Rameswaram- featured in India's Top 42 Weekend Getaways published by Chillibreeze and India Today

                             Rameswaram - Looking Beyond The Ramayana

The 106 year Pamban Bridge connecting Rameswaram to the rest of India

Rameswaram –Looking Beyond the Ramayana
The cry was for an unusual weekend getaway from Bangalore and it had to be different from jungle resorts, Cauvery River fishing breaks and serene plantations. The dice fell on Rameswaram, a place of religious and mythological significance. We were also intrigued by the unique geography of this conch shaped island at the very end of the Indian peninsula. We wanted to see Dhanushkodi, the south eastern most tip of India, the Pamban Bridge, the longest sea bridge in India and the hometown of Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam.
Rameswaram, at a distance of 601 kilometres from Bangalore, is not exactly next door and with only three days over the weekend, driving down was out of the question. But whoever said that weekend getaways had to be done only by road? We did it by train, thanks to the Tatkal scheme. An overnight journey by the Tuticorin Express on a Friday took us to Madurai, the closest railhead to Rameswaram. What a comfortable and painless way of covering almost 450 kilometres and we had saved an entire day! The rest of the 163 kilometres to Rameswaram could be done by train or road. But the Rameswaram Express left Madurai at 1.50 a.m at night and reached Rameswaram at 5.50 a.m and we wanted to see the Pamban Bridge by day. So we decided to drive to Rameswaram. At Rs. 4000 for a Madurai-Rameshwaram-Madurai trip with an overnight halt for four people, this seemed quite reasonable.
A pleasant two and a half hour drive brought us to Ramnad district which connects the Indian mainland to Rameswaram and before we knew it, there we were, on the Pamban Road Bridge with the beautiful, unending expanse of the ocean on both sides. We stopped right at the middle of the bridge to marvel at the sight and literally fell off in fright when we saw the 90 year old Pamban rail bridge snaking its way below to our left! The bridge was very narrow, there were no railings on the side and here was this train gliding along at a slow ghostlike pace! It was also frightening because we were standing on a bridge that has been constructed in the ‘second highly corrosive environment ‘in the world, next only to Miami and this was a cyclone prone high wind velocity zone! We scurried back to the car and made a formula one dash to Rameswaram.
Thanks to the internet, we were lucky to find the only three star hotel in Rameswaram. It was clean and air conditioned except for the flies which are a ubiquitous part of the summer in Rameswaram. By two o’ clock on Saturday we were in Rameswaram, fresh, well fed and raring to go! The travel desk at the hotel suggested that we leave for Dhanuskodi right away and return before sunset as the road to Dhanuskodi is fairly deserted and there have been unconfirmed reports of robbery and molestations after dark. Moreover, even though Dhanushkodi is only 15 kilometres away from Rameswaram, a major portion of the journey is on the sandy beach which can be negotiated only by special jeeps at a very slow pace.
After the defeat of Ravana, his brother Vibheesana, fearing more strife, is said to have requested Lord Rama to sever the link between Sri Lanka and India. The point where Rama struck the land with the end (Kodi) of his bow (Dhanush), to effect this separation is Dhanushkodi. It is the starting point of the Rama Setu as well as the point of the confluence (Sangam) between the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean which makes it very important to devout Hindus. Finally, Dhanushkodi is the town which was completely destroyed by a 20 feet high tsunami that struck it at midnight on the 22nd of December 1964, washing away a train with 115 passengers and the entire Pamban rail bridge in Dhanuskodi. The TamilNadu government has since declared Dhanushkodi a ghost town unfit for inhabitation. We had to see it!

