“COME AWAY WITH ME.”
This page is dedicated to the sights, scenes, history and people of the countries I have had the good fortune to visit. And in presenting the page in a historic context, together with some of the photographs I have taken, I hope it spurs the wish to travel and explore in some of those who read it.
@OrientalEnigma #Noor. 14th November 2017.
“COME AWAY WITH ME – WHEN A HUG BECAME A DEATH SENTENCE.”
“From bundles of firewood carried home on her head ~~ the tap of two sticks drops me on my head ~~ I was scuttling around all the twigs and the wood ~~ seeking food for my colony ~~ for I am an ant.
We live in the base of a tall tree close by ~~ and dead twigs for firewood will often fall down ~~ the women are gatherers and she smiles at my run ~~ to soft soil made porous by ants and their work ~~ a home made by labour and loyalty to all ~~ we make meals out of leaves and insects as well ~~ that is all that we need for we are the ants.
Later as dusk falls we look out and see ~~ all that goes on in this place we call home ~~ but the next day we looked out at what happened then ~~ and the scene that we saw was the end of us all.
In the evenings there’s gupshup ~~ and little white sticks with glowing red tips that burn in men’s lips ~~ as the men folk slurp chai and the women do chores ~~ they sing as they cook and laugh amidst wood smoke ~~ but there’s no harm to us ~~ for we are the ants and safe in this place.
Firewood for fire means cooking and warmth ~~ and for boiling the water with which to make chai ~~ and whilst children are playing the mother’s call out ~~ “it’s time for your sleeps now” ~~ and the men chatter on.
The hour of the cow dust ~~ when earth is stirred gold by bovines slow walk ~~ to their home stalls for alfalfa and milking for chai ~~ the gold dust then settling ~~ all mingled with smoke ~~ whilst the sun takes its leave ~~ and the dark welcomes those who inhabit the night.
Like the two owls who nest in the tree up above ~~ they hoot at the moon ~~ whilst their two chicks are squawking ~~ their demands for some food so piercing and loud ~~ parents then fly off to seek out their meals ~~ lizards and mice taking shelter and hiding ~~ for silently the owls fly ~~ their victims surprised ~~ but returning in shifts ~~ they keep chicks hunger fed.
Now the world grows silent ~~ the men join their wives ~~ a baby is crying still demanding the teat ~~ whilst cattle are lowing and sheep and goats bleat ~~ before finally deciding it’s time for some rest ~~ and then there comes silence ~~ but who was to know how life would be rent ~~ when the sun reached its zenith the very next day.
The sun rose as usual ~~ we all scuttled out ~~ hungry and hunting after the privations of night ~~ all was as usual ~~ the men slurping chai ~~ as sleepy headed children were rubbing their eyes ~~ then men walking out to their livestock and fields ~~ as breakfast pots clattered and clay pots were gathered ~~ the women all chattering as they left for the well.
The village is green ~~ the monsoon has past ~~ and when chores are done the village goes quiet ~~ in somnolent seasons late summer heat ~~ the ladies all doze in the shade of my tree ~~ some suckle their young at bountiful breasts ~~ and even a fawn whose mother is lost ~~ but soon they’re returning to the daily routine ~~ kitchen duties mean that there’s corn to be cleaned ~~ and millet to mill into flour for the roti ~~ the one staple item on their evening food table.
My tree is worshipped ~~ it’s sacred ~~ and exempt from anger’s loud noise ~~ but as a woman taps two sticks ~~ what is this disturbance upsetting tree’s peace? Alarmed ~~ the colourful fabrics adorning the trunk ~~ all flutter in panic ~~ they were tied to the tree as offerings with prayers ~~ which won’t not now be answered ~~ as they lie ripped and torn down ~~ and ground in the dust.
Anger from men with loud voices raised ~~ they point at my home and wave items with teeth ~~ and cleavers I see that chop large logs from felled trees ~~ but dead trees only are used for the fires.
A lady I know ~~ her house next to my tree ~~ raises her voice ~~ high in anguish as she calls to the men ~~ but far in the fields her cry goes unheard ~~ so it is she and the children who are all standing firm ~~ and the old and infirm who had been resting too ~~ they are all standing firm against this influx of hate.
The men now thrust outstretched open palms ~~ for rupees I’m thinking ~~ but the woman derides them ~~ for she will not pay ~~ so they come to my tree and kick at the trunk ~~ never has my tree been disrespected this way ~~ and then there is pain ~~ and my tree is crying out ~~ as teeth and cleavers bite their way through its life.
Now my tree is creaking and my ant colony runs ~~ we need safety not danger as our earth is disturbed ~~ the owls are lucky for they can fly high ~~ but not so their chicks who will crash to the ground.
But what of the people who mean me no harm ~~ the woman who stepped up to stay the tree’s pain ~~ “it is sacred” she said ~~ “and cannot be felled ~~ especially for houses and mine is mud built” ~~ her beliefs and religion forbidding the harm ~~ of all that is living ~~ and to ask her for money ~~ is an insulting extreme ~~ she’s preferring to die in the place of the tree.
Bravely she walks up ~~ arms spread wide to my tree ~~ hugging the rough trunk ~~ “Oh please let her be” ~~ and then came a thud ~~ her body in two ~~ and then her three daughters stepped up to my tree ~~ their hugs met the same fate ~~ and more after them.
I’m trying to run on all my ant’s legs ~~ but alas I cannot for I am stuck fast ~~ in her red sticky blood which cloys at my legs ~~ then everything goes quiet ~~ I think peace has returned ~~ but my world has turned black now ~~ and I know no more.”
In 1730, under orders from Abhay Singh, the Maharaja of Marwar – a Minister, Giridhar Bhandari – led a royal party to village Khejarli with an order that sufficient green Prosopis Cineraria (Khejri) trees be felled for burning to produce lime to be used in the construction of the Maharaja’s new palace.
On arrival at Village Khejarli (then known as Jehnad and now in the Jodhpur District of Rajasthan state), they were confronted by Amrita Devi Bishnoi and other villagers who refused to allow even one Prosopis Cineraria tree – which the Bishnoi community considered to be sacred – to be felled.
Amrita Devi refused to pay a bribe to save the trees, saying it would be an insult to her religious faith and that she would rather give her life. She then stepped forward, wrapped her arms around a tree and was beheaded. Her three daughters Asu, Ratni and Bhagu immediately followed her example and were similarly dispatched. Then men and women, old and young, as well as children stepped up to hug the sacred trees and whilst being massacred they chanted one of their Guru’s sayings:
“Sar Santey Rukh Rahe To Bhi Sasto Jaan”…… “If a tree is saved, even at the cost of one’s head, it is worth it.”
When the Maharajah heard of the slaughter he stopped the felling of the trees, but by this time, 363 Bishnoi from 84 villages lay dead in the first recorded event of the Chipko Movement (tree hugging) in history.
The Maharajah also decreed that the sacred tree be given the new name of “Khejri” in honour of Amrita Devi and the mass sacrifice of the Bishnoi. The Khejri is also called “Janty” and the anniversary of the massacre is observed in the village each September – the Khejri or Janty still being considered the most sacred tree in Rajasthan, as well as being the state tree.
((Writers notes: Scattered around the western Thar Desert of India are the villages of the Bishnoi community, who follow the teachings of Guru Jambheshwar.
I took the opportunity to visit one of the villages a few months ago, and after a demonstration of opium distillation, I spoke with the village elders about their beliefs.
They explained that the Bishnoi are staunch environmentalists, and in commemorating the martyrdom of the 363 people who died in 1730 trying to save the trees of Khejarli, they still mount strong protests against the killing of wild animals.
Besides being strict vegetarians, they filter their water before boiling to prevent any insects being killed and they also bang their firewood before burning to make sure any insects escape.
Their name of “Bishnoi” comes from Bis (twenty) and nai (nine) representing the 29 rules for living handed down by Guru Jambheshwar.
It’s somewhat ironic that rule 24 is not to use opium; as on the “tourist circuit” the Bishnoi are probably best known for their opium ceremonies. The production of opium is officially controlled by the Government of India and available for medicinal or scientific uses only – although it seems to be freely available for tourist ceremonies! After the drink is made, it’s offered to visitors, but as the opium has been distilled and diluted, it’s neither tasty nor particularly potent.
