Friday, October 21, 2016

Leh Ladakh Trip

Our quest to visit Leh Ladakh was sown in two years back.  In fact we want a combined trip either with our friends or a group travel.   But in June 2016 we went on the freeze the trip with Go-Holidays thinking that it was offered by the Airlines directly but alas it turned out to be third party with collateral parties involved.
We had heard various tales about how people found it hard to survive high altitudes since Leh itself is 11150 feet above sea level.  Other passes and places Khardungla Pass 18390, Tanglala Pass 17680, Changla Pass 16960,  Tsomori Lake ( T is silent ) 16100 & Pangong Lake 15600 are of high altitude. High altitudes means shortness of breath, Oxygen, disorientation, co-ordination or slur of speech too.   In order to prevent the same we had to seek medicos prescription

Diamox tablet tackles the high altitude side effects to a large extent, anti allergic tablet, Vomitting tab, Moisturizer, Sunscreen etc was essential part of our medi kit along with our regular dosage of medication.   Lip guard is another essential part which we discovered.  Camphor helped us to breathe ease at high altitudes.  The first 24 hours one is advised rest, but sitting or sleeping the room makes it worse one needs to move around and be active to get over the drowsiness.
As soon as we paid advance trouble erupted in the Srinagar valley, friends and well wishers advised us that trouble may spread to Leh Valley too, so drop or cancel or postpone the trip.  We were in a dilemma and wanted badly to make the trip because of our long cherished planning.   We just prayed to the Lord to let things be normal and after lot of thinking we finally paid up the full amount to the trip operator to go ahead with the trip come what may.
Monotony of travel might creep in when one undertakes Leh Ladakh trip since it is only full of landscape with blue skies,  mountains, small stretch of bad and dangerous roads, rivers flowing, nature, flora, fauna etc.  One should love travelling by vehicle whether it is bike or SUV for a full day and enjoy admiring and shooting pictures enroute.   In this context it is advisable to have company of four or more in a vehicle to pass one's time.   Custom made package however attractively designed will be a let down either due to drivers misguidance or covering mostly monasteries and palaces belong to Buddha.
Leh-Ladakh simply signifies land of high passes and ranges.  We find there are four mountain ranges interspersed the length and breadth of Ladakh.  They are Karakoram range, Ladakh range, Himalayan range & Zanskar range.   One does find a strong presence of military personnel in these areas to protect against the intrusions of Pakistan and China.  It naturally helps the tourist to feel safe with Indian army around in all strategic places.   One finds there is a border with POK a few miles away from Kargil and beyond Pangong lake one finds the Chinese border.   In 2/3rds of Pangong belongs to the Chinese.
One can get the complete overview of  Leh-Ladakh region by visiting the Hall of Fame museum enroute to the Nubra Valley. The museum is full of history with various pictorial depiction, equipment's, historical data, memorial, etc.  It is compulsory to visit and gain knowledge of the terrain before one ventures out.   In the Leh airport too one does get some brochures which gives one an idea of the geography and important monuments along with does and don t.
Leh Pal

Our first pit stop was Leh Palace on the first day evening.  It is a poor replica of Patola palace in Tibet.  It was probably built in mid 17th century by King Singe Namgyal as the royal residence.  It is basically a nine storied structure built on a hillock containing temple, living rooms, balconies, bedrooms, prayer hall etc.  Tibetian architecture is deployed to construct this palace.  The royalty was packed off to Stok Palace in 1846 by the British since bitter wars had damaged the edifice.  Cannon balls were shot at the palace by the enemies. A famous victory tower can be seen from the Leh palace above commemorating the brave Ladakhis who fought against the Balti Kashmiris.
Shanti stupa
Next stop was Shanti Stupa, which was built in 1991 by Japanese Bhikshu Gyomo Nakamura.  It signifies commemoration of 2500 years of Buddhism trying to promote peace and prosperity.  A perfect symbol of friendship between people of Japan and Ladakh. The construction was begun in 1983 under the supervision of the Japanese with a sanction of roadway to the stupa by the then PM Indira Gandhi.  It was inaugurated by the current Dalai Lama in August 1991.
On the second day we were en route to Shyam Valley via NH 1 which happens to be Srinagar Leh Manali Highway.  We witnessed the Hall of fame museum which was not open at 8.30 am which happened to be Independence celebration.  So we took some quick snaps and proceeded further promising to return next day.   It was really nostalgic to have a snap in front of armored tank which was my NCC Battalion in college days.  I had a total recall of 20 days camp at Ahmednagar during the winter of 1979 wherein I competed and came second in all round performance.

Alichi Monastery was our next destination.  Being one of the oldest monastery it is maintained by ASI, it is attributed to have been built by the scholar Rinchen Zangpo ( 958-1055 )  along with Lamaryu monastery.  Photography inside the temple is prohibited I had to delete some of the photos captured due to the objection by the monk.   Wondering what is wrong in photographing without a flashlight, even the world famous frescos of Ajanta photography is allowed without flash.
The monastery is ticketed and consists of three shrines one is Dukhang ( Assembly Hall ) Sumsteg ( three-storied temple ) & Manjushree temple which dates back to 1255 AD.  There are plenty of small edifices in the form of mini stupas which are known as Chortens in and around Alichi Monastery.   The entire monastery is strategically located on the south banks of river Indus.

