Part 1: Rajasthan the Land

Rajasthan is the largest Indian state by land area and the seventh largest by population. It is the state of princely kingdoms in the great Thar desert of the Indian subcontinent. Rajasthan is an ancient land dating back to days of the Indus Valley civilization. As time rolled on, the region’s history has interwoven with the colorful history of India. The current shape and dimensions of the state are an effect of the States Re-organisation Act, 1956, but it took a lot, I mean a lot of work to get there. In fact, it is said the unification of Rajasthan happened in 7 stages, and 18 kingdoms together united to form the state as we see now.

The biggest cities that we identify with Rajasthan today are remnants of their respective kingdoms or princely states. Each of these big cities have their own culture, architecture, people and lifestyle – and they are beautiful. Huge forts and palaces, beautiful silent lakes and the all engulfing golden sand of the desert – makes anyone want to see this land once in their life. We were no different. ‘We’ are a group of friends who grew up together – some from preschool and some from college – but the friendship is strong and so is the desire to travel and experience the beauty of this diverse land called India.

Mehrangarh Fort

The plan was simple, – scratch that, there are no simple plans. For starters Rajasthan is a huge place and practically every district has a fort or a palace and a beautiful story to tell. How do we pick and choose in our 5 – day long trip? We broke our heads for hours, weekend poker nights ruined in the name of planning, hotels booked, and then cancelled, native Rajasthan friends and contacts pestered and then negated. All this and finally came up with something that was so tight that there were no time for sleep – at least not for the drivers. Come to think of it, we don’t regret it now – so Ill take you through our plans and other things that you can plan based on your time and convenience.

The Thar Desert

Modern day travel has become a lot easier with the availability of internet and capital. I remember the tours we took as a family, we looked for budget accommodations or religious institutions to stay in, read up on the bus and train facilities and always carried a map. Today we still carry maps, just that we aren’t as worried about finding budget hotels or dependent on public transport. We wanted freedom – freedom to accommodate our lazy ass attitudes – hence we decided the best way forward was hiring rental cars and find our own way using google maps.

Plan A

Plan A

Jaipur is the capital and the biggest city in Rajasthan. Naturally most trips start or end at Jaipur. Since we lived quite far from Rajasthan, travelling by air made most sense. We would fly to Jaipur, hire the rental cars, travel around Rajasthan and fly back from Jaipur – only that it didn’t feel right. This plan meant we would have to pass through both Jaipur and Ajmer twice – and we were not in favor of that. Like all middle class Indians we wanted to maximize our travel. Also this plan didn’t work out well because we had only 4 nights and 5 days.

Tigers at Ranthambore

Before going to the plan that we went with, lets take a look at the places in Rajasthan that are worth the visit.

  1. Jaipur – The Pink city: Palaces, forts, museums and the Hawa Mahal
  2. Jodhpur – The Blue city: Palaces and Forts
  3. Jaisalmer – The Golden city: Dunes of the Desert, Patwa haveli, the living Fort
  4. Ajmer – Darga of Khawaja Gharib Nawaz
  5. Udaipur – The White City: Palaces, Forts, Lakes, zip line, lake palace
  6. Pushkar – Temples, ponds, and other places of religious interest
  7. Chittorgarh – Asia’s largest fort, other palaces and forts
  8. Bhilwara – Forts, palaces and religious places of interest
  9. Mt Abu – Hill station in the desert, lakes, view points and temples
  10. Ranthambore National Park – Tiger reserve, animal safari
  11. Bhangarh – Historical ruins, haunted places

The above list is just a ‘top of the head’ categorical mentioning and each of them have so much more to offer. There are other places like Bikaner, Kota, Barmer, Pali, Baltora etc etc that have their own unique architecture and cultural offering for the enthusiastic traveler, but time and money are generally the determinants of how well the middle class travels.

Money

Its not The most important thing in a trip, but money is money, so we wanted to plan this trip at an affordable rate – that is at a max of 20% of the average monthly salary of the group. This needs to include the food, lodging, travel, fuel, shopping and any maintenance we would come across. It is during this discussion on Money that we found Jaipur may not be the best place to start our tip. Ahmadabad, which is the capital city of the neighboring state of Gujarat is a bigger city and offers lucrative deals on flights and rental cars. As per our calculations, it would cost us 2000 rupees less per person – a grand total of 16,000 lesser than the plan starting from Jaipur. Even with the state toll to pay and recalculated distance, we would save a cool 12,000 rupees. Hard to overlook such a delicious discount – hence we reworked our plan.