Traditionally, the Bishnoi take small quantities of opium on a regular basis. A ball of dried opium (or a quantity of seeds) is pounded into a vessel and small amounts of water are added. The mixture, called amal, is then poured into a filter. The amal is filtered three times, prayers are said and then the liquid is drunk from cupped hands – amidst much slurping. The process is repeated a number of times until each Bishnoi man present has had his share.
Their Guru, Jambheshwar or Jambhaji was born in Bikaner, Rajasthan in 1451. For the first seven years of his life he didn’t speak, but he eventually found his voice and spent twenty seven years as cow herder.
In about 1484, Jambhaji left his ancestral village and began travelling as a preacher. He saw a bond between man and nature and used religion to convey this message, explaining that man should respect and protect nature. He also understood the problems created by man if they destroyed nature for financial gain.
Eventually his teachings, based on peace and respect for all living beings, were laid down in the twenty nine tenets followed by the Bishnoi.
Jambhaji’s teaching conveyed logical and simple messages, so that even poorly educated people could understand it. His teachings could also be adopted by all races, creeds and religions.
“A follower will believe in just one God, will not worship images, man or indulge in unnecessary rituals, pay no adherence to the caste system and believe in equal rights as well as Karma.”
Jambhaji died in 1536 aged 85, and unlike the usual practice of most Hindu communities, his body was buried instead of cremated so that no trees would be felled to provide wood for his cremation.
And before his death, Jambhaji stated that the Black Buck would be his manifestation after death and should be protected and conserved at /all/ times.
I was also curious to know about the legacy left by Jambhaji and how it’s observed by the present day Bishnoi community.
The Bishnoi, as lovers of nature, were perhaps the first in world to care for their environment as Jambhaji taught that harming your world caused harm to yourself.
They ban the hunting and killing of animals, as well as the felling of green trees. The Prosopis Cineraria tree has always been considered sacred by the Bishnoi.
Tenets of ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth), belief in love, peace, kindness, simplicity, honesty, compassion, forgiveness, hard work, good moral character and internal and external purity are all characteristic of the Bishnoi.
They continue to live protecting the flora and fauna in the Thar Desert and other regions, following the teachings of their founder that the protection of wildlife is a Dharma (religion), but this is not always easy in areas where water is a precious commodity and the felling and sale of trees can earn extra revenue. There are always external pressures and their faith continues to be tested by rulers, feudals, poachers and others – during which time scores of Bishnoi have laid down their lives to protect wildlife.
The Bishnoi can also be regarded as “aggressive pacifists” and those who lay down their lives are regarded as heroes. If you are a hunter, the worst thing that could happen to you is to be caught hunting by a Bishnoi on their land.
I hope my writing is an accurate reflection of the beliefs of the Bishnoi, the first community to adopt religious teachings in order to emphasise love, peace and harmony, not only amongst humans, but in a symbiotic relationship with domesticated and wild animals, trees and nature.
The writer has visited several Bishnoi villages and spoken with them over the years, so any errors in fact or interpretation are entirely my own.
After my visit, I wandered around the adjacent Bishnoi lands to see the wildlife living there – but @Navneet_Maid1 would like to write about the village visit and wildlife – so I’ll leave that for her to pen at a later date.
Images where © are the writers own.
#TheAntsTale and #Bishnoi and #Sacrifice ((End))
“THE ALGOZA – ITS SIMILARITY TO BAGPIPES – AND #THEFLAUTIST.”
Whilst travelling in Rajasthan recently, I had the pleasure of listening to the accomplished flautist, Azam Ali Khan, piping his entrancing melodies in the early morning calm on an instrument called the Algoza – a double flute made of bamboo which works on the same principle as a bagpipe.
It’s a very difficult instrument to master, as one of the two flutes plays a continuous drone whilst the other plays different notes and so the musician has to master the art of breathing without letting the sound of the Algoza break.
This pair of woodwind instruments has been adopted by Punjabi, Sindhi, Kutchi, Rajasthani and Baloch folk musicians. The two joined beak flutes, one for melody and the other for drone, are either tied together or held loosely together with the hands.
A continuous flow of air is necessary as the player blows into both flutes simultaneously, the breath being quickly recaptured on each beat to create the bouncing swinging rhythm of traditional music.
The double flute originally comprised two pipes of the same length, but over time, one of them was shortened for sound purposes.
And in the world of Algoza playing, the two flute pipes are a couple – the longer one is the male and the shorter one the female instrument, plus with the use of beeswax, the instrument can be scaled to any tune.
It is an important instrument in Rajasthani folk music and produces the most beautiful haunting melodies which drift into and envelop the consciousness, especially when played in the peace and still of the morning air just as day is breaking.
I’ve also found a short video on YouTube which gives a clearer idea of the sound of the Algoza.
((The poem and the images of Azam Ali Khan where © are the writers own))
Much love and I send you peace – Noor. xx
“KAKI – THE SONGSTRESS OF THAR.” #GaoDhuli
In a deep, guttural desert voice, the veiled Kaki performs her traditional songs of Rajput valour and love.
Unadorned by superfluous musical accompaniment, her voice projects outwards and upwards, ascending into the late afternoon’s fading light as makes its way across the Thar Desert sky.
Appropriately named “The Songstress of Thar” she begins her rituals as the sun begins to gently ebb and sink over the horizon – at the hour known locally as “gao dhuli” – a beautiful metaphor describing the onset of the evening when the dust rises, darkening the sky to gold as it’s disturbed and thrown up by cattle returning to their sheds.
Due to her piercing rendition of traditional songs, Kaki is revered as a legend in this part of Rajasthan.
Regular readers may recall I wrote a short poem entitled “Godhuli Vela” about the same theme and time of day as an introduction to the SL “Gupshup – the male perspective”.
But my humble offering pales into insignificance against the rich timbre of Kaki’s voice in singing of the same scene.
The image of Kaki was taken at the Surygarh Hotel in Jaisalmer and I hope this short video posts successfully, as it’s the only one I could find. I would have liked to have made a short video, but unfortunately her performance in the serenity of the courtyard was disturbed by a loud drinking group and there would have been too much background noise competing with her wonderful voice. Their loss.
https://youtu.be/oc1fKWEnvGU #GaoDhuli ((End))
“INDIA: DELHI, THE THAR DESERT, THE PALACES AND FORTS OF RAJASTHAN, THE TAJ MAHAL AND BEYOND – 2017.
“OM BANNA”……….the “bullet bike” temple. #OMBANNA
The shuddering in my spine matched the shuddering of chassis and suspension as the bus ground, clunking, to yet another halt; the engine cutting out with a sigh of exhaustion matched only by my own after almost six hours of travelling over tortuous country roads and tracks.
The sun had just about set and I was still a little way from my destination for the night when the driver announced: “We offer prayers here.”
Beside the busy Pali – Jodhpur highway?
Pray? Beside what looked like a non-descript, dusty village with its associated truck drivers “facilities” and the unmistakeable aroma of bhang pervading the air?
Rubbing the grimy nearside window whilst my fellow travellers alighted with some urgency, it was only then I saw it, in the fading light. Garlanded. In a glass case.
Whereupon, recollection of local history slapped me hard around the brain, and grabbing my camera, I too alighted from the bus to “offer prayers.”
After all, India has one of the highest incidences of road accidents in the world, especially at night, so pausing before the shrine, I hastily added my prayers for a safe onward journey – just another devotee in a milling throng offering alcohol, coconuts, marigolds, flowers, sweets, money – and lots of prayers.
And then, taking a deep breath, I paused. Shutting out the hubbub around me, bowing my head and placing my palms together, I whispered words of remembrance. Words of a personal nature. I hope they were heard.
My journey had paused at one of the more unusual temples in India, which lies about 8km south of Rohet (my destination for the night) in Pali District of Jodhpur, right beside the Pali Road, near Village Chotila.
And the deity at what is called “The Om Banna temple?”
None other than a garland decked, diesel fuelled, 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle, RNJ 7773, also known as “Bullet Baba.”
The story goes that a local villager, Om Banna (formerly known as Om Singh Rathore and also known as Shri Om Bana and Bullet Bana), died at this spot on 2nd December 1991.