The monastery is ticketed and consists of three shrines one is Dukhang ( Assembly Hall ) Sumsteg ( three-storied temple ) & Manjushree temple which dates back to 1255 AD.  There are plenty of small edifices in the form of mini stupas which are known as Chortens in and around Alichi Monastery.   The entire monastery is strategically located on the south banks of river Indus.
Namra Camp : There are almost 20 tents which are pitched close to each other for comfort forgetting privacy concerns.  The pathway to tents are not lit upto the end.  The only face saving feature is the land is filled with apricot trees, apple trees and some orchids.  There are hammocks and swings for tourist to relax.  A stream passes by the side of the campus.   Well the tent is primarily meant for backpackers who trek the monastery located on the hillock.  There is no charging unit, power backup, heated blankets, TV or calling bell.  One does get hot water in the noon without any guarantee.  The only plus point is that the package is for all  three veg meals. Lunch was served with fresh cabbages and rice and dhal.    Night dinner was nothing to brag about.   We were served a local bread in the morning along with omelets and traditional bread
Ladakhis are known for their hospitality which we experienced when we visited a home stay place close to Namra Camp.  The owner showed us the facilities which offered @ Rs 800 per pax with breakfast.  He has geyser thankfully for the tourist in common bathroom.  Apart from serving us tea, snacks and local butter biscuit he gave us a briefing on the Ladakhi culture.  He told us they grew fruit trees to feed the hungry and passerby and he served us with ripened apricot.  I believe the oil extracted from apricot seeds are good for curing knee pain.  He gave us 100ml of oil on the house and we returned his favour by paying him some currency.  Overall the experience of dealing with Ladakhis was really refreshing at Shyam Valley.
Somehow we had a feeling that our tour operator and the driver deputed by them will short circuit our full day sight seeing program we kept checking with the driver regarding the itinerary.  He started evasive answers which we knew was sign of trying to short change.   We the started the third day with a visit to the local monastery at Shyam Valley.  The main temple was luckily open, we had a quick visit and clicked some photographs of the valley.
Next we visited the Rizong Monastery which is a slight detour from our return route for approx. 10 kms from the Indus river.   This monastery is a huge complex with staying facility for foreign tourist.  Some the temples were closed due to the visit of Dalai Lama most monks had gone to witness his sermon.  We were dropped at the hillock and asked to cover the monastery from top.  We descended quickly after taking pictures at vantage points.  The ghat section leading to this monastery is literally dangerous anytime landslips can occur.  If we had listened to drivers advice we may have skipped this monastery.
En route we were shown the hillock which is supposed to be Magnetic hill.  This spot is nothing to rave about it is just plain valley.  We quickly took some snaps and proceeded to Hall of Fame Museum which we had skipped yesterday.  This is a ticketed destination with Rs 100 towards entry and camera.  This air conditioned museum is dedicated to the martyrs of Indo-Pak conflict.  The details of the various battles are depicted in pictures.  The sacrifices made by our soldiers in fighting at high altitudes are commendable.  Museum has a lunch break and one can visit the place after lunch with the same ticket and therefore we stayed back and had some tea in the restaurant.

This irked our driver and he started grumbling that we wasted his 3 hours.  What crap we have paid a premium for a full sight sightseeing and the driver was complaining.  We called up the tour operator after checking the itinerary Lamaryu monastery was skipped by the driver.  We got angry and called up the local agent Rinchen to our hotel.  My wife shouted at the driver and asked for change of driver.  Rinchen apologized and promised to refund the money, which we refused.  He promised to cover other uncovered monastery such as Spitik and Stok palace.    Guys need to be aware majority of the tour operators try to unleash this trick stating that we have covered the itinerary.  One should also plan the trip to begin early otherwise one would miss out on monuments and only keep travelling.  The entire residents of Kaal hotel witnessed our scolding the tour operator who was ashamed and felt humiliated.  The owner of the hotel happened to ACP which added insult to injury.
On the fourth day we had to travel towards Tsomiri Lake.  This is a beautiful 240 kms drive along the Indus river all the way.  Enroute we come across the 3 idiots bridge and hot springs of Chamtang.  The hot spring is nothing to rave about except it has some seating places to enjoy the Sulphur filled water flowing and joining the Indus river.  One can find hot spring at Vajreswari more appealing because of the organized pond structure.  The roads on the entire stretch is being doubled by Border Road Organisation.  In some places the road is so dangerous perched that the river is almost breaching it.  Luckily we need not have to return on this stretch.
We were welcomed at Lake View hotel like prisoners with no intimation or network to connect and confirm arrangements.  The food was almost prison quality with plain dhal, roti and rice.  We experienced one of the most hostile hospitality despite paying a bomb to the tour operator.  The rooms were ordinary type with attached bathroom.  There is no electricity till 7.30 pm and limited feed is prevalent upto 10.30 pm.
We quickly got ready and proceeded towards the lake view point which the driver reluctantly took us.  We took some snaps and the weather turned tornado type with dust storm striking us.  The weather being cloudy made the lake look brackish rather than usual sky blue.  A group of Japanese were enjoying the photoshoot, we watched it from safety.  From there we proceeded towards the nomadic village.  We gave drop to 8 members who were walking up to the village.  We were given Yak milk tea at their tent in return.  Luckily the weather opened up to bright sunshine.  We wanted to purchase monkey cap for which they erroneously quoted Rs 600 which was made of flimsy yarn.  We rejected the offer.
We returned to a shack and had some tea and visited the local monastery.  There was some festivity happening in the monastery  during daytime.  The monk wanted us to pay entry fee which we thought was fleecing since the ceremony and temple was closed for the day.
On the hillock we witnessed a bird's eye view of the Tsomiri Lake.  We met a Russian tourist who was managing the trip to Leh on hitch hiking basis. Suddenly Shailesh wanted a drop back to Leh on our return.  We agreed to drop him and asked him to tip the driver lest he has some misgivings of giving a free drop.  The next day lunch he sponsored too and refused to take money from us.  Normally charges for one way is supposed to be Rs 1000 per head a full vehicle can cost upto Rs 18000/- for a return.
On hindsight Tsomiri was an excellent location with full moon and cloud cover spoiling the photographers delight.  Anyways we enjoyed the destination with a pinch of salt literally and had to reboot our system with limited electric charge.  Luckily we had hot water supply early morning to freshen up, we quickly dressed up and got ready for early breakfast.
Enroute back to Leh we joined the Manali highway which had the Tanglala pass.  One of the finest designed ghat road, the road was winding like a smoothly drawn semi circle which is very rare engineering feat.  We witnessed marmuth and long necked black crane in the Chamtang fields along with Salt pans.  Luckily the cloud cover started vanishing to enable to take some snaps of the natural landscape.  Shailesh with his DSLR did take some wonderful snaps to stitch it later.

