September 2014 - Be On The Road | Live your Travel Dream!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tana Toraja: We Celebrate Death!

This has been one of my favorite travel stories and it has produced jaw-dropping reactions at many of my dinner table conversations. The reaction it produces is the same when I first encountered this unique culture, which is of absolute disbelief.

Famous Lemo Graveyard of Tana Toraja
Whether you are Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other religion, we have all been taught to celebrate life. We welcome the birth of a new child. We celebrate the joining of a man and a woman in holy matrimony.

Traditional Tana Torajan houses at Kete Kesu village
In simple terms, we celebrate life. But, have you ever heard of anyone celebrating death? Sounds confusing right?

Gathering at a Tana Toraja Funeral
This is because all of us have been taught to mourn death. But, the people of Tana Toraja, they live by a different set of rules in this department.

At a funeral ceremony at Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Thought to be sea-farers from the Philippines or one of the many islands in that belt, the Torajans settled in the lush green and fertile mountains and valleys of South-Central Sulawesi, one of the islands in Eastern Indonesia many hundreds of years ago.

Paintings on a Tana Toraja Funeral House
Originally, they used to follow Animism, but over the course of many centuries, they embraced Christianity, but still kept their Animist beliefs close.

Dead person being carried to funeral house in proper Torajan tradition
Everything about them is very unique and that is what makes them very interesting if you are a culture buff. All the houses in Tana Toraja are shaped like inverted boats. Some folks tales say that, the Torajans used their boats to set up their first houses. Other folk tales say that the chief of the group dreamt of such houses in his dream and thus orchestrated the first village in that fashion.

A Torajan funeral ceremony brings traffic to a standstill in Tana Toraja
Whatever the folk tale or the reason, seeing these beautifully different houses in every corner of Tana Toraja is a sense of ‘high’ for the eyes and for the mind. But, the houses are just the start. The thing that is the most interesting in Tana Toraja are the funerals.

Torajan men in a funeral ceremony
Many villages are invited. Everyone works in the funeral. Families and friends are there in full attendance. Food is provided in plenty. There is lots of drama and action. Animals are sacrificed in plenty. Funeral Celebrations can last from some days to some weeks. Sounds pretty different right?

A Tana Torajan Funeral Courtyard
I am a Hindu. We burn the dead. In Islam and Christianity, they bury the dead. The Buddhists, depending on their geography follow either burning or burial. But, irrespective of religion, we try and complete the funeral procedure as soon as possible. This is to prevent decay of the dead body and to prevent spread of any diseases.

Torajan women during a funeral celebration
In some cases, close family might be living in a different part of the world and hence the dead is kept in a ice box or frozen in a mortuary for preservation. But, this again is done for a maximum of 7 to 10 days and then the funeral is completed.

Family members at a Tana Toraja Funeral Ceremony
Here, in Tana Toraja, when someone dies in the family, there is no immediate plan to hold the funeral ceremony. Instead, the entire family works hard to put together enough money for a grand funeral that fits that social status. In the meanwhile, the dead person is injected with formaldehyde and preserved in the house.

Funeral Scene at a Tana Toraja House
The family members do not treat the dead person as ‘dead’. Rather, they treat them as a sick person. For example, the wife would go to her dead husband and say, ‘I made some nice pork curry and rice for lunch today. Your favorite! Why don’t you take a bite?’. Then, she leaves it near him and goes back to her other work.

Torajans participate in the funeral ceremony of a fellow Torajan
The other members of the family keep having conversations with the dead person (can be his son, daughter, siblings, wife, father, mother, etc.). Everyone treats the dead like a ‘sick’ person and tries to engage him in a conversation like when he was living.

Bull fight at a Tana Toraja funeral ceremony
At a periodic frequency, someone keeps injecting the body with formaldehyde so that the body is in an embalmed state. The family continue their daily life with the dead person in their midst. In their minds, the dead is just sick and hence, they do their bit in taking care of the sick person. They keep doing this till they have saved enough money for a grand funeral.

People of Tana Toraja in traditional funeral attire
In Tana Toraja, there are various social classes. Depending on their class, people are obliged to have a certain type of funeral. If you are of the highest order, you have to have a grand funeral. There will be no changes to that. Hence, many families have been known to keep the dead body in their house for weeks, months and even years, till they have enough money for a funeral that suits their class.

Posing with buffalo bulls at a Tana Toraja Funeral Celebration
Well, I am sure that by now, you are all hypnotized and dumb struck. It is pretty weird, but it is true. Once the family has the money for the funeral, they send out an invite to all their extended family and friends. Every Torajan is invited. People from different villages of Tana Toraja come to contribute their bit for the funeral. Some of them help in building and decorating the funeral house. Some of them take care of the event management. Some of them bring in pigs and buffaloes. Some of them orchestrate the music. Basically, every one contributes to the funeral.

If you see the funeral up close, you will feel like everyone belongs to the family. But, the truth is that, it is the Torajan family and not just the family of the dead. The funeral house, the funeral coffin, the entire funeral event is designed in the traditional inverted boat design of the Torajans and with all their intricate art and designs.

Slaughter of one of the many male buffaloes at a Tana Toraja Funeral Ceremony
Everyone in the family dresses in black. There are traditional dances, getups and dresses that others indulge in. Many buffaloes and pigs are sacrificed. Only male buffaloes and pigs. Sometimes as many as hundred buffaloes and pigs are sacrificed at the funeral house. This is because…The Torajans believe that animal spirits accompany and carry the spirit of the dead to the path of heaven. The more the animal spirits, the safer the passage is the belief.