The Tale of Two Oceans -  The Confluence Of The Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean at Dhanushkodi
Well, we never thought we would! Every jeep looked as if it would fall apart as soon as the ignition was turned on and if we survived that, we would be truly bottomless when we got down, as the seats were mere wooden strips! The road was deserted and the driver drove most cautiously on the tracks made on the sand by his predecessor. After an hour’s drive, just when we began to feel truly lost, we burst upon a clearing! “Sangamam”, announced the driver cheerfully and we whooped with joy because there were other jeeps and people around us! The joy gave way to wonder. Dhanushkodi was stark, eerie, untainted, raw and yet simply beautiful. The oceans stretched endlessly and the wind roared like an aircraft taking off. Nothing can prepare you for the awesome velocity and force of the wind. Nothing can prepare you for the wet sand that is whipped up by the wind and hits you like a thousand pointed spears. Nothing can prepare you for the depth to which your feet sink when you step into the water. As we drove back, we saw a pillar which was the only surviving structure of the Dhanushkodi railway station, a few desolate huts and a tiny church! Dhanushkodi had made our day!
Day 2 saw us at the famous Ramanathaswamy temple, a temple dedicated to Shiva and the raison d’ĂȘtre of Rameswaram. The temple enshrines the idol that was made by Sita and worshipped by Lord Rama, to atone for the sin of having killed a Brahmin; Ravana by virtue of being born of a Brahmin sage, was also a Brahmin. Its outer corridor, running over 1200 metres, is said to be the longest in the world. The temple is a storehouse of architecture and aesthetics and you can spend hours discovering it, if you can blot out the din, the dirt and the chaos created by busloads of pilgrims. It is not impossible!
Our next stop was the Gandhamadana Mountain from where Lord Hanuman is said to have taken off across the ocean to Sri Lanka. It is a small hillock at the top of which there is a stone impression of the feet of Lord Rama. Then my son insisted on seeing the floating stones believed to have been used by the monkeys for the bridge. Even the staunchest Hindu is likely to take this with a sack of salt, but it was a great diversion!
Just round the corner is the house of Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam. We learnt a lesson in humility from his 90 year old brother who welcomed us and spent a few minutes reminiscing about the days gone by.
There is much more to Rameswaram, but it was time to return to Madurai to catch the Tuticorin Express back to Bangalore.
The weekend threw up the happy revelation that weekend getaways do not necessarily have to be to places that are close by or done by road and that with a little spadework and ingenuity, getting off the beaten track can be fun!

Mumbai- Published in Kalnirnay International Edition

Quite Simply, Mumbai.

Voila, here’s a city that needs no introduction. Call it by any name, Bombay, Mumbai, Bambai; its essence remains just the same, a city that compels a response. You can either hate Mumbai or love it, but you cannot be indifferent to it. Technically, the capital of Maharashtra and the commercial capital of the country, Mumbai has a very impressive headcount of about 18 million over an area of 440 sq.km. and this headcount is increasing by the day as people pour into this city in search of the elusive pot of gold.

To begin with, Mumbai was inhabited essentially by the fishermen or Kolis who continue to retain their domain even today. Named after their goddess Mumbadevi, Mumbai after passing through a series of hands, ended up with King Charles II in 1661 as dowry from Catherine De Braganca. He in turn handed it over to the East India Company in 1665.
The East India Company, quick to identify the potential of the island, developed it into a port and soon Mumbai became a center of flourishing trade. Commercial activity increased, attracting people from the surrounding areas. The Gujaratis and Parsis initiated industrial and trading activity. To man this, came labour from the adjoining regions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as well as from places as far off as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Soon Mumbai became a cauldron of diverse communities and their cultures. This coupled with the requirements of surviving and adjusting in a city where all activity is directed towards economic prosperity, gave rise to the “Bombayite” who is truly original and distinct in character.