He was travelling from the town of Bangdi near Sanderao of Pali District to Village Chotila when he lost control of his motorcycle and struck a tree. Om Banna was killed instantly and his motorcycle landed in a nearby ditch.
The morning after the accident the local police removed the motorcycle to a nearby police station, but the next day it was reported to have disappeared from the police station and was discovered back at the scene of the accident.
Baffled by the turn of events, the police took the motorcycle away again, this time taking the precaution of emptying its tank and putting it under lock and chain to prevent its removal. But despite their efforts, the next morning the motorcycle had again disappeared and was found back at the scene of the accident.
Legend has it that the motorcycle kept returning to the same ditch and thwarted every attempt by the police to keep it at the local police station; the motorcycle disappearing during the night and always discovered, having returned to the same spot, before dawn.
This was regarded as a miracle by the local population, and when travellers along the road reported seeing visions of Om Banna, it inevitably led to the motorcycle’s deification and they began to worship the “Bullet Bike”.
News of the miracle motorcycle also spread to nearby villages and subsequently a temple was built to worship it. The temple is known locally as “Bullet Baba’s Temple” and it is believed that Om Banna’s spirit helps distressed travellers.
Every day, local villagers and travellers stop to pay their respects, praying to the motorcycle and its late owner, Om Singh Rathore, bowing their heads and leaving offerings in honour of the helpful spirit – whilst some drivers also offer small bottles of alcohol at the site.
It is also widely believed that if a person does /not/ stop to pray at the site, they are in for a dangerous journey.
Some devotees apply the “tilak” mark and tie a red thread on the motorcycle and many local villagers sing folk songs in honour of Om Banna as well as offering incense sticks, flowers, coconuts and sweets to the motorcycle.
A 24 hour fire is kept burning at the Om Banna Temple, and at anytime of the day or night, people arrive at the open-air shrine beside the dusty road to pray for safe journeys and to make offerings to the deity.
And as hundreds of devotees before me had done, and given the inherent danger of travelling on Indian roads at night, I deemed it prudent to add a prayer of my own. Just to be on the safe side!
((Writers note: I’d heard of Om Banna Temple, but wasn’t expecting this unscheduled visit. The experience was both poignant and emotional for me – and this has also been a difficult piece to write because it is almost one year to the day since I lost an incredibly hard working colleague, patient mentor and cricket mad good friend, Gagan, in an identical motorcycle accident in India.
And as this was my first visit to India since his death, I also paid a condolence visit to his family – but I really did miss sharing a few cricket yarns, meals and beers with a good friend.
“Yours in cricket and RIP, Gagan D.S. Nagpal.” ))
“Om Banna” ((End))
#OFSELFDETERMINATION “THE MANGANIYARS”
“An invitation to an evening of music, song and dance, plus sweets (barfi) placed in my hotel room on arrival. Well, it would be churlish to refuse, wouldn’t it?”
Mehboob Khan and his troupe of Manganiyar musicians and dancers are artistes of international repute and I was privileged to see them perform twice during a recent visit to Jaisalmer. They have also performed regularly in the UK, Russia, South Africa and many other countries to positive acclaim.
Bringing song and dance inherently rooted in their Muslim faith, ancestral backgrounds and Rajasthani homeland, allied with the sheer power of their performance, they unleashed a palpable wave of energy and emotion which I felt very clearly as they performed under a clear starry sky in the still silence of the warm desert air; moving through piercing and haunting classical songs fused with elements of Sufism to the energy of their traditional Rajasthani song and dance repertoire.
India has a rich tradition of folk music and its cultural diversity has resulted in an endless variety of folk styles, with each region developing its own – as has Rajasthan.
The Manganiyars are professional folk musicians whose communities mostly hail from Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bikaner and Jodhpur districts in Western Rajasthan.
Famed for their classical folk music, most groups are formed of hereditary caste musicians who cultivated a close relationship with their patrons. For generations Manganiyar performances have delighted, and been supported by, wealthy landlords and aristocrats, for which they receive cattle, camels, goats or cash as commission or gifts under the Jajmani or patrimony system (much akin to indentured servitude). Patrons can be both Hindu and Muslim, depending on the place of residency, with the majority being Hindu Rajputs.
The Manganiyars consider themselves descendants of the Rajputs and the Thar Desert has been home to these highly skilled folk musicians for centuries; their songs being passed down through the ages as a form of oral history of the desert; songs of Alexander the Great, local Maharajas and famous past battles of the region.
The traditional patrons are members of the locally dominant Rajput Hindu community and at times of birth, marriage or any Rajput family festivity, the Manganiyar musicians are asked to attend to evoke the appropriate mood – with many composing songs in praise of the patron and his family.
Many indentured musicians are also keepers of their patron’s genealogy, which covers many generations, their long list of ancestors being spoken in cadence, without instruments in a performance called “Shubhraj” and such a recitation may last over an hour.
Manganiyar songs also praise the great Sufi saints and the Hindu God, Krishna, thus enabling these virtuoso musicians to combine the popular mystical and secular traditions of the Thar Desert with those of the courts of the Maharajas, thus perpetuating a religious and chivalrous art form dating from the Middle Ages.
Although their community is Muslim, many Manganiyar songs praise Hindu deities and they also actively celebrate Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi, when the performers traditionally invoke the Hindu God, Krishna, and seek his blessing before beginning their recital.
Amongst the Manganiyar instruments are:
The Kamaicha – a 17 string bowed instrument made of mango wood with a rounded resonator covered with goat skin. Three of its strings are goat intestine while the other 14 strings are steel.
The Khartaal – a type of castanet made of teak, its name is derived from “khar” meaning hand and “taal” meaning rhythm.
The Dholak – A classical north Indian hand drum similar in timbre to a bongo. It has a simple membrane and a handle on the right side. The left hand membrane has a special coating on the inner surface of tar, clay and sand (dholak masala) which lowers the pitch.
In 1978, the Manganiyars were provided with institutional support which allowed them to perform outside Rajasthan for the first time and now several groups of musicians and dancers tour internationally.
But…….in present day Jaisalmer, and the surrounding regions of Rajasthan, the name Manganiyar means “beggar” and is used as a debasing and derogatory title for folk musicians, who are amongst the lowest castes in Rajasthan. As such, they are a marginalised community, despite carrying a musical legacy more than 800 years old and recognised as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO.
Beggars they are not. Artistes of the highest calibre they are!
The communities however refer to themselves as “Merasi” which translates as “musicians” or “keepers of the stories” and have they have been acknowledged as such by their patrons, including the wealthy and powerful Rajputs.
Considered amongst the “untouchable” caste and denied access to education, healthcare and political representation, most continue live in poverty, making a living from farming and livestock, whilst living in “dhanis” (settlements) segregated from the main villages by caste or else living on the fringe of villages.
Yet all of them aspire to improve their situation, and despite the on-going caste prejudice, they persist in their roles as oral genealogists, storytellers and musicians, and although Islam does not institutionalise caste, caste adherence is practised by both Hindu and non-Hindu communities in India.
And so to reclaim their identity as story tellers, the Merasi of Jaisalmer shed the derogatory caste label “Manganiyar” and proudly embraced the name “Merasi” as a poignant symbol of self determination.
“One hand on the pen, one hand on the drum, both hands on the dream.”
They are also currently partnered with some overseas non-profit organisations who are seeking to empower the Merasi community through education, community development and by nurturing and preserving their cultural identity.
“Manganiyar no more, we are Merasi!”
Merasi performances now range from village settings to the world stage and they remain in high demand, not only for their unique voices and instruments, but because they can move their audience from deep joy to tears of happiness. They can indeed!
((Apart from the Manganiyar/Merasi instruments, all the images of the musicians and dancers are the writers own.
I’m also posting the best video I could find on YouTube of a Manganiyar/Merasi performance which took place at the Dhaka (Bangladesh) International Folk Fest of 2015
Much love to you all and I send you peace – Noor. xx
“INDIA AND BHUTAN – 2016.”
((A ramble around Kolkata……the state capital of West Bengal, India.
September 2016 – Wandering around the Kumortuli area of north Kolkata recently, I came across this dilapidated old building still retaining its original stucco work, balconies, Corinthian columns and windows……just. Then later additions of shutters, a metal balcony and grilles, whilst vegetation has also made this house a home for its roots as it continues its takeover.
