What We Like About…

It may still be a bad time to talk about travel as India has emerged from the second COVID-19 wave only two months’ back. However, there is a post idea that has been on our minds for weeks now & we felt this would be the perfect time to write it down.

So, we have travelled to 21 states & 6 union territories of India. Not all of them for sightseeing but nonetheless… & something or the other has always caught our eye!

Now, even in states, a lot changes between districts. Thus, this is not a generalization but just an account of the things we have experienced & liked about a place.

So, here we go with what we like about…

Andhra Pradesh

P visited Andhra Pradesh as a child. The memories are faint but if we had to choose, it would be the beaches of Vishakhapatnam.

Bihar

What to say about the state that has been home? Yet, Biharis’ zeal to achieve stands out spectacularly.

Chandigarh

The planned sectors & the bungalows… Retiring here would not be a bad idea!

Chhattisgarh

Limited exposure that too in childhood & not from a sightseeing POV

Dadra Nagar Haveli and Daman Diu

We have been to Daman. Loved its laidback vibe. Also, what we coined “poor (wo)man’s Goa”!

Moti Daman Fort

Delhi

Heritage, history, more heritage, more history!

Goa

The lush greenery & the intimidating Arabian Sea during monsoon

Gujarat

The farsan!!!

Sabarmati Riverfront

Haryana

Dhabas & dhaba food!

Himachal Pradesh

The far Himachal of Lahaul, Spiti & Kinnaur… the dangerous Hindustan – Tibet Road… the friendliness of locals…

Jammu & Kashmir

Without a doubt, the valleys. & The dried berries & fruits!

  • kashmir, shikara

Jharkhand

Limited exposure not from a sightseeing POV

Karnataka

The backwaters! (Yes! Unknown compared to the Kerala ones but quite pretty.)

Kerala

How we can go from hills to seas in less than five hours! & The Malabar cuisine.

Between Karnataka & Kerala can be a competition for the best backwaters. We weren’t complaining though…

Ladakh

The sheer grit of the locals! It is a difficult terrain to live in; yet we never found a single person without a smile!

Madhya Pradesh

That fact that it is SO underrated! It has everything – hills, water bodies, geographical formations, indigenous cultures, heritage – & yet it is not the first name that pops up when we speak of ‘Incredible India’.

From the hills of Pachmarhi to the river of Orchha…
Sunset on River Betwa

Maharashtra

The Western Ghat undoubtedly! & Konkani food!!

A pink sky on the Western Ghats

Odisha

P visited Odisha as a child. But she remembers the Chilka Lake vividly…

Puducherry

Favourite beach town in all of India! Great food, colourful buildings, heritage, & max – chill vibe!

Punjab

Mustard fields. Sarson ka saag & makke ki roti. & Harmandir Sahib.

Rajasthan

The fact that when all north India shuts down in winter, this state comes alive! Also, the folk music! & The royalty!

Sikkim

How clean! How safe! How pristine!

Tamil Nadu

The headshake to start with… & Mysore Pak (We know Mysore Park originated in Karnataka, but we have always eaten Mysore Pak in TN ☹)

Telangana

P visited Telangana as a child. She remembers the musical clock at the Salar Jung Museum…

Uttar Pradesh

Home. & Kashi.

Mustard fields, Eternal favorite, uttar pradesh, india

Uttarakhand

The difference between Garhwal & Kumaon. The omnipresence of rhododendrons.

West Bengal

The romanticism. Many movies & series are made with WB as the backdrop. & The outcome is nothing short of beautiful…

There is still a lot to be seen. We hope to cover at least all the states & union territories in our lifetime even if we are unable to see them in entirety. Frankly, one lifetime is inadequate to experience all of Incredible India!

Mughal Garden

If you reside in Delhi NCR and yet, are unaware of this gem, well, it is not too late now. Are you wondering what is so special about it? Then read on!

P had visited the Mughal Garden earlier & had been wowed by its grandiosity. A visit to this Garden was a fitting gift for N who is also an anthophile. The Garden can be visited during Udyanotsav held every year between February to March.

Scentimental Roses are interesting with red & white striped petals.

Entry is free of cost, but you do need to register on the easy-to-navigate website. The Mughal Garden comes under Circuit Three. We received the Visitor Entry Pass after registering on the website. It contained a registration number, date of visit, time slot, our names & guidelines.