Tana Toraja Funeral ceremony is quite a sight
And that is not the end of it. Even in the buffaloes that they slaughter, they prefer the albino ones. They believe that the albino ones are special. And just so you know, these buffaloes don’t come cheap. They quote quite a premium in Tana Toraja and are single-handedly one of the main reasons why they have to work so hard to put together the money for the funeral.

Tau Tau at Londa graveyard, Tana Toraja
All these buffalo bulls are decked up and marched in front of the funeral procession that begins at the house after many rituals. And once they reach the funeral house, each buffalo is slaughtered (at one or two or even three per day) over the course of the multi-day or multi-week funeral celebration. The slaughtering process is painful as the buffalo dies a slow death. The same is the case with the pigs.

Lane of traditional Torajan houses at Kete Kesu, Tana Toraja, Indonesia
And once dead, all of these end up at the funeral kitchen for a grand feast. The funeral event setup is in such a way that all the family, friends and other Torajans are given a place at the funeral house. Alcohol flows. Delicious food is served. People dance, sing and make merry.

Head gear of Torajan Funeral Dancers
There are even bull fights that are organized for the entertainment of the people. Do note that only the rich Torajan funerals include such bull fights. The super rich funerals organize bull fights every day of the celebration as they have enough money to buy a lot of buffaloes.

Coffin being carried into the funeral house at Tana Toraja
I attended close to 20 such funerals during my stay at Tana Toraja and saw many slaughterings, bull fights, feasts, dances, celebrations and much more. There is no mourning in the atmosphere.

Rock graves of southern Tana Toraja
Rather, people are all happy and smiling. I took me a while to understand this emotion. But, that is because, the sick person will officially be pronounced dead at the end of the funeral celebration and that the dead will find a safe passage to heaven.

Carving and painting souvenirs from Tana Toraja, Indonesia
The culture is unique. The funeral is unique. The people are unique. And hence it will be apt only if the burials are also unique. The people of Tana Toraja indulge in a variety of burials. And have their own set of beliefs and rules for this too.

A nicely carved Torajan coffin
There are cave burials. There are rock burials. There are stone burials. Some dead are buried in a vertical cliff wall. However, they might be buried, all their coffins are intricately designed with traditional Torajan symbols and drawings.

Tau-Tau at the Lemo graveyard of Tana Toraja
And spirit guardians are kept at the front of the burial sites to protect the dead from negative forces.

Graves inside caves at Tana Toraja
You can get a good idea of these various burial forms as you explore the different villages of Tana Toraja.

Scenic Tana Toraja Countryside
You will also get a good idea of the beautiful landscape of Tana Toraja that is so lush green with its waterfalls, rice terraces, mountains, valleys, mountain streams and much more.

A traditional Tana Toraja house front lined with buffalo horns
I am sure you are still dumbstruck at this story of the Torajan culture. Such cultures are one of the main reasons for my traveling far and wide. We see a world that is so very different than what we have been taught and made to believe!!

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My Tips Featured in Travel Secrets Magazine

Are you looking to start a new travel blog? Are you looking for ways to promote or market your travel blog? Well, here are some tips from my personal experience that have been featured in the Travel Secrets Magazine Sep-Oct 2014 issue. I am hoping that these tips of mine come in handy while you work on the marketing strategy for your travel blog.

How do I market my Travel Blog - Travel Secrets Magazine Feature - Page 1

How do I market my Travel Blog - Travel Secrets Magazine Feature - Page 2Above are some screen shots of that article. For a full and high resolution PDF version, click here. And for a real feel of the magazine, you can buy it here. The magazine has many interesting destination stories and other travel tips. Thank you Travel Secrets Magazine for the feature.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Board Game at Bhaktapur

It was a warm and humid day. I had just had a carb heavy rice lunch after an entire morning of exploring the heritage zone of Bhaktapur. I was visibly slow and not in the mood for more sightseeing. Instead, I wanted to talk to someone while sipping some water or cold juice. With this thought in mind, I kept ambling trying to find an interesting street scene in Bhaktapur and that’s when I chanced these locals playing a board game.

Locals enjoying a board game on a hot afternoon in Bhaktapur, Nepal
The game looked similar to the game of Ludo, but it came with its own set of rules. I tried understanding the game, but may be it was the heat, that I gave up too soon. But, the people playing the game noticed my interest in them and their game. They offered me a seat and that’s how we began talking. I found out that the heat was getting to them too and that is why they were trying to add some entertainment through the board game. After basic introductions, they asked me questions about India, about how I liked their town and more. After an hour or so, the effects of the food and the heat began to abate and I said my byes and went back to exploring the heritage town. This time, I made my way to Changgu Narayan.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Volunteering in India: How to get started

If you are thinking of volunteering abroad then one of the most important things to remember is that it takes a lot of time and energy, and it won’t be easy. With this in mind though, you should also be aware that, if you end up doing it, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

When planning your trip, it’s essential to have a clear idea of your expectations and to consider whether you wish to look for something that is relevant to your intended career or current field of expertise as this can make your volunteering experience particularly satisfying. For example, if you enjoy working with children then it’s worth seeking out a program that is specifically concerned with education.

