Why Rural Tourism

What exactly pulls tourists to our villages ?

– The clean air & pollution free environ thats hard to find in cities
– The “poor, hungry people” as highlighted by Circuit in MunnaBhai MBBS
– The slow pace of life & the simplicity of living
– Gandhiji’s words that India lives in her villages
– Low cost way to see the natural beauty of India (I had home stayed with farmers during my Sikkim visit)

I have been watching this industry grow considerably, but am still not sure whats the puller?

Marketing lessons from Kumbh

At my recent visit to Haridwar (during the Kumbh Mela) one thing that really struck out (apart from the crowd) was the number of hoardings on the Haridwar-Rishikesh road. This road is parallel to Ganga & is the path that most devotees would take from their camps/hotels to the ghats. And each hoarding was vying for your attention.

Kumbh Mela 2010

I was reminded of the 1st year B school marketing lessons by looking at these hoardings. Before we get into the specifics of what one can learn from these ads, its crucial you understand the economics of Kumbh Mela.

 

The Kumbh is like a “perfect market” – the 1st of the 4 types we are taught in Economics 101. Why? Cos there are

  • countless people seeking the same thing (read – unlimited demand).
  • countless babas/devis/akaharas/netas/sadhus/trusts providing the same thing (read- unlimited supply)
  • there is hardly much difference in the product or service (all are here for some form of devotional or spiritual gains )

So it wasn’t surprising to see

  • Hoardings from almost every baba/sant/devi/mataji you have ever heard of
  • Some take the fear psychosis route – “Hindu dharma kahtre mein hai” (Transaltion- The Hindu religion is in danger !).  Remember, the days of Insurance ads when they shifted to showing survivors in distress as a way to drive home the point.
  • Some took popular themes which every one could relate to. Here it was Global Warming. With so much of national & international debate, it sure was a sane choice. It was like, a Tea co. taking up the issue of casting votes or corruption.
  • Its said that one must have a multitude of AVs around the same theme so that the consumer fatigue does not happen. Soham baba mission & the “Hindu dharma khatre mein hai”, did this beautifully. One theme but different images or sub-issues.
  • Some corporate brands had an inherent advantage like:
    • Bank of Baroda’s corp colors merged well with the color theme at Kumbh
    • or DoCoMo’s “why be a part of the crowd” took a whole new meaning
    • but the most amazing was Uninor’s – “Ab mera number hai” (Translation- its my turn now) right infront of the ghats where people were jostling to take a dip in the Ganges.
  • Well if you thought this was it, no- there was a Book Release also. What better place/time to release the Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

Spend some time there & am sure you will also develop some respect for these masters- masters of advertising !

PS: The Kumbh Lions go to Soham Baba for his tasteful portfolio, choice of theme & proper highlighting of direct channel (his website is hard to miss). Am sure you would find it hard to disagree.

Granada- The Last sigh of the Moor

As a schoolboy I had seen a picture of the glorious red castle of Alhambra surrounded by hills. And often I wondered how it would be to walk through the courts of the Kings of Granada. So when we made the trip to Spain, we took the five hour bus ride from Madrid to Granada passing through pretty Spanish houses.

Granada at southern Spain is a charming little town sprawling around the foot of the Alhambra castle. It has many small cafes with a sprinkling of North African cuisine. The town has a relaxed atmosphere where we found grandmothers sitting over hours for late evening coffee.

Alhambra:

Granada was the last bastion of the Moors in Spain. The houses of Catalana (Barca) & Castilla were joined with the matrimony of King Ferdinand & Queen Isabel. Strengthened they forayed into Alhambra and in 1492 sent the last Moor King Boabdil into exile. As the crestfallen Boabdil rode off in the hills he looked back one last time at Alhambra, which gave birth to the phrase “the last sigh of the Moor”.

The Alhambra, meaning red soil in Arabic is divided into three parts – Alcazaba the citadel housing the armed garrison, Palacios Nazaries, the luxurious palace of the Nazareth Kings and Generalife consisting of the gardens and the summer palace.

