What happens when three atheists decide to go on a Chardham yatra – that most revered pilgrimage among Hindus covering Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in Uttarakhand? First, we convert it to Teendham deeming ourselves unfit for Yamunotri, considered the toughest of the treks. Then we do it anti-clockwise including in the tour the not-so-holy Auli and Deoria taal! And lastly we commit a blasphemy – return from Badrinath without darshan as the queue was four kilometres long.
In the process, we travel to an unplanned destination and discover a gem. Four kilometres ahead of Badrinath, tenuously sits the village of Mana at 10,561 feet above sea level. It is popularly referred to as the last village in India with tea stalls which scream, “Last tea shop in India.”
Stones spout stories here. Most of us are familiar with the myth of Sage Vyaasa dictating the Mahabharat to Ganesh. The caves in which they sat for this stupendous task are here in Mana. The Vyaasa Gufa is purported to be 5321 years old. The vagaries of the weather in these parts over centuries have resulted in a formation that resembles the pages of a book marking it as a credible appropriation as Vyaasa’s cave. Ganesh Gufa situated a distance away is rebuilt to hold a temple inside. The guide told us the distance was not a deterrent to Ganesh hearing Vyaasa’s voice. Depending on which side of the fence you belong, you will either say, “Nice story” or “Ganesh is god after all.” Either way, walking through these cold caves bending till your back hurts takes you back to the caveman era. Emerging from the cave, we heard the happy sounds of a group of young boys who had climbed to the roof. Stoned silly, they smiled a vacuous smile when we teased them by yelling out, “Caught you!” As it struck them a little while later, they looked sheepishly and said to each other, “Arre yaar, sahi pakda!”
Mana village lays claim to the origin of the river Saraswati. If ever there is a beauty contest for rivers, Saraswati would win hands down. It rushes down a pure white, frothing like an epileptic through a crevice between two massive rocks and roars its way below. Further down, it turns into a pale blue, the colour that school kids use to paint rivers. Ganesh is supposed to have been disturbed by the noise while he was taking down the dictation and cursed the river to disappear.
Another story goes that the Pandavas on their way to heaven needed to cross the river. However, the feisty Saraswati refused to let them cross. Bhim the muscle man lifted two boulders and laid them across the river to facilitate the crossing. Ultimately this beautiful river with a personality was subdued by two men. The bridge, known as Bhim pul stands to this day.
A tiny temple for Saraswati sits forlornly in the midst of the gigantic rocks that rise high all around us. When a place is so full of mythology, it becomes a delightful exercise to look at everything through such a lens. We fed a lovely looking dog that sat on the parapet unmoved by the noise and the crowds around. Probably, his pedigree dates back to Yudhishtra’s dog that followed him to heaven!
Aghori babas dot the pathways to the various sites and sit at times in caves as well. People stop, stand and stare at them; some drop a note in their bowl. Covered with ash, they sit naked except for a loin cloth. I couldn’t resist asking one how he could bear the cold. He replied rather aggressively, “Why would’nt I? You think I’m a bhogi like you? I’m a yogi,” he said with a touch of pride. Another one, who looked like a rock star with his waist length dreadlocks, sat in a cave surrounded by his paraphernalia – incense sticks, stones of various shapes smeared with vermillion, a damru and a trishul. True to his appearance, he was a stellar performer too. Every time he noticed a camera being flashed at him, he would pick up his damru and start playing it!
Coming down this quaint village, we passed women knitting sweaters, caps and socks. They certainly were the polar opposite of Dickens’s knitting women who nonchalantly counted heads dropping from the guillotine as they knitted. They smiled and asked passers-by to buy their wares which they sold at unbelievably low prices. Untouched by the crass world around, they surely undervalued their labour but were smart enough not to allow photography.
The village, in a way, embodies the transience of life. Come Diwali and the sparse population of 1,214 people migrate downhill to live in Badrinath, Joshimath and other places below. Mana gets enveloped in layers of snow to retreat into its ancient past denying access to locals and tourists alike. If people constitute space, then this is one mobile space.