Do note that you may not get tickets for the immediate dates. (Considering the current pandemic, the Udyanotsav 2021 dates have not been announced.)

So, up and about on Saturday, we made our way to the Mughal Garden. We were returning to the Presidential Estate a little more than a year later. On our first visit, we had toured Circuit One; you can read about it here.

There is no other place where you can see >120 rose varieties.

The architecture had fascinated us. This time, we were ready to be mesmerized by nature. The day we visited; the heavens had opened. We kept hoping rain would not play spoilsport & luckily, it did not. A light drizzle continued throughout our visit but nothing that could dampen our sightseeing.

Entry is allowed from Gate 35 only. Leave behind everything except your cell phone, wallet, identity card and the Visitor Entry Pass. After scrutiny of our identity papers & a physical search, we were inside the Mughal Garden.

What is a Mughal Garden?

We began at the Bonsai Garden. It was set up in 2010 with ~250 plants…

To the credit of the Mughals, they had a keen eye for aesthetics. They blended architecture & nature beautifully using plenty of flower beds & water bodies. India has, architecturally, benefited from the import of the Charbagh design, i.e., using canals to divide a rectangle/ square into four distinct parts.

The Mughal Garden in the Presidential Estate

The Mughal Garden at the President’s House is one such garden. This Garden had not been built by the Mughals but by Sir Edwin Lutyens, taking inspiration from the Charbagh design.

Roses are a permanent feature of the Mughal Garden but the prime bloom is in February-March.

While the name ‘Mughal Garden’ makes the Mughal inspiration evident, what is unknown is it also includes British garden art elements – flower beds on lawn edges & along pavements.

The Garden consists of rare species of flowers. If you want to see more than 70 varieties of seasonal flowers, head here. The lush greenery is eye-catching.

We had a wild desire to become President just to be able to live in this beezer house with this beaut garden!

It was a rainy day. We feared our visit would be hampered by the rain…

Bonsai Garden

The first garden we encountered was a Bonsai Garden. This Garden was Former President Ms. Pratibha Patil’s contribution. We had never seen so many bonsai plants under one roof (or one sky to be technically correct).

The petite plants glistened with the raindrops. The variety left us spellbound – upright, slanting, cascade, semi cascade – jade, rubber bush, fern, camachile, tamarind & many, many more!

An integral part of childhood…

We remember camachile (better known as jungle jalebi) from our childhood. It was an integral part. We picked these off the ground & ate the sour & sweet pulp inside the seed pod!

Herbal Garden

Next, we stepped into the Herbal Garden. This Garden was established by Former President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. The Garden has more than 30 aromatic & medicinal plants. The best part is – their use is depicted alongside them.

From the Bonsai Garden, we moved to the Herbal Garden.

It was a treat to our senses to be able to see & smell herbs like Ashwagandha, Damask Rose, Geranium, Lemongrass, Stevia etc. Another part of the garden contained shrubs & small trees of Bay Leaf, Bel, Cinnamon, Clove, Gooseberry, Hadjod, Jamun etc.

The President’s Office frequently invites farmers to see the herbal plants & encourages them to grow these for their own as well as society’s benefit.

Spiritual Garden

A cluster of Banyan Trees caught our eye.

Our next foray was into the Spiritual Garden. This Garden had ~40 different plants of importance to different religions – banyan, coconut, fig, Krishna burgad, rudraksh, etc.

The Garden conveys the message of co-existence despite differences.

Musical Garden

As we gazed at the greenery around us, strains of music reached our ears. On looking around, we saw a Musical Fountain…

As we gazed at the greenery around us, strains of music reached our ears. On looking around, we saw a Musical Fountain. This Fountain was Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s initiative.

Being Dr. Kalam’s brainchild, it was only natural that the Fountain incorporated scientific elements of digital electronics, hydro dynamics etc. In the tranquil Mughal Gardens, this brought liveliness.

It played the tunes of Shehnai & Vande Mataram.

On the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, a statement is written that summarizes the entire Mughal Gardens beautifully, better than we could have done – “If the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a masterpiece of architecture, the 15-acre Mughal Garden is considered its soul.”