The Alcazaba represents the muscle power of Alhambra with its watch towers overlooking the city of Granada below. But the music of Alhambra is within the Palacios Nazaries. Beautiful crafted halls with underground rivulets and gardens. One fascinating hall holds a visual representation of the heavens which a good Moor would reach. The palace oozes with worship of Arabic culture.

Alhambra’s rediscovery is another story. In 18th century Washington Irving an American diplomat and writer, heard tales of the Alhambra while based in Sevilla. He rode forth with his friend a Russian diplomat to explore the palace which was in ruins. He stayed for many months in the palace with the local governor’s permission and recounted its tales. The romantics in Spain picked up his call and then began the process to restore one of Spain’s most cherished sites. The audio guides today are in the words of Washington Irvine.

Walk through the mazy Albaicin:

The Albaicin quarters are located at the foot of the Alhambra. Armed with a map we decided to do a half day walk to feel the old world charm. We walked through the quiet cobbled lanes and old houses. It’s from here one gets fabulous external views of the Alhambra.

Somewhere in the alleys a musician was playing the guitar. I borrowed his instrument and played him some of my notes. He seemed please and though he spoke Spanish, we shook hands and parted. It was a special moment in our Granada trip.

In the little village square at Albaicin we found some lovely curios for ourselves and friends back home. Spain is known for ceramics. It was a bit like Janpath, sans the crowd. We finished our half day walk at café Kasbah for a Moroccan meal of Bitwas (spinach & cheese crepe), Gazzapo (cold tomato soup), and Kino washed down with mint tea. Divine. Folks usually smiled widely when they found us coming from Mumbai to see their beloved Alhambra.

Flamenco at Sacremento:

Its 9:30pm when the gypsy arrives at Hotel Juan Miguel to pick us up. We are headed to La Roche at the Sacremento quarters in Granada where the gypsies reside. The gypsy and I apologize for I don’t recollect his name is delighted to know we are from India. He touches my arm and then points to his and says in ‘you and me same blood, we came 300 years from back from India’. The gypsies firmly believe that their ancestors originated from India, rather Rajasthan.

The La Roche gypsy cavern is adorned with pictures and colorful lanterns and we are seated with other visitors in a U shape. It is foot tapping dance with beautiful hand and eye movements. The grand finale is a rendition by a middle aged gypsy woman who is dreamy eyed with sensuous movements. It is backed a mustached man on a thundering guitar and a throaty voice.

After the show I thanked the mustached man. “I have a poor voice”, he said modestly and pointed to the moon, “When I sing, it is the gods who sing”. I mentioned to him that coming from India the performance was unique for us. He looked deeply at me and put his palm on his heart, “India is in my heart”.

Getting there:

Granada is about 5 ½ hours by bus (www.alsa.es) from Madrid and 80 minutes by flight (www.vueling.com) from Barcelona.

Stay:

We recommend Hotel Juan Miguel (www.hoteljuanmiguel.com)

Things to do:

–         The Alhambra: Regular mini buses operate from Gran Via (Central Square) to Alhambra. Book early via internet as passes to Alhambra are limited.

–         Flamenco shows: Southern Spain is rich in Flamenco tradition (2 hours, 10:00pm – midnight) and Granada has some of the finest performers.

Walk through Albaicin quarters: enjoy the local flavor, the food and the shopping.

Rail Museum

As a kid growing up in a small town (I had spent most of my childhood days in Ranchi), our annual summer vacations in Delhi usually left a deep impression.  Can you imagine the excitement one had at seeing such huge buildings/forts & so many cars on the roads.

One such trip whose memory lingered on for very many years was the family outing to the Rail Museum. I guess I must have been around 9-10 yrs old and the whole gang of cousins went there one hot summer evening. I had vague memories of peeping inside Tipu Sultan’s royal carriage and the Maharaja of Patiala’s one track train.
Rail Museum
Now, having moved back to Delhi, and made quite a many trips across the Rail Museum bridge, I realised that I had not gone there even once.  So one of these Sunday’s I got my cousins & their kids together & off we went to the Rail Museum.