The magic of India Among the many beautiful places in the world that are attractive when it comes to travel and volunteering, India is one of the most exotic destinations for people interested in social change and development work. It’s no surprise that a lot of people from other countries seek to get involved by volunteering in India. If this sounds appealing to you, there are a few things you need to think about when setting up your volunteering plans.

Here is a brief guide of what to consider and what to do before you make any definite decisions…

Get organized
In many ways, going with an organization is a big help when volunteering abroad: people who are already working in India and familiar with how things operate can assist newcomers with many aspects of life there. These include opportunities that may be strange to a new traveler such as the best places to go for particular experiences (for example, nursing, construction work or teaching), who the most welcoming host families are and the most comfortable shared volunteer accommodation.

Choosing the right organization is important, and there are a number of free online databases that can help you identify the kind of organization that might work best for you. Many of these are focused on specific skills, employment sectors or political interests. For example, FairMail offers opportunities to photographers; the East West Foundation of India deals with children’s rights, community development, education and childcare; and, Prime Trust works to increase the empowerment of women.

What you will need Requirements for working with a specific organization vary; however, most will expect you to have some experience or a degree of expertise in your chosen area of interest. For instance, if you would like to experience a medical internship but have no medical background then your role will be mostly that of an observer. People with a medical background, on the other hand, are likely to have more contact with patients and may be given certain medical tasks to undertake.

Official requirements Your requisite travel documents will include a volunteer visa, which is actually an employment visa, usually granted for one year, though they can be extended. Applicants for a regular employment visa must be earning a minimum of $25,000, though exceptions are now made for volunteers as well as a number of other specialist employees.

Get there With all the admin sorted, it just remains for you to pack the appropriate gear and get out there. Now is the time to think about the journey there and back, your transport methods and how to coordinate the adventure. On balance, direct flights are the most realistic solution – see for further information (for example, from JFK – New York City to BOM – Mumbai).

Once in India you have a number of different choices when it comes to how to get about and where to stay. Timetables for buses and trains between major cities, such as Mumbai and Delhi, can be accessed online using mobile technology. When it comes to accommodation, host families are great for getting to know local people and finding out about lifestyles and customs in the neighborhood. Shared accommodation with other volunteers means you can learn about others’ experiences, share your own and evaluate what motivates people from all corners of the world to volunteer.

Finally, you need to make the most of contemporary technology to make sure that your finances stay in order. If you check out online resources, you’ll discover that India is renowned for being one of the cheapest places to visit; for example, taxi prices in Delhi are among the cheapest in the world and public transportations are also very inexpensive. However, Delhi and Mumbai are more expensive than, say, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Make the most of the information available and enjoy every bit of your volunteering opportunity in India.

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Monk at World Peace Pagoda, Pokhara, Nepal

The World Peace Pagoda is one of Pokhara’s iconic landmarks. Perched on a hill and overlooking Pokhara city, it offers one of the best views of Pokhara city and also of the snow capped Himalayan mountains on a clear day. One can either trek up to this monument or take a circuitous route by motorcycle, car or bus.

A monk at World Peace Pagoda, Pokhara, Nepal
On my recent trip to Pokhara, I visited this peace pagoda twice. On one day, it was all rainy, cloudy and misty. On the other day, there was nice bright sunshine, but it was still cloudy in the distance. I saw this monk on the brighter day and was very surprised to see him dressed in all white and wearing a paddy field hat. The white walls of the peace pagoda just adds a feeling of white into the frame.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

5 Wild and Warm Winter Getaways: USA-Style

America offers some truly spectacular holiday destinations and many visitors from the UK simply can’t get enough of all that it has to offer.

Winter is rapidly approaching and we will probably notice the chill even more this time around, considering how warm the summer has been. This means that a good number of us will be looking to jet off to somewhere wild and warm this winter, to get our fix of fun and sun USA style.

There are so many amazing places to visit in the United States and the choices on offer in this vast country can sometimes make it hard to choose where to go for your next holiday. Travel operators like can help you to find the perfect winter getaway, and here are some destinations that will make for a memorable holiday.

Miami Beach This is a location that ticks a lot of boxes with warm temperatures, stunning boutique hotels and a party atmosphere.

There are so many entertainment options on offer at Miami Beach and it is far too easy to melt the plastic at an upscale shopping centre like Lincoln Road Mall. The place is not all about great beaches, excellent shopping and brilliantly unique hotels, there is also a fair amount of culture on display too.

Art Deco architecture is a prominent theme around Miami Beach and the Bass Museum of Art is an inspirational way to soak up some culture once you have finished soaking up the sun on South beach.

Key West If you are looking for a snorkelling or scuba diving adventure then Key West would definitely be a wise choice.

Key West offers a lot of positives for the perfect winter break, with not just the renowned snorkelling and scuba diving options, but also the chance for plenty of other outdoor adventures, including some great bike trails to help you keep in good shape.

There are plenty of opportunities for sightseeing in the area with Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and the Key West Aquarium, not to mention the almost obligatory visit to Southernmost Point for a picture next door to the infamous colourful buoy that marks the spot.

Orlando Staying with the sunshine, the best time to visit Orlando is between January and April, when you will find that temperatures as well as the travel prices should be more to your liking.