We drove from Govindghat to Badrinath with the Himalayas scaling the skies outside our windows. Sometimes the fog spread itself over the peaks like butter on toast, at other times, the sun shone through to light them up. Below, the tall pine trees with their conical shapes covered the lower slopes. And quietly flowed the light blue Alaknanda foaming white while going over rocks and boulders. According to myth, Alaknanda is one of the rivers, the other being Bhagirathi that the Ganga split into to prevent the earth from shattering if it had flowed as one. So, at times, it is wiser to split!
As we neared Badrinath, the Nilkanth peak towered over the town. But we couldn’t stand and stare. We were accosted by sellers of shawls even before we had got out of the car. The thronging crowds brushed past in a hurry to join the queue. Our group of three non-believers ambled along recollecting stories of Nar and Narayan from the Puranas, both believed to be avatars of Vishnu. Two peaks in this range also bear these names. The myth is that the day the two mountains Nar and Narayan join together, the path to the temple will close and it will have to shift to another place called Bhavishya Badri. Another myth is the shifting will occur when one of the hands of the idol vanishes.
The Alaknanda flows rather noisily here quite close to the temple which has been a major pilgrim centre from the seventh century when Adi Shankara found an idol of Badrinarayan made of Saligram in the river. He installed it in a cave near the hot spring called Tapt Kund. Then in the sixteenth century, the King of Garhwal shifted the idol to its present location. The façade of the temple with arches and pillars in bright shades of blue, red and yellow with a gilded cupola makes it resemble a monastery more than a temple.
When we reached the queue and made enquiries, we were horrified to learn that people had been waiting for three hours and were nowhere near the main entrance. We were directed to a counter where we could buy tickets for special poojas starting from Rs 1100/- Since we were not interested in poojas, we decided to go ahead to Mana, which is the last village in Indian territory.
On our way back to the car park, we crossed the ponds where pilgrims were bathing. The sulphur soaked ponds were stinking like rotten eggs. However, what we witnessed left in us a whiff of the unbearable stench of power. A policeman caught an elderly man by the collar and pushed him yelling at him not to join the queue at that point. When his wife pleaded with him that they be allowed to do so, as they were too old to stand for long, the policeman pushed the woman too. We stood shell shocked, then led the couple down the stairs and walked on to the car park totally disgusted and disheartened.
On the way out, we passed a row of shops selling pooja essentials, shawls, caps, gloves. On one side was a row of tea stalls selling piping hot tea, samosas and pakoras. At one stall, we saw a large family sipping hot tea and eating what looked like a delectable sweet loaded with dry fruits. Quickly, my sadness lifted and I looked greedily at the box of sweets and told my son, “Let’s ask them where they got those. I want them.” The sight of sweets can make me shameless. I walked to the family to ask. A young couple replied in unison, “Yahan ka nahi hai (It’s not from here). We got them with us.” Before we could walk away disappointed, the entire family spontaneously said, “Le lo, le lo.” They placed the large sweetmeat in my hand. Deeply embarrassed, I said, ‘No, no, I thought it was from here and wanted to buy.” “Tho kya hua, le lo, lo.” As I said thank you, I broke the sweet into pieces to share it with my son and my friend. Seeing that, the family called out, “Arre, nahi, nahi, you eat it” and handed over more of their sweets to my son and friend.
That generosity which sprang so spontaneously not in one person but in the entire family of some seven to eight members touched us so deeply that we chose to recall our trip to Badrinath always with our encounter with these complete strangers who embodied kindness. If there is something called divinity, it’s here.
Who doesn’t love a love story? Especially, when it is told to you by your Airbnb host in her 100 plus old apartment at Terez krt 1, when you have met her for all of 30 minutes. What was so illuminating was the love story she narrated turned out to be a starting point for my wanderings around the city of Budapest that oozes syncretism.
Zsuzsi’s great grandfather was admitted in a hospital in Russia after he was injured in the Great War. While there, he fell in love with the Russian nurse who cared for him. When it was time for his discharge, he asked her to go with him to Hungary. As she did not wish to leave Russia, she refused. He returned home alone and heartbroken. A year later, he decided to try his luck and travelled to Russia, met her and proposed again. And this time, she agreed. Love triumphs always! Zsuszi’s family today is a mix of Russians, Hungarians, and Slovakians. What better way to begin a city tour?
