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08 July 2014

Ladakh Diary

Snow and layers of mountains
After years of dreaming and months of planning finally I made my trip to Ladakh in June 2014. The task had become rather inconvenient as I had moved from Delhi to Mumbai more one-and-half-years ago. I went on an organised tour, with a group of ladies. Reminded me of my hostel days of community living.

I had heard landscape of Ladakh is breathtaking. I had seen countless pictures Ladakhi landscape. As the flight was landing I could see Leh was surrounded by arid, mostly barren mountain ranges bordering snow-capped peaks. It’s when I started travelling out of Leh, I began to appreciate and be wowed by the natural beauty of the land. The diversity of the scenery is also incredible. Some places are more dry and sandy, some others rocky and some ranges are covered with snow. There are a few patches of green on some hills. Colours of hills also vary: shades of brown, green, blue, yellow etc.

Indus River
Ladakh has truly beautiful and magnificent monasteries. Some of the grander monasteries I saw had impressive statues of Buddha in their compound. An outstanding statue was that of Maitreyee or future Buddha in Diskit Monastery of Nubra valley. The statue is 32 meters tall. The architecture of Thiksey monastery (20 km from Leh), modeled after Potala palace of Tibet stands out. Hemis – at 40 km distance from Leh - is said to be the richest monastery in Ladakh. Every year a festival is held in Hemis in memory of Lord Padmasambhava. Diskit Monastery required a bit of climbing from where cars stop. I found it interesting for two reasons, one was the spectacular view of Nubra Valley from the monastery and two, idols of Mahakali in one of its temples. Alchi and Likir monasteries were the group’s first travels outside Leh. Alchi has four temples. One of them is more than 1000 years old. The temple has some 1000s of original paintings of Buddha on its inner four walls, yet unspoilt and untouched.
Morning prayer, Diskit Monastery 
My sixth monastery was my first one. I simply could not follow the diktat of lying on bed in rest on the first day. After checking-in and spending two-three hours in the hotel, I went out with my camera, walking slowly on the sloping roads. Eventually, I came upon a monastery in Leh Bazaar. I went inside and sat in meditation for a while.

Pangong Tso (Tso=Lake) and Nubra Valley are two popular tourist spots. To reach Pangong Tso from Leh one has to cross Chang La (La=Pass), which at 17590 feet (5360 meters) is said to be the third highest motorable pass in the world. Pangong Tso itself is at above 14000 feet (4350 meters). The road to Nubra Valley from Leh passes through Khardung La – at 18379 feet (5602 meters), it is frequently referred as the highest motorable pass in the world. Besides these two high passes, roads to these two places passing through valleys, by mountainous rivers, crossing ranges, with changing views and temperatures are intriguing and interesting.
Pangong Tso
The first glance of Pangong Lake was a moment of delight. When I went near the lake, it was cloudy. Pangong Tso was in hues of dark blue. At different vantage points the colours changed. Brown-headed seagulls were wadding in the water, flying short distances and walking along the edge of the lake. In sometime, the sky cleared up and the lake took the shade of azure blue. Nubra Valley – at an altitude of 10000 feet - is a high altitude cold desert. Temperatures in Nubra were much more pleasant for the people from the plains than that of Pangong Tso.

I tried a popular adventure activity: river rafting. We went river rafting in Zanskar River. This was my second rafting experience. The first one was in Rishikesh a few years ago. After rafting in Ganges in Rishikesh, rafting in Zanskar proved to be kind of mild. Another sporty thing many of us in the Group tried out was riding double-humped Bactrian camels in Nubra Valley.

One of the evenings we visited Stok village (30 minutes drive from Leh). We took a tour of an old traditional Ladakhi house, well maintained but uninhabited.  The family lived next to the old house in a newer, more modern one. We were guests of the family that evening. The family graciously served us traditional Ladakhi dinner, which was made mostly of barley including homemade alcohol made of barley.

Glimpse of Ladakhi culture
Traditional Ladakhi music and dance were organised for us at our hotel in Leh on the second last day of our trip. Even within Ladakh, traditional outfits, dance forms and music vary between regions. The men and women who were performing were dressed in spectacular dresses. There were songs and dances about daily life, friendship and wars.  