Yet undoubtedly this must have been a magnificent mansion, inhabited by a wealthy merchant associated with the British East India Company in its heyday during the 19th century.
Calcutta, as it was called then, was the capital of the British held territories until 1911. But at the Imperial Durbar of 1911, held to mark the Coronation of King George V, and attended by him, the King announced that the capital would transfer from Calcutta to Delhi.
Why doesn’t anyone do anything about this building? You may ask.
Calcutta – abandoned as a capital in 1911.
Then in 1947, when India obtained independence from the British and was divided into India and Pakistan, West Bengal found itself arbitrarily partitioned, with Muslims moving to the newly created East Pakistan (a constituent part of Pakistan) and Hindus moving to West Bengal, in the country that remained India.
In the 1970’s war followed and even more refugees moved to West Bengal and Calcutta, culminating in the creation of the new, independent nation of Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan in 1971.
Now in the renamed Kolkata, this poor house has seen so much political upheaval and changes in its fortunes. If only it could tell its story.
There is a lot of restoration work being carried out to buildings of significance in Kolkata; but a former wealthy merchant’s house, with no-one to care for it, lies neglected in a local potter’s colony. Admittedly, not top of the financial priorities for a state capital where so many inhabitants dwell on the streets.
Looking around, the residents of this busy colony bustled about their business, the house passed by without so much of a glance…….it was only me who stood and wondered, who DID it belong to. And who does it belong to now? Anyone? Maybe its ownership is shrouded in doubt, the subject of a protracted land dispute or maybe lost in the mists of time.
Only the house knows its history and recalls its glory days – but how much longer before it finally crumbles to the ground under the weight of history and neglect.
So I took a few more photos and continued with my walk, sad at the fate of a magnificent old building, which still retained its beauty and dignity in the face of continuing dilapidation.
End of rambling!))
“COME AWAY WITH ME……….A DAY IN DELHI.”
First stop: The Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi and Raj Ghat.
Delhi was my home for several years, and although it has a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world for a woman, with a little common sense and confidence, any potential pitfalls can be negated.
Setting off early to avoid the build up of rush hour traffic, I headed to Jama Masjid, also known as the “Friday Mosque” in Old Delhi. It sits at one end of an ancient trading street known as Chandni Chowk, with the Red Fort facing it from the other end.
Jama Masjid was built between 1644 and 1656 during the reign of the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jehan, whilst he was relocating his capital from Agra to the area now known as Old Delhi. He named the new capital Shahjahanabad.
The Mosque has three great gates, four towers and two 40 meter high minarets. The external courtyard can accommodate in excess of 25,000 worshippers and the internal prayer hall, which is 61 meters long and 27.5 meters wide, is topped by high cusped sandstone arches with three marble domes on the external terrace surrounded by minarets.
Most of the construction is of red sandstone with marble being used to enhance some of the more prominent features.
Whilst wandering around, I recalled the consistency of architectural layout between Jama Masjid and the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (Pakistan), which was built by Shah Jehan’s son, Aurangzeb. Images of the Badshahi Mosque (which I have also visited) can be seen on the left and Jama Masjid on the right.
Having avoided the attention of low flying pigeons, a feature of the Mosque as they are fed here, I made my way out and on to my next destination.
((My musings will continue soon as I follow Chandi Chowk to the Red Fort and thence to Raj Ghat, where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated.))
Chandni Chowk: Old Delhi.
Chandni Chowk, seen here from the steps of Jama Masjid, is one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi. It was constructed during the 17th century by Shah Jehan and designed by his favourite daughter, Jahan Ara. Once divided by canals (now closed) to reflect the moonlight, it remains one of India’s busiest wholesale markets and runs from Jama Masjid to the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort.
I had to opportunity to explore the wholesale market on a walking tour a few years ago and found the piles, colours and aromas of the spice market overwhelming – especially as it was difficult to breathe with the all pervasive dust and smell of spices cloying the air. Result: coughing, sneezing, wheezing and running eyes!
The Red Fort: Old Delhi.
The Red Fort, seen here from Jama Masjid, was the residence of the Mughal Emperors for about 200 years until 1857. It also served as the ceremonial and political centre of government. Building commenced in 1648 during the reign of Shah Jehan and its name is derived from the fact that most of it was constructed from red sandstone. The Red Fort is widely regarded as the zenith of Mughal creativity and UNESCO awarded the site World Heritage Status in 2007. Due to time constraints I didn’t stop to explore the Red Fort this time, but instead continued on to Raj Ghat.
Raj Ghat: Old Delhi.
Continuing around the ring road, known as Mahatma Gandhi Road, I arrived at Raj Ghat, which is situated in the banks of the river Yamuna. Walking along a footpath flanked by lawns and flower beds and leading to a short tunnel, I removed my shoes and entered the area which encloses the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
A black marble platform marks the actual cremation site, the cremation taking place on 31st January 1948, the day after Gandhi was assassinated. The cremation site and surrounding gardens are places of great peace and tranquillity where people come to pay their respects and an eternal flame burns at one end of the black marble platform.
((And I’m off again…….the next instalment passing the modern day seat of Government and visiting Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple, Qutab Minar and Humayun’s Tomb))
India Gate – New Delhi.
No time to stop, but the image shows India Gate which is situated on Raj Path and is the memorial to the 82,000 soldiers of the undivided Indian Army who perished between 1914 and 1921. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is inscribed with the names of 13,300 soldiers, including soldiers and officers from the United Kingdom……………and then I pass…….
North and South Blocks and Rastrapati Bhavan – New Delhi.
Again designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with Herbert Baker assisting, these buildings were constructed from 1910 onwards as part of the new capital – New Delhi. They are situated on Raisina Hill, with Raj Path bisecting them. “South Block” houses the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of External Affairs, whilst “North Block” houses the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Between the two can be seen the dome of Rastrapati Bhavan, another Lutyens design and built from 1910 onwards, originally as the “Viceroys House,” but since 1950 it has been the residence of the President of India…….and swiftly moving on I arrived at
Lakshmi Narayan Temple – New Delhi.
An external view of the temple only, as in common with most religious sites, photography is not permitted inside. Lakshmi Narayan is a Hindu Temple, the name usually referring to Vishnu as the preserver in the Trimurti, known as Narayan when he is with his consort, Lakshmi. The temple was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi and was built by the industrialist and philanthropist Baldeo Das Birla between 1933 and 1939. There are side temples to Shiva, Krishna and Buddha and this illustrates the inclusive nature of Hinduism.
((And now, it’s time for lunch before visiting the Mughal glories of Qutab Minar and Humayun’s Tomb which will feature in the next segment))
The Qutab Minar Complex.
The entire complex houses many ancient monuments, the most important of which are the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque (now in ruins). It was the first mosque built in India after the Islamic conquest and dates back to the Mamluk dynasty of 1193 AD.
Qutab Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world standing at 73 metres. Its name means “Victory Tower” and it dates back to 1192 AD – built to celebrate the victory of the Mamluk dynasty in becoming the first Muslim rulers in India. After completion of the first floor a further three were added, but the tower was struck by lightning in 1368 and 1503 and also suffered earthquake damage in 1802, resulting in it being subject to considerable restoration over the centuries. The base gives the appearance of bundled reeds and is notable for the quality of the Islamic calligraphy.
And then I moved swiftly on to my favourite site……………
The complex is now almost fully restored, Humayun’s tomb being commissioned by his son, Akbar, in 1569-70 as the first garden tomb in India.
Humayun died in 1556 and his body was first interred at his palace in Purana Qila, Delhi. The site of this later tomb in Nizamuddin East, Delhi, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
The tomb is surrounded by Persian style gardens and besides housing the cenotaph of the Humayun (who lies buried in the basement beneath), the entire complex contains about 100 graves of Mughal rulers, notables, wives and daughters – giving it the name “Dormitory of the Mughals”.
This tomb lies separately, but within the same complex. Built in 1547, and thus pre-dating Humayun’s tomb by two decades, it is the only surviving octagonal enclosed tomb complete with walls, mosque and gateway intact. Isa Khan was an Afghan noble in Sher Shah Suri’s court who waged war against the Mughals.