As I had arrived in Budapest on a clear but cold morning after travelling through three countries, I decided to head first to the Bath. Baths have been in existence in Hungary from the time of the Romans. Today, they are a major draw for travellers from all over the world. I picked one close to the apartment. I got off Tram No 6 from Oktogon and walked half a kilometre down Franklin Leo Utca to reach Kiraly Bath which is one of the oldest in Budapest. Baths are known for their unique architecture. The city sits on some 125 hot springs rich in minerals that cure joint aches, neuralgia and a host of other ailments. Despite being a veteran traveller, the mixed gender changing areas proved unpalatable for me! Looking a bit lost, I crossed men and women in various stages of dressing and undressing to luckily discovering an enclosed cabin. The steaming pools, though crowded, looked so inviting. I found a quiet corner for myself and sat in the warm water which in a few minutes seemed to penetrate the pores and induce a calm, soporific effect. The conversation of the two middle aged men with big paunches opposite me, a word of which I didn’t understand, receded into the background. When I opened my eyes after I don’t know how long, I felt hungry, yet energised to take on this ancient city that goes back to the Stone Age.
Budapest by night is a fairy tale locale. Sailing in a boat on a beer and pizza ride down the Danube is like a dream. The illuminated Parliament building, also known as House of the Nation, on the banks of the river is a sight to behold. Marked by the tragedy of the architect Imre Steindl, going blind before completion of the building, this imposing structure was built in the Gothic Revival style with 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold.
Even if Budapest has an excellent public transport system with its metro, trams and buses, it is still a delight to walk around the city. Aimless walking can result in the discovery of several delights. I stumbled upon the exquisite Music Academy on one of my walks. The Art Nouveau building is called Franz Liszt Academy of Music after its founder Franz Liszt, 19th-century Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, organist, philanthropist, and author. Along the way, I discovered some stunning similarities in language. Dog is Kutya in Hungarian!!
On Day 3 of my stay in the Hungarian capital, I visited Hospital in the Rock, a humbling experience indeed. Built into a cave under the Buda Castle in the 1930s to prepare for the hospitalization of injured soldiers during World War II, the hospital is converted into a museum with wax figures to represent doctors, nurses and patients. The caverns with surgical units and emergency treatment rooms provided a safe haven from bombardments. The stone walls tell stories of valour and grit when the Red Cross nurses had to manage patients in times of acute shortage of supplies during the siege of Budapest.
Strolling down the pedestrian street called Vaci Utca, I ended up at a grand building near Liberty Bridge, which is Budapest’s oldest Market Hall completed in 1896 after being initiated by the first Mayor, Karoly Kamermayer. The multi-storeyed building has numerous small shops that overflow with wine, palinka, sausages, paprika, lace and embroidered purses and dresses. A total sensory delight! Filled with people from different parts of the world trying to haggle as much as they can using gestures and calculators, the indoor market is one of the liveliest places I have ever seen.
I wanted to eat where the locals eat. I found my way to a crowded two storeyed eatery near a synagogue, the name of which eludes me. As I was relishing the goulash, Hungary’s signature dish, specially made for me in a vegetarian form, I could not help but make the connection with Zsuzi’s family. The goulash is a soup traditionally made by mixing different kinds of meat and vegetables. An ideal metaphor for syncretism — stories of which I began my tour with presented itself at the end in a soup bowl.
Nestled in the Bukk Mountains at an altitude of 541 feet, Eger is located in Northern Hungary, a picturesque little town spread over 92 sq. kms with a population of approximately 55,000. After bustling Budapest, Eger was an ideal spot for us to cool our heels! Anna, our warm and gracious host (a believer in vaastu!) received us at her spacious and tastefully done up apartment on Szent Janos Street.