July 2014


Text and photography: Sanchita C 2014

05 July 2014

Sound of Silence

Snowing on Holi
‘My small piece of the sky and the sound of silence’ - the words were resonating within me while visiting Tirthan Valley for the third time in a year. The valley is at least a 12-hour journey from Delhi but each time the journey had felt smooth (went in a car twice and a bus once). Could be because of the company (of friends) or charming views on the way or simply my state of mind to enjoy no matter what or a combination of all these.
Tirthan Valley is in Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh - about 544 km from Delhi and 267 km from Chandigarh. Every time I stayed in areas around Banjar – about 58 km from the Kullu town. To reach Tirthan Valley one can drive up or hire a car (from Delhi via Chandigarh-Bilaspur-Mandi). One could also take a Himachal Government or a private bus and get down near Aut. There is a choice of flying till Bhuntar airport of Kullu as well. Cottages and homestays of Tirthan valley usually arrange for pick up from the bus stop or the airport.   

Sunset on Tirthan river
So far Tirthan Valley has managed to escape big herds of tourists, weekend travellers from nearby towns or big cities and backpacker crowds. The valley does attract a decent number of tourists – some of them in search of a peaceful gateway or for Himalayan adventure travel. The valley is in the vicinity of the Great Himalayan National Park and not too far from Jalori Pass (3120 meters high, connects Shimla to Kullu).
The main attraction of the place is its yet-untouched, pristine and bottle-green-and-electric-blue natural beauty. River Tirthan originates in the Great Himalayan National Park and meets with River Parvati at Larji near Banjar (also a popular angling spot). Parvati meets with River Beas at Bhuntar. There are other such rivers in the area with splendid rapids and small waterfalls.
By the River Tirthan
In the first two trips, I stayed in a camp in Village Bhiyar­­ where I thought I could just touch snow-capped mountains by stretching my not-too-long arms. On my very first visit – in March 2012, on the day of Holi – we saw dream-and-fairy-tale like, Himalayan cotton ball-ish snowfall.
The first time was spent relaxing and doing a bit of tour. In the second trip - in May 2012 - a friend and I walked around, up and down a few hills and through pine forests, crossed small waterfalls, talked to villagers and saw the places in and around the camp.
My last stay - for four days - was slightly different. It felt like I was perched on nature’s lap with nothing to protect me from cold, wind or rain. And yet I never felt unprotected. As if the spectacular and serene ambience was also acting as a cushion around me. May be it was what they call a divine experience. Or may be because I was so comfortable by then that I had moved to a place in my mind where I perceived things differently.
Villagers in Bhiyar
That time – in September 2012 - I stayed in a cottage next to River Tirthan, near Gosaini – about 16 km from Banjar. To wake up in the morning to the sound of the river splashing on boulders and stones, while it negotiates its way to its confluence through twists and turns of mountain ranges on its either side, is kind of other-worldly. Blending with the sound of water were bird songs and rustling of leaves when mountain breeze passed through Alpine jungles. Missing from all this was mechanical noise of automobiles and factories or even loud human voices. However, it did not escape my thoughts that the dearth of industries in the area is not so positive as it indicated general economic backwardness of the people.
Hanging out in Himalayan meadows
While on my way back from Tirthan Valley that time, as layers of hilly ranges, alpine forests and Himalayan villages were giving way to bigger villages and towns of the plains, I was wondering whether I would have difficulties adjusting to ‘normal civilisation’. As if a special bondage to the life I had in the valley had formed. As Delhi was approaching, though, I was gradually filled with a sense of peace. I had a strong feeling I would be back in a few months to ‘drink the tonic’ of the valley life again.
I have moved to Mumbai since then and I am longing again for another touch of the green-and-blue silence and the ‘tonic’.

April 2013

The article was published in the Statesman, 23 July 2013:

Photo and Text: Sanchita C 2014

02 July 2014

Soloing in Pondicherry

My first solo travel was to Pondicherry in October 2013. Earlier, whenever I have been a solo traveller, it was mostly because of my job. Even then, I would find friends or acquaintances wherever I went. Travelling, for me, was a thing to do with people. This way I bonded (or unbonded) with many friends. Since I had moved into a new job at the end of 2012, I could not take time off in the initial months to travel. By the end of 2013, the travel bug was biting me hard, no one was available to keep me company and it was Durga Puja – a time all Bengalis feel festive, so I simply booked a trip to Pondicherry and went.
Sunset in Pondicherry

I chose Pondicherry for its spiritual connection. I was also curious about its French-ness. I visited Pondicherry (or Puducherry) with my parents many years ago – in mid-1990s - so I somewhat knew what to expect. I wondered whether I would see the place with different eyes almost 20 years after my first visit.