Bombay is a city that is at once, both famous and notorious. There are many things Bombay is well known for. Dalal Street, where the Bombay Stock Exchange, India’s oldest stock exchange, is located, is probably the most well known landmark of Mumbai, in both the literal as well as the metaphorical sense. It is here that fortunes are made or lives ruined. The other great symbol of Mumbai is the Bombay film industry or Bollywood, where stars live and die from Friday to Friday. Bombay is also famous for its cricketers who have rewritten the record books. Talk of the binding forces of national integration and these three rank high. The city is also famous for its own “beautiful people” who can give a run to the most seasoned international socialites; the educational institutions which uniformly churn out superior talent in such numbers (thanks to the intense competition) that they no longer remain novelties or rarities, the Bombay University, which is known for the various uncommon courses and disciplines, etc.. The list is quite long.
Then there are those totally mundane but terribly important things that Bombay is really famous for – things that form the very fabric of the existence of the Bombayite. Like the beaches of Bombay and the bhelpuri, panipuri, ragda pattice, pav bhaji and kulfi sold there. So typical of Bombay are these, that elsewhere in the country, they are sold under the generic name of Bombay chat and Bombay kulfi. No Bombayite can ever outgrow these fiery combinations of pulses, puffed rice, tamarind and green chilly chutneys, served with the most vital ingredient that probably makes all the difference – a generous dollop of Bombay dirt. And how can one forget the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsavs. Their pandals dot virtually each street for nine days resulting in a riot of light and sound, after which on the tenth day, even the administration bows down to the sentiment of awesome crowds converging on the beaches to submerge this patron deity of Maharashtra. There is a kaleidoscope of shopping found in the crowded lanes and by lanes of Bombay where one can find anything from the humble pin to the state of art in technology, especially in the grey market. No where else can one find the very harmonious co-existence of the clones of international labels and brands as well as their originals showcased in glittering shopping malls. One can also enjoy the sheer variety in food, right from the newest in Korean cuisine to the simple bun maska and chai at the dear old Irani restaurants, their ancient marble topped wooden tables still going strong. From the time tested idli wada sambhar around the corner to the Gujarati thali cheek by jowl with the wada pav and usal of Maharashtra, you can find them all here. Bombay is regarded as the ultimate trend setter in most things, right from the small housekeeping plastic accessory to the larger aspects of lifestyle statements. Bombay is ultimately larger than life.

But, and this is the big but, Bombay is also notorious and Bombay bashing is an age old pastime or should we say industry. There is little that is left unsaid about the unsavoury aspects of the city. It is crowded. It is filthy. It stinks. It is polluted, living in Bombay is the same as smoking 20 cigarettes, they say. It is a city of inordinate long distances. Commuting is a labouriously long and sometimes unending torture. The city is bursting at its seams. People live in match-box size houses, slums and drain pipes. Bombay has the singular if dubious distinction of housing the largest slum in India, Dharavi. The people, they say, are self-centered and self-seeking and the city is impersonal and dehumanizing. It is a city where is there is a flourishing and thriving underworld whose links spread up to the establishment.

Yet deep down is the knowledge that this is the city of opportunities. That the city provides tremendous exposure and innumerable avenues, both traditional and non-traditional, to earn one’s place under the sun. That the city compels one to give his best or else lose the spoils to his closest contender whose number is legion. That this is the city where the rags to riches story repeats itself over and over again and where the pursuit itself of financial well-being imparts tremendous self esteem long before the mission is accomplished. A city deeply polarized by haves and haves-not but where the have-not are almost proud and definitely not defensive. Deep down is the knowledge that there are many things taken for granted in this city, like its abundant power supply and the fine public transport system, both rail and bus that is coping with the staggering yet growing population. The Western and Central railways for instance carry approx. 2.6 million passengers per day which is half the total population of Bangalore or Hyderabad. What is also taken for granted is that this is one of the safest city for women and it is not unusual to see them boarding buses and trains alone at odd hours. This is the city that values time and a city where multi-tasking and optimizing use of time chinks are ways of life. For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Mumbai woman shelling peas in the train on her way back from work so that even the commuting time is not wasted. It is a city where apart from a few serious communal flare-ups (that may be attributable to reasons other than pure communal tensions) there has been a fairly harmonious co-existence of even diametrically opposed communities, because here one is first a Bombayite and then a Gujarati, Parsi, Madrasi or Malyalee. The original city that never sleeps, it is said that while you can leave Bombay, Bombay never leaves you. It is a city that is an online statement of the triumph of human spirit over tremendous and overwhelming odds.

As a Bombay watcher put it “the only thing alive in this city is the spirit of Man”. Well, what else does one need?