We visited the Hemis monastery and came to know they will be celebrating the 12th year Himalayan Kumbh Mela alongwith 1000 year anniversary of the monastery.  This monastery has a beautiful museum in its precincts which contains all antique items belonging to the monastery along with a souvenir shop.  Two temples are in its premises which has statue of Buddha and his followers displayed inside.  The monastery is supposed to have been renovated in 1672 by King Sengge Namgyal.  The Hemis festival is dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava ( Guru Rinpoche )  with dance performances.  Guru Rinpoche supposed to reincarnation of Lord Buddha.
After visiting Hemis we visited the Shey Palace which was built in 1655.  This palace was dedicated to King Singay Namgyal by his son Deldan Namgyal.  It was used as a summer retreat palace which is closed for the visitors.  The palace complex is surround by a fortress on the hillock and contains a golden statue of Shakyamuni Buddha.   We witnessed a pre wedding ceremony in the complex conducted by a Buddhist priest.  The palace verandah presents a lovely view of the landscape of Leh.
We were compelled by our hotel guys to go and fetch Mineral water from a petty shop just near the hotel because they charged Rs 55 instead of Rs 20 for a bottle of mineral water.  We asked the owner who happened to be a Buddhist whether he sells fruits such as apple and banana.  Surprisingly he asked to accompany him to his orchard and asked us to pluck apples right from the tree and suggested that smaller variety is tastier and sweeter.   In fact the next day too he gifted us some apples from his collection when we bought mineral water from him.  A prime example of hospitality.  We found out that the same apples were retailed at Rs 180 per kg and in the bazaar it was around Rs 80 per kg.   Local Buddhist seller at a right price.
Nubra Valley :  Enroute to Nubra Valley we find plenty of bikers passing by.  We were wondering how come so many bikers.  No wonder they want to ride across the highest motor able road in the world Khardungla pass located at 18380 feet above sea level.  There are plenty of tour operators based in Leh who offer a bike package mostly Bullet bikes.  Most these packages originate from Manali by bike and terminate either at Manali or Leh depending on one's plan.  Riding in the hilly terrain with graveled roads can be tricky, they are prone to puncture and skidding.  Many of the bike riders are well equipped with protection to their knee caps, elbow and tightly worn helmet, some of them have their Go-Pro cameras fitted on their helmet.   When they ride in groups they are like Modern Mad Max conquering one pass after another.  The roads leading to Pangong can give jitters with slushy ones and passing through water logged roads.  Majority of the bikers are youngsters and they like the call for adventure.  Mind it guys for a 10 to 12 trip it can cost more than 40 K depending on the tour operator.  One needs to read the fine print before venturing I suppose minor repairs are attended under the package and major repairs can be billed separately.
After one reaches the top of Nubra valley one gets to photograph the destination with a signage stating World's highest Motorable Road @ 18380 feet.  The thrill of conquering this road maybe equivalent to climbing mount Everest I suppose.  One travel advisory is not to spend more than 20 minutes on the view point since altitude sickness creeps in.  One is advised to quickly escape from this high altitude and many do adhere to this advisory.  We did feel slightly disoriented and managed to overcome once we started our downward journey towards Nubra Valley.
Nubra Valley is supposed to filled with wild flowers during June & July but they vanish during August and September.  The clouds start covering up the skies which maybe lend some succor to bikers due to less heat.  The valley is completely shut off after September due to onset of winter when temperatures start dropping to minus degrees.
The highlight of Nubra are the sand dunes and Bacterian double hunch camel ride.  A walk across the sand dunes, one does get to spend 2 hours and watching camel riders is fun.  For a 20 minute camel ride one is charged Rs 200.   We were told to avoid cascading sand dune point but some of them had real fun jumping into the sliding sand dunes.  Apart from Sand dunes one does have scooter rides across sand dunes and Ladakhi dances.
The Ethnic camp at Nubra Valley was once again a cramped affair.  We had some bachelors really enjoying the camp fire drink.   They had to cut short their celebration since dinner was closed to occupants by 9.30 pm.  Luckily satellite cable TV was installed at tents we were able to watch the Olympics live.  The match between Sindhu and Marin was engaging luckily she managed to clinch Silver Medal.
On our way back we visit the Dikshit Monastry and huge statue of Buddha. After clicking some snaps we proceeded to pass the Khardungla pass once again.  We asked our driver to quickly skip the visit and proceed towards the local market of Leh.  The market is under renovation, my wife made some purchase of earrings for gifting to her colleagues.  I made some purchase of dry fruits such as walnut, apricot and berries.
On our final leg we visited the Pangyong Lake traversing the Changla pass which is the third highest one in Ladakh region.  The winding ghat section at Changla pass was easily taken care of.  The Thiksay monastery was closed to visitors in lieu of monks being busy with Dalai Lama visit.  We visited Zorawar fort to begin our day, was a small enclosure which is currently occupied and maintained by the army personnel.
Pangong Lake was unimpressive with lesser quantum of water storage and its brackish outlook.  The entire lake area was looking dull due to cloud cover.  We were determined to stay in a room rather than tent.  But we changed two rooms and found it suffocating due to low roof and dusty environs in the room.  As it paucity of oxygen due to high altitude made it difficult to breathe but the rooms made it worse.  So we moved towards the tent at higher plateau and found it well ventilated and air circulation was good.  But in the night the situation was bad with cold wind and lesser oxygen.  We were hardly able to sleep.  With great difficulty few winks of sleep did occur.  We did not pack up Diamox which was probably our fault.  Next day after bathing we felt refreshed with bright sunshine blessing us.  We quickly packed up our baggage and proceeded back to Leh.  We were praying all the way that we should not be stuck in the slushy mud road and water logged areas.  However the driver skillfully managed to drive the Scorpio out of the danger zones.