Plan B

With the new Plan, we had to drive a little longer, but we cut lose a few places on the Plan A. We voted for the following:

  1. Jaisalmer – obvious choice because its the only place that’s right in the middle of the desert and offers camel rides and dune safaris.
  2. Jodhpur – the place has the most famous fort – the Mehrangarh, other associated architecture and a famous Umaid bhawan Palace and a minor point that my cousin served at the Airforce Station in Jodhpur.
  3. Ajmer – the famous Khwaja Garib Nawaz darga that we really wanted to visit
  4. Jaipur – because, well its the capital of Rajasthan and has some of the most famous forts and palaces, including the Hawa mahal
  5. Udaipur – the coolest of all the desert kingdoms, the land of the lakes and palaces, and its just a 5 hour drive to Ahmedabad.
  6. Since we were flying to and from Ahmedabad we also wanted to see a few places in the city – this didn’t happen.

We saved a lot of money by changing the Start and End point from Jaipur to Ahmedabad. We could’ve saved a bit more if the rentals could be hired at Ahmedabad and signed off at Jaipur. Maybe it wasn’t available in 2018 and the times have changed now.

Below is a short video of the trip. We plan to cover all of this on the blog. Enjoy!


Next up:
Part 2: Jaisalmer – The Desert

Tour de North East

A comprehensive guide to my tour in the beautiful North East of India in the the December of 2018.

Part 1 – The shortlist
A brief about how to plan your North East trip. The NE has 8 states and many many beautiful places. How to pick and choose, and what we did

Planning be Legendary

Part 2 – The Big Cities
Write up on Guwahati and Shillong. The weather, public amenities, transport facilities available, economy, business, brands, tourism, people and culture.

Kamakhya Temple

Part 3 – Khasi hills of Meghalaya
Khasi is one of the three major tribes in Meghalaya. The Khasi hills are a geographic distinction in Meghalaya and is famous for the many tourist attractions including Cheerapunji and the many root bridges.

Tawang – Not in the trip

Part 4 – Dawki and Jaintia
Asia’s cleanest village, followed by a kayak ride on the river Dawki, Bangladesh border and stories of a 14 year old boat man by the sunset.

Part 5 – Nagaland
First visit to Nagaland, how to get there, legal requirements, history, tourism, transportation, people, language and culture.

The Hornbill Festival

Part 6 – The Naga Conversations
Myth busting conversations up close with the Nagas, demystifying pop culture beliefs and dogma about the Nagas. People, Language, culture and Food.

Bonus – Getting to Cheerapunji
Travel options from Shillong to Cheerapunji. Embarrassing true stories, Cab fares, Accommodation options and Deals.

Easy because we are lazy

Being able is not the reason,
Neither is it our wisdom,

Not that we care,
Not that we are scared,

The uncertainty of our ability,
The certainty of the infeasibility,

The mind takes a guided course,
Of which, it itself is the source,

Which it does frequently,
Carrying it out eloquenty,

Doing things because it’s easy,
Promoting the ignorant and the lazy.

#Easyway #BeingIgnorant #BeResponsible #poem

Kanyamagufa is Real

In the October of 2017, for no reason at all I took a 12 year oath.

I will witness and experience the next 12 Pushkarams in the next 12 years.

Ok, first there’s a technical term in the vow. Pushkaram – let’s define that.

Pushkaram in it’s bare sense is a river festival. Rivers in India, and in most other ancient civilizations of the world are worshipped as the embodiment of a life giving and cradling spirit. Ofcourse we always go overboard with our conceptions. No one knows when the attitude of gratitude and befriended living turned into an overzealous superstition. Naturally the river festivals became more and more superstitious.

Or maybe not? I won’t take a scientific approach to rationalize it, but let me use some common sense. India has many rivers and we cant say we’ll just worship one or two, hence they created a formula. A 12 year cycle to worship 12 prominent rivers. And what’s the measure the time? The heavens!

Jupiter is said to take 12 years to make one full circle. So if Jupiter is in Libra now, it will come back to libra next in 12 years. And each year, one river gets a chance, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 rivers and 12 years. Makes perfect sense. Now I am not going to comment on the spiritual side of the story or the scientific side, because I’m neither a priest nor a scientist. I’m just an experiencer. So I experience. And hence the lofty vow.

Let’s take a few examples to drive this home.

In 2017 when Jupiter moved into Libra, the river Kaveri gets the Pushkaram – It’s river festival.

Next year, the next sign, the next Pushkaram. That is, in 2018 when Jupiter moves into Scorpio, the river Bhima gets the Pushkaram.