Hyderabad - Published in the Kalnirnay International Edition

Hyderabad – Musings on the City by the Musi River

Eleven years ago, I stepped out into the early morning mist of Hyderabad for the first time, a naturalized dyed-in the-wool Mumbaikar, supercilious and patronizing. Four years later when I had to leave, I did so with a very heavy heart. And even today, seven years down the line, there is still a very fierce yearning to go back to what had become “home” in a short span of four years, dethroning Mumbai that was home for twenty-six years before that.
That is Hyderabad for you, a quaint little city that welcomes you very quietly, endears its way into your heart and grows on you without your realizing it till you have to leave.
A four hundred year old city with a population of about 4.2 million, Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, is a city steeped in history and lore. There are two versions about the origins of Hyderabad. According to one version, Hyderabad came into existence around 1512 when Quli Qutb Shah built the famous Charminar as a thanksgiving to the Almighty for preventing his entire kingdom from being wiped out by a severe attack of plague and cholera. Very soon thereafter, inhospitable conditions forced him to abandon the Golconda fort from where he was operating till then and shift to the area around the Charminar along the banks of the Musi River. The settlement that came up there came to be known as Hyderabad. Another version holds the view that the city came up around the bridge built by Mohammed Quli Qutb across the Musi River so as not to endanger the life of his son who used to swim across to meet his beloved Baghmati even when the river was in spate. Whatever the version, Hyderabad owes its existence to the Qutub Shahi dynasty. In 1697, Aurangzeb captured Hyderabad from the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Subsequent Mughal rulers appointed Nizam-ul-Mulk as the Subedar of the Deccan as it was known then and conferred upon him the title of Asaf Jah. After that the Asaf Jahi dynasty ruled Hyderabad till it became part of the Indian Union and even today it is difficult to think of Hyderabad without thinking of the Nizams.
Inspite of successive democratically governments, the influence on Hyderabad, till very recently has been unmistakably that of the Nizam Shahi. The face that Hyderabad presented to the world was largely that of the Nizams and their lifestyles, especially which of the last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali who was once regarded the richest man in the world. Here was a man whose life made interesting copy. A small diminutive man, he sought and hoarded the beautiful things of life. A man whose wardrobe extended the length and breadth of two floors, a man who had the best of what the world produced in terms of clothes, jewels, accessories but remained till the end a parsimonious, spartan miser, eccentric and full of quirks. A man who was rumoured to stop the electric train that carried food around his dining table just before it reached the guest he did not like. On a broader scale, the world knew Hyderabad for the sophistication of manners (“tahzeeb”), the hospitality and the cuisine, all of which again were patronized by and flourished under the Nizam Shahi.
Even the major tourist attractions of Hyderabad revolve around the Nizam. And Hyderabad, make no mistake, is a tourist’s delight. There are palaces, bazaars, lakes and museums in and around the Charminar in the old city. While the Charminar or the Arc de Triomphe of the East is in itself a formidable attraction. The “Laad” bazaar around it is a veritable treasure house of bangles, cosmetics and jewellery; a place where the zenanna (the ladies) can indulge (“laad”) to the utmost. The Begum bazaar and the Sultan bazaar offer a greater variety of the same genre. The Chow Mahalla, the Falaknuma Palace and the tombs of Qutb Shah, Taramati and Raymond takes the tourists down the centuries.