Eger is famous for its cuvee wine (blend of a minimum of three different types of grapes) and so first on our to-do list was a visit to a wine shop to taste and buy some! During our visit to Hungary and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, it became apparent to us that people here have a strong sense of the aesthetic. Pubs, restaurants, stores, homes and even streets have so much beauty. The wine shop we went to had the look of a cellar with stone walls. Creepers grew like veins on the walls. Hundreds of bottles were neatly arranged in racks. Customers to the shop could also have a glass of wine there seated at high wooden tables and chairs. After tasting at least half a dozen kinds of wine, we decided on the ones to buy before our spinning heads clouded our judgement. Not that we were oenophiles to begin with! We settled for Eger’s most famous Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) and upon the persistence of the salesgirl, we also picked up a bottle of the newly introduced Egri Csillag (Eger Star).
Wine is central to the economy and socio-cultural life of Eger. Although the world recognises France as the synonym for wine, the history of wine in Eger dates back to the eleventh century. Historical records reveal the evidence of vineyards on clearings of hillsides around Eger. When the Turks moved out of Eger in 1687, the Bishop wanted to build a new palace for himself. The hills around were mined for rhyolite tuff used as material for construction. The mining created a huge depression under the ground that was used as a cellar. It was a common practice in those days to pay taxes in the form of wine to the Church. The annual collection of this liquid tax amounted to 12-15 million litres! The cellar used for storing this wine is today converted into an underground museum called Varos a Varos.
Located in the grounds of the imposing Basilica, Varos a Varos (City under the City) is a 4 km long underground tunnel like system. There are guided tours that last almost an hour taking us through the stone structure with a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celsius. Traces of limestone are also found in the structure. Wine barrels from ancient times, implements and clothing of wine growers are on display here.
To move from Bull’s Blood to Govinda for lunch is a leap of faith indeed! However, curiosity took the better of us and we made our way to Govinda, a restaurant run by ISKCON. It was filled with locals enjoying kheer, dhal, rice and sabzi. We were the only Indians present. The interiors were spartan and on the menu was just a simple buffet.
Ah, for the pleasure of being lost! On our way back to the apartment, Google maps didn’t help us and there was no one on the street to ask for directions either. Wandering around, trying to guess the route, we stumbled upon a board which said “Beatles for Sale.” On closer examination, it turned out to be a Beatles Museum. I didn’t know the Beatles had an Eger connection nor could the person managing the admissions explain as he couldn’t speak English. I went around the museum after buying an entrance ticket for 2000 Hungarian Forints, which is the equivalent of Rs 500. The visit begins with a short introductory film on the Beatles. The place is so packed with interesting memorabilia that the space seemed inadequate. Records, guitars, letters, fan mail, concert tickets, and posters of the Liverpool legends fill this amazing little two-storeyed museum. There is a room with a guitar and a good sound system where you can sit and play and sing and get delusional too!
Rather than rush from museum to castle to cathedral, we chose to savour Eger at a slow, languorous pace. The twenty four hours in Eger ended on a humbling note. Each time we came out of our apartment, I noticed a homeless man, perhaps in his fifties, sitting on the street just outside the gate. Dressed in multiple layers, yet shivering in the October cold, he sat with a tumbler in front of him which he rattled when we passed by saying, “Madame, Madame.” He would disappear in the nights, probably to a Church for shelter. In the early mornings when the sun condescended to show up, he would be seen sitting at the fountain in the city square enjoying a smoke with other homeless companions. After chattering cheerfully, they would depart to their self-designated spots to try their luck for the day. Like a wart on a flawless complexion, this man was an embodiment of a flawed society in which an entire population can be left out of the narratives of peace and prosperity. As I got into the taxi to carry on with my travels, I walked up to this man and dropped 400 forints (the equivalent of Rs 100) into his tumbler. Was it generosity? Was it guilt? I’m yet to figure this one out. “Koszonom, Madame,” was his reply.
The cold waters of the Adriatic Sea washed my feet as I sat on the wide cement stairs built along the shore. Crowds swelled. People spoke in hushed tones. The sun was midway through its evening performance. The sky turned crimson, yellow and orange in layers. I clicked several pictures till I decided to register the scene in my mind rather than in the camera. The sound of the waves crashing on the steps combined with the gentle metallic sound of the sea organ to produce a soporific effect. I closed my eyes and the sounds transported me to another realm. The bright red, orange and yellow hues of the setting sun danced before my closed eyelids tempting me to open them.
Was it a dream? No, I was in Zadar – on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia.