Rectangular Garden

This Garden is right in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan main building. Water canals divide the Garden into a grid of squares. Spanish Cherry trees are planted around this.

It has two main gardens – East Lawn in oblong shape & Central Lawn in square shape. The Central Lawn is where the President meets diplomatic community, media persons etc.

Dahlias lined up the sides of the Rectangular Lawn.

Terrace gardens flank the sides of the Rectangular Garden. The centers of these gardens have inward falling fountains, making wells. At the end of the terrace gardens, two gazebos stand handsomely, sheltered by Putranjiva trees.

Water chutes have been creatively designed through levels of steps and with carved fish motifs, giving an impression of fishes in water!

Dahlias, annuals grown here, lined up the sides of this Garden. Their colors & sizes were unbelievable!

Flowers are the highlight of the Mughal Garden. Dahlia is one of the annuals grown in the Garden…

Rows & rows of a variety of orange – the China Orange – were a delight to see.

Undoubtedly, this Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

Long Garden

The Mughal Garden has a large variety of flowers.

While the Mughal Garden has a variety of flowers, roses are the prime attraction. & while roses are a permanent feature of the Garden, the prime bloom is in February-March.

We next walked into the Long Garden or more popularly called ‘rose garden’. As soon as we entered this Garden, the sweet smell of hundreds of roses wafted up to us.

A bright Sun may have brought out the colors even more vividly, but the overcast weather was quite pleasant to walk in.

Is there any other place where you can see more than 120 rose varieties? Adora, Blue Moon, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Taj Mahal etc. Mind boggling! The rose beds are margined with dahlia, iris, oxalis, salvia etc.

A pergola stands on the central pavement of the Garden with elephant trunks carved on it. The enclosing walls of the Long Garden are covered with creepers like flame vine, garlic vine etc.

On exiting this Garden, we came across Sweet Pea flowers & were wholly enamored with them. The splash of color, their lush leaves, & their tendency to climb made them a favorite for us.

Sweet Pea was quite insignificant before a Scottish horticulturist turned it into a floral sensation in the Victorian era!

Circular Garden

Our visit ended at the Circular Garden. This Garden is also known as Pearl/ Sunken Garden. A fountain concealed in a circular pond forms the center of the Garden. This has more than 30 varieties of seasonal flowers. We had a jolly time gaping at alyssum, marigold, phlox, viola, sweet William etc.

A distillation unit is installed here to distill essential oils of aromatic & herbal plants.

Till our next visit, we’ll remember the multitude of flowers we saw in a single visit.

On the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, a statement is written that summarizes the entire Mughal Garden beautifully, better than we could have done –

“If the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a masterpiece of architecture, the 15-acre Mughal Garden is considered its soul.”

MANDAWA

The ‘Open Air Museum’ In 12 Hours

We had been to Churu earlier. When we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include another Shekhawati town. Mandawa was our fourth & last destination.

We left our Jodhpur hotel after breakfast. Jodhpur to Mandawa was close to 330 KMS. We did not halt anywhere except when needed. The road was terrible; it affected our mood negatively. But we found our solace in spotting birds along the way. We managed to click an Indian Roller & a Black Drongo.

Here is a blogpost on Mandawa.

The Evening

Art Worthy of a Museum

We were at our hotel in Mandawa by early evening. Tired from our journey, we sat under a tree & sipped on steaming masala chai. Then, we were out sightseeing. Our hotel provided us with a guide who took us around the town.

It is not just Marwar & Mewar that are rich with history; Shekhawati has its fair share too. The region is unique. Shekhawati towns are full of havelis that once were homes to rich business families. The businessmen constructed their havelis & baolis with painting on the walls, called frescoes.

The region reminds of cultural amalgamations with fresco themes ranging from Hindu motifs to Rajasthani women to Europeans wearing hats. Religion is an extremely common fresco theme. Scenes depicting Lord Krishna, His childhood antics, His Leela with Radha etc. are found commonly in the frescoes.

Frescoes depicting Lord Krishna are common.

On the other hand, when the Mandawa merchants returned from their Europe travels, they would get these frescoes made to give an idea to the local populace about life abroad.

Today, the havelis lay abandoned as the business families are now settled in Kolkata & Mumbai. A few havelis have been converted into hotels. A few others have been restored with caretakers allowing sightseers to visit. Sadly, we saw only a few caretakers take active interest in care taking.