And how could one forget the Salar Jung Museum. Salar Jung III, Mir Yousaf Ali Khan, the Prime Minister to the Nizam, was a consummate dilettante who collected objects d’art with zeal unmatched, so much so that his collections grew in size to fill an entire museum. It was with this end in mind that the Salar Jung Museum was set up in Diwan Deodi, his ancestral Palace after his demise. The Museum, declared an Institution of National Importance by an Act of Parliament, is one of the few Indian museums to boast of a collection of Far Eastern art from China, Japan, Tibet and Nepal, apart from individual rarities like the inscribed jade bookstand of Altamush or the fruit knife used by Noorjahan to name just a few. There are very few who have experienced the entire depth of this Museum and to the aesthete or the connoisseur, even a whole day at the Museum would seem insufficient.
There are other specialities that Hyderabad has to offer, like the world famous Hyderabad pearls. Pearls from all over the world come to Hyderabad because the artisans here down the generations have perfected the art of piercing and stringing them without damaging them. There is the bidri work where strands of silver and golden wire are hammered into engraved grooves on black plates. And of course, there is the inimitable, world famous Hyderabad cuisine, with its “biryani”, “mirch ka salan” and “khubbani ka meetha. To the true Hyderabadi, cooking is not a chore, it is a fine art.
Hyderabad also is home to many research institutes and educational and training organizations. The Administative Staff College of India (ASCI), the Institute of Charted Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI), the Sardar Patel National Police Academy, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), the Centre for English and Foreign Languages are just a few. More recently, Hyderabad acquired a unique honour when the major corporate luminaries in the country chose it as the venue of the Indian School of Business. Slated to be India’s most prestigious business school with an affiliation with the Kellog Graduate School and the Wharton School, the Indian School of Business is set to attract the talent of the highest caliber in management education.
Hyderabad is definitely opening up and it would not be wrong to say that this process had been kick started by the present Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. With the aim of making Hyderabad a global presence, he is said to have re-written almost overnight the infrastructural map of the city to attract foreign investment and propel its economy into the IT and biotech era. Hyderabad pulled off a double bill with Bill Clinton and Bill Gates choosing to visit it over other cities. A whopping 71% of the H1-B visas today, to the US constitute Hyderabadis. Hyderabad has been nominated the cleanest India city by the Cities Alliance Programme (CAP) and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS). It is also the most wired Indian city today with the highest tele-density of 14.66 Global and Indian retail giants are investing huge amounts in shopping malls and lifestyle avenues.
Clearly, Hyderabad is poised at the takeoff stage. But there are a lot of questions. Statistics already point to a tapering off of the IT revolution in the city. There are many IT professionals on the bench and back home. Will the city therefore have the purchasing power to justify the massive investments made by the governments and corporate? What happens to this juggernaut if an unforeseen and even predicted upsurge takes place on the political front? Is this administration a new broom that is sweeping clean or will it be able to make fundamental and structural changes in its functioning that will endure over the years? How long will this newly founded mutual admiration society between the powers that be and the private sector survive? And finally how responsive will the people of Hyderabad be when the initial novelty has worn off?
There are a lot of serious questions and only time will tell. But till then or even otherwise, there will some things about Hyderabad that will always endure. Like the typically Hyderabadi lingo which is a curious amalgam of Hindi, Urdu and Telugu, where it is never “Nahin” but always “Nakko”, where it is not “Kya Chahiye” but “Kya Hona” and “Kidar Ko Jana”. And the inveterate Hyderabadi who will sit back and say “Nakko Sochana Ji, Jo Hona, So Hona”.

