Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Pilgrimage part 2: Shirdi: Blessed Land of Sai Baba

Shirdi is just a 2 hour drive from Nashik. The town occupies about 4 kms along the road connecting Malegaon to Ahmadnagar. The obvious highlight of the town is Saibaba Mandir. No matter what day or time you go here, you will always find thousands of devotees vying for a look of the serene face of Saibaba's statue. His birth details are unknown and also the religion he was born into isn't known. Even his real name isn't known. It is believed that he got off a bus at Shirdi when he was around 16 years old and the temple priest, Mahalsapati welcomed him as Sai. This became his name hence forward. Even at such a young age, he practiced hard penance and was regularly visited by the religiously inclined. However, some people even considered him mad and threw stones at him. He meditated for long hours under a Neem tree and often wandered in forests around Shirdi. Later he took up residence in an old and dilapidated mosque called Dwarkamai, where he kept a sacred fire, from which he gave sacred ashes to his guests. This ash had healing properties and he also performed the function of hakim,  while imparting spiritual teachings to his disciples. His worship procedures were a mix of Hinduism and Islam and his most popular preaching is "Sabka Maalik ek hai" or "God is one".  It is believed that he also performed many miracles such as curing the incurably sick and is subsequently worshiped as an incarnation of god. 

We reached Shirdi around 6 pm on Thursday. After some rest in our hotel, I found out that a palki procession is carried on Thursdays. Thursday is considered more sacred by Sai devotees. Even though we were pretty exhausted, we decided to pay a visit to Sai temple at around 8 pm. Upon reaching there and seeing the size of the queue, we fell into the trap of a shopkeeper who promised us easy way into the temple if we purchase stuff for puja from there shops. Avoid them if you go there. Finally after 2 hours of standing in the queue and moving from one hall to the other, we reached the main hall where the highly revered statue is there. However, it was 10:30 pm and darshan time was over. A few minutes of standing at the back of the hall from where the statue was hardly visible and we were literally pushed out by the security staff there. I was very disappointed by their behavior. Back at hotel, we slept immediately due to exhaustion. 

Humans working on Kolhu

Next morning, we went to Shani Temple at Shinganapur which is about 65 kms from Shirdi towards Aurangabad. A visit to Shinganapur can be done as a day visit from Shirdi in about 5 hours. The deity here is Swayambhu in the form of an imposing black stone. It is believed that this stone was discovered by a shepherd and the stone started to bleed when the shepherd poked a pointed rod into it. Later, Shani dev appeared in his dream. He told the shepherd that he is Shanaishwara and this is his Swayambhu form. He also told that the whole hamlet will have no fear of burglars or thieves. To this date, there are no doors in any houses or shops within a 1 km radius of the temple. 
Entrance to Shani Mandir
While on our way to Shinganapur, I saw an interesting thing that men were working on Kolhu instead of bulls. Upon talking to local people, I found out that it was some festival on which BULLS are worshiped. So they are washed and given home cooked meals while humans work in their role. A very interesting festival I must say!!
Swayambhu Shila

After coming back to Shirdi, my mother coaxed me into going to the Saibaba temple again. Personally, I didn't feel like going again due to the treatment received a day before. Thinking that yesterday must have been more crowded for it was a Thursday, we went into the never ending queue again. This time we went earlier so as to ensure that we reach the main hall before darshan time finishes. Though the queue was similar in length as yesterday, but it moved a lot faster and we were inside the prayer hall in about an hour. Some more time and we were in front of Saibaba's serene face exuding calmness that ran through my body. Even though security staff were pushing us to move here as well, but one can move a bit backwards in the corridor and stay there for a bit longer. Their is a sense of calmness and serenity while you look at the statue even though you are crowded by thousands of devotees. Standing there for a few minutes, I totally forgot the disappointment of the day before and felt blessed to be there. 

Next morning, we were to leave for Bhimashankar temple so we slept early again. 

1. Try visiting Saibaba temple on weekdays as weekends would be too crowded. Unless you specifically want to, avoid Thursdays as well. 
2. Best time during the day to visit would be around 4 am when you can attend Kakkad Aarti with comparatively lesser crowds.
3. Also visit Dwarkamai Mosque and Chawari once you are out of the main temple. 
4. Don't fall into the trap of shopkeepers promising you direct entry to the main hall. Their is no direct entry unless you hold a VIP pass.