Nikola Basic is the creator of Zadar’s two most popular wonders – the sea organ and Greetings to the Sun. Several holes drilled into marble links thirty five organ pipes beneath the waves. These produce random sounds based on the ebb and flow of the water, which is soothing for a while. When it begins to get monotonous, simply move to the Greetings to the Sun.
Greetings to the Sun is a circular pattern on the floor depicting the solar system illuminated by photovoltaic cells in random but captivating colours and patterns as the sun moves across the sky. The place was packed with tourists from different parts of the world. I even met an Indian couple here! Children were overawed by the brilliance of the lights shining on the floor. Cameras of all sizes and shapes were out on display, selfies were taken and to say there was a festive air would be an understatement.
After an hour or so spent here, I walked to Stomorica, the town’s bubbling region of pubs and cafes, eager to try Zadar’s most famous liquer called Maraska made from maraschino cherries. Wines and liquers are not meant merely for drinking. They are to be savoured even while in the bottle. Maraska is poured out of bottles encased in hand-woven reed. Everything about wines and liquers here is about aesthetics. The bottles, the aromas, the pouring style, the glasses in which they are served – all contribute to a total sensory experience. I rolled the Maraska on my tongue and relished its sweet and sour flavour spiced with cinnamon that tickled my taste buds much to the delight of the achingly handsome waiter at Zadar’s well-known pub, Bar Rio.
Zadar has it fair share of ancient buildings, walls, cathedrals and monuments. Once the largest city fortress, Zadar is unique in that the impregnable walls made it a city that the Turks could never capture. But soon, the Maraska hit! A light head spin and a euphoria made me head to my apartment in the bustling city center where 2 am is the closing time for bars! My apartment host was kind enough to provide ear plugs. Tucking myself into bed, I fell into a deep slumber with the colours of the sky and the sea swirling before my eyes.
A visit to a cave is unlike any. It gives us goosebumps to be walking into the very soul of the earth – a vast underground that is concealed by the ground beneath our feet. To think that’s where the origins of the human race lie! After all life began in cave dwellings, didn’t it? Metaphorically, it’s a journey into the deep recesses of our consciousness – as though it were an atavistic throwback to the hunter-gatherer era.
The 146 year old train that used to be pulled manually by the cave guides later got a gas engine which has today graduated to an electric one. It took us through a 5 km ride open to the public within the Postojna Caves in Southwestern Slovenia which is 243 kilometers long. It is part of the karst (limestone cave) system typically found in parts of Eastern and Central Europe.
For millions of years, drippings from the Pivka River through the rock crevices have resulted in massive stalactite and stalagmite formations, the most stunning column being rightly called Brilliant. The pure calcite sinter deposits on the column give Brilliant its snow-white sheen. My memory that often plays truant seemed to have developed claws that dug deep within at that very moment drawing out the crystal clear voice of my Geography teacher Mrs Nunes. “Don’t get confused,” she had said, “When the tites come down, the mites go up.” Well, here, in the ancient Postojna caves, several tites and mites had fused together to form magnificent columns.
The train drops us off at one point to let us stand and stare, amble around awe-struck and yes, even pick up a souvenir at a cave store! One of the wonders of the cave is the olm. Commonly known as salamander, in the Slovene language it’s called moceril which means “the one that burrows into wetness.” According to mythology, it is supposed to be the dragon’s baby! It is white, eats, sleeps and breeds in water and being almost blind, is extremely sensitive to light. We were repeatedly told by the guides that photographing the olm is banned as the light could harm it. However, as we all know, the world has its share of folks with misplaced defiance that blatantly broke the rule much to the chagrin of the guides who have the hard task of maintaining a delicate balance between taking care of the caves on the one hand and the silly egos of the tourists on the other.
The central dance hall inside the cave is a one of its kind. Brilliantly lit up by chandeliers, the large hall surrounded by limestone walls plays host to weddings and music shows. It is here that the olm is preserved in glass cages. Other halls are Spaghetti Hall, White Hall and Red Hall – names that reflect the colour and shapes of the stalactite and stalagmite formations. It’s a wonder celebrities from Bollywood or the cricketing world have not yet discovered this location for their eminently avoidable fairy tale weddings.