Gangotri Via Mussoorie- Published in the Deccan Herald(Sunday Herald) on Feb 1st 2009

                       Gangotri via Mussoorie – a journey to our roots.

Ever since my son discovered that his favourite Bond, Ruskin Bond, stayed in Mussoorie, he decided that he had to meet him. This coincided with my daughter seeing Al Gore’s film, The Inconvenient Truth, after which, she felt she had to see the Gangotri before it melted away tomorrow. Gangotri, the source of the Ganges is also one of the four holy pilgrim spots of the Hindus, the other three being Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. And so this summer we decided to trace the source of the Ganga, the river held most sacred by devout Hindus; the Goddess who deigned to flow down and wash away the sins of the ancestors of Lord Rama at the behest of King Bhagirath.
The Ganga springs from the Gaumukh glacier which is 17 kilometers away from Gangotri and accessible only by foot. A visit to the Gaumukh involves an overnight trek on a beautiful, awesome but cold path undertaken only by a few. Since we are not even novice trekkers, to us the source of Ganga, like to the other pilgrims, meant Gangotri.
Gangotri is accessible from Hrishikesh, Haridwar and Mussoorie. In fact, Mussoorie is often called the gateway to Gangotri, though they are almost 263 kilometers apart! Named after the shrub ‘mansoor’, which grew only on these hills, Mussoorie was discovered by a British officer, Captain Young, who came here to construct a shooting ledge and stayed back. Other British officers followed and settled here in cottages and villas, most of which exist even today with their quaint names intact. In fact the adjoining localities of Mussoorie like Landour, Barlowganj etc, were named by the British and continue to be named so.
Mussoorie is accessible only by road. The nearest airport and railhead are both at Dehradun. You can also drive into Mussoorie from Delhi. The drive from Dehradun to Mussoorie which takes around an hour and a half must have been beautiful, once upon a time. Today, it bears the ravages of mindless deforestation by man. Still, it is not a lost cause, because as you climb, the mercury does drop.
A fact about Mussoorie that you discover only when you reach there is that, vehicles are halted at the entry point and vehicular traffic is not allowed in the mall. Incidentally during the British Raj, ‘Indians and dogs’ were not allowed on the mall, a rule which a young Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed breaking! But that is another story. Almost everything in Mussoorie radiates from the Mall. So if your hotel is near the mall, you may have to carry your luggage, unless you engage porters. Don’t hesitate to do so, it is their livelihood and thanks to their inborn skill at carrying loads on hilly terrains, they carry loads quite effortlessly.
Mussoorie must have been beautiful once upon a time. Today, it is crowded. Hotels have sprung up at every nook and cranny in the most haphazard fashion. The mall has the ubiquitous shops selling Kashmiri handicrafts, walnut bowls and other handicrafts, sweaters, woollens and what have you. There are any number of restaurants serving anything from only omlettes to Chinese and Gujarati cuisine and chocolates. Chic-chocolate is a place for amazing pizzas and chocolates, but only if you can put up with its intimidating owner! Tourists are sometimes surprised by a very sociable and polite Ruskin Bond on his weekly visit to the Cambridge Book Stall on the mall. For the sightseeing types, there are some interesting spots like the Kempty Falls, the Jharipani falls and the Gun Rock hill.
Leading from the mall are some nice quiet places where you can soak in the beauty of the Shiwaliks and savour the unpolluted cold mountain air. From one of these roads we set off to Gangotri via Uttarkashi. Almost within an hour of leaving Mussoorie, we spot the Ganga and she remained with us all the way, at times as narrow as a ribbon and at times bubblipng her way across the stones and pebbles. A six hour drive past the infamous Tehri Dam brought us to Uttarkashi, which is bursting at the seams. Since the drive to Gangotri would take another three hours, an overnight halt at Uttarkashi was most efficient.