Sightseeing is now the only way to ensure that the havelis do not remain abandoned. But, even with sightseeing, most havelis need TLC. We wished the owners would take charge. We call all Agarwal’s, Birla’s, Chokhanis, Goenkas, Jhunjhunuwalas, Ladias, Nemanis, Saraf’s to please restore their ancestral residences in Shekhawati.

The unique Shekhawati region!

A little love, a little renovation & a whole lot of old-world charm.

Now, there are no specific sightseeing ‘spots’ in Mandawa though Chokhani Haveli, Ladia Haveli & Saraf Haveli are a few of the splendid ones. The havelis are located close to each other & in narrow alleys. The best way to see the town is on foot.

So just walk around the town & see the havelis & the frescoes. You can enter a few of the havelis to see brightly colored rooms.

Look up!

Our first stop was a water well. Mandawa & its surrounding areas have several open & tube wells, highlighting the scarcity of water in this region. We could imagine the importance of the wells by seeing how beautifully the well was constructed.

Next, we explored the havelis. We discovered something new at every turn.

We climbed to a haveli rooftop & saw Mandawa Fort in the distance. It is now run as Hotel Castle Mandawa by Rajasthan Tourism.

Cultural Amalgamations

At one haveli, a bright green & yellow door caught our eyes. The door was a tourist magnet; it gave us decor goals. We saw more such beautiful doors.

Given that many havelis are neglected by their owners, it was heartening to see Saraf Haveli in good shape. It is a great example of Shekhawati art.

At one haveli, we came across evidence of Mandawa’s trading past. The town was once important, lying on the route between Delhi and Gujarat, and China and the Middle East. How did a Burmah-Shell Oil Storage & Distributing Co. of India Ltd. board find its way here?

In need of a little TLC

An enterprising caretaker had taken to selling goods (which we believed come from the haveli) to tourists.

The Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is called ‘Golden Haveli’. It has a golden painted room which was a result of competitions to build the most opulent Havelis. Even the main gate leading inside is grand. It is fair to call the Golden Haveli a one-room museum.

A form of stained glass greeted us. This was another exquisite part of the Shekhawati havelis. Belgian Glass was embedded in the doors. We saw scenes from Indian scriptures come alive on the walls. Little gold remains on the golden room frescoes, but colors make the room lively.

Each fresco stood out in its own way.

The ‘gold’ paint has peeled off in places. But it gave us an idea how the room would have looked when it was intact.

In a few havelis, the frescoes date back to the 18th century. & naturally, these transported us to the days of yore. Mandawa is 360 degrees of art. Decoration exists on every conceivable part of the walls. Do not forget to look up as even the underside of arches have art on them. The attention to detail is astounding.

Ceiling frescoes seemed like carpets above our heads. How did people manage to paint entire tapestries on the ceiling? The outer walls have fine decoration. The inner walls are equally attractive.

A Ceiling Carpet

An interesting bit is that only the rooms in which visitors were entertained were painted. The private quarters would be kept plain.

If architecture/ art/ heritage/ history interest you, you will enjoy the havelis & kothis. The lapse of time has not taken away the grandeur. We were out of words to keep describing the frescoes. Each stood out in its own way.

After the visual extravaganza, back at our hotel, we found tourists gazing at frescoes & restoration here. We lounged by the pool enjoying a local shisha & ended the day with a homely dinner.

City – life Frescoes

The Morning

It was time to head home but only after a hearty breakfast at our hotel. Mandawa to NCR was ~290 KMS. We halted at Indulgence, Manesar for lunch. It is a food court having multiple restaurants inside its campus. Even though the campus is big, the parking is inadequate. We had to park on the side of the road itself, which is not ideal as NH8 is a heavy – traffic, high – speed highway.

Having said this, the inside is made quite well. There are food joints for every kind of palate. It is a family – friendly place. Washrooms are available & were clean. We filled our stomachs at Berco’s, Burger King & Giani’s.

So attractive!

Painted havelis & carts pulled by miniature donkeys were just a couple of sights that made Shekhawati a tourist’s paradise. The entire Rajasthan road trip was about experiencing calm in different ways. Every time we visit small cities, life magically seems to become simpler.

