at daybreak to kinky sex at midnight. It is said that King Narasimhadeva I, the renowned ruler from Eastern Ganga Dynasty had employed 1200 artisans to work relentlessly for 12 years to erect this mammoth artistic masterpiece with stones. It is not only the artistic dexterity of those wrights that astounds me, but also their superhuman strength involved behind moving those blocks of giant stones!  The Sun Temple of Konark was built to enshrine an image of Sun, the patron deity of the place. The sanctum symbolizes the majestic stride of the Sun God and marks the culmination of Orissan architectural style.

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
The walls of the Sun Temple of Konark contain thousands of superb carving of divine, semi-divine, human and animal figures amidst floral and geometric ornamentations. The vivacious maidens and danseuses portrayed over stone are remarkable for their sensuous modeling, pulsating with human emotions, absorbed in a variety of gestures and rhythmic actions. It is infinitely tough for our materialistic eyes to see beyond the visual lure offered by scintillating carvings of amorously entwined couples and their exaggerated private parts. If you are not lucky enough you'll end up with an unprofessional guide who'd try to mask his poverty of knowledge by push-selling 'SEX'. Trust me, once you cross the teenage boundary, one-dimensional (and also grossly manipulated) narration on such a versatile architecture is bound to make you farty. Choose your guide wisely. If you're traveling solo and tight on budget, you may decently tail any foreigners' group headed by an English speaking temple guide.

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
Sun Temple of Konark is not just some grand monument with rich history. It is a complete social canvas of thirteenth century India. If explicit eroticism over a religious structure bewilders you, read the widely acknowledged view of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy regarding this. The illusory world of pleasure had been boldly sculpted on the outer walls of Sun Temple while the deity was stationed inside it. So, if you want to catch up with the almighty you've to abandon your carnal desires outside the temple wall at first. Simple and convincing; right? Unless you are a casual hopper, you'll be needing 2-4 hours to visit this monument properly. I am glad that I had opted to stay overnight at Konark to document the illuminated Sun Temple after dusk. I remember, it was drizzling in the evening and I had to borrow my hotel owner's umbrella to capture the long anticipated, well-lit UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite the December rain, chilly wind and mud, Sun Temple complex was thickly populated with tourists.

Konark Sun Temple - Exploring the ruins of a magnum opus of Kalinga Architecture
Illuminated residence of the solar deity was worth visiting. Good news is, very soon India Tourism Development Corporation is about to start light and sound show at Konark Temple using laser technology! I'm sure prospective travelers would love checking that out too. Visit Konark during winter months, and make it a point to spend the night there itself before heading onto other touristy destinations of Odisha. An easy Konark itinerary can be- check in hotel in the morning, explore the Sun Temple thoroughly, pamper the well conceived hunger with unpredictable Odia cuisine, indulge in a catnap, reach the Chandrabhaga Beach on an auto-rickshaw to witness the sunset sky over the Bay of Bengal, return to catch the illuminated Sun Temple, call it a day at Konark and check out of your hotel in the following morning to fulfill your remaining travel goals. Sooner or later you'll revisit Konark anyway, to rediscover the forsaken chariot of the missing Lord.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot

Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot
Garh Panchkot is a ruined fort located in the Western part of West Bengal at the southern foothills of Panchkot/Panchet Hill in the district of Purulia. Ruins of the fort, palace and a group of temples are is still standing as silent witness of the rise and fall of the Singh Deo dynasty and also the Bargi attack during the 18th century. It has been almost two years since I rode to Garh Panchkot and blogged about its historical ruins. Somehow I missed showcasing the glimpses of beautiful Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot, but better late than never.

Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot
Panchet Dam is the youngest among four inaugural multipurpose dams built by DVC (Damodar Valley Corporation) in 1959, as a part of its noble venture to salvage Damodar basin by converting the erstwhile Damodar from a "River of Sorrow" to a "River of Opportunities". Being closest to Maithon Dam in the tourist map of Bengal-Bihar-Jharkhand, Panchet certainly compels its tourists to draw comparison with the former. Well, both of these dams are extremely scenic; If the monster green lake is the highlight of Maithon, ethereal vista plays the trump for Panchet!

Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot
Panchet Dam is located at Panchet over the Damodar River, where it forms the natural boundary between Indian states of Jharkhand and West Bengal, a little above its confluence with the Barakar River. Jharkhand lies on the northern bank and Bengal lies on the southern bank of Panchet reservoir. Panchet Hill rises above the Panchet Dam to earn few more brownie points for this already gorgeous landscape. As I mentioned in the beginning- architectural ruins of Garh Panchkot dating back to 1st century AD lures thousands of travelers throughout the year. Close proximity to NH-2 is probably the concluding reason to justify the high tourist influx at Panchet.

Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot
Thankfully, prohibitory regulation on photography at Panchet Dam was not so stringent like that of Maithon, and I could easily park my motorcycle over the bridge to click few photos of the picturesque surrounding. It was late morning. Sun was too luminous to allow me preserve the goodness of my captures. But for me, travel photography is all about clicking photos on the go, capturing a panorama as I see it, rather than how others would fantasize. I'm sure that an early morning drive up the dam would be quite an experience in itself, with well maintained lush greenery at left to sooth your eyes and the Panchet Hill rising over the reservoir at right to tease you at the same time!

Panchet Dam en route to Garh Panchkot
Although I visited Panchet in the month of August, it wasn't exactly the time when gates of the dam were raised, and I could not witness the stereotype monsoon view of gushing water. Winter is the most comfortable season to visit Panchet Dam. Avoid the second half of December and first half of January though. Usually, tourists with minimal love towards the environment flock around the dam at that time simply to litter the area in the name of picnic. You might be interested in checking out the Nehru Park at Panchet before heading onto Garh Panchkot. I won't recommend a night halt at any of those places. You better visit Panchet as day-trip and finally stay overnight at Maithon, provided you have two days in your itinerary.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet Review - just Avoid!

Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet Review
Having used it for two months, I think I'm eligible now to share my sour opinions on this gorgeous looking open face helmet from the house of Vega. If you've been following my blog you would know, occasionally I review products/services which are related to either traveling or photography. Those are simple ownership experiences and not professional reviews. If you are not looking for technical testosterone or manufacturer's manipulation, then you might consider reading my reviews. To tell you the truth, review blogging doesn't fascinate me. I do it only when I feel that the buyer's interest is at stake. I regret the moment when I fell for this dull anthracite colored helmet. Although we all know looks can be deceptive, seldom we realize it, at least not until we spend our hard earned money on a product like this. Finally, it is the moment of truth: Vega Eclipse open face helmet is flimsy and uncomfortable, a perfect disappointment for any sane rider.

Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet Review
It is a double visor open face helmet. Quite contrary to majority of open face helmets available in Indian market, Vega provided Eclipse with a full-face outer visor. The outer visor is large and crystal clear. I have a fairly longish face, yet the only thing that remains outside the visor is a tuft of beard. A full-face visor not only protects your face from the unpleasant wind blast at triple digit speeds but also shields your eyes from blinding dust particles. Perhaps this outer visor is the only silver lining over this obviously gray helmet. The inner visor (sun visor) is nothing more than an element of beauty. Cheap plastic used in it lowers the overall visibility, and the pathetic build quality makes the visor hurt rider's nose real bad. The quick-release knob present externally at left refuses to play its role. At most it can pull down the visor to some extent and the rest of it is expected from your fingers. Forget about operating this switch with your riding gloves on. Don't worry, you won't be using this semi-transparent sun visor anyway!

Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet Review
Did you notice those multiple patches of brownish discoloration on the right side? No buddy, I neither tortured my helmet with burning cigarette nor with harsh cleansing agents. How did she get those bruises then? Well, for around fifteen minutes (or less) I made a mistake of latching the helmet to my motorcycle grab-rail and it was unhurried summer ride on a plain afternoon road! Come on Vega, few scratches would have been understandable but why these lifelong scars? Work on your paint quality before some other blogger calls it shitty more loudly. 

Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet Review
Whenever I wore the helmet for more than 40-45 minutes, I had always got an annoying headache. It is a 'L' size helmet. According to specifications it should accommodate head size from 59 to 61 centimeters. My head measures little north of 590 millimeters, theoretically a perfect match for this helmet. Mystery behind the headache was more painful than the headache itself. It needed to be solved. On carefully studying (note those marked portions in the above photograph) the internal padding I discovered presence of few sharp exposed parts near the ear compartments, poor adhesive works throughout, and miserably inadequate cushioning especially over the rim of inner hard (white colored) insulating material making the evil thing to brutally compress numerous scalp veins, especially at temporal regions. That's not only lousy manufacturing but also a crime!

Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet Review
Wow, look at the strap material and I'm sure you'll have sufficient idea about Vega's integrity! If those synthetic fibers have started giving up just after two months of usage then what will happen after whole 365 days? May be I should buy a coil of nylon rope so that the helmet can be secured as soon as its stock strap gets torn apart one fine day. A couple of weeks ago I tried to convey my agony to the manufacturer in vain, through their official Twitter handle. Thankfully, my phase of regret is over. The equation is pretty simple. I lost my few hundred bucks, but on the other hand, Vega lost faith of many prospective buyers. Now you know, Vega Eclipse open face helmet might look photogenic, but definitely it's not the helmet a rider deserves. 

Product: Vega Eclipse Open Face Helmet with Double Visor (Dull Anthracite, L)

MRP: 1,385 INR

Pros:
- Looks good.
- Lightweight and compact.
- Fairly good internal air circulation.
- Full face outer visor is a rare virtue.

Cons:
- Highly doubtful build quality.
- Inadequate inner padding to steal rider's safety and comfort. 
- Crappy Sun visor.
- Unreliable strap.

My Rating:   2.5 / 10

Oops! My helmet hunt begins again...