Like this, the cycle goes on for years. The hype is not about maintaining this complicated calculation or about anything over religious, but it’s about river cleaning and celebration. Ofcourse some of the Pushkarams like Ganga – also called the Kumbh – river Yamuna and river Godavari attract huge crowds – running into tens of millions – these invariably end up dirtying the river more than purifying it. But hey, it’s a celebration and an opportunity to cleanse ourselves.

*

Phew! Now let’s get into Kanyamagufa. Oops, sorry it’s another technical term, its actually a mythical place in Micheal Crichton’s 1980 book called Congo. It’s the place of the bones.

In 2018, it was the turn of the river Bhima, which originates in the state of Maharashtra, flows into Karnataka and merges with the river Krishna in Telangana. I decided to go-to a small place – almost a suburb or Pune called Tulapur.

Tulapur is famous because it’s has the tomb of Sambhaji maharaj. He was the eldest son of the great Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire. The river Bhima flows through Tulapur and hence I decided to go there to witness the Pushkaram – this was a mistake.

I first paid my respects to Sambhaji Maharaj and cooled down for a while under the shade of a tamarind tree. It was high noon and it was hot. The group of foreigners were turning pink to red to orange. Apart from them there were also students, basically couples who wanted some time quite place to be with each other’s words. And – my favourite, a bunch of old grannys, they must’ve been easily over 70. They all had earthen pots of spiced butter milk that they sold for 10 rupees. They had no teeth, and spoke with me warmly in Marathi, either they were complaining of the heat or of something else, but they just laughed and smiled at me because I was nodding and they figured I wasn’t understanding a word. I said my goodbyes and asked for a photo, the granny declined and so I just paid and left for the river.

There was no Pushkaram, no fairs, no tents, no music, no carnival, no people, nor any water. The place is a meeting point of three Rivers: Bhima, Bhamma and Indrayani. I’m not sure if it was the season or the rivers are going dry everywhere, but Tulapur was dry. I could see shallow streams of water and soft shiny pebbles exposed on the river floor.

I decided to take a walk upstream in search of water, I was actually walking on the river when it happened. I noticed a few pieces of bones. I ignored and walked further upstream. More bones. Some dried flowers and bangles too. Now I was getting suspicious. Is this an old battle ground? Do we have the tomb here because it’s where Sambhaji died? In a battle?

Since there was no carnival there was nothing to experience, and thanks to the discovery of bones, I wasn’t going to take a “holy” dip in the Bhima either. I started walking back downstream towards the steps. The view of the tomb, temple and the tall chimneys made a beautiful frame, I clicked a couple of pictures and continued walking. I sat down at the foot of the stairs on the bank disappointed when I saw the priest, he turned around and asked something in Marathi. But I understood he was asking me if I wanted to perform someone’s last rites. Was I looking that disappointed?

That’s when I understood why there was no carnival or festival at this place. It was a cremation ground. The chimneys were of an incinerator. And the bones were actually mortal remains of dead people cremated in this place. Ouch. Mistake.

I laughed at myself, gave the priest a headache, stood up and walked back to road feeling foolish. Ofcourse I did find a place where the Pushkaram was going on later – but that’s for another day.

Two years later, the pieces of bones on the dried river bed still haunt me. Not because of the dead, but because of what we are doing to our rivers. I wonder what would turn up if all the rivers dried? Bones? Kanyamagufa?

~*~

Part 6 – The Naga Conversations

Two thoughts come to mind when we think Nagaland.

  1. Dog meat
  2. Head hunters

It’s very sad that these are the only things we can think of. Nagas are said to be the one of the bravest of the Indian army. The current chief minister of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio had been the CM 3 times before. A 13 year old girl started an armed resistance against the British rule in 1929; Rani
Gaidinliu was arrested in 1932 at the age of 16 and was only released in 1947 after the independence of India. There are many Naga football stars including Talimeren Ao in who’s honour the government has released a postal stamp. But do we know any of this? Noooo.. we can only think of dog meat and “violent” head hunting.

Sadly both of these topics are highly misunderstood, misinterpreted and misconstrued. Stereotype dog meat jokes on the Nagas are one thing, but alleging that they feed dog meat to tourists or to anyone without consent is rubbish.

Finding Dogmeat in the famous Shah house of Hyderabad or some hyped restaurant on Indiranagar of Bangalore might be bad. Bad because they sell Dogmeat in the name of mutton. But this doesn’t happen in Nagaland.

In our visit to Kohima, one of our expectation was to see dog meat and other exotic animals for sale in the markets – we missed it. In Kisama, we did see black boards outside Morungs with menus selling dog meat.