We did visit the Rancho school which was impressive in terms of secured layout.  Next we visited Thiksay Monastery which was once again closed.  We quickly took a detour to Stok Palace which has an excellent Museum and private residence of the current royalty which is out of bounds.
Nearby Stok Palace there is a huge statue of Buddha recently inaugurated by Dalai Lama which happened to 9th Aug 2016.  The caretaker showed us the meditation hall created for the visitors below the statue just like Shanti Stupa.
Finally we wound up our trip by boarding an early morning flight of Go-Air via Srinagar to Mumbai.  We were lucky to get the vantage window seat wherein we had a glimpse of the Himalayan range.  Despite curfew lot of passenger deplaned and got in which was first early signs of Srinagar getting back to normalcy.
Overall Leh trip was really laid back experience when compared to other destinations in India.  Travel operators are just minting money without considering the comfort or expectations of the tourist.  Compared to other destinations in India one ends shelling out more than double the cost, particular for hiring cabs or vehicle for transportation.  Most of the accommodation outside Leh is definitely not worth except if one finds luxury tents.  The coinage of luxury means that one is provided TV and charging points.  Leh has the best of accomodation and most of the destination can be covered up & down such as Nubra Valley, Shyam Valley and Pangong Lake.    I would seriously suggest to avoid custom made package and go for group package to ensure one has the bargaining power.  Leh is not meant for people who don t enjoy nature and travelling long distance.

Rajasthan Travelogue

Majority of the north indian tourist destinations are challenging in terms of logistics, climate, food habits and cost factor. Rajasthan is no exception in terms of exploiting tourists to the core. One has to be meticulous to book their stay and bargain at each and every step of their way whether be it shopping or hiring a cab or auto for sight seeing.
Considering that we visited Jodhpur during peak of winter which is also known as blue city because of hues of blue painted houses around Meherangadh Fort, we had to carry thermal clothing, jacket and muffler to prevent being frozen. Additionally we had booked nearly 4 months in advance and still managed to get only RAC seating in the train for travelling and our stay was booked in the AC retiring room, which was not required actually but for safety and obtaining 24x7 hot water with geyser we went for AC room wherein blankets were provided.
Rajasthan is very dusty and one needs to keep their nostrils covered most of the times if one is travelling around. Luckily the city traffic is sparse unlike metros one does get to commute quicker than one thinks. Most of the tourist prefer tuk tuk because they are budget friendly. In Jodhpur railway station one does have a pre paid auto wherein the cops collect all the money in advance with a receipt and at the end of the trip one needs to handover the same to the auto driver. Depending on the number passengers sometimes the rate is fixed. Taxis too are available in the station.

Inorder to be sure shot that we do not miss out on important tourist locales I had earlier been in touch with couchsurfing guys.  Luckily I was given to understand that there are only 4 important spots to cover in Jodhpur which was Meherangarh Fortress, Umaid Bhavan Palace, Mondore Garden & Palace, Jaswant Thada and finally Ghanta Ghar.  We managed to cover additional places by literally walk through from bus stand to High Court, which seemed to be a palace earlier, govt. museum which is well stocked, shiva temple, Umaid Gardens and ultimately to Ganta ghar.
Guides are thronging in most of the tourist destinations, one does have the benefit of hiring an audio guide. Couples are found sharing the earpiece one string each in most cases. But if one keenly obseves most of the important landmarks or tourist interests are marked with numbers.

Meherangarh Fortress : One of the largest fort in India is credited to be built by Rao Jodha the founder of Jodhpur in 1459 AD. It spreads over 5 kms on a hillock which is located around 9 kms away from the railway station or Old Mandore Fortress. The larger part of fortress seems to have been completed by Jaswant Singh Marwar ( 1638- 78 ).
The fortress is dedicated to sun diety which has been the traditional diety of the Rathore Dynasty. The fortress has a series of seven gateways of which Jai Pol, Fateh Pol, Dedh Kamgra Pol and Loha Pol are prominent.
Currently fortress houses a museum filled with collections from the Royal dynasty, one needs to purchase entry ticket @ Rs 60 per pax and camera fee. The enroachment around the palace has been cleared due to the intervention of the court to maintain the sanctity or heritage. Whereas Jaislmer palace is filled with occupants.

The visitors get to see plenty of Rajasthani traditional paintings on the facade of the palace, display of Royalty costumes, Musical instruements, Furnitures, Cradles, Howdah, Palanquin, and day to day vessels and collections of clock, hookah and other antiques.
A collection of cannons is seen on the ramparts of the fortress which is currently being secured and out of bound for tourists. Beyond that spot is a Shiv mandir which needs a half km trek. A seperate enclosure is created for turbans which was closed before time when we wanted to visit the same.

If one does find paucity of time one can skip visiting the museum for which the entry ticket is required and scan the rest of the fortress within 30 minutes and scoot. Inside the palace one needs 1 hour to browse all the collections liesurely and snap them up.