Summertime is when Orlando becomes a magnet for families making the most of the school holidays and this often means that brochure prices soar in line with the temperatures, so aim to go against the crowd and visit during the winter.

You really need to organise car hire to get the best out of your trip and be able to bet around between the different attractions as easily as possible. Walt Disney World is the place where you are never really allowed to grow up and do remember when booking, that Disney World is actually in a different city, Lake Buena Vista.

Vail Size isn’t everything, and despite its relatively small size and remote location, Vail has a big heart and is one of the best loved ski resorts for good reason.

Vail is situated between the Gore Mountain Range to the North and Sawatch Mountain Range to the south, with its near-neighbour Jagged Peaks, offering miles of slops and excellent skiing conditions, as you would expect for the country’s largest single-mountain resort.

The ski resort of Vail definitely punches above its weight or size at least, and the beautifully manicured slopes and excellent spa’s and restaurants will excite the senses, although prices can in places reflect its deserved reputation.

Kauai Hawaii has a unique feel and is one of the more iconic states that you have to visit at least once in your lifetime when planning a holiday to the U.S.

The superlatives like aquamarine skies and sun-kissed beaches can often be used too liberally in some places but Kauai is definitely not one of them. The oldest island in Hawaii doesn’t feel that it needs to go over the top to attract visitors so Kauai is simply perfect if you are someone who can appreciate the natural beauty of the surroundings and simply want to unwind or would like to explore the Kalalau Trail or Waimea Canyon, amongst many of the natural attractions that await you.

Whether you want wild adventures or feel the warmth of the sun this winter, the U.S has plenty of destinations to fulfil your requirements.

About the Author: Kayleigh Clarke loves finding spectacular out of the way places to visit. Living on the road and blogging every chance she gets, she enjoys sharing her discoveries on travel and holiday sites.

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Portrait Stories from Rajasthan

The colorful state of Rajasthan offers a lot to the traveler. It has forts, palaces, beautiful bazaars, great food and lots of history. But, I connect the most with its people. I don’t want to sound biased, but sometimes I feel that they are the most hospitable state in India. The people of Rajasthan are so very nice and so eager to help people. I have been all around the state a multitude of times and have had my best people experiences in this state. The Rajasthani people have always welcomed me with both their hands and their warm hearts.

Local musician playing his music inside Jaisalmer Fort
Story: This old man with a very kind face was sitting outside the Jaisalmer Fort and playing this traditional musical instrument (Does anyone know the name of this instrument?) He seemed to be very content and happy playing his music and did not seem to be interested in receiving any money, but when our group gave him some money, he was overjoyed.

And since I like the people of Rajasthan so much, here is a short portrait story from my recent trip to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did while I spent time with these various personalities.

Rajsthani man with big moustache in front of his silk scarf shop at Jodhpur
Story: This Rajasthani man with the big moustache sells scarves at one of the souvenir shops in Mehrangarh Fort. He speaks French, Italian, English and Spanish fluently and is quite a good salesman. He was kind enough to give me tips on how to grow moustaches like his. He even shared some of his older photos and we shared a good laugh.

A street hawker selling peacock feathers at Jaisalmer
Story: This sardarji was selling peacock feathers in the Patwon ki Haveli campus where I spotted him. I tried engaging in a conversation with him, but he was more keen on selling his peacock feathers to me.

Flute Artist at Jaswant Thada, Jodhpur
Story: This Rajasthani man has been playing the flute for more than 35 years. I met him at Jasvant Thada in Jodhpur. His flute music echoes in the inner chamber and he charges tourists if they wish to record his music. If you just want to listen, it is free, he says.

Camel Mahout and his camel at Ossiyan, Rajasthan
Story: He is a part farmer and part camel mahout. During the tourist season, he takes his guests on camel safaris in the deserts off Ossiyan and when it is lean season, he either tills his small piece of land with his sons or does some odd jobs to make ends meet.

Rajasthani guard at Mehrangarh Fort, JodhpurRays of the setting sun on the jharokas of Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
Story: This guard at Mehrangarh Fort was kind enough to explain me Mehrangarh’s history for more than 30 minutes. He was happy to know that I am from South India and asked me questions on how I spoke Hindi so well. His entire family is associated with the Mehrangarh Fort.

Jain priest at Jaisalmer's Jain Temple
Story: I met this Jain priest at one of the Jain temples inside the Jaisalmer Fort. He was kind enough to talk about Jainism, the temple history and to pose for me.

Local Rajasthani Woman singing at Surygarh
Story: Rajasthani women are very shy and do not like to get their photo clicked. Hence, you don’t see portraits of women in this post, but this one is the exception. I saw this local village lady at Suryagarh. She was singing folk music and her voice boomed through the courtyard.

Local guard at Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
Story: A very kind soul who noticed me on each of my visits to Mehrangarh and on my last visit, he asked me ‘ Aap pichle do din se aah rahe hain na?’. I said ‘Yes’ and began conversing with him. We spoke about his family, his work, the history of Mehrangarh, the raptor feeding tradition at Mehrangarh and much more. It was a pleasure conversing with him.

At a traditional carpet shop in Jodhpur
Story: I was with some Vietnamese girls who wanted to buy a silk carpet as a souvenir back home and they wanted me to bargain for them. While I was talking to him, I got to understand how he made the carpets sitting there with his hands and how they are 70% silk and 30% cotton and much more. The good news was that both my Vietnamese friends bought a carpet from him making him happy.