After an art & heritage filled road trip, we knew we would sleep easy for some time to come. Before the travel bug infected us again.

Accommodation

The Mirror of Our Dreams at Mandawa Kothi

After the bumpy ride, our accommodation in Mandawa sprang a surprise on us. Knowing that it is a small town, we were not expecting much in terms of hotel quality. But our minds were blown off by the Mandawa Kothi. Everywhere we looked, we saw art.

We thanked God for the person who decided to restore this century – old ‘Kothi’. It would have been heartbreaking to lose such art. This boutique hotel has old world charm coupled with modern amenities. Living in places that echo with history is always an enchanting experience. By staying at Mandawa Kothi for a night, we became a part of its history.

Walking under its arched gates was memorable. We had to cross three gates/ doors to get to the main living area. (We love how old houses had the concept of multiple sections.) Mandawa has been a favored location for Bollywood. A gate in the Mandawa Kothi featured in a prominent scene in the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Tourists gazing at the frescoes & restoration at Mandawa Kothi

The parking is right in front of the entrance. Mandawa Kothi has just six rooms but all have been carefully restored & upgraded with modern amenities. Our room was beautiful & spacious. There seemed to be just a handful of young men managing the hotel but ever so efficiently.

Sad, we stayed only for a night; wish we had more time at Mandawa Kothi! It felt like a home away from home.

Recommendations

Such attention to detail!
  1. Getting to Mandawa
    1. You can easily do a long weekend road trip from Delhi NCR.
    1. A train to Churu is available from Delhi. Churu to Mandawa can then be done by bus/ cab.
  2. Make your way to Mandawa between November & February. You will not be disappointed.
  3. If you visit Mandawa in winter, do remember the nights can be cold. Do not forget your woolens.
  4. Take a guide with you for the fresco sightseeing as s/ he will be able to point out details you would not notice otherwise.

Ranakpur

A Halt at The Ranakpur Jain Temple

Left Flank of the Adinatha Temple

On our Udaipur to Jodhpur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Ranakpur (94 KMS from Udaipur) was a halt that had to be made. P had been here earlier; there was no way N could not see the marvel that the Jain Temple was.

A photo-log from our visit to the Ranakpur Jain Temple.

Ranakpur is a village with greenery & water bodies in an otherwise largely arid Rajasthan. It is often ignored by sightseers, sandwiched as it is between Jodhpur and Udaipur. But Ranakpur holds dear its heritage & history.

The small village is known for its Jain temples dedicated to different Tirthankaras. The temples were built under the patronage of Rana Kumbha (of the Kumbhalgarh fame). Their history – Dharna Shah, a local Jain businessman, dreamed of paying homage to Lord Adinatha by building a temple in His honor. This is a common backstory of many Indian monuments. That a king or a noble dreamed of a god/ guru who either asked for a temple to be built or who pointed to the place where an idol could be found etc.

Picturesque

The temple complex is a large one with multiple temples inside. Each beautiful… But the main one is the Adinatha Temple. The first word that pops into our heads on seeing the temple is – Majestic!

The Adinatha Temple is huge. ~1450 marble pillars are needed to support its structure. At the entrance, an akichaka is carved into the ceiling. It is a man with five bodies representing fire, water, heaven, earth, and air. The akichaka guards the temple.

Life-like!

The temple is, undoubtedly, beautiful from the outside. But it is the inside beauty that amazes us. Marvelous is an understatement for the architecture. The clean, cool & quiet Ranakpur Jain Temple is a break from the overwhelming chaos that life otherwise is.

When you visit Ranakpur,

  1. Spend a night at Ranakpur if you really want to do justice to the large temple complex.
  2. Alternatively, stay at Kumbhalgarh. Cover Ranakpur from there as well as visit the Kumbhalgarh Fort & Wildlife Sanctuary. (We would really like to see its wolves!)
  3. Ranakpur is a popular day trip from Udaipur.
  4. There is a huge parking lot in the temple complex.
  5. Leather products are forbidden inside the temple.
  6. Legs must be covered when visiting the temple. Long pants are available on rent at the ticket counter in case you are wearing shorts, skirts etc. (This rule is relaxed for children.)
  7. Like we always recommend taking a guide when visiting Indian monuments, same goes for the Ranakpur Jain Temple. The guide will be able to point out unique bits. You can take an audio guide too.
  8. If you need to do photography inside, you must purchase a ticket separately for that.
  9. An on-premises canteen offers affordable Jain food.
  10. There is a market too in Ranakpur, where one can buy curios and souvenirs.
  11. October to March is the right time to visit. The rest of the year, the Sun will roast you alive!
  12. If you intend to have lunch at Ranakpur, head to Fateh Bagh. The heritage hotel has beautiful gardens & interiors and is usually sparsely occupied. And the vintage car!!
Love For All Things Old!