Mandore Fort & Garden : Mandore is basically a fortress with boundary walls strectching across the hillock. It was the ancient capital of Marwar. It was ruled by Nahar Rao Panwar in the 6th century. Later this territory was gifted in the form of dowry to Rathore Clan when their prince married Mandori Princess in 1395. Mandore remained the capital till 1459 AD when it was felt the safety was not suffice in terms of defence being on ground level. The capital was shifted to Meherangarh fort.

Ravan Temple : A temple dedicated to Ravan is built and he is considered to be son in law of this place since he married Mandodari a princess from this region. Even till this day Ravan's dummy is not burnt as a mark of respect during the Dusherra festivity.
There are many Cenotaphs or Chattris built for the royalty who died either in war or due to illness or poisoning. The practise of sati too was prevalent during the ancient times with many of the royal ladies giving up their lives after the death of their husband in the battle.
The garden premises houses a museum which is ticketed. Otherwise the entire fortress is open for the public without any fees or ticket which is welcome sign.

A hall of hereos too built to commemorate the sacrifice of the various warriors who laid down their lives in the battle at various times. Next to the rock face we find a Kali temple which is dedicated to various dieties.
Umaid Bhawan Palace : The palace was primarily built by Maharaja Umaid Singh to provide employment to people affected by famine. The construction of this palace began in 1929 and was completed in 1943. It earned a legacy of being one of the largest private residence in the world with 347 rooms.

Currently it houses a museum, a heritage hotel of Taj group and private residence of Gaj Singh. Tourists are allowed to visit the museum portion whereas other portions are the palace has been barricaded to protect residents of private property. There is a collection of Rolls Royce, Mercedes and other antique automobiles from the 18th and 19th century in a seperate enclosure located at the edge of the garden. From this place one can get the finest view of the entire palace.
The main architect of the Umaid Bhavan was Henry Vaughan Lanchester who drew inspiration from his contemporary Sir Edwin Lutyens who planned New Delhi government complex. Thus the palace was a blend of domes and columns with western technology and Indian architecture.

The site chose was known as Chittar Hill on the outskirts of Jodhpur, where water supply was scarce with rocky and hilly surface. The Maharaja ensured a railway line was built to quarry stone and other building material to the site. The sandstone were dressed at the site on interlocking technique to ensure that no mortar was used in construction. Golden Hued sandstone was used to build two wings of the palace. Makrana Marble and Burmese Teak were used for the interior flooring and door frames.
The palace consists of a darbar hall, banquet hall and long passages with bedrooms and private rooms for the staff and royalty. It also contains swimming pool, pvt tennis courts, squash courts, a ball room and a library. Taj palace consists of 70 bedrooms and huge landscaped gardens.

Museum is adorned with huge fresco paintings, collection of wall clocks, paintings of royalty, furnitures, household items in porcelain etc. Stuffed leopard is also part of the collection which seems to have been gifted by Queen Victoria in 1877.
The palace seems to have invited curse of a saint who seems to have been evicted from this place like in Meherangarh fortress. Umaid singh occupied the palace only for four years after which he died in 1947. His successor Hanumanth Singh died in an air crash after winning a general election 1952. It was under Gaj Singh who took a decision to lease out a portion of the property to Taj to ensure income and maintainence of the property.  The palace is divided into 3 sections consisting of Taj Palace Hotel, Museum and private residence of the royalty.

JAISALMER :  Considering the logistics of carrying our luggage and moving around scouting for lodging we decided to cover Jaisalmer  up & down trip from Jodhpur, we had a convenient train at 5 am to Jaislmer which we booked in advance and return journey was at 4 pm towards Jodphur.  In between we had approx. 6 hours to spend we hired a auto who initially tricked us stating that he will cover all tourist spots with 300 bucks which we thought was reasonable.  But as it turned out he was referring to only a city circuit.  Later we had to bargain hard and he reluctantly agreed to cover the Centoph and other places in the outskirts for 600 bucks and drop us back to railway station in time to board the train.  Our first destination was Gadsisar Lake

Gadsisar lake was excavated in 1367 by Raval Gadsi Singh to ensure potable drinking water to citizens of area.  A number of small shrines were erected on the boundary of the lake to ensure protection to the water body.  The lake is now being on the verge of extinction due increased demand for agriculture.

Salim Haveli :  This haveli is built on the peacock type of architecture by Salim Singh was the PM during 1815.  It was literally renovated from the previous structure which was in state of ruins.  The Mehta family occupied this premises till a trust has taken over the premise and collects entry fee from the visitors for entry as well as photography.  Haveli is filled with artefacts which have been collected over decades.  We can witness almost 38 balconies constructed in all directions with distinct style of their own.  Sometimes the haveli is called Jahazmahal which means stern of a ship because the frontal fa├žade resembles a ship.  This place is located near Sonar Killa or the fortress.

Madhya Pradesh travelogue

When the Adi Manav s sketched their cultural progress in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka some 30,000 years ago, using natural rocks as a canvas for a medium of expression. Intially they used to sketched with fingers probably with charcoal and blood of animals hunted down. Later they migrated with stonage and iron age to higher forms or encrpytion displaying their cultural lifestyle of hunting, dancing and domestication of animals.
Being the heartland of India education too seem to have prospered with Nalanda & Taxila as a model emulated in Sanchi. The stupa of Sachi seems to have been erected by Emperor Ashoka ( 304 - 232 BCE ). In 260 BC Ashoka realised the futility of war after the battle of Kalinga, he adopted Buddhism as the middle path for salvation of his soul. He actively got involved to spread Buddhism across his vast empire spreading from Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan upto Thailand where the wheel of dharma adorne the 4 lions pillar facing different direction.