A Rawan Hatha Street Musician from Jaisalmer
Story: I met this musician in front of the Gadisar Lake. He plays the Rawan Hatha musical instrument and is from a village in the desert outside of Jaisalmer. He even showed me his Rawan Hatha music CDs that he sells to make a living. He was even kind enough to allow me to try playing his Rawan Hatha (unfortunately, I am not good with musical instruments and couldn’t get the hang of it).

At a Jodhpuri shoe shop in Jodhpur
Story: Another multi-lingual salesman, he sells Jodhpuri shoes at the Mehrangarh Fort. He was also one of those people who noticed me coming to the fort every day for the past 3 days and was curious to know why I visited every day.

Elderly Rajasthani Gentleman and the Jaisalmer view
Story: This elderly man is a guard at the Jaisalmer Fort. He was enjoying the breeze at one of the fort windows and on seeing me asked me to enjoy the breeze too. A quiet man, he obliged me to take his photograph.

Local Rajasthani boys on a holiday to Mandore garden, near Jodhpur
Story: These kids thought I was from Africa and started to practice their English with me, but when I started conversing with them in crisp Hindi, they were surprised, but warmed up quickly and started talking to me more. Typical inquisitive Indian questions and at the end of which, they wanted me to take their group picture and I happily obliged.

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Begnas Tal: Scenic Lakeside Retreat in Nepal

Pokhara, one of Nepal’s most scenic cities is known as the land of seven lakes. These beautiful lakes are tucked amidst the mighty Himalayas. While the Phewa Lake in Pokhara city is the most popular with tourists, personally I prefer Begnas Tal for a relaxed scenic retreat. Begnas Tal offers the perfect blend of solitude and a Nepal countryside experience.

The very calm and beautiful Begnas Tal near Pokhara, Nepal
Located at about 20 kilometers from Pokhara on the Pokhara-Kathmandu highway, Begnas Tal is surrounded by the Begnas village which survives on tourism and agriculture. Hence, the entire surroundings are in a pleasing green color either in the form of lush green paddy fields or dense tropical forests.

Fishing at Begnas Tal, near Pokhara, Nepal
Unlike the Phewa Lake where tourists can be seen in droves, tourists can be seen few and far between at Begnas. Whether you want to swim, go boating or kayaking or even indulge in some fishing, you will always find solitude. The only exception being the weekends or festivals when some local families visit Begnas for a picnic.

Boating at the beautiful Begnas Lake, Pokhara
While you enjoy the scenic lake surroundings, you can also indulge in some local volunteering (like teaching at local schools, agriculture, building houses, etc.) for a complete rural connection. The villages around Begnas are all small and basic and offer a multitude of options for the travelers to offer their volunteering services.

Aerial view of Begnas Tal
If you are the water type, you should stay close to the lake and if you are the view type, you should stay on a hill overlooking the lake. The hill has a view point called the ‘Twin view point’ from where one can get a bird’s eye view of this beautiful lake. A lot of home stays and an expensive luxury resort are located on this hill. And if you feel adventurous, you can trek or mountain bike the trail from this hill to the lake and back. It is quite a nice workout!

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Travel Photo: Scenic Pokhara Lakeside

Pokhara is one of the most scenic cities in Nepal and its lakeside is blessed with beautiful nature. It is a lovely water body surrounded by green hills and snow clad peaks. When I was there last month, I did not get to see any snow clad mountain views due to the cloudy weather, but I saw mist shrouded hills, slippery dirt trails, sensationally green country side and very pleasant weather. The people of Pokhara are also very nice and so is the easy pace and charm of this city.

Colorful boats on Phewa Lake, Pokhara
The Phewa Lake area of Pokhara is ideal for the traveling family or the couple as it offers a multitude of exploration options that include boating on the lake, visit to nearby temples, stupas, paragliding over the lake, a relaxed evening walk by the lakeside, lots of shopping and great dining options. The next time you think of a Himalayan holiday retreat, think of Pokhara and be blown away from its easy pace and rich nature.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Desert Remembers

It is a warm and humid night, but I feel a chill up my spine. I am on the famous chudail trail eagerly looking either side to spot these ghosts. My guide tells me not to pick any jewel or money from the cemetery that I am walking through, else the chudail might come to haunt me irrespective of my location. He also tells me stories of how people have either disappeared or lost their mind while walking through this very trail. With senses heightened, all of us in our group stick close to each other as we walk through the various cenotaphs and sati sites in the abandoned village of Kuldhara. We didn’t spot any ghosts, but found our way into the deep-rooted history of the mighty Thar desert.

Jaisalmer fort as seen from the top of Patwon ki Haveli

This chudail trail is just one of the many off beat trails you can explore in the desert of Rajasthan. I was privileged to explore many of these off beat trails as I traversed a part of the ‘The Desert Remembers’ route that has been mapped by Suryagarh, a luxury palace hotel located just outside of Jaisalmer and in the Thar desert.

Sonal Qila and Jaisalmer city

I stayed 3 days with Suryagarh and during these  three days, I got to see a side of the desert that I never knew existed. This desert that I explored is home to abandoned villages, cenotaphs and cemeteries, sati sites, intelligent irrigation systems, the famous silk route, lots of trading history, many oasis and forts and very intricate jain temples. It is a great sense of excitement as you explore this part of the desert in the lost sands of time. And while you are at it, you can explore the popular attractions of Jaisalmer and enjoy the plush Rajasthani hospitality and their delicious food.