Buddham Saranam Gacchami

A half-day excursion to Sarnath

“Buddham Saranam Gacchami. Dhammam Saranam Gacchami. Sangham Saranam Gacchami.”

(“I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.”)

parikrama, bodhi tree, mulagandha kuti vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree.

We have been drawn towards Buddhism for a long time now. As we visited places like Bhutan, Ladakh & Spiti, we came to know more about Gautama Buddha & His teachings. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse further increased our fascination.

In a world of extremes, we find Buddhism to be a balanced religion. The basic premise of ‘looking within’ & ‘introspecting’ appeals to us. It was, thus, only natural for us to visit Sarnath on our travel to Varanasi.

After spending a couple of days in Banaras, we hired a cab to take us to Sarnath. We had a flight to catch later in the evening; so, we wanted to utilize the few hours we had in an effective manner.

Dhamek Stupa, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Dhamek Stupa

Sarnath is located ~10 KMS from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Thus, it is an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists. After the chaos of Varanasi, Sarnath is a sea of peace.

Once you reach the deer park, most of the sightseeing spots are at a walking distance of each other. Engage a guide in Sarnath who can brief you on its history.

Archaeological Museum

We started our Sarnath sightseeing at the Archaeological Museum. You need to buy a ticket from across the road. There is a locker room to deposit all your things, including cellphone.

In the museum, there are stunning artifacts dug up from excavations. Fine Buddhist art is housed. You can see the Asoka Pillar as well as a Buddha sculpture where He sits with eyes downcast, and with a halo around His head.

The Asoka Pillar is, of course, from where the Indian National Emblem is adopted. Four Indian Lions sit back to back on a circular base; a Horse on the left, the Asoka Chakra in the center, and a Bull on the right on the base.

If, like us, you are a history aficionado, you will love the Archaeological Museum. It houses figures from Gupta, Kushana & Mauryan periods.

Chinese Buddhist Temple

Our next stop was the Chinese Buddhist Temple. It is located a little away from the other sightseeing spots. The temple is beautifully painted in red and yellow in the Chinese architectural style. You can see Chinese lanterns hanging on the walls. The surroundings are calm.

Beautiful, paint, red and yellow, chinese buddhist temple, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Beautifully painted in red & yellow…

The outer wall has a painting depicting the route taken by Huein Tsang to come to India. Interestingly, the land on which the Chinese Buddhist Temple stands used to be a mangrove. You can see a lot of Chinese/ Japanese pilgrims/ tourists here.

Dhamek Stupa

The huge campus is a delight for history & heritage lovers. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. It is a thick, solid & tall cylinder of bricks and stone. The wall of the Dhamek Stupa is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds.

commemorate, Buddha, Sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Built to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath…

Legend has it that if you manage to fling a white prayer cloth atop the stupa, your wishes will be fulfilled. While it may seem impossible to passersby, there are lads here who do that for a fee.

Apart from the main structure, there are innumerable small but significant ones. The Asoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands nearby. The excavations do not even seem to be complete & yet, the magnitude stuns you.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

Shakyamuni Buddha, relics, Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics at the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a monastery & temple surrounded by gardens. It is enshrined with Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics. The Buddhist architecture is worth gaping at, specially the frescoes. The frescoes depict scenes from Buddha’s life & are quite pretty. There is, thus, little doubt why Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a tourist attraction.

You can hear the chants which bring about serenity. The well-maintained precincts are lined with Buddhist prayer flags. You can do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree. Legend has it that this tree is a descendant of the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.

As we were short on time, our Sarnath visit was for just half-a-day. But, if you are a history buff or are spiritual, you can spend days here.

