The NH22 / Hindustan-Tibet Road

“We’ll take a 10-minute break here,” announces Doreen, our tour organiser and manager, as our convoy of 3 vehicles comes to a halt.

‘Here’ is somewhere on the road to Kalpa from Sarahan. It’s 10.30 am on a cold September morning and our 3rd day in Himachal Pradesh. As the rest of my group disperses to stretch their legs or use the washroom, I notice our drivers lock the vehicle with what seems like undue haste and almost sprint towards a temple that we have just passed.

That is when I notice many vehicles stopping and their drivers, and sometimes also the passengers, getting out and entering the temple. Curious to know more about this temple, I make my way towards it as well.

NH22, Hindustan Tibet Road, Himachal Pradesh, Taranga Devi TempleBy the time I reach the temple, the drivers are already out and on their way back to the vehicles. But on seeing me approach, Pawan (the driver of the vehicle I am travelling in) stays behind.

“What is this temple?” I ask.

“This is the temple of Tarandaa Devi,” Pawan replies. “She is the guardian deity of the road, us drivers, and all those who travel on this road. It is she who protects us and keeps us safe from accidents on the road.”

“The temple seems like a recent construction. Is it new”?

“Well, the construction is new, but there has always been a temple here. And the Tarandaa Devi idol is hundreds of years old.”

“Do you always stop by to pray here?”

“Always. No matter how rushed or how late, I always stop here. Tarandaa Devi has protected me and my family for many, many years. I was born in a village close by and have a very close association with this road — the NH22.

“Really? Tell me more about it.”

And over the next few days, in bits and pieces and fits and starts, Pawan told me about his association with the NH22 or National Highway No. 22.

Continue reading

Serene Sarahan

Sarahan, Apples, Himachal Pradesh“Have you had Himachali apples?”  the three women ask. “They are really good, you know. The best.”

I am at Sarahan in Himachal Pradesh walking around and exploring this pretty little town, when I meet the 3 women and get into a conversation about apples with them.

“I know. I’ve had them in Mumbai,” I smile.

“Oh Mumbai,” the first woman says in a dismissive tone. “After all the travelling the apples do, they won’t taste the same.” The other two women laugh.

“Yes, they won’t,” the second woman insists. “You must have Himachali apples here. In Himachal.

“Would you like some apples?”asks the third woman.

“Sure,” I say. “I’d love to have an apple.”

Within minutes, I am biting into an apple that one of the women gives me. It is fresh and juicy — a little sweet, a little tart — just the way I like my apples. And the women are right, the apple tastes like nothing I’ve had before. “They’re perfect,” I say to the women.

That is the cue for the women to give me more apples and before I know it I am clutching a paper bag full of apples and saying thanks and goodbye to the 3 women. They refuse payment from me and say that my appreciation is payment enough and send me on my way !

Sarahan, Apples, People, Himachal Pradesh Continue reading

Dear Himachal Pradesh…

I dreamt about you yesterday.

It was a lovely dream where my 10-day trip to Fagu, Sarahan, Kalpa, Sangla, Narkhanda and Chail in September was relived all over again. I usually don’t remember my dreams when I wake up, but this one was so crystal clear and real that I’m pretty sure that I must have spoken in my sleep !

I dreamt of the trip of many firsts — the first time I visited your state, the first time I saw the mighty Himalayas, the first time my under-graduate and post-graduate classes on Himalayan Geology came alive, the first time I saw apples on trees, the first time I tasted a yellow plum, the first time I saw the confluence of two rivers … and so much more.

Himachal Pradesh, FaguI dreamt about the rainstorm you welcomed me and the group I was travelling with. And how in the space of a few hours, we went from hot and humid Mumbai to cold, almost freezing, weather in Fagu. That night, I slept under two blankets and had a heater in the room.