The board clearly read:

Local Dog Meat – ₹150

Local Pork – ₹180

Local Beaf – ₹200

So it’s just like ordering salad or juice, just another item of the menu. You order it, you get it – simple.

For dinner we tried a variety of food from a line of eateries – who were all hoteliers from across the state and had set up stalls to serve food at the Hornbill Festival. They were also part of a contest for the best food stall. Choices were abundant, both for veg and non veg. They served grasshoppers; crispy, roasted grasshoppers. I didn’t eat but they asked everyone explicitly for prawn allergies before serving. Of course we also had rice beer in bamboo shoots. I asked our friend from the TV channel if they used the bamboo shoots as a drinking glass at their homes also or was it just for the tourists in restaurants. He wasn’t surprised, he said in the towns we use normal steel, or plastic or coffee mugs – just like everyone, but in villages some traditional people do use the bamboo shoots.

This was followed by some karaoke, the head chef came out and sang too, it seemed like he was very popular. A group if pretty girls – they could be older – got excited and had animated conversations with him. The ladies of Nagaland were by far the prettiest in the north east.

*

Back at the house, it was biting cold. Avin had started a fire outside and there was a group having dinner around it. We said our goodbyes to our friends and went up to the room – which is where Nikie came to enquire about our stay.

Upon seeing us, she realised we had run into her a couple of times in the carnival. After pleasantries, we started talking of the different stalls and activities at the fest. I said I was surprised to see the Indian army put up stalls too. To which she said Nagaland provides a sixth if all soldiers to the Assam rifles. The hornbill festival was a major showcasing platform for the army. Infact there was also a stall from the BSF and another war memorial stall that showed us about the war of Kohima – A world war 2 battle that lasted for nearly 4 months.

Speaking to her was easy, she had done her graduation and post grad at St. Aloysius in Mangalore. She was now doing her PhD in history at Guwahati University. She enlightened us about the myth of head hunting.

The world outside the Naga society thinks it’s a way of living that the Naga tribes go on beheading and collecting heads of their rivals. While it’s true that tribes get into conflicts and the Nagas have beheaded each other, they don’t collect heads and it’s definitely not a tradition to behead one another. The Nagas too are victims of the British misconstrue. When the British and other exploiters came to Nagaland through Myanmar, like any natives the Nagas resisted, and to de-legitimise their claims the Nagas were made to look evil, violent and dangerous.

The girl had seemed like a carefree “girl from the north east” who ran to the beaches. She looked so different now. We were left with a sudden realisation of our ignorance as she made her way back to her room.

The fire was still burning and the other group – who were a bunch of consultants looking to get students to their colleges from the North east – had gone, so we went down to sit by the fire. Avin, who we thought was the caretaker was there sat with us. We were to find that he was an artist, a sculpture, he worked different jobs and had come to Delhi in 2017 to work with the media for a sporting event. He was now taking care of this property for the winter and had plans of going up to Guwahati or Delhi in the summer.

We had heard him stum on his guitar, so we asked if he could play for us, he wasn’t shy, he played the guitar and RJ – my other travel companion sang. It was a nice soothing end to the night. Realisation of our ignorance on one side, and understanding of the Naga way by these casual conversations on the other. Both had left us yearning for Nagaland.

*

We left the next morning, took a rather bad and lengthy drive to Mao Gate in Manipur, switched cabs and passed through some towns that ended with -oan, except for Senapati. We ATM-ed at Senapati, bought some water and headed to Imphal. That’s where we saw hoardings about something called Sangai Fest in Manipur. Its an annual festival in of Manipur – just like the Hornbill of Nagaland. It happens in the last week of November – so you could go-to Manipur in the last week of November, experience the Sangai feat and then come to Nagaland in December for the Hornbill. Make it happen!

~*~

Also read: Part 5 – Nagaland

Part 5 – Nagaland

Nagaland is one of the few states in India where the biggest city is not the capital by default. Kohima is the capital city of Nagaland, it is located in the south-south central region of the state. Kohima also serves as the seat of the Legislative and Executive arms of the state government of Nagaland. The state doesn’t have a High court – but has a Kohima Bench in the Gauhati High Court.

The largest city of Nagaland is Dimapur, located about 75 Km from Kohima in the south west corner of the state bordering the neighboring state of Assam. Dimapur is the last accessible place by Air and Train in Nagaland. It is not unnatural as Nagaland is mostly covered in hills – about 90% of the landscape is covered in hills and hilly terrain.  