P.S. Post on Bhimashankar will be up within next 4 days. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Pilgrimage Part 1: Trimbakeshwar: Holiest of Jyotirlingas

My mother wanted to visit a Jyotirlinga for quite sometime. Finally, I decided to travel with her. There are 12  jyotirlingas in India. Jyotirlinga is a shrine where Lord Shiva is worshiped in the form of a pillar of light. According to Shiv Mahapuran, once Brahma (hindu god of creation) and Vishnu (hindu god of survival) had an argument over supremacy. To decide it, Shiva appeared as an infinite column of light. Out of the two arguing gods, whosoever manages to find the end of this column, would be considered supreme. So, when we worship a Jyotirlinga, we are basically worshiping this endless fiery column of light.

 The decision on which Jyotirlinga to visit was pretty easy for me. The fresh greens of Maharashtra in this Monsoon season was an absolutely clear choice. We reached Nashik after a 20 hour train journey having boarded Hardiwar-LTT AC train from Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi. Any train journey above 10 hours makes me restless and this was no exception. Thankfully, train scratched to a halt at Nashik on time and my restlessness wasn't enhanced. A small drive to Ginger Hotel on Trimbak Road with a cool breeze blowing was a brilliant change from soaring heat of Delhi. Early next morning, we were to leave for Trimbakeshwar.
Kushawart Teerth

The drive to Trimbakeshwar from Nashik is quite scenic on an undulating road finding its way through hills covered with fresh green vegetation. Trimbakeshwar is a town lying in the lap of Brahmagiri hills about 25 kms from Nashik. Godavari river, also known as Ganges of the south emerges on land here only. The point at which it emerges is known as Gangadwar, and can be reached after a small trek of one hour to a temple that seems like Indian version of Tiger Monastery of Bhutan. 

Holy abode of Lord Trimbakeshwar
We reached there early for Kal Sarp Yog pooja to be performed on my brother. This yog is considered very detrimental to a person's well being as it leads to negative energy within oneself. It happens when all the planets in a person's horoscope fall between Rahu & Ketu. Trimbakeshwar lord is highly revered for this procedure and people come from all over India to perform this here. Before the actual procedure, one has to take a dip into the holy water of kushawart teerth. While the pooja was going on, I took a walk around town. The town is like most hindu pilgrim sites: clustered and crowded but still full of some sort of a positive vibrancy all around. 

Main entrance before the crowds arrive
After the pooja procedure was over, we went to the holy temple. As this was in Saavan month of hindu calendar, which is considered quite auspicious for worshiping Lord Shiva, we had to negotiate through a long queue to finally get a minute with the deity. Trimbakeshwar is the only shrine where the jyotirlinga is below the ground level and its difficult to see it clearly as you are forced to move quickly by the temple staff. The best view can however be achieved in a glass that has been put up to provide a magnified view of the jyotirlinga. Even though you will see lots of people clicking pictures inside the temple area, but its officially forbidden. I took a few pictures while I was taking a walk along the temple's outer boundary. 

That temple up there is Gangadwar
After visiting the temple, we contemplated on whether to trek to Gangadwar or not and finally decided against it. A small half hour drive and we were back in our hotel.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dadhikar Fort: A tryst with history

View from the porch
This year, I wanted some change for my birthday. So, we decided to go to some heritage hotel for celebration. Our first choice was a Neemrana Property, but they don't allow you to carry your own liquor inside the property. Not even if you want to drink it within the confines of your room. Upon exploring on Tripadvisor, we decided to go to Dadhikar Fort in Alwar district. This heritage hotel located in Aravali hillss, the oldest mountain range of the world seemed like the perfect getaway for a short trip.
This fort came into existence as a residential camp of Chand Dynasty around 9th century, when they lost everything due to flood in their capital city of Abhaneri. Later, when they moved to Bala Qila,  this fort was used as a military camp. With passage of time, this fort went into a very dilapidated condition. The current owner purchased the property in 1997 and started restoring it to its original grandeur with modern amenities in 2004. Finally the hotel was opened to visitors in 2007. I must mention that the restoration has been done quite tastefully and most rooms seem exquisite. However, it doesn't seem as huge in size as you would expect from a proper fort.