The above image is from https://www.google.co.in/
Sadly, it is difficult to find even a single spot in Europe that is untouched by the gory history of the World Wars. The blackened walls of the cave entrance stand as grim testimonies to the horrors of World War II. The German forces stored about 1,000 barrels of aircraft fuel, which were destroyed in April 1944 by the Slovene Partisans. The fire burned relentlessly for seven days, destroying a large section of the cave and blackening the entrance.
Walking on the wooden bridge along the 1.6 km long Vintgar gorge as the Radovna River meandered its way through the vertical rocks of the Hom and Boršt hills, 4 kms from Lake Bled in Slovenia, the poet in me was awakened. As I looked awe-struck at the myriad moods of the flowing mass of water, it seemed the metaphor was dancing in my head pushing me to verbalize.
The river begins like a hyperactive child
Perhaps with a trace of ADHD
Then flows with the furious, at times foolish pace of youth
Then with the calm and serenity that comes with age, sits placid like a lake
Until an impatience that comes with being here for too long
Hastens to its end
Giving as it dies a quiet death; its last drop for our sustenance.
Enjoy the series of pics that tries to capture these stages …
Raise your hands if you’ve seen Jackie Chan’s Armour of God! Remember the scene in which he jumps out of a hole in the wall with a parachute? Well, that’s Predjama Castle in South Central Slovenia. If you’ve been travelling around in Eastern European countries, you would probably say, “Oh no, not another castle!” But let me warn you, you would be missing something if you left this out on a visit to Slovenia. An hour’s drive from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, Predjama Castle is a convenient day trip that can be done through guided tours or rented cars.
What makes Predjama Castle unique?
As way back as 1274, the castle was built into the rock face of a 125 meter high limestone cliff in order to fortify it against invasions. As happens with most ancient structures, it went through renovations and expansions. In 1570, it was reconstructed in the Renaissance style, remaining unchanged to this day.
Consisting of a chapel, a network of caves, tunnels, dungeons and steep stone steps, the castle is a labyrinthine challenge. Being a popular tourist destination, it is usually crowded and you will need to wait for your turn to climb the steps which at times are so narrow that they cannot accommodate more than one.
Legend has it that the castle was the family home of the Knight Erazem Lueger to which he returned in order to escape the wrath of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. From this hideout, he continued with his infamous robberies that has since earned him the title of Eastern European Robin Hood. He allied with the Hungarian King Mathias Cornivus to continue with his attacks on the Habsburgs. Despite being held in siege here, he managed his regular supplies of food and even went for an occasional stroll through an existing tunnel which he expanded! His good times ended when he was shot by a cannon ball while performing a basic activity, viz. crapping!! An apocryphal tale or not, it surely had us in splits when the guide narrated it. His ghost haunts the castle to this day according to a 2008 episode of Ghost Hunters International on the Sci Fi channel. By dusk, it closes and even bravehearts haven’t dared to spend the night here.
As we walked around the castle, we found bright sunshine in some parts, and a constant dribble of water through the crevices in other parts. The views from inside the structure are incredibly captivating to say the least. The sun plays hide and seek making the landscape alternate between mist covered hills and green grass all around with a river cutting through the expanse.
Various chambers in the castle are done up to represent life in the medieval times. The dining room, living room and the magnificent Knight’s room on the third floor of the castle have a mix of original items, models and replicas on display. A unique feature here is the presence of a souvenir store high up in the castle. Erazem’s ghost has no fancy for the computer which works wonderfully well here. The lone salesman swore he’s waiting to have an encounter! I picked up a metal knight in armour (not shining as I’m not a damsel in distress by any stretch of the imagination!) designed as a bottle opener.
Once you are done with the castle tour, do visit the souvenir store below. There is a small section of taxidermied creatures such as roe deer, badgers and owls which are part of the Slovenian fauna along with a wide variety of souvenirs at affordable rates.
Whether it was Erazem’s ghost or the magic of Predjama, I know not. True to the tourism industry’s tagline “I Feel Slovenia”, I feel the beauty of this place in my bones to this day. Yes, it haunts.