I still love trains, maybe more cos of the Mech Engg in me, but I was shocked at the state of affairs at the Museum. Most of the carriages are rotting or are damaged beyond repair.  And somehow the charm of an open air museum eludes you.

I just wish we had a more concerned team of people managing this place. Ironical that the official introduction of the museum on its site goes like this:

National Rail Museum is the focus of Rail Heritage of India a source of fascination and interest in Railways for all. Formally inaugurated on the Ist of February. 1977, this one-of-its-kind museum in Asia has an interesting collection of history, heritage, romance, nostalgia, fun, leisure and entertainment, all at one place. Sprawling over 11 acres, it comprises an indoor gallary devoted to the display of various exhibits, models, records, photographs, coat of arms, documents etc. over 100 real size exhibits display the glory of the bygone era. The Museum promises to take the visitors on an exciting journey into the Railway history and heritage and depict their contribution to the industrial and economic progress of the country.

The JUNGLE BOOK (Kanha, APRIL 2009)

The first day
At 4:00 am there is a sharp knock on the door. It’s still pitch dark but its time to wake up with tea & biscuits at 4:15am! The gypsy and eighteen year old Ramzan are waiting for Simrata & me and we quickly join and drive to the queue at Kanha gate. The entry form takes a few minutes and Dinesh Soni the forest ranger hops in. At 5:00 the gates open and we head to the inner park gate; the Kisli gate. It is still dark and we have to wait till 5:45. The Kanha National park is vast; covering over 1000 sq km divided between the buffer zone and the core area. Beyond Kisli gate is the core area. It is critical to be ahead in the Q of Gypsies as one stands a better chance of sighting the shy animals.

Bhalu @ Digdola
The gates open and we veer in at the normal speed at 25kmph. We have barely entered when Dinesh barked “Bhalu, to the left” pointing towards Digdola hill. The first five gypsies have missed it. Incredible! Ramzan breaks off towards Digdola and a few gypsies behind choose to follow us. We lay wait at the edge of the hill, camera’s ready. After a few minutes the male sloth bear appears ahead. He walks parallel and then crosses the road ahead of us to head into the jungle. “Rare to sight a bear” says Dinesh. We can’t believe our early luck and his keen eyes.

Over the next half hour Ramzan takes us through the Digdola range towards the Kanha meadows. We pass a tusked wild boar and his pack. The park has four varieties of deer which including the common spotted dear numbering about 23,000, the Sambar which is the tallest, bulky and apparently quite daft and the endangered Barasingha. “That’s the Indian Ghost tree and it is known to change its color thrice a year” remarks Dinesh pointing to a shining white dry tree also known as Kullu. Now I understand some of Mr. Kipling’s influences.

The Leopard at Road no 9
After an hour we approach the Kanha meadow that brings us in contact with the gypsies which took a different route and thereby get news on sightings all over the park. The word is that a Leopard has been sighted on road number 9. What Luck. The Leopard is seated on small rocks about 80 feet away and looking down at us. Over the next hour the magnificent beast stares, gets up, looks around and then crouches again. My Nikon is clicking away at full optical zoom. “We are lucky, a Leopard does not stay visible for so long” says Ramzan.

A friend text me in the night saying that his friend a naturalist, has visited Kanha every year for the last ten years and sighted the Leopard only twice.

We halt for breakfast at Kanha camp and visit the museum. There is an astonishing 8 min video with rare footage of animal episodes at Kanha.

Back on the meadows we sight a herd of Bison or the Gaur. “In Kanha only a few tigers have developed the skill to pull down a bison. They weigh close to a ton and the male bison is known to ward off a tiger” quips Dinesh. “The herd you see now has only females. Females keep only one male and his duty is to protect them from a tiger. A prospective bison male has to defeat the incumbent male if he wants property over the herd. This herd is without a male and the herd will choose over time”.

Our first safari is over by 11:00. Shower, lunch and rest

First Tiger sight at Sharavan Taal
Despite April the Jungle is nippy at dawn to become seething hot by afternoon. Its 2:45pm and we are getting ready for the afternoon safari. The gates open at 4pm and we take our place ahead in the single file of gypsies.