Elderly Rajasthani Gentleman and the Jaisalmer view

Below should give you a good idea of this ancient route in the desert that I traversed. 

Paliwal Community – Intelligent Desert People

Folk Songs at Suryagarh

Everything in this part of the desert owes its roots to the intelligent Paliwal community. Hence, most of ‘The Desert Remembers’ route pays homage to these people by passing through their villages, their irrigation systems, their temples, their cenotpahs and the likes. Personally, as I understood more of the Paliwals, who were once very successful traders and built prosperous settlements in the desert, I got to understand the desert history better.

Village temple in the middle of the Thar desert

Originally from Pali, these part merchants and part cultivators moved into the deserts off Jaisalmer in the 12th century. They were great traders and established themselves as an important cog on the famous silk route. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, they traded with Kabul, Arabia and even China.

Wild camels roam near a village in the Thar desert

They were also so intelligent that they devised the Aagor, Khadeen and Dhora irrigation technique that still exists in the desert. This irrigation technique helps replenish the water table with whatever little rains the desert gets and makes way for lush agriculture. Even to date, farmers make use of these agriculture zones to grow chana, bajra and some vegetables. I got to see this live and to say the least I was stunned. Drinking water, sustained agriculture and greenery is all possible due to this archaic and yet intelligent system.

Desert landscape in the monsoons

They were the masters of the desert and built themselves a secure and prosperous life for over 6 centuries till one day, when they abandoned all their 82 villages and moved on to other places. Today, the villages are in ruins, but its temples, irrigation methods and stories give you a sense of the skill of these Paliwal people. And there are lots of stories (folklore, love, hatred) that you can hear. I can tell them here, but you would connect better when you are there in these Paliwal villages.

Breakfast with the Peacocks at Khaba Fort
Sunrise breakfast at Khaba Fort in the Thar desert

While we stay with the Paliwals and the silk route, we move to Khaba Fort, an important connecting point between Sindh and Jaisalmer for the traders on the Silk Route. This fort, overlooks the stranded Paliwal villages and makes for a stunning sight during the early morning hours as the entire ruins come to view with the shining sun. It is also here that a local boy comes to feed bajra seeds to peacocks every morning.

Deserted Paliwal village as seen from Khaba fort

This is part of an ancient family tradition and makes for a lovely sight as the call of the peacock booms through the ruins. And, this was also the place where I enjoyed my breakfast with these peacocks and the ruins. To be honest, this was the first time I experienced having breakfast with at least 50 peacocks and I have to say that it was quite a surreal experience for me.

Paliwal Cemetries and Cenotaphs

A Rawan Hatha Street Musician from Jaisalmer

The eerie chudail trail finds its home in these Paliwal cemeteries where different cenotaphs of travellers and Paliwals can be found. The Kuldhara village is famous for these cenotaphs and also for the sati sites where the wives of these men burnt themselves. As you move through these cemeteries you can see pillars with carvings of the man and his wife and sometimes even the travelers. These sati stories are an integral part of the desert lore.

Dinner by an Oasis

Sunset over an oasis in the Thar Desert

The desert is wide and vast with very minimal life, but in small pockets, they are lush green, offer food for the animals, are a source of precious drinking water and act as perfect cultivating grounds. This is because of the famous irrigation system devised by the Paliwals. You can understand the irrigation systems by day, watch the sunset over an oasis by the evening and enjoy dinner under the star lit sky. The icing on the cake is communal style eating, live Rajasthani folk music, more stories and a star studded sky.

Ludrava – The Erstwhile Desert Capital

Intricate work on the entrance gate to the Jain temple in Ludrava

The next stop in the desert is the erstwhile power seat of the Bhatti dynasty, Ludrava where the kingdom used to exist till it got moved to Jaisalmer for lack of security measures (Ludrava is very close to the Pakistan border and thus offered easy access to the Muslim warriors). It is here that you can see the extremely intricate and beautiful Jain temple that is dedicated to the 23rd Tirthankara. The carvings, jhorakas, statues and its torana is quite a sight.

Beautiful Jharokas on the walls of Ludrava Jain Temple, near Jaisalmer

A slow exploration of this village also reveals many architectural ruins and other temples amidst the surrounding sand dunes and takes you into a world that reminds of the city’s former glory.

Sam and Khuri Dunes

Desert Safari

The desert of Rajasthan is famous for its rolling sand dunes that are the most eye catching during sunset when the sand takes on the golden hues of the sun. This is the iconic part of the desert and is famous for its camel safari, visit to remote villages, staying in desert tents, eating ker-Sangri under the desert sky, talking to nomads, dune surfing and much more.

Desert National Park

Local musician playing his music inside Jaisalmer Fort

Right in between Sam and Khuri lie the quiet desert national park that is home to endangered species of animals like the Great Indian Bustard, Houbara Bustard, Vultures, desert fox and many more. This national park is a great way to explore the desert wildlife and is perfect for birdwatchers looking for a relaxed birding experience. A lot of ancient fossils have also been found in and near this desert national park.