((Thus ended a busy day whizzing around Delhi – Old and New!
I hope you enjoyed the journey and more follows as I fly to Bagdogra and continue on to Darjeeling for tea and trains!))
View over Delhi towards the Lotus Temple.
“Come Away With Me” ………from Delhi to Darjeeling for tea and trains.
Up early to check-in at the domestic terminal for my flight to Bagdogra. Situated in Darjeeling District of West Bengal, it’s the nearest airport to Darjeeling, but still 90 km away by road.
Fingers crossed I approached the Air India desk with some trepidation, well aware that their reputation for poor time keeping has earned them the nickname “Where India?” Assured the two hour flight is on time – it is – and it lands early, I emerge into the rather non-descript town of Bagdogra (main industry tea production) and board the bus.
It should have been a four hour road trip to Darjeeling, but due to the weather and road conditions, it became a six hour journey as the bus travelled higher and higher into the mountains towards the “Queen of the Hills” and her high altitude tea plantations.
Not before a little amusement though whilst leaving Bagdogra. Encountering a local festival (I never did find out what for it was for), I smiled at the customary Indian disregard for personal safety whilst carrying fireworks and matches in pockets, handling lighted firecrackers capable of blowing craters in the roads and making as much noise as possible whilst singing and dancing amongst the local traffic. Not to mention the hurling of copious amounts of coloured powder, for which I was grateful for the sanctuary of the bus.
The recently concluded monsoon season was heavy this year, resulting in landslides (more of those in a later blog) and badly damaged roads, but I had to admire the skill of the drivers as they threaded their vehicles “through the eye of a needle” (most of the time), although those of a vertiginous nature were better advised not to try looking down over the sheer drops on the mountain passes and just enjoy the swirling mist and fog obscuring the said “view” as the bus climbed ever higher. Not a recommended trip for those who suffer from motion sickness either, due to the constant twists and turns of the mountain roads.
Then, praise be, a pause at the well named “Agony Point Loop” of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – when I was in dire need of a comfort break, tea, biscuits, a walk and a static view. Only to find that due to our late arrival the restaurant was closed for tea and biscuits. Ah well, you can’t have it all.
“Agony Point” is loop number 4 on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, so named as the apex of the curve is the tightest of the entire route.
Pressing onwards, it’s late afternoon before the bus rolls in to Darjeeling and I’m welcomed at my hotel with a refreshing cup of fresh Darjeeling tea. Perfect!
((“Come away with me” continues soon with a trip on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and a visit to Ghoom Gompa. Please join me. xx))
“Come Away With Me”……….a day in Darjeeling.
First, a little history about the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), the famous “Toy Train” which runs on 2’ narrow gauge rails.
Hurtling along the narrow Darjeeling streets, a taxi driven at furious speed, deposits me at Darjeeling Station.
There, road traffic merges with steam and diesel locomotives as they cross the busy road from the maintenance sheds opposite, whilst morning commuters, railway staff, tourists and local passengers all join the mix. The usual chaos of an Indian railway station is evident, with tea stalls, various characters loafing around, shouting, manic preparations for a “VIP departure” (not me), whistle blowing, flag and arm waving. All this gives me time to wander about, buy tea in a little clay cup I smash on the platform once empty and appreciate the rather art deco style of the station itself.
The DHR covers 55 miles of track from New Jalpaiguri down in the valley near Siliguri to Darjeeling at 6812 feet; but my journey today is the 60 minute trip to Ghoom, India’s highest railway station at 7,407 feet.
Besides operating steam hauled tourist services, the DHR also operates diesel services for the locals. The train carriage sways from side to side through Darjeeling town, frequently zigzagging across the road, weaving in and out of traffic and passing close enough to see into people’s houses or to help yourself to goods from the roadside shops. In many cases, before stepping out of your house/shop, it’s advisable to check for oncoming trains – they literally pass the doorstep!
Travelling via the renowned Batasia Loop, the train halts for a while, giving me time to see the mist shrouded war memorial to India’s Ghurkha soldiers, most of whom are still drawn from the Darjeeling area. Built in 1988 to honour the Gurkhas who perished in various wars after Independence, the 30’ high cenotaph and its roll of honour were covered for restoration at the time of my visit. The cenotaph is guarded by a 9’ bronze statue of a Gurkha, set against the backdrop of mighty Mount Kanchenjunga.
The vintage British built engine used on the stiff incline to Ghoom (it hauled the carriages up facing backwards) was appropriately called “Mountaineer” and on leaving the train I headed for Ghoom Monastery.
Built in 1850 and situated 8km from Darjeeling, the Yiga Choeling Monastery of Ghoom is one of the oldest Tibetan Monasteries in the Darjeeling area. In this instance, photography was allowed inside, against the purchase of a camera permit. My images include an impressive and colourful 15 foot statue of the Lord Buddha, known as the Matreya Buddha or Gyalwa Shampa meaning “Buddha of the Future” or “Coming Buddha”.
((And now…..a taxi back to Darjeeling, a late lunch and the afternoon exploring before travelling north east to Gangtok, the capital of the neighbouring state of Sikkim. This segment will also include useful advice to the traveller on what to do when there is a landslide directly in front of your bus as “Come Away With Me” continues. xx))
“Come Away With Me”……..Darjeeling to Gangtok – of travel, a landslide and more tea.
Checking out of my hotel, I embarked on what was scheduled to be a 5 hour, 117 km journey from Darjeeling to Gangtok, the capital of the Indian state of Sikkim, lying just 55 km from the border with Tibet.
Badly damaged roads (actually more potholes than road after the recent heavy monsoon), made it slow going, but as luck would have it, the bus paused at the home of a lovely Gurkha couple for morning tea. The gentleman had been in the Indian Army for 25+ years and his charming wife was more than happy for me to take photographs of their home. The tea was fresh – and I mean fresh – taken from the leaves drying on their kitchen table. Fresh baked biscuits too! I always admire how people manage their households and adjoining land in such remote areas with limited communication, erratic utilities, basic household utensils and very few nearby shops. The house was immaculately kept and the couple were the most hospitable of hosts.
After departure, as the bus bounced along and around the mountain passes, everything was going swimmingly until there was a landslide immediately in front of the bus which blocked the entire route.
Traffic quickly piled up behind us and men did what men normally do in such a situation, gathering round the aforesaid blockage of soil, stones, rocks and trees, animatedly gesticulating, talking and shouting over one another……and achieving nothing.
Being pretty obvious some heavy plant machinery was required, the writer looked at the earth and stones still trickling down the mountain towards the bus, decided it was not a good place to be, disembarked and walked in the opposite direction.
Then, noticing an Indian army truck further down the pass, and well aware that an army always marches on its stomach, I strolled over, had a chat, made friends and the Indian Army kindly shared their rations with me…..so that was my lunch sorted! And it’s amazing what a good cup of tea can be made in a tin can over a pile of burning sticks in the middle of a mountain pass.
Fortunately, due to the number of recent landslides, diggers were strategically located along the pass and I have to commend the labourers who had the road opened again within 90 minutes…..and with the assistance of the local police, much whistle blowing and arm waving, everyone good-naturedly squeezed their way past each other and continued on their way.
The rest of the journey was slow, but boringly uneventful, including the stop at Rangpo Police Station to have my “Restricted Area Entry Permit” examined and my passport stamped with entry to Sikkim. The 5 hour journey had however taken 8 hours before the bus rolled into Gangtok and I made it to my hotel.
((“Come Away With Me” will continue with a visit to the strife ridden Rumtek Monastery as well as Enchey Gompa in Gangtok. Please join me. xx))
“Come Away With Me”……..a day in Gangtok – of a strife ridden monastery and renovation.
Head still spinning a little from being thrown around mountain passes the previous day, and tearing myself away from the swimming pool, my first visit was to Rumtek Monastery, near Gangtok.
Also known as the Dharmachakra Centre, it dates back to the mid 1700’s, but fell into ruins before being rebuilt by an exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader who arrived in India in 1959. He officially inaugurated his new seat in 1966 and it’s currently the largest monastery in the state of Sikkim.