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 6

Continuing from Chapter 5, the last stop of the day beckoned – the Rumtek Monastery. This is an important shrine for Buddhists as it’s the seat-in-exile of the Kagyu Karmapa. However, as there’s controversy around the 17th Karmapa, the monastery’s currently under the Indo- Tibetan Border Police to prevent any sectarian violence. Don’t forget to carry your identity card as you’ll not be allowed in without it.

Now a funny bit happened – the monastery underwhelmed me. I’d expected more grandeur from one so famous. Back at the hotel, I looked up the monastery on Google. I found something different to what I saw. I became glum, thinking I’d not seen the actual monastery, perhaps seen the outer wing & now I can’t even go back. But then I looked at the pictures closely. I realized that the open-air courtyard that I saw in the photos was currently covered with tarpaulin for the two-month long Kangyur Oral Transmission. & that’s why it looked different. Attention to detail madam!

But what is worth gaping at here are the lifelike frescoes. Walls after walls are lined with beautiful, vivid paintings from Buddhist mythology. I wondered at the preservation effort that would have gone into this. And for someone as inartistic as I’m, the frescoes were an epitome of creativity and finesse.

Frescoes amaze me
Frescoes amaze me

A word of caution about Rumtek Monastery though – it’s a long climb to get there. Vehicles are prohibited. Therefore, ensure you really have the willingness to visit the monastery; else you may feel cheated.

I loved the monks & nuns there. They were the embodiment of happiness & contentment. Easy with their smiles & eager to pose – they were any photographer’s delight. But do ask before clicking!

By the end of this, I was exhausted & desperately wanted my bed. I’d an early start the next day too, to catch my flight from Bagdogra. I wanted to attempt the Kanchenjunga again & hoped the clouds would give way. My wishes were to come true.

IMG_2985
Kanchenjunga clearly visible on a gorgeous sunny day

When we started the next morning, the clouds parted just enough for me to capture the peak. I thanked the Almighty. Subconsciously, I’ve begun to be grateful for my blessings. I strive to see the positive in everything.

I dreaded returning to Delhi NCR because of the pollution there but I knew I’d to go back to be able to step out again. I love the Himalayas; Sikkim, with its cleanliness, discipline, simplicity & friendliness, appealed a lot to me. I can’t wait to return there for a longer trip. & I’m pleased as punch that the new airport is opening soon in Pakyong which will make Sikkim more accessible. So long Sikkim! You were good to this solo woman traveler.

To end the blog, for the women hesitating to take that solo trip, my top tips:

  1. If it’s your first trip or if you’re anxious, go with a travel agency who’ll take care of all your needs. Even among those, opt for the bigger names; credibility will be a nonissue then.
  2. Choose an easy destination to begin with. Don’t make it Ladakh or Spiti at the first instance. These are difficult terrains & going in company (or at least if you’re a seasoned traveler) will be better. Ensure mobile connectivity isn’t a concern; the last thing you would want’s you being stranded & your folks worried to death.
  3. Don’t hesitate to demand changes to the itinerary, flights, hotels, cabs, transfers etc. if you’re spending money on it, it better be according to your taste.
  4. Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
  5. Ensure you stay alert at all times even when you’re having fun. Trust your instinct! At the same time, don’t hesitate to talk to locals.
  6. Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 5

Continuing from Chapter 4, day two dawned bright & beautiful again. I looked forward to capturing the Kanchenjunga summit. This was also the day for local sightseeing. KN arrived promptly to take me around.

We started with the Bakthang Falls. The Falls are a better sight during & right after monsoon when the volume of water is high. Currently, it looked bereft of its glory but to me, any sight different from the usual is worth seeing.

A hawker girl asked me if I wanted to dress up in the traditional Sikkimese clothes. I politely declined. One of the other aspects I loved about Sikkim was that the hawkers would offer you their wares once; if you decline, they will move away & not pester you again. This is so unlike most other tourist spots where hawkers will make you want to run!

The Bakthang Waterfall
The Bakthang Waterfall

Next stop was the Tashi View Point – a lookout offering an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it, clouds hovered over the peak. I couldn’t get a clear photo, no matter how hard I wished or how long I waited! I cursed my luck for some time but soon realized that even though I’d been unable to click it, I’d managed to see it with my eyes. And that’s what mattered!