Delicious Marwari Food

Delicious Marwari Thali at Suryagarh

A Rajasthani desert experience is not complete without tasting their traditional Halwayi Breakfast and the uber delicious Marwari Thali. The Halwayi breakfast is a very famous desert culture where people have mirchi vada, samosa and kachori with their ladoos, jalebi, rasmalai and other sweets in the morning. And the Marwari Thali comes with Bajra and Missi Rotis with Gatta Masala, Kher Sangri (a desert specialty made from a desert bush stem and its berries), Kadi, Daal and veggies. For more delicious local food, there is daal baati choorma. And then there is the thick lassi or chaach to help you smack your lips in pure joy. And there is no better to enjoy this than at Suryagarh who have the best Halwayi in this part of the world and some of the best traditional chefs. I would just return to them to indulge in their rich culinary experience once again. And just so you know, they specialize in continental and international cuisine too.

Jaisalmer Fort and the Havelis

The city view that the queen used to see from the palace in Jaisalmer Fort

Locally known as the Sonar Qila, the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer towers over the city of Jaisalmer. The only living fort in this part of the world, it is a constant bustle of activity with locals and tourists alike. It’s rich history, its beautiful interiors and the Jain temples in its fold all offer a great ride into the glorious past. The aerial view of the desert city, the Pakistan border and the wide desert from its tower area is the highlight of this fort.

Intricate work inside the Jain temple of Jaisalmer

As you step outside the fort and into the narrow lanes running parallel to the market, you will notice the famous Havelis of Jaisalmer. These havelis were built by rich Jain merchants and many of them still retain most of their erstwhile glamour and opulence. The paintings, the rich interiors, the immaculate glass work, the jhorakas and the view points will make you think about their rich life hundreds of years ago.

Jain priest at Jaisalmer's Jain Temple

Some of these Havelis are museums and run by the government, while the others are still owned by the family. All of them offer a unique experience. The Patwon ki Haveli and Nathmal ji ki Haveli are the two most impressive ones.

Silver, Gold and Handicrafts

Shopping at Jaisalmer

The silversmiths and goldsmiths of this part of the desert are known to make the best ornaments. Some families have been known to create the smallest and the most intricate designs. If you are into jewelry, these items will make for great souvenirs.

Local handicrafts on sale outside Patwon ki Haveli, Jaisalmer

Like with the food, the colourful markets of Jaisalmer are iconic and are known for its handicrafts and embroidery work. Wall hangings, bed sheets, cushion covers and many others make for great souvenirs to take back home. The famous Marwari sweets are also great to take for your family and friends.

Luxurious Suryagarh Experience

Beautiful courtyard of Suryagarh, Jaisalmer

The last, but not the least is the super rich and luxurious experience of staying at Suryagarh.  Well, it is quite something to stay in a luxury palace (which is sensational in its own right), but where Suryagarh connected most with me was its rich folk connection, lip smacking food (I can’t help it, I am a foodie) and their intent to ensure that I had a good time. Here are some examples to help you understand my train of thought better. According to me all were surreal experiences as it is rare to find them elsewhere.

1) Enjoying my Halwayi breakfast in the open courtyard and under the morning sun while listening to the soothing flute music played by a local Rajasthani gentleman. I sometimes wish all my breakfasts were like that.

2) Having my evening tea while listening to a local Rajasthani woman sing her folk songs. This woman had such a booming voice that sometimes I felt like I had transponded to a different world.

3) Luxury seeking, adventurers, vegetarians, night people, Spa lovers, Workout enthusiasts, etc. My group had all kinds of people and all of us had a bang-up time. The people at Suryagarh want their guests to have a rare and yet surreal luxurious experience and to make this happen, they don’t leave any stone unturned.

Thank you Suryagarh for taking me on this amazing journey. I will always cherish it and hopefully, will return soon.

A street hawker selling peacock feathers at Jaisalmer

Travel Tips for the desert

1) Carry a good pair of walking shoes as you might have to walk into different desert trails.
2) Stay hydrated
3) Wear sunscreen, a hat and a pair of sunglasses to protect you from the desert sun
4) Carry a torch or a headlamp while exploring the Chudail trail in the night

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014


There are many aspects of Hinduism that we overlook often and even if we don’t overlook it, we don’t come across it in our daily life here in India. To give you an example, I am sure most of us know about ‘Vishwaroopam’, the ultimate form of god in Hinduism. Lord Krishna also showed this form to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita, the holy book of Hinduism. But, how many of us have seen Vishwaroopam in even the form of a sculpture in our temples? We see all kinds of gods, but Vishwaroopam is few and far between.

Beautiful Vishwaroopam statue at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
But, when I was at the Changgu Narayan temple near Bhaktapur in Nepal, I saw Vishwaroopam and it brought all my childhood mythology stories back into my head. Not only was I surprised at seeing a sculpture of Vishwaroopam, the images from Amar Chitra Katha and my childhood imagination came flooding back in. Nepal has a rich connection with ancient Hinduism and I came across many such instances during my travels in Nepal. If you feel like seeing Hindu mythology in beautiful carvings, go and explore the various temples of Nepal. You will be in for a treat.

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Temple-Hopping in Southeast Asia

The wealth of beautiful sights and fascinating histories supplied by the temples of Southeast Asia will be enough to dazzle even the most seasoned traveler. No expense or time was spared in creating these monuments to spiritual belief, and their tremendous variety means there’s always something new to discover. 