Chitrakute, one of our room
We left for the hotel around 2 pm on Saturday from Gurgaon. The route we took was NH-8 till Daruhera and then moving towards Bhiwadi and further towards Alwar. The fort is about 8-10 kms away from Alwar town and the route diverts couple of kilometers before Alwar. Enroute, you pass by the magnificent Vijaymandir Palace, built by Maharaja Jai Singh in 1918. This 105 roomed palace was built by the eccentric king after he didn't like Yashwant Niwas, a palace that was commissioned to be built with Italian architechture. Barring a small patch near Daruhera, road condition was brilliant and we reached there around 5 pm. While we were climbing the stairs towards the entrance of the fort, view of the green harvested fields with hillocks acting as boundary gave it a feel of a vast protected arena.
Ultimate Balancing Act

Dance performance
We were received cordially by the hotel staff and shown our rooms. The hotel entrance opens into a courtyard with rooms along its periphery. A gully from this courtyard opens onto a terrace which is set nicely along a hill. There are some rooms on the opposite end of this gully. Every room here has a different feel to it. While some rooms give you a lavish feel, living in others you can get the feel of living like a General of the king's army in a military camp. One room I really found interesting was Malay. This room is located in the turret and you have to climb down a flight of stairs to reach the seating area. There are a number of small roshandans besides the bed that provide a neat rustic feeling. However, this room might not be perfect for claustrophobic people.

Huge bursts of fire

A fiery mouth

And he extinguishes it in his mouth
The hotel staff organized a cultural program for us in the evening with some folk music and dance performances. This was organized on the hotel terrace and all of us enjoyed a small dance ourselves as well. The program was capped by a scintillating fire performance by a troupe member. That performance held us spellbound. The cultural program was followed by a nice Rajasthani dinner in the restaurant downstairs. Though there wasn't much variety, but the food was delicious. After a light dinner, we started our drinking session on the terrace and the staff was cooperative. Some drunk discussions took us deep into the night which resulted in all of us missing our breakfast. Weirdly enough, they were unable to provide us with some Ala Carte food after we had missed our breakfast. Starving, we left the hotel around 12:30 pm consuming lunch at a highway dhaba.

Vijaymandir Palace

Monday, August 13, 2012

Khandala: Holidaying in the Clouds

Room with a View
I have always believed that Monsoons is the best season to visit the places around Pune/Mumbai for the  color of fresh green leaves revitalizes the very soul. For this very purpose, I booked a weekend's stay at The Duke's Retreat, Khandala. Even the drive to Khandala was breathtakingly beautiful once you manage to squeeze out of the craziness called Mumbai. The resort's location atop a hillock with magnificent and unrestricted views of green plateaus and waterfalls is just perfect. However, the views aren't totally unrestricted as they are blocked by clouds intermittently. At just 245 meters above sea level, you get to enjoy being in the clouds as you would otherwise get atleast 2500 meters above sea level.

Here come the clouds
As this weekend was planned just to relax, I hardly even wandered out of my room for a day. Just sitting at the window of the room blankly looking at clouds drifting in front of me and even enveloping me at times was giving a brilliant sense of calmness to my mind.

Table Land as seen from our room
View from Table Land
Next day, we decided to venture out. The first place to visit was a flat piece of grassland visible from our room called Table Land. This was a big piece of land with a few small waterfalls falling from it. Also, you get to see a huge waterfall coming down from the hillock in front of it from pretty close. There is also a small stream flowing between the hillock and the table land. While we were there, we were drenched by a small shower or probably because a cloud enveloped us.

After spending some time at Table Land, we went to Karla caves. These are ancient buddhist caves dating back to 2nd century BC. The most efficient means of transport here are auto-rickshaws unless you have your own vehicle. The ride to Karla Caves was pretty long at about 12 kms and we were dropped at a point from where we could see a long staircase winding along the hill. By now, it was raining in full flow and I was focussing solely on securing my camera from rains. It took us about half an hour to reach the caves with our clothes fully soaked and my camera just about surviving in a plastic bag borrowed from a shopkeeper. We took a 5 rupee ticket to enter the caves. There is also a small temple in front of the main dome of the caves. The dome or prayer hall here is among the largest rock-cut prayer halls in India measuring over 45 meters in length. The prayer hall is intricately carved with sculptures of men & women and also of animals like lions & elephants. Though there are many more windows that one can see from outside, but they are closed to visitors with just the main dome being open to public.

Chaitya (Prayer Hall) of Karla Caves
When we came out of the caves, we were mesmerized by the lustrous green valley below us where paddy fields were flourishing in the Monsoon season. There was also a small waterfall flowing besides the caves where many people were enjoying a shower. A few pictures here and there and we were on our way back to hotel. Still in our soaked clothes, we bought chikki from Lonavla, also famous for the variety of chikki available here.

Upper columns of Karla Caves
Back at hotel, a nice hot shower was followed by a few drinks late into the night. Next morning, we were to go back to our normal work schedule.

View of the valley from Karla Caves