Our journey to MP was long over despite me visiting some parts in 1983, on official duty, when i was based in Indore and Bhopal for 5 months. I did not have chance to visit any of the monuments in detail except probably Omkareshwar jyotiling.
Our host Prof Ganesh has been beckoning us for a long time probably 20 years to visit his adopted home town of Bhopal. Finally we decided to accept the invite even though late in the day. We were wonderstruck with a hospitality beyond compare with accomodation and boarding arranged by him.

Our first we decided to take a whirlwind tour of Ujjain, we boarded the AC bus to Dewas and than from there a local one to Ujjain. Here we were hosted for a sumptous lunch by the Vohra family. Vohra family is connected through my wife's colleague Shalini, who daughters birthday we attended recently at Mumbai. 
We hired a round trip by an autorikshaw paying him Rs 400 for visit to Kalaram temple, Singnapur temple, Mahadev Temple, Mangal temple, Ganpathi Temple, Ram Ghat, and few other spots concluding with Mahakal temple.
The most unique visit was to Kalaram temple wherein liquor is offered to the avataar of Shiva. Maybe in the Rudra tandav mode. We desisted from offering the same.
Finally we booked our return ticket to Bhopal not wanting to stand in huge queue at the station. Than we found to our surprise that Q was moving slowly at that rate or speed we would have missed the train so we decided to take the special dharshan. We coughed up 302 bucks for two special dharshan ticket, which joins the general queue luckily we short circuited that too and joined the queue from reverse within minutes we completed our dharshan, it was a fulfillment of sort.
Next Ganesh Kumar hosted us for a nice breakfast and thereafter we took off to a circuitous tour of Sanchi, Udaygiri caves, Raisen Fortress, Bhimbetka and finally Bhojpur Jain Temple.

Sanchi Stupa :
Sanchi is located 52 kms north of Bhopal in Raisen District which is close to the tropic of Cancer bisecting the topography. Probaby due to this fact and close to old trading routes of Vidhisa Emperor Ashoka selected it as an important landmark to spread Buddhism. He wrote his edict and erected Stupas to propagate the teachings of his guru. Sanchi too happened to be his in laws place by virtue of marriage to his queen Devi who hailed from a village nearby. In fact her marriage to Ashoka took place in Vidhisa which is hardly 10 kms away from Sanchi. She took lot of personal interest to oversee the construction of the edifice which is now bestowed with world heritage status in 1989. This huge area is filled with stupas, statues and plenty of learning centres as it were. I strongly suspect it was an university modelled on likes of Nalanda and Taxila. Monastary no 51 with a huge water storage tank seems to be an ideal class room setting housing at least 1000 monks for learning. Open air system of learning and probably closed room teachings were imparted during the rainy season i presume. The huge ruined monastery below the great stupa clearly signifies the association with learning process.
Sungas and the Guptas too contributed their might to make the place filled with history and their donors were lavishly praised in the incriptions all around the structure. A proper balustrade was erected to maintain the sanctity of the main stupa. Some of the stupas seems to have been resurrected by ASI where one finds the blank columns, which may have been chopped off as a sovenier worth possessing.

The main Stupa seems to been plundered or dug out by the British thinking that there will be some treasure trove but unfortunately only the Ashes of Buddha and a Silver vessel containing the same was found with some gold coins. Maisey and Cunnigham divided the loot as their personal trophy and took them away to London. Some of the artefacts were disposed off by Maisey to Albert and Victoria Museum. They thankfully returned the ashes and bones of Buddha which were displayed in Sri Lanka who revered the master. This was later converted in a modern Chaitgara Vihara at Sanchi.
The name Cunnigham Road used to ring a bell literally for us since we stay put in an accomodation from 1981 upto 1990. Now the historic association with Alexander Cunnigham who had literally established the ASI from 1861 and documented most of the historical sites from Taxila to Sanchi. He was promoted as director of ASI by Lord Mayo in 1870. He was associated with Sanchi from 1851 onwards and wrote a treatise on Ashoka's Edict.

Cunningham set sail from India with a rich haul of artefact collections from Indian sub continent on Indus, but his treasure trove got stuck in a cyclonic storm and sunk into the Indian Ocean some where close to Sri Lanka in 1884. The British managed to salvage a large portion of gold and silver coins and retrieved it to the British Museum. He was bestowed with a honour as Knight Commander of the Order of Indian Empire in 1887.

Subsequently ASI resurrected all the ruins which were almost abandoned. The trace of Buddhist statues too seems to have been vandalised by invading tribes such as Altamash, Quitubbdin Aibak and Ghazni s. One can find heads of Buddha being chopped off and strew around and some intact one s with Ear piece being taken away in the museum below. The museum is closed on Friday. The museum has a wonderful collection of all types of artefacts potraying Buddha and his consorts, and various other characters from Hindu mythology. Further the royal symbol of lions seated facing all the four directions signifies the extent to which Ashoka reigned. He was know as Devanpriya, meaning darling of the god. He spread the gospel of middle path like a missionery.

Sanchi seems to have been totally ravaged by the invaders and as well as treasure hunters after its re discovery in 1818 by General Taylor. Till 1881 random loot of the site was taking place, some of them maybe adorning private museums abroad. Later the process of systematic restoration took place from 1881 with documentation efforts, Sir John Marshall is credited to have resurrected a monumental historic edifice between 1912 and 1919.
Jawaharlal Nehru seems to have added some glamour to this place by opening a new Mahabodhi temple dedicated to the nation in 1952. Vikramaditya fables surround Sanchi with tales from Betala, he too had contributed towards refurbishing Sachi Edifices. Sunga dynasty too had their presence. The greatest contribution to Indian History is Dharma Chakra which adorns the indian flage. Four lions signified the spread of Buddhism to nook and corners of the world. Ashoka engaged his family to spread the same in a missionary style. His grandfather Chandragupta Maurya was responsible for spread of Jainism after abdication of Throne in favour of his son Bindusara.