Traveling in Southeast Asia
The bell shaped pagodas o Bagan, Burma

Most Southeast Asian countries are very welcoming to Western visitors and, because prices are low, they are a popular choice with backpackers. Many people choose to start in Pattaya, Thailand, where there are plenty of low-cost places to stay, and where the friendly locals guarantee a warm welcome. Once the journey starts in earnest, long-distance buses make it easy to travel between tourist sights, though some people prefer to hitch and get to know the locals, while others opt to cycle or ride motor scooters. While this article looks at some of the most spectacular places to visit, there are many smaller ones, including local village shrines dating back millennia.

When visiting temples, it’s important to note that many remain active places of worship, of deep importance to local people. One should normally remove one’s shoes before entering and make sure upper arms are covered, and women should be careful not to make physical contact with monks, even brushing past them, as this can be seen to compromise the monks’ religious purity.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Buddhist Monk poses in front of Angkor Wat

Probably the most famous temple complex in the region, Angkor Wat is built on ruins thought by some to be as much as 13,000 years old, one of the oldest manmade structures in the world. It was significantly extended in the 12th century on the orders of King Suryavarman II and is the largest religious monument anywhere in the world, so it can take days to explore it all. Although it may not feature the gold or bright colors of other temples in the region, its distinctive Khmer architecture has majesty of its own, looking particularly impressive at dawn and dusk.

Batu Caves, Malaysia
Hewn out of a limestone hill just north of Kuala Lumpur, these remarkable cave temples are really something different. They’re presided over by a towering golden statue of the war god Murugan (an avatar of Kartikeya) and entered via an equally towering set of steps. Inside, the immense caverns house a temple devoted to the monkey god Hanuman, and the Ramayana Cave has murals depicting the story of Rama. The best time to visit is during the festival of Thaipusam in late January or early February (heralded by the full moon), when local Tamils celebrate Murugan’s vanquishing of the demon Soorapadman.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu, Bali
A Kecak dance performance taking place at Uluwatu, Bali

Perched on a precipice above the breaking surf, Pura Luhur Uluwatu is visible for miles around. It was built in the 11th century, along with eight other temples, to protect Bali from evil spirits. The coral walls of its interior are covered in animal carvings (with both real and mythical beasts), and the Hindu people who worship there show respect for the local wild animals by bringing them food. Visitors are often invited to feed the monkeys. At sunset, people gather to watch the traditional Kecak dance in the temple grounds.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda - the pride of Myanmar

Dominating Yangon, the golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda, set atop Singuttara Hill, is an awesome sight and is surrounded by porticos of gold and white, each with its own elegant spire. It incorporates 90 tons of gold in all, plus a spectacular diamond. Inside, it’s just as magnificent, with many small but elaborate shrines and smiling Buddha statues, and it houses sacred relics of the Buddhas. At 2,600 years old, it is thought to be the oldest surviving pagoda in the world.

Wat Arun, Thailand
Wat Arun from the Chao Phraya River

The magnificent stepped pyramid of Wat Arun (also known as the Temple of Dawn) is covered in intricate carvings and surrounded by several galleries from which one can look down to the Chao Phraya river below. Brightly-colored porcelain tiles line its many roofs and prang (spires) and look dazzling in the sunlight. Its central Buddha, in the ordination hall, was created by King Rama II and guards his ashes. Below, six Chinese-style green granite pavilions welcome visitors who have crossed the water while, above, the seven-pronged Trident of Shiva pierces the sky.

Văn Miếu, Vietnam
Champa Kingdom Ruins at My Son, Vietnam

Also known as the Temple of Literature, this Confucian shrine remains an island of peace in modern Hanoi, its five courtyards are the perfect place to rest or simply to gaze in wonder. Less elaborate than the other temples listed here, it is no less impressive thanks to its elegant design, with red brick roofs curving like wings and long, low walls perfectly complemented by the surrounding foliage. It was built in 1070 to replicate the birthplace of Confucius, the Qufu temple in Shandong, China, and over the centuries it has served as a university for the religious and social elite. The best time to visit is at Tết, Vietnamese New Year (in late January or early February), when it fills up with calligraphers writing wishes as beautiful works of art.

Miagao Church, Philippines

One of the altars inside San Augustin Church, Manila, Philippines

This elaborate Baroque church, now listed as a World Heritage Site, represents the collision of Christian architecture in one of its most dramatic forms with the very different but equally magnificent traditions of Filipino art. Also known as Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church and as the Fortress Church (since it was used to defend the town against Muslim raids), it was built in 1787 and has since survived full scale war, earthquakes and a massive fire. Inside is a gold-plated sanctuary that recalls the Buddhist and Hindu temples of the region.

Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
After closing hours at White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Looking like an elaborate snowflake, Wat Rong Khun is a modern structure very much in keeping with the spectacular tradition of temples in the region. It is almost entirely built of mirror glass and it sparkles a dazzling white, topped with intricate structures that give it an ethereal quality. It is entered via a bridge over a gleaming lake. Designed by the esteemed painter Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997, it is dedicated to the Buddha but draws inspiration from a wide range of sources, with interior murals depicting Batman, Superman and scenes from the Predator movies.

Wherever you choose to go, there is no shortage of beautiful temples to discover in Southeast Asia, and visiting them will give you fresh insight into the dynasties and empires that have shaped this remarkable part of the world.

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