The route that Ramzan and Dinesh choose to the meadows is now via the Salghat. It is a long dry dusty road through the range full of sal trees. We pass a small herd of the protected Barasingha deer, which are now found only at Kanha. Unlike the common spotted deer, the Barasingha have a clear brown skin. A common sight in Kanha is to find dancing peacocks. “They either have to shed their feathers or if they have stepped out of water they try to shed the water. They often dance to shed weight and lighten their load” explains Dinesh.

At the other end of the meadow is the large pond Shravan Taal about 60 feet away from the road. The rectangular pond is about 300 meters in length and stretching away. The area is buzzing with expectation. About 400 meters away, near the water a male tiger is napping. It is our first sight of the Tiger. The white belly and stripes are reflecting in the water. We wait the rest of the evening in vain hoping he will wake up and choose to cross the road, before giving up and heading back to Kisli gate.

Wild dogs on the Hunt
The second day at dawn we prepare for the early chill by borrowing the bedcovers of Mogli Resorts and head out. The Kisli gates open and we spot the shy barn owl stepping out of the banyan tree. Again through Salghat range we reach the meadows and head on the route called Schaller Hide. “Elephants are tracking a tiger movement on our left” spots Dinesh. He asks Ramzan to shut the engine and watches them. He figures the elephants have spotted a tiger and the tiger is moving away. The meadows are covered with high grass on both sides and the tiger is not visible to us.

As the elephants have moved away on the horizon, there are signs of anxiety in the herds of deer along Schaller Hide road. “Wild dogs” shouts Dinesh. “Over there” points Ramzan. We wheel backwards. One, then the Second, surely there are more. Some of the deer are crossing the Schaller Hide and moving away and some are listening for signs. Suddenly two of the wild dogs appear and cut off the rear and a fawn is trapped in their ring. It is a quick end. The five wild dogs are now helping themselves. We feel our stomachs tighten.

“For someone to live, someone has to die” is what the forest ranger in the Gypsy next to ours is telling his fellow travelers. So it is. The wild dogs are now retreating back to the forest via Bison road. We head ahead and snap them crossing the Bison road.

After the break at Kanha Camp, Dinesh chooses the Indri road. “That’s the Shigra, part of the Eagle family. It is a combative bird and it bully’s other birds” said Dinesh. A role for everyone in the Jungle

Himalaya’s story
Towards Indri road we pass a tomb of a mahout and Dinesh recounted Himalaya’s story. 15 years back a mahout had died and the Elephant Himalaya was in grief. The tale states the elephant sat at the door of the hut thereby not allowing the family to carry the body of the mahout. Somehow the Elephant was cajoled into moving away and the processing was carried out. But the Elephant was disturbed and stopped performing its duties. It was left alone. The mahout’s son Sabeer also a mahout was then posted away to Pench Forest. Sabeer informed the Adhikari that Himalaya was still disturbed and would not be advisable to send him away. But the Adhikari thought otherwise.

Unfortunately one day Himalaya charged at some forest rangers at the camp towards Indri road. The forest rangers ran away. Himalaya gave charge to one mahout who fled towards a tree. The mahout climbed a tree, which was not very strong. Himalaya shook the tree, almost uprooting it and then killed the mahout. The Adhikari’s gave the order to shoot elephant. At this time one Adhikari thought of Sabeer and he was called back.

Sabeer was convinced he could get around to Himalaya. He went close to Himalaya and gave his call. Himalaya chased him away. Sabeer went again. The tale states that Himalaya recognized the call and went to Sabeer. Then placed its trunk on Sabeer and wept.

Last year, while crossing Kanha’s ground to hunt for its mate, Himalaya met a tragic end getting electrocuted. Today Sabeer is back on Kanha and he rides Himalaya’s kin, aptly named Himalaya.

We had completed our morning safari after a long dry ride on the Indri road. Then back at Mogli Resort. Shower, lunch and sleep. In the afternoon we took our place in