The lodges are almost always full thanks to the huge and numerous groups of pilgrims who are on the Char Dham (Four destinations) Yatra. The rooms are likely to be cramped and overused- cleanliness remains a matter of perception! A much better option is provided by the tents on the outskirts of Uttarkashi. These are surprisingly cleaner, well equipped and set amid scenic surroundings, albeit more expensive. We found ourselves in one such resort camp which is still undiscovered and therefore clean and peaceful with the river Bhagirathi (as the Ganga is called at this point) flowing right outside our tents.
Suitably refreshed and replenished, it was onward march to Gangotri, the next morning. As the road wound its way up, we left the Ganga way below, but she remained visible at all times. The ascent is sharp and sometimes the drop is sheer and a little frightening. The roads are narrow and in poor condition at many places. At other points along the drive, there is hardly any road as it is being re-laid! Landslides are not unknown and can hold up proceedings, so take along an experienced and confident driver with you.
Since we are not exactly the outdoor types, the scenery was a delight to the eye. How the pines and deodhars grow ram rod straight, even on the more precarious slopes remains a perpetual wonder! Waterfalls, small and big, appeared and disappeared suddenly and sometimes crossed our path. Except for the sounds of the river, the waterfalls and the birds, there descends a serene silence (there is no mobile network here!) and we could not help noticing the unusual plants and flowers. Along the way we got caught in a cloud burst of ice. It was indeed an exhilarating, awesome and scary sight to see the road covered with a white carpet of ice! And how could we forget the huge vulture, almost the size of a goat walking alongside on the road before it taking off gracefully like a glider off the mountain! Finally we reached the heights where we spied snow on the mountain tops and slopes. In such environs, it is difficult not to feel spiritual, if not religious!
We are stopped a kilometer away from Gangotri to keep the road clear for the descending traffic. We realized thankfully, that vehicular traffic is released in batches to facilitate smooth flow and reduce the incidence of their toppling over! After a mildly strenuous one kilometer walk we come to Gangotri. Gangotri is a bit of an anti climax after all this peace and beauty. Shops have narrowed down the path leading to the temple, priests heckle you to perform poojas that will wash away the sins of seven generations of your family and the entrance to the temple itself is very narrow. The temple, built by Gurkha Amar Singh Thapa, closes on Diwali sometime in October and opens only in May.
So we hasten to the actual object of veneration, the Ganga herself, just beyond the Bhagirath Shila. As we step down into the Ganga at the point where she is supposed to have entered the earth, we are moved by the sheer force and purity of her icy cold waters. It is necessary to hold on to the supports built along the steps for the current could pull you along. And as we stood at the first accessible point of the river, we realized that religious or not, here is a sight that will gladden every heart. The snow capped mountains rising above and around, the sky so clear and the mighty river rushing by; did I just see King Bhagirath behind that rock, still and steadfast in his penance?
Getting there.
Flights operate to Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport. Trains also ply to Dehradun. Look up www.irctc.comfor train schedules and reservations. From Dehradun drive upto Mussoorie. The tarrif for a decent car is around Rs.400. Motor it from Mussoorie to Gangotri via Tehri – Uttarkashi – Harshil. The entire journey from Mussorie to Gangotri and back would cost anywhere between Rs. 6,000 and Rs. 8,000 and is spread over three days.
There are government guest houses, small hotels and camping resorts along the way. Look upwww.gmvnl.com, the official website for Uttaranchal tourism for information on accommodation.
Travel between May and October. If you plan your trip within a week of the temple opening in May, you will beat the humungous pilgrim rush!
Useful websites:


The Rohtang Pass via Manali

The Rohtang Pass Via Manali- Published in the Deccan Herald (Sunday Herald) on the 27th of July 2008

The Rohtang Pass via Manali.

Rohtang literally means ‘pile of corpses’.
But more of that later, for you have to first reach Manali to get to Rohtang.
Manali conjures up exotic locales, fields of flowers and a little snow thrown in. One is not exactly sure, where exactly one will find snow in the north, especially if one is from the south!
Manali is at a distance of 56 kms from Kulu and is accessible only by road .You can either drive in from Delhi or Chandigarh or fly into Kulu from Delhi and hire a cab or take a bus. The drive to Manali will take you around three hours.
Manali derives its name from Manu, the sage who is identified with the beginning of creation. It is believed that after the deluge, the boat that carried the seven sages and the Vedas rested atop a hill where God instructed Manu to begin creating a new world. As the waters receded they left behind a gentle meandering river which was named Manalsu, and on its bank stands Manali. Today Manalsu river is a ubiquitous presence in every part of Manali. So are the numerous folklores linking Manali to Hindu mythology and the snow capped mountains visible in the not so distant horizon? Manali town does not boast of many tourist attractions. Its USP lies in its proximity to other tourist spots like the Solang valley, the Manikarnika hot springs, the Vashisht hot springs and most attractive of all the Rohtang Pass.
Solang is a beautiful valley, nestled near an army station. It is where many portions of Hrithik Rohan’s Kkrish were picturised. Solang offers excellent opportunities for trekking, river rafting and paragliding. Sadly, these are the very reasons why Solang is so crowded and its innate beauty so eclipsed.
Moving on, one can visit the Manikarnika hot springs which takes up almost an entire day. It is a larger version of the Vasisht Springs in Manali town. Vasisht springs are found at the spot where Sage Vasisht of the Ramayan is said to have been worshipped by Lord Rama. The hot Sulphur Springs at Vasisht Springs and Manikarn make you realize the paradoxes and ironies of nature. While on the one side there is the cold sharp mountain wind and breeze, on the other, right there is the hot water gushing out of the ground.
Manali town has a small but well stocked Mall. Thankfully, vehicular traffic has been banned in Mall. Even then, Manali town is full of traffic jams thanks to the very narrow roads. It is not an unusual sight to watch a mile long line of taxis and buses, with the drivers stoically cheerful, passing the time of the day. You can pick up some good bargains, in the mall, especially with the Kashmiri traders. Don’t miss this very quaint shop in one of the by lanes that stocks winter and woollen wear that is typically Himachali. This is a must see, for the shop not only show cases scarves, mufflers, Himachali caps, socks, etc. but is also reflects the typical Himachal ethos of the leisurely mountain folk.
The highpoint of Manali, literally and figuratively, is undoubtedly a visit to the Rohtang Pass.
The Rohtang Pass is at a distance of 56 kms. from Manali, at a height of 13,800 ft. The road is narrow, winding, treacherous, stark and very beautiful. A trip to the Pass is not for the faint hearted. The 56 km. stretch takes a little over two hours, if you are lucky enough not to be caught in a jam. If you are caught in a jam not only do you run the risk of spending hours on the mountain road, but you also have your courage sorely tested. While on the one side are these lofty snow covered glacier like mountains, and on the other is a sheer drop. Accidents do happen and the odd car does topple down, so it is very important to pray for a good driver. Pray, because in Manali, in the tourist season, the taxis are subject to the queue system and it is not possible to choose. But by and large, the drivers are very careful.
As you begin the ascent from Manali, there are shops leasing out snow gear, right from gumboots to parka full length coats, gloves and even skis. Initially you may feel that you could manage without these, but you find yourself getting fitted out anyway, if only to indulge your driver. However, when you reach the top you realize the wisdom of having equipped yourself with the snow gear. Onward march then, till you come to Marhi.
Marhi a small settlement where there are some dhabas which serve you anything from Gobi Manchurian to noodles, idli and sambar. You may not find dal roti and sabji though! This is a good place to finish your toilet and get into your snow gear. The toilets in Marhi are tests of human endurance. Open to the sky, but certainly covered on the four sides, some of them even have bolts!
From Marhi you drive on passing Beas Naalah to begin the more daunting part of the drive. From here inhabitation is sparse and the ascent starts becoming steeper. There is a certain stark beauty of this winding road, where you have the ice covered mountains on the one side and the very sheer drop on the other. Keep your prayer beads at hand, as on coming traffic of those returning from the Rohtang Pass, require you to move as much to the left and therefore as close to the sheer drop as possible. Once your nerves have settled then you can settle down too and enjoy this beauty. Suddenly, right before you looms a quagmire of vehicles. You have reached the Snow Point of the Rohtang Pass. When you get down the filth, dirt and disorganization hits you. There are people everywhere, offering snow sled rides that tread on your foot, yaks that veer close to you and wrappers and tetra pack cartons that lie strewn about. The first glimpse of Snow Point is not nice. People of urbane sensibilities almost turn back till the driver informs them that ahead away from all this chaos, there are snatches of empty spaces where you can actually stand peacefully and imbibe the rolling snow covered mountains all around you.
And you do find these spots that the others have overlooked. Enjoy the wide expanse of snow and mountains around you, the stillness and the peace. Be sure to spare a thought for our brave jawans keeping a lonely vigil at the border far up north on the road by which you came up.
If you suddenly find yourself panting so much even when you are not doing any arduous climbing, then you are probably experiencing some altitude issues. But any sickness is essentially marginal and easily handled. Tourists are normally advised to start back by one o’clock as the region experiences sudden storms and snowfall thereafter. The descent is as beautiful, often tinged with a sense of relief! But you do find yourself saying, ‘if it is Manali, it must be Rohtang’.
Fact File:
Getting there: By air to Kulu from Delhi.
By road from Chandigarh.
Accommodation: Log Cabins courtesy Himachal Tourism Development Board, other hotels and resorts at Manali
Best season: March to Mid June.
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