I dreamt of that first morning I woke up to in Fagu. Clouds had covered the entire valley and I delighted in watching the clouds vanish like wisps of vapour as the sun rose in the sky to reveal the distant snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. And closer, much closer, was the vegetation associated with the Himalayan ecosystem. Not that I could identify any, but still… :-)

Continue reading

Forts of Rajasthan – 5: Chittorgarh Fort

It’s a hot and dusty day in February and the mid-day sun is relentless as is the perspiration that trickles down by back. And yet, I feel cold and shiver as if some one has walked over my grave.

I am at Chittorgarh Fort, the erstwhile capital of Mewar, and at the site that was once the cremation ground for members of the royal family. The site is also known as the Mahasati Sthal as this is where widowed queens would commit sati. According to the guide, from the vast quantities of ash found at this site, this is also where at least one of the three jauhars — ritualistic mass suicide through immolation committed by women and their young children in the face of certain defeat to Muslim invaders — that Chittorgarh Fort has witnessed happened.

Chittorgarh Fort, Mewar, Travel, Rajasthan, Forts of Rajasthan, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The high raised platform in the background is where sati used to take place and when jauhar took place at this site, the entire ground turned into one vast burning pyre

Death before dishonour is a code that all Rajputs — men and women — lived by. While for men this meant dying in battle; for women, this translated into jauhar instead of being captured by the Muslim invaders. Available literature and ballads say that as the jauhar ritual began, the men would dress up in saffron clothes and ride out to fight their final battle and into certain death.

I feel an immense degree of sadness mixed with revulsion as I listen to the guide describing the jauhars. Though my eyes close automatically as if to keep out the horror, my mind conjures of images of this description and devastation. I try to recollect my day at the Fort in an attempt to divert my mind.

Continue reading

Forts of Rajasthan – 2: The golden fort of Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer Fort, Sonar Killa, Rajasthan, Travel

Model of the Jaisalmer Fort

“I don’t think it looks like an arrow-head,” said the man.

“Well, the audio guide says that it is in the shape of an arrow-head. The guide-book also says so. Maybe we are missing something, “said the woman.

I came upon this couple and their discussion at a courtyard in the palace of Jaisalmer Fort. As we nodded and smiled at each other, the woman asked me: “So do you think THIS is shaped like an arrow-head?”

“THIS” was a model of the Jaisalmer Fort (see the photograph above left). “I think it looks more like the map of India from where I stand,” I said.

“Ah ! That’s why it looked so familiar,” exclaimed the man. “Well, arrow-head, or map of India, or some other shape, it’s a beautiful fort, isn’t it?”

Now beautiful is not a word I would normally use to describe a fort. But, somehow, this word is very apt for describing Jaisalmer Fort. Built entirely of golden-yellow Jaisalmer stone, the fort is at its beautiful best during sunrise and sunset and can be seen for miles around. It rises like a golden mirage when one is approaching Jaisalmer by road, and at the same time also appears to blend into the desert surrounding it. In other words, it is rather hard to ignore Jaisalmer Fort.

Jaisalmer Fort, Forts of Rajasthan, Sonal Killa, Jaisalmer

The Jaisalmer Fort

Continue reading

The havelis of Jaisalmer

Sometimes words are not enough to describe experiences; seeing Jaisalmer’s famous havelis (mansions) was one such experience. It was one of those moments when time just seemed to freeze, and only the mesmerising sight before you is in focus. Imagination takes over in an instant and one just gets transported to times gone by.

Of a time when artists and their art was nurtured and treasured and patronised.

Of a time when artists went unknown and the owners became famous through the very art of building such structures.

And of more recent times when modern tourists must have seen these havelis and gasped with delight at the work. Just as I did and just as I know others will when they see the havelis for the first time.

An abandoned Haveli in Jaisalmer

An abandoned Haveli in Jaisalmer

While I saw most of the havelis from the outside in passing, I did spend some time at the Patwon ki Haveli and the Nathmal Diwan Haveli in Jaisalmer. Both these havelis were so grand that at my first sight of them, I think just forgot to breathe.

Continue reading