UDAYAGIRI CAVES : ( Madhya Pradesh )
Udayagiri Caves is located 13 Kms North of Sanchi, one needs to cover this destination if one has to soak in the history of the heartland of India.   There are many destinations by the name Udayagiri one need not be confused one is in Bubneswar which is combined with Khandagiri caves another is located after Padmanabpuram Palace in Kerala.

According to traditional beliefs this location was originally a Jain destination which was established by Chandragupta Maurya before abdication of his throne in favour of his son Bindusara. This theory is indirectly collaborated by the visit of Faxian, a chinese traveller,( 337 - 422 ) who recorded that the lifestyle of local people were filled with Jainism and their tradition of non meat consuming populace, and avoided onion and garlic in general.

Chandragupta II ( 380 - 480 ) ( Fabled as Vikramaditya ) along with his 9 gems created a landmark destination of Udaygiri caves with Varaha or Vishnu along with Shivling as their diety. The original Iron Pillar was probably installed where the cave no 20 stands today at Udaygiri. The documentation has been generally endorsed that Illtumush or Altumush ( 1211 - 1236 AD ) invaded this place and ransaked the terrain for its treasures and booty. He than transported the Iron pillar which was installed during the Chandragupta II.
I happened to notice a collapsed edifice of ancient origin which later was confirmed as a palace of Vikramaditya in state of ruins. The emperor palace must have been majestic for that age considering the fact that he had taken minting with gold and silver coinage to its peak during his reign. No wonder his period was known as the golden age in Indian history.

Alexander Cunningham had carried out extensive survey and mapping of the hillock containing 20 caves in all. Some of the artefacts have been totally removed and there is no trace of them. Some of the caves are just an opening. We were not able to place the first 8 caves at all, maybe its location is on the other side of the hillock.
Caves : In all 20 caves are documented in a vast hillock, many a times we hardly get to see 8 caves which are locked for posterity or preservation. Udayagiri literally means moutain of sunrise.
Cave 4 : No where in the world probably Shiv Ling is embedded with diety, which a clear proof that the original statue has been displaced with this contraption.
Cave 5 : The symbol of the Gupta empire Varha ( Vishnu Avatar ) is potrayed in all its majestic form, with consorts paying their respect all around.
Cave 13 : One can find Lord Vishnu lying on a huge phyton in his Seshasaina avataar after subjugating the reptile. Chandragupta II himself is potrayed as a disciple of the lord in one of the sculptures in the chamber.

The trekking experience across the hillock was really fulfilling in between we found that cave no 19 was completed sealed, besides on the hillock was a beautiful summer rest house probably used for hunting by the royalty located.
We trudged down a ravine type of rocky steps, which was neatly carved out of the hillock and down below we found a guide who opened the cave number 20 which was locked. We tipped with Rs 10 for showing and guiding us to another great destination known as the Raisen fortress.
Raisen Fort :

This fortress is located approximately 30 kms away from Udayagiri caves with a deviation from main road proceeding towards Vidisha and from thereon towards NH12 towards Hosangabad.
Thanks to our guide and driver who took pains to reach us to this important landmark destination which is spread over two hillocks one is the Western front and other is the eastern part of the fort.

Raisen Fort is credited to have been built by local chieftan Rai Singh. Therefore the name of the fortress was associated with the residence or Rainivas or Rajavilasini. We can firmly conclude that fortress was originally was royal residence which was fortified with bastions. It was built around 10th Century AD and it was completed in four to five phases.
There have traces of pre historic mankind with finds of various paintings, tools and traces of human existence. Excavations of the area are still on to unravel the mystery of the region with sculptures and prehistoric paintings.

Originally the fortress seemed to contain a few jain and hindu temples, which have all been vandalised and utilised in construction of the edifice at Raisen fortress. Raisen being strategically located near the trading route of Vidhisa was constantly under seize from various invaders such as Alauddin Khilji in 1234 AD who plunder and vandalised this place. Till 1293 AD Raisen was under Khilji dynasty later it was captured by Mohammed Bin Thuglak who too carried some plunder away to Delhi and Daulatabad.
In 1532 the fort came under Bahadur Shah, later it was attacked and seized by the Moghuls under Akbar and Aurangazeb. It was Aurangazeb who realised the strategic importance and full fortified Raisen building all the edifices from the salvaged pillars.
After the decline of Moghul empire it was captured by Amir Pindhari till 1816 when British took over the strategic fortress to control Malwa Region. In 1951 it was taken over by ASI.

Bhimbetka Rock Paintings :
Bhimbetka is located 45 kms south of Bhopal towards Hosangabad.  It is approximately 5 kms away from the national highway 69.  The park closes at 6 PM.
Imagine that you are travelling in a train in 1957 and it strikes your imagination that there maybe rock shelters and paintings of pre-historic origin in Bhimbetka Region. That is what Wakankar observed while travelling from Mumbai to Bhopal, than he returned in 1958 to carry out an extensive search spreading over 25 kms and identified 642 rock shelters containing paintings and remanents of pre-historic mankind along with burial places.