Next up was Ganesha Tok – a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, perched on a little height, such that you get a clear view of the Gangtok city. A bit of climbing is required; if you’re not keen on the temple, I’ll recommend to skip it, as the view is average. By contrast, the view from the Tashi View Point is spectacular. Or, perhaps, at night, when the city lights up, the view from Ganesha Tok will make sense!

We made our way to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Don’t let the heavy name deter you. It houses a wonderful museum wherein you can find relics centuries old that tell the tale of Buddhism in India, Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet. I’m an absolute museum buff. I spent the maximum time here, & thanked my stars N wasn’t around, for he abhors museums. This gave me time to read every single description, & not leave even one exhibit unseen.

The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology- Photography prohibited inside!

Photography is strictly prohibited here (like most museums in India) but as is wont of Indians, they clicked mindlessly. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow instructions? I was overjoyed when the attentive museum staff caught hold of the defaulters & made them erase the photographs.

A small souvenir shop outside the museum made me splurge a bit. I picked up a book on Buddhism, a traditional necklace for myself & a tote bag. I barely shop on trips. The max I pick up is a fridge magnet. But for this trip, I loosened my purse strings, also because everything seemed reasonable (so atypical of a tourist place)! And then, you don’t travel solo every day, do you?

A few steps & almost a mountain away was the Do Drul Chorten. The climb is pretty much vertical and it knocked the wind out of me. But I guess travel gives me energy. I huffed & puffed my way to the top, circumambulated the chorten, clicked away & attracted more friends again! It struck me that Buddhism & Hinduism have this aspect in common – all their holy sites are built at almost inaccessible places.

Do Drul Chorten
Do Drul Chorten- The effort paid off!

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 4

Continuing from Chapter 3, about Baba Mandir, do you believe in the supernatural? If you do, good! If you do not, just keep an open mind when you come here.

Legend has it that Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy with the Indian army, fell into a nullah and was washed away while transporting mules. His body could not be found. Later, he appeared in the dream of his colleague and informed about the spot where his body could be found. He further asked for his ‘samadhi’ to be built there. His body was found exactly where he had mentioned in the dream and thus his ‘samadhi’ was built.

To this day, it is believed he protects the Indian army personnel. Even the Chinese believe in him and revere him; they leave a chair empty for him during flag meetings. Till the time he had not retired, he was given his annual leave; his uniform was escorted back to his village. Faith surely makes us do unimaginable things!

The legendary Baba Mandir
The legendary Baba Mandir

It was now time for me to visit the Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake as called by the locals. It is a beautiful, small lake surrounded by mountains on one side. The best part is – it just pops up on the main road. No off-road driving, no hiking required to get to it. Despite that, it’s loveliness is worth seeing.

This is also the spot where you will come across dozens of yaks, their owners offering you a ride or photography with the yak. For INR 50, I posed happily with a yak, standing next to it. I dislike climbing on top of animals or taking rides on them, for I do not wish to torture them. The yak owner obliged with the camera.

At times, you think that if you travel solo, you will have to rely on selfies to capture your moments. But you will be surprised how eager people are to help. Thus, drop the hesitation folks! Moreover, is a selfie not a poor way to capture a gorgeous background because the entire focus is on the face?

Autumn colors
Autumn colors

I found Tsomgo Lake special not just for the gentle yaks, but also for the fall colors I witnessed there. I had thought I would have to go to the USA or Europe to see the colors of autumn. But the same was evident in Sikkim too. I guess India still has miles to go to advertise its full tourism potential.

My excursion for the first day was now complete. I made my way back to the hotel, stopping intermittently to gape at astounding sights and capture them in my camera. Tiny waterfalls, with water tumbling down on rocks, or lakes that popped up suddenly, or faraway mountains covered in mist – my heart could not be more content.

In the evening, I intended to visit the iconic MG Marg, the hub of activity in Gangtok with eating and shopping options. Alas, I fell asleep on reaching the hotel; by the time I woke up, it was late.

The Tsomgo Lake
The Tsomgo Lake

The locals had recommended taking a taxi to MG Marg, stressing that its reliability & safety, no matter what time of the day. But, somehow, my north Indian anxiety forbade me from trying this out. This is the only regret I carry from my trip…

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