Sadly, it has also been the focal point for sectarian tensions within Tibetan Buddhist adherents. The monastery currently houses a community of monks, but concurrently, two rival organisations have been involved in protracted legal argument for stewardship of the monastery in the Indian Courts.
Since 1992 Rumtek Monastery has also been the scene of pitched battles between the supporters of the two rival candidates for the chair – although neither has been enthroned. Indian soldiers still patrol the monastery (very much in evidence) to prevent further sectarian violence, which is a pity, for a Buddhist monastery should be a place of peace.
Taking the opportunity for a stroll in the countryside afterwards, I marvel at both the scenery and prayer flags which decorate so many rural roads in Sikkim.
I then moved on to Enchey Gompa (Monastery).
First established in the 1840’s, but recognised as aesthetically built in 1909, the name means “Solitary Monastery.” It is as place of pilgrimage as well as being revered by each household in Gangtok as it is believed to house two deities. Occupying a ridge overlooking Gangtok, the monastery suffered severe earthquake damage in 2006. It was found however that the amount of damage was disproportionate to the strength of the earthquake, which served to underline the amount of seismic activity this area suffers. When I visited, the monastery was undergoing substantial renovation with more seismic resistant materials.
Then, adjourning to Gangtok for a late lunch in a very pleasant western style coffee I shop, I spent the afternoon browsing around the shops.
((“Come Away With Me” continues tomorrow as I travel to the Indian border at Jalgaon and cross into Phuentsholing in Bhutan. What could possibly go wrong?))
“Come Away With Me”……from Gangtok to Phuentsholing – of a landslide, a bridge, a festival, immigration and a new country to explore.
India to Bhutan today. 227 km and an “eight hour” drive I’m told. What could possibly go wrong? Phuentsholing, the famous gateway into Bhutan, lies in the south west corner of the country, the Torsa River forming the boundary between India and Bhutan.
As the journey passes, scenic mountains and swollen rivers give way to plains cultivated with tea and paddy rice……but not before the bus encounters the first landslide of the day. Delayed this time for a mere 45 minutes, we press on, pausing at the Rangpo Police Check Post again so I can have my “Permit to Enter a Restricted Area” examined again and my passport stamped that I am leaving Sikkim.
I smile as an explosives van passes the police station with a car affixed to its rear bumper, despite clearly written warnings to the contrary. And I’m off again, back in West Bengal and heading for Bhutan.
The bus stops for tea at the Coronation Bridge which links Darjeeling District with Jalpaiguri. Known by the locals as “Baghpool” due to the two tigers at one entrance, construction was started in 1937 to celebrate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. It was completed in 1941 and spans the Teesta River. It is also called “Lohapul” (Iron Bridge) as it’s made out of steel.
The local macaques are a nuisance; noted thieves who hang around wherever food is available, but with all possessions intact, it’s back on the bus before a lunch stop at the fairly typical Indian town of Malbazar.
And then it’s off again, only to run into another colourful, local village festival involving the immersion of idols in the Torsa River. As usual, it seems a good time was had by all in the milling throng, albeit a rather wet one.
The rest of the journey was uneventful, before the bus eventually arrived at the Indian border town of Jaigaon, where I just managed to get the time consuming immigration formalities completed before the office closed for the day.
Then a short drive down the road, leap from one bus to another and another short drive to my hotel in………..Bhutan!
There I am told I can stroll around to the Bhutan immigration office at my leisure…..it’s just around the corner and they will wait for me. What a difference! A cold towel and drink proffered, toilet facilities, a chair whilst the formalities are being completed, and an impressive computer system which shows the data being recorded against you on /your/ side, the immigration officer happy for you to check and confirm that it’s correct. Then a happy, smiling immigration officer stamps your passport, stands and welcomes you and thanks you for visiting Bhutan. And off I go…………….
Any country that does immigration like this, has an impressive gate at the border complete with dragons /and/ attractive roundabouts is okay with me.
But the “eight hour” drive was actually ten, so after wandering around Phuentsholing and back to my hotel, it’s time for dinner and then bed.
((“Come Away With Me” continues tomorrow with an overview of the little known Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Please join me before I start exploring this fascinating and beautiful country. xx))
“Come Away With Me”……little known facts about Bhutan.
To start – the Bhutanese love and revere their King and royal family. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck married Queen Jetsun Pema in 2011 and they have one son, Prince Gyalsey, whose birth was celebrated by the planting of 108,000 tree saplings.
Changes come slowly in Bhutan, yet the King has presided over a great deal of political change since his accession in 2006. The first ever general election was held in 2008, two parties participated and it was won by the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party. The second general election in 2013 was won by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party.
Population = 750,000.
Area = 14,812 square miles.
Major language = Dzongkha.
Major religions = Buddhism (official) and Hinduism.
Life expectancy = 66 (men) and 70 (women)
Currency = Ngultrum.
Main exports = hydroelectric power to India, timber, tourism, cement, agricultural products and handicrafts.
Military = Bhutan has an army but no navy as it’s landlocked. They don’t have an Air Force either – air cover is provided by India.
Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan Kingdom little known by outsiders, is also called “The Land of the Thunder Dragon. Nestled between India and China and with few formal diplomatic relations, it kept itself cut off from the world for centuries to protect its culture.
Despite its spectacular scenery and fascinating culture, Bhutan is not that easy to visit. It remains untouched by mass tourism and numbers are deliberately limited; the hope being that “low impact” tourism will not harm their environment and culture and thus preserve the country’s unique heritage.
The national dress for men is the Gho which is tied by a traditional cloth Kera (belt). Ladies wear the Kira. Both may also be accompanied by a long scarf tied from the left shoulder to the right hip, especially when visiting religious sites. The scarf is called the Kabney for men and the Rachu for ladies. The colour of the Kabney denotes rank when worn by men, but the colour of a ladies Rachu is not associated with rank or status.
National dress is worn by most citizens and always by those employed by the government or in public offices.
Inheritance is generally passed down through the female line. Daughters usually inherit their parents’ house with sons expected to earn their own living.
The national dish is Ema Datshi – chillies in a cheese sauce- and it’s hot!!!! In fact the hotter the chillies, the more Bhutanese relish them.
Archery was declared the national sport in 1971. Traditional bamboo bows are still used in competition, the distance to the target being approximately 147 metres. Bhutan has never won an Olympic archery medal though – apparently the target is a little too close – at 70 meters!
Bhutan has been at the cutting edge of international trends for a long time. Plastic bags have been banned since 1999 and tobacco is almost wholly illegal. The Police regularly stop road traffic to search for tobacco or other forbidden substances.
By law – 60% of the country must always be forested. At present 70% of Bhutan is under forest. Contrast this with the mountains of India, where I saw considerable deforestation which was probably accounted for the number of landslides.
Bhutan is regarded as the world’s leading carbon NEGATIVE country. It sucks up three times the CO2 emissions that it population of 750,000 produces.
In 2015 Bhutan set a Guinness world record for the number of trees planted in one hour – 50,000. Trees are regarded as a symbol of long life, beauty and compassion.
And Bhutan measures the quality of life in “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) rather than “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP), striking a balance the government says between material and mental well being.
((“Come Away With Me” continues next week as I travel from Phuentsholing via Kharbandi Gompa, Gedu, Wangkha and some jaw dropping scenery to the capital, Thimpu. Please join me. xx))
“Come Away With Me”………a few words about prayer wheels.
From prayer wheels large enough to fit a man inside, to smaller ones at local temples, to hand-held ones, all prayer wheels are spun clockwise.
Likewise the chorten, stupa or temple is always circled clockwise.
Spinning prayer wheels are an ubiquitous sight wherever Buddhism is practised, as well as throughout Bhutan.
Each revolving cylinder contains printed prayers that are “activated” each time the wheel is spun.
Some are turned by running water, like the one I saw on the descent from Taktsang Monastery (above), or even hot air above a flame.
Monks and devotees however turn human-powered prayer wheels to gain merit and to concentrate the mind on the mantras and prayers they are reciting.
Prayer wheels at Enchey Gompa in Sikkim, India.
“Come Away With Me”……..from Phuentsholing to Thimpu.
Leaving Phuentsholing for the 8 hour, 180 km drive to the capital of Bhutan, Thimpu, there’s time to stop at Kharbandi Gompa.