The core area of the rock shelter is spread over 1892 hectares which is approximately 18.9 square kms. The entire zone can be divided into VII core areas Bhimbetka ( 243 ) Bhonrawali ( 181 ) Lakha Jaur ( 153 ). All these fall under the Ratapani Sanctuary controlled by the state forest department.
Ratapani Tiger reserve forest is approximately spread over 823 square kilometres and i figure out that we covered at least 50 kms trying to reach this world famous destination which may have links with Indus Valley Civilisation dating back to 30,000 plus years ago. Ratapani reserve forest is filled with 50% of teakwood plantation, no wonder we get the finest teakwood in MP. We just made it to Bhimbetka by a whisker of a minute, 6PM the gate is closed for the visitors. Luckily the forest department guy obliged and gave us the ticket of Rs 50 per head. We were escorted on a full moon night and a chilling forest weather. Luckily we carried a powerful torch to see the paintings in most of 19 rock shelters.

Since Bhimbetka has been awarded world heritage status in 2003, the description and pathways are so beautifully designed, that it can beat any destination of such historic importance. Some of them are seeing wear and tear due to usage of flimsy material.
The security guard was trying to scare us to finish our tour of rock shelters ASAP with wild Bear attacks. Least did he know that it is domain of the tigers and the sanctuary has been identified as reserve forest for them. He was carrying a huge bamboo stick to scare away any animal intrusion obviously. These enclosures have been fenced though but it seems inadequate in case of tiger attack if they are inclined to leap and cross over.

One of the main painting area is found in the Zoo Rock and Tortise type of formation rock perched on another hilly projection. All these shelters have been barricaded so that tourist don t vandalise them. Night mode cameras with high resolution probably can capture the depth of paintings, which are mostly from their community living. One can find scenes of hunting, elephant ride, Bisons, cattles and other domesticated animals. One figure even shows a wild boar chasing a hunter, symbolising the hunter being hunted.
I have not seen the paintings of Altamira in Spain, but i would definitely rate Bhimbetka as the finest and largest evidence of pre historic life style which is still to be uncovered in the world. Maybe burial grounds need to be carefully excavated, there are traces of bone carving and many artifacts of ancient world.
Well we missed out on Bhojpur Shiv temple and had to satisfy ourselves with Jain temple visit. On the final day we were escorted to Bada Talab, Boat Club, Birla Mandir and Guhar Mahal by Jain and family. Thus our trip wound off in a bang literally being pampered and treated beyond expecation. I think the people of MP do possess a large heart and i can vouch for it guys.
Acknowledgement :  Majority of the writing and findings are original penning of the author himself, but references are primarily drawn from UNESCO, ASI, Wiki and Bing Search.  I gratefully acknowledge the source to respective authors without any prejudice, this is more of knowledge sharing blog rather than a commercial one.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fortress Lohagad

Lohagad means Iron fortress, which was occupied by many dynasties and kings.  Lohagad is located approximately 7 kms on a steep drive or hike from Lonavala railway station.  One can see karla caves enroute to Lohagad.  

Lohagad was probably built during Chalukya times somewhere in 650 AD.  And later it was taken over by the Rashtrakutas and later to Vijaynagar Empire..  Frequently this fortress was subject to attack because of it s strategic importance.  Shivaji captured the fort in 1648 and he was forced to surrender the same in 1665.

The fortress was rapidly expanded by Shivaji, Moghuls and Peshwas.  Nana Phadnavis is credited to have built tanks and reservoirs on the fortress.  

I think people will be wasting their time here looking for treasures, which Shivaji seems have buried after he looted Surat...lot of attempts have been futile unless somebody happens to be lucky.
Lohagad can be good trekking destination for youngsters spending the entire day for going up and down including Karla can be slippery due to steep gradient.   Even if one wants to drive they have to make sure their tyres are in perfect condition.  
If one is driving around during rainy season it can be absolute pleasure with greenery around.   It is treaure trove for bird watches and nature lovers.....many avoid to visit fortress.

Fort Shanirwada Pune

The foundation stone for the fortress was laid by Peshwa Baji Rao I who was PM to the King Sahu on JAN10th 1730.  The basic structure was completed in 1732 costing around Rs 16.110.

The initial attempt was to build a residential palace but later it was converted into a fortress.  The teak wood was procured from Junnar, Limestone from Jejuri and Stones from Chinchwad.  

The fortress has 5 gateways located at vantage points and 9 watch towers looking in various directions with cannon posts for firing gunpowder on the enemies closing in.  The complex was supposed to have a durbar hall, dining place, and huge bedrooms for the residents.  The complex had a reservoir to supply water to the fortress.  
There are eloquent description of how the palace was beautifully decorated with teak carvings and panels embedded with ivory.  There was a treasure house of paintings and artifacts which were collected as war residues from conquest.  Precious jewels and coins were also stored.  The palace was surrendered to the British governor John Malcom in 1818.  A conspiracy took place and the palace was ignited to be destroyed, before time all the valuables were taken away to safe private custody.  Thus the legacy of loot continued.  Currently the fortress is maintained by the ASI.


cannons ready to fire

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Bangalore, Karnataka, India
Basically i am down to earth, take friendship to its logical end. It is my endeavour to create a wealth of co-operative ventures. Basically being a marketing man i have the acumen to spot winners. I am privileged to travel the length and breadth of the country, courtsey my father, who was with Indianoil, my employers such as Nutrine, Kurl-on, Hindustan Pencils, Prestige, Crystal, Bell Ceramics, Pentel, Sezal, Commander. Currently i am involved in Tourism, Booking Air Tickets, Agent for Jungle Lodges and Resorts Limited and Taj Group of Hotels and a numerous hotels across India. Depending on the needs of a traveller i would recommend the destination and accommodation best suited to their budget. Humour takes me on. Let us have a win win situation for all. I love travelling for sake of adventure, photography and discovering the heritage. Life is a journey and let us enjoy our drive. Come share your travel experience on indiabackpacker.