There are numerous trains on the route and 10 of them are daily trains. So we pushed our departure and decided to take a late night train that would a. Give us time to meet the players of Bengaluru FC in the day, and b. save us the hotel cost for the night. We’d booked a non-AC – sleeper coach – which cost us a little more than 200 rupees. The train was on time at Guwahati – but was filthy. Since mine was an upper berth and it was a late-night train I didn’t bother if the floor was clean or not – I hopped in and slept. I was told that the train was duly cleaned before it left the station.

The train pulled into Dimapur a little after 6 AM. I was exhausted and visibly dehydrated. Luckily the train station has enough food joints and to our pleasant surprise, there was a south Indian stand that served Dosas – which we had with much gratitude.

We had run into the tourist police – female – with whom we spoke about the ILP. The ILP – Inner Line Permit is what tourists and other non-native expats need to visit Nagaland. It is made essential because of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is in force in the area. The Act itself might be enforced in different regions up to different extents, but the ILP is required in only a few regions of India – and we didn’t have it. Our friend and host – who worked at a Kohima based TV station had said don’t worry about it, you’re only in Nagaland for 2 days. So we didn’t worry about it and fat mouthed the cops who detained us at the railway station for our troubles. Eventually we were let off on our own cognizance and on assurance that we would obtain the ILP from the commissioner’s office in Dimapur town. I would suggest – you get the ILP before hand and not try to pull stunts like these – its available online or in bigger cities like New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati and Shillong.

Upon our “release” from the Railway station, we were hounded by cabbies – normal of any city in India. We found a cab that had 1 passenger ready to leave and with the 3 of us joining, we were ready to go – except – now we had to find a driver. The cabs may not always be privately owned – hence there are 3 moving parts – the passengers, the vehicle, and the driver. It was only on the road to Kohima did we find out that every part in the car is a moving part and it’s a miracle the chassis still holds, and engine still runs. The road is terrible, most of it is attributed to the new highway project, but the construction has been going on for years and likely to go on for years more. The distance of 75 Km took us nearly 6 hours. Bikers and landslides were a common site. Armored vehicles too. I couldn’t enjoy the mountainous scenery much – but the mountains and valleys can make an enjoyable sight.

The terrain gradient of the city of Kohima was constantly varying. The city itself wasn’t any cleaner than majority of India, but there was a lot of construction going on, houses, shopping complexes, bigger housing buildings – which suggested a sort of progress. There were also numerous schools and coaching centers – coaching centers that taught computers, and other professional certifications. Good signs! Since it was Christmas season, the whole city had Christmas decorations – not a lot of lights – as electricity is a commodity, but decorations, sky lights, and a lot of red and green everywhere. The homogeneity of the decorations made me as our friendly -stranger co passenger if it was handed by the government – which was the case. We took another cab from downtown Kohima towards our homestay in Kigwema.

We were welcomed warmly by the owner/keeper of the house. As a welcome drink, we were offered rice tea. Rice is a big part in Naga society, rice with meat, rice tea, and rice beer are every Naga’s daily routine. The homestay was a minimalist stay with minimal furniture – just beds and bedding, a small table with a bible and a calendar. There were candles and matches reminding us we were in rural India – albeit a tourist destination. The facility had community bath and toilet – toilet being the squat toilet.  We freshened ourselves up and waited for our friend to pick us up to go to the Hornbill festival.

 Kisama is an artificial village created just for the sake of the festival. It gets the name from the two nearby places of Ki-gwema and phe-Sama. The village is basically a big carnival area with parking, outdoor stage area, restaurants, a chapel, ATMs, medics, outdoor flea markets and everything else you find in a carnival. The main attraction however are the Morungs. A Morung literally means a habitat – a place of residence for a family or a group of families of a Naga Tribe.

Nagaland is home to 17 indigenous tribes, some are as big as 200 thousand people while some endangered ones at less than 20 thousand inhabitants. All these tribes are incredibly interesting with their own unique culture, language, scripts and art forms. The Hornbill Festival is an event that showcases and celebrates all the different cultures of these tribes. Each of the 17 tribes are depicted in their Morung, which they get to design and decorate themselves, cook food, set up stalls, brew beer and hold all of these for sales. Photos are encouraged and everyone is friendly.

The festival not only runs in Kisama but after nightfall, concerts from famous and upcoming native bands are held in the city concert ground in Kohima – which is just 15 Km from Kisama,

The people we met, our friends who we had seen in a different light and the new friends we made opened our minds to a whole new world. The conversations with the Nagas will be last of the 6 part travelogue of the incredible North East of India.

Also Read : Part 4 – Dawki and Jaintia

~*~