Built in 1967 by the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Phuentsho Choedron who had a winter residence here, the Gompa is set amongst a garden of tropical plants and flowers and affords superb views over Phuentsholing and the surrounding Indian plains.
When the bus stops for the obligatory morning tea, I take the opportunity for a quick walk around the town of Gedu, whose economy has developed rapidly due to the Tala Hydroelectric Project Authority which has provided many jobs as well as the supporting infrastructure.
And one thing I have noticed about Bhutan…..there are far more cows on the roads than there are in neighbouring India, which of course holds the cow sacred. I therefore bid one good morning as I pass on my walk. It farts in return.
Passing a huge waterfall near Wangkha, I only hoped my photography could give it a sense of perspective against the surrounding mountains as the scenery between Phuentsholing and Thimpu was jaw dropping spectacular.
It’s late afternoon when I arrive in Thimpu, the world’s only capital city with no traffic lights. A set was installed a few years ago, but the residents complained in typical Bhutanese fashion that they were too impersonal and so the white gloved police continue to direct the light traffic flow with all the grace of someone performing a 1980’s robotic dance.
Two nights in this captivating city and as the hotel is opposite the National Stadium I watch the Bank of Bhutan beat Bhutan Telecomm 5-4…..I think. There was no admission charge and after sending a player off, the referee changed his mind and said he could stay after all. Bizarre!
And so to bed after a wonderful day of scenery, greenery, mountains, no traffic lights and football.
“Come Away With Me”…….a day in Thimpu.
A walk around Thimpu during the morning “rush hour” included the town square before I moved on to visit the National Memorial Chorten.
A Tibetan style stupa built in 1974, and one of the most visible religious structures in Thimpu, it was built as a memorial to the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-72). Unlike other stupas, this one does not enshrine human remains.
For many Bhutanese, the National Memorial Chorten is the focus of their daily worship and throughout the day they circle the stupa, whirl the prayer wheels and pray at a small shrine inside the gate.
Thimpu is very compact, so it didn’t take long to reach the recently completed 50 metre tall, Great Buddha Dordenma statue celebrating the centenary of the Bhutanese Monarchy as well as the 60th anniversary of the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
The huge three storey throne will eventually hold several chapels whilst the body itself is filled with 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha. Made of steel and gilded in gold, it is one of the largest Buddhist rupas in the world. The site also offers impressive views over the city of Thimpu.
Close by lies the National Institute of Zorig Chusum where students undertake a six year course in the thirteen traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan.
Hence: Zo = ability to make. Rig = science or craft. Chusum = thirteen.
The thirteen arts, which are similar to Tibetan ones are, handmade paper making, stonework, blacksmithing, clay arts, painting, bronze casting, wood, slate and stone carving, wood turning, woodworking, weaving, silver and goldsmithing, cane and bamboo work and needlework.
Painting is the main theme of the Institute and I spent the rest of my absorbing morning watching the students at work as well as learning from the Masters of the various crafts.
Feeling the need for some fresh fruit, I side stepped into the main vegetable market in Thimpu and bought four large, juicy pears for the equivalent of 10p before adjourning for lunch and a stroll around the city.
Later in the afternoon I visited Trashi Chhoe Dzong or “Fortress of the Glorious Religion.” The coronation of the fifth King was held here in 2008 and it’s a multifunctional Dzong, housing the Secretariat, the throne room, the offices of the King and the ministries of home affairs and finance.
The original Dzong dates back to the 18th century but was damaged by fire several times. When the capital was moved from Punakha to Thimpu in 1962, the Dzong was renovated and enlarged, without touching the Lhakhang Sarpa (New Temple) or any of the other chapels at the centre. Other than that, the entire Dzong was rebuilt in traditional fashion……without nails or architectural plans.
((And then it was back to the hotel for dinner and anticipating the journey to Paro the following day for the highlight of my stay in Bhutan – the hike to Taktsang Monastery. xx))
“Come Away With Me”……a few words about prayer flags.
Found fluttering on mountain passes, rooftops, in Dzong and temple courtyards, present day prayer flags take their origins from Tibetan armies who used them as regimental flags.
They come in five colours which are used in a specific order – blue, white, red, green and yellow symbolising the elements of water, iron, fire, wood and earth respectively.
They also stand for the five Dhyani (meditation Buddhas) the five wisdoms, the five directions and the five mental attributes or emotions. The prayer for the flag is carved into wooden blocks and then printed on the cloth in repeating patterns.
Goendhar – the smallest prayer flags are mounted on the rooftops of homes. They are white banners with small blue, red, green and yellow ribbons attached to their edges and invoke the blessings and patronage of Mahakala, the main protective deity of Bhutan. They are replaced annually during a ceremony that honours the family’s personal local deities.
Lungdhar – the white flag erected on hillsides or ridges and can be for good luck, protection from an illness, the achievement of a personal goal or the acquisition of wisdom. They are printed with the wind horse (Lungta) which carries a wish fulfilling jewel on its back.
Manidhar – Erected on behalf of a deceased person and features prayers to the Buddha of compassion, Chenresig. Usually erected in batches of 108 at strategic high points from which a river can be seen. The belief is that the prayers will waft with the wind to the river and be carried on its long and winding journey.
Lhadhar – The largest flag in the country; the God Flag. Huge flags which are seen outside Dzongs and other important places and represent victory over the forces of evil. As a general rule, there is no text on these flags which are a giant version of the Goendhar. The only difference is that the top of the Lhadhar is capped by a colourful silk parasol. Everyone must be appropriately dressed to enter a place where a Lhadhar stands.
All prayer flags are treated with respect; they are usually replaced annually and should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags are burnt.
“Come Away With Me”……..Thimpu to Paro.
Only a 55 km journey today, so my first visit was to Simtokha Dzong. Situated on a prominent ridge in the Thimpu valley, it has recently been renovated.
Dating back to 1629, this fortress-monastery is the oldest surviving Dzong in its original form and its murals are also the oldest in Bhutan. Besides being an important historical monument, the Dzong houses a community of monks and is one of the most prominent Dzongkha learning institutes in Bhutan.
Pressing on and marvelling at the scenery, chillies drying on roofs and pausing at an old, traditional Bhutanese bridge, the bus chugged along before stopping at a ridge overlooking Paro International Airport.
It’s the only airport in Bhutan and built at the end of a twisting narrow valley between mountains. The flight path is so complex that only seven pilots are certified to land there. Thrill seekers might like to view some of the approaches on YouTube. Personally though, one of the prettiest and quietest international airports I’ve ever seen.
Just outside Paro I managed to sneak a view of a local, rural temple. There was no electricity inside, but as usual it was adorned with colourful prayer flags, personal prayers had been left amongst the wheels and many locals were performing their prayers and circling the temple.
Arriving in Paro in time for lunch, but a little early to check in to my “hotel”, I headed for Rinpung Dzong….also known as Paro Dzong.
One of Bhutan’s most impressive and well known Dzongs, it’s perhaps the finest example of Bhutanese architecture. It dates back to 1646 in its current form and means “Fortress on a heap of Jewels.” Approached by an impressive bridge, the Dzong houses the district monastic body, government administrative office and the local courts.
The traditional covered wooden bridge called Nyamal Zam spans the Paro Chhu. It’s a reconstruction of the original bridge which was washed away in a flood in 1969. Earlier versions of the bridge were removed in the time of war to protect the Dzong.
Currently on Bhutan’s list of possible sites for UNESCO inclusion as World Heritage Sites, some scenes of the 1995 film “Little Buddha” were filmed here.
Time to head for my “hotel” now, which I was assured was the “oldest” in Bhutan…….and here’s my “room!”
((The next day finds me hiking for over five hours, and up to 3,200 meters, followed by negotiating 700 steps, to reach the highlight of my stay in Bhutan – Taktsang Monastery. Please join me on the hike! xx))
“Come Away With Me”…….a monastery in the mist, more tea and stampeding horses – the hike to Taktsang Monastery.
Away With Me”……a monastery in the mist, more tea and stampeding horses – the hike to Taktsang.
Up early, full of anticipation. The hike is a tough one I’m told. Over five hours hiking, from 2,000 metres at the starting point just above Paro, to 3,200 metres where Taktsang Monastery (which translates as Tigers Nest Monastery) appears to hang precariously on the side of a cliff.