A solo Indian women traveller is still a rare though growing species. Especially in travels within India. I have learnt of many women indulging in this ‘highly unusual activity’ since my first solo travel. I faced no problems in this trip – perhaps would have been nicer to have some friends around to let hair down in the evenings. But at least I was the mistress of my own will, exploring at my own pace and time.

After checking in my heritage hotel (La Maison Toumele - the Tamil Mansion, 5 kms from the airport), I went out. My hotel was at the edge of the Tamil town, next to the White town. In the French time (Pondicherry was a French outpost till 1954), the area was occupied by the Tamil population, whereas the French lived in the White town - along the sea. Predictably, the architecture in the White town is rather European, while the Tamil town has traditional Tamil style houses. The interesting things to see are mostly in the White town.

Touching head on Aurobindo Ashram wall
I walked around the White town. Streets were not crowded and many people were shuttling in bicycles. I came upon Manakula Vinayagar temple - said to be in existence before French settlers arrived in 1666. An elephant outside the temple was a major attraction as she was blessing passersby. A stone’s throw from the temple is Aurobindo Ashram. I went in and sat in meditation. Sri Aurobindo evolved a new method of spiritual practice - the Integral Yoga.

At the time I was in Pondicherry, a major cyclone (Cyclone Phailin) was threatening the eastern coastline of India. The cyclone did not touch the southern part, so Pondicherry was spared. Meanwhile, I was receiving messages from concerned friends and family about my well-being. (The Orissa government had done a remarkable task of evacuating people during Cyclone Phailin)

On the second day, I woke up while it was still dark. I remembered I was in the eastern coast, quickly got dressed and ran to the seaside with my cameras and lenses. The hotel was quiet – all were sleeping. The security guard woke up as I approached the inner gate and unlocked the doors for me. There were a few people on the streets but the seaside was filled with morning walkers and sunrise watchers. The sea was a 10 minute walk from my hotel. It was cloudy. We had to wait to spot the sun. By the time we managed to steal a glance of it, the sun was well above the horizon. I returned to the hotel to have breakfast and fell asleep soon after.

Lounging about in Auroville
Waking up a few hours later, I called for a taxi and went on a visit to Auroville. Auroville is an experimental township founded by Sri Aurobindo Society in 1968, 10 kilometers from Pondicherry. Residents to not own any land in the township and engage in different occupations and activities to contribute to the township. Auroville was not very different from what I remembered. Except that Matri Mandir (Matri=Mother, Mandir=temple) was being built when I visited in 1995. Matri Mandir is circular shaped, golden in colour and a spiritual space. I could not go inside it as I was not organised enough to arrange for a pass (my niece, who studied in Pondicherry, had advised me to get one when I was planning). Substantial tracts of land in Auroville lie empty. One wonders its success at establishing an alternative way of life. I had a thought it would be a great place for me to retire and have nowhere else to go! I am sure I could use my talents to sustain myself.

I had lunch in a café in Auroville, run by French nationals. The food was disappointing. In comparison, food in my hotel was excellent. And they were happy to serve me dishes of my choice. I would order ahead and have been satisfied with the meals I had there. The evening was spent in Pondicherry exploring a church, two temples and shops. Like in the first evening, I paid a visit to Aurobindo Ashram to sit for a while.

Sunsrise in Pondicherry
On the third day, I would leave for Mumbai. But not before exploring some more. As in the second day, I ran to catch the sunrise early in the morning. The experience was better than the day before. It was less cloudy and more dramatic. As I sat there watching the view, it occurred to me after a long time I heard a sea roaring. The Arabian Sea in Mumbai is rather laid back, does not make much noise when its waves splash on its shores. The Bay of Bengal in Pondicherry is a roaring, self-conscious entity: it wants to make its presence felt. Like in many places of Bombay, the seaside in Pondicherry is lined with stones and boulders to prevent land erosion. The dam takes away some bit of fun of being next to the sea but it had a different charm. Waves spraying on boulders are a sight worth watching.

Soaking in the ambience
As the sun became stronger, I started walking around the White town. In the last two days, I had developed some ideas for photography. After I was reasonably satisfied, I sat in a café, opposite the beautiful and distinctive French consulate by the sea, to have breakfast. The café did not have its full menu on offer as their staff members were on holiday for Dusshera. After breakfast, more photography and a trip to Aurobindo Ashram, I headed back to the hotel.

It was time to say good-bye to Pondicherry: I packed my bags and left for the airport. I was filled with peace and confidence. I knew I would go on a solo trip again. 

July 2014, Mumbai

Text and photo: Sanchita C 2014