A misty, murky day, but purchasing my walking stick as advised (for 60 rupees….about 75p and I always feel it’s best to take advantage of any help you can get), I stride off.
The bottom is very wet, muddy and churned up by the horses who take the less energetic to the first view point at the cafe. A gradual gradient through the blue pines of the forest quickly becomes steep, the trail now boggy with hoof prints and very slippery. Tree roots are an additional hazard, so I’m glad I bought the walking stick, if only to test the depth of mud!
The horses have their designated route. Tip: don’t get in their way. Fortunately it’s on the outside of the mountain and walkers are advised to keep against the wall – where possible.
The horses are all well cared for, do one trip per day, turn around at the cafe and then head back home “empty”……..meaning they hurtle back down the mountain to their feed bowls. Tip: shelter beside a tree trunk when you see them coming. I saw two walkers who strayed onto the “horse path” bowled over as they didn’t get out of the way quickly enough – no lasting harm done though.
And so the trail continued steeply upwards – I didn’t suffer mental or physical fatigue, but the thinness of the air as I climbed higher and higher meant I had to pause frequently to fill my lungs, drink plenty of water and admire the swirling mist as it obscured and then cleared for a few seconds, offering tantalising glimpses of my goal.
After an hour I reached a chorten and some colourful prayer flags, also shrouded in mist, and these encouraged me onwards, although I took care here as the trail crossed an archery ground.
And after another thirty minutes I reached the cafe for a well deserved cup of tea – to be greeted by more horses! Pack horses this time. Well, how else would supplies get to the cafe?
Buying more water and suitably refreshed I set off again, heeding the warning to take small steps as immediately after the cafe the trail would get even steeper before levelling out. There were brief glimpses of the monastery from the cafe between the swirling clouds of mist and I prayed the view would get clearer the higher I climbed.
And the trail /did/ get steeper, with high steps up and large tree roots, but drier too. And it did even out.
It took an hour to reach the second viewpoint set at 3,140 meters. From there I got a clear view across to the monastery and it was also the best spot for photographs.
You think you’re there? Well you’re not. The monastery is still 150 metres away at other side of a deep gorge – so it’s a mere 700 concrete steps to negotiate now, down to the bottom of the gorge, across the face of a waterfall and up the other side.
There I’m met by the Bhutanese army, have to register and am divested of my bag, phone and camera. Then I can enter the monastery. Apart from its spectacular setting, the only sounds being the murmurs of the wind and water in the valley below, it’s very similar in layout to all the others I’d seen. It’s also a major pilgrimage site for the Bhutanese people……although it was a bit embarrassing, as I puffed up the trail, to be overtaken at speed by a Bhutanese granny with a toddler on her back and carrying what looked like a weeks’ groceries!
Visit to the monastery concluded it’s time to do it all again on the way back. Passing prayer flags, I pause to look back and photograph the monastery through some rhododendrons.
Denied me on the ascent, I now have the opportunity to see the monastery from the prayer flags which were earlier surrounded by mist before admiring three water powered prayer wheels near my starting point.
The descent took almost as long as the ascent as I tried to avoid tripping or slipping on the steep gradients and steps down. A bit of a strain on the hips, knees and ankles and I had sore toes, but what a sense of achievement when I reached the bottom.
5 hours and 40 minutes of huffing and puffing……and I’d do it all again tomorrow.
En route back to Paro, the taxi driver arranged a scenic walk past a local temple as I had asked to see a traditional farm house and their farming methods.
After admiring the front door, I stepped into a neatly kept courtyard full of harvested crops, grains, firewood and comfortable stables for the livestock.
And as I was leaving, a religious ceremony complete with monks and band was taking place in the adjacent temple.
Truly a day when I felt blessed to be alive and able to see this wonderful country – although looking forward to a hot bath and my bed tonight.
((Making a mental note to check all my limbs for aches and pains on waking the next day, I’ll be saying goodbye and thank you to Bhutan before returning to West Bengal and my favourite Indian city – Kolkata. Please continue travelling with me. xx))
“Come Away With Me”………….Paro to Kolkata – of an airport, Samwell takes a journey, goodbye to Bhutan and Oh! Kolkata!
The Druk Air check-in desk is deserted, as is all of Paro International Airport. “Would madam like a seat on the right hand side of the plane for a close up view of the Himalayas?” Yes please! Just not too close as the plane weaves its way along the valley. I’m told on a clear day you may even get a sight of Mount Everest.
Then it’s only me for a happy, smiling security man to process.
Druk Air has a small fleet of mostly Airbus A319 aircraft as only seven pilots are certified to operate in and out of Paro. A smart plane with a dragon on the tail is being prepared for departure, so I ask another happy, smiling security man if I can take a photograph.
Having travelled through many airports where an entire SWAT team is deployed if you so much as raise a camera, I always think it’s best to ask; but opening the door to the tarmac for me, he happily allows me to snap away – whilst I observe how close the mountains actually are.
Boarding of the immaculately clean plane is orderly and the equally immaculate happy, smiling cabin crew hand out lunch boxes before departure for the 40 minute flight to Kolkata. Samwell poses for a photograph – to the joy of all the Japanese who instantly recognise him, as the flights’ final destination today is Bangkok.
We depart on time….and the take off? Well once I had recovered from the aircraft rising so steeply my feet were round my ears, I found zigzagging along the valley between mountains was no worse than being thrown around mountain passes in a bus. Alas, the top of the Himalayas and Everest I couldn’t see for the mist, but the flight arrived in Kolkata on time and the happy, smiling cabin crew said “goodbye and come back soon.” Druk Air 100% recommended. Larger carriers take note!
Then into the steaming, sweltering sauna that is Kolkata with its frenetic, jostling, honking traffic, human rickshaw pullers and tightly packed population.
Some hate this city, but I love it. To me, Kolkata always looks like it’s been beaten up – both the vehicles and the buildings – but whatever the setbacks, Kolkata keeps punching its way through.
I smile as we pass Eden Gardens, (the “Lords of Asia” to cricket fans) and then I remember it’s Durga Puja soon.
Durga is the revered Goddess of Kolkata and the celebrations span several days. Approximately 4,500 bamboo supported pandals (stages) are erected throughout the city to display idols of the Goddess who overcame the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura. Durga Puja therefore celebrates the victory of good over evil and Durga as protector of her devotees.
Nowhere is Durga Puja celebrated so enthusiastically as in Kolkata. The city is ablaze with lights, music blares, fun fairs and food stalls are set up and each night is one mad carnival with both city residents and those who have travelled many miles to celebrate Durga Puja in Kolkata, hurling themselves into one long round of partying.
And at the end of it all, the effigies of Durga are taken from their pandals, paraded through the city and immersed in the River Hooghly.
Starting their preparations in plenty of time, the throngs of shoppers in Newmarket and Chowringee late afternoon on a Sunday were so dense they were hardly moving.
After passing Tipu Sultan Mosque and swiftly dumping my case at the hotel, I’m back out of the door before the bemused doorman even has time to close it after me. Destination – the Victoria Memorial, situated in an area known as the Maidan and close to the River. Hooghly.
((“Come Away With Me” continues as I make a late afternoon visit to the Victoria Memorial and St Pauls Cathedral – both legacies of the East India Company and the British Raj. xx))
THE VICTORIA MEMORIAL.
In 1901, on the death of Queen Victoria, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy suggested a fitting memorial. Built of white marble and constructed between 1906 and 1921 to a design by William Emmerson, the Memorial is Indo-Saracenic revivalist in style, with British and Mughal elements in addition to Venetian, Egyptian, Deccani and Islamic ones.
King George V laid the foundation stone in 1906 and the Memorial opened to the public in 1921. In 1912 however, King George V announced that the capital would be relocated from Calcutta to New Delhi, so the Victoria Memorial was built in what was to become a provincial city rather than the capital.
The Memorial museum houses 25 galleries displaying important works of art and documents of the time and is hugely popular with tourists and locals alike.
It’s also surrounded by 64 acres of gardens containing statues of dignitaries, the most prominent of which are the bronze statue of Queen Victoria seated on her throne and the statue of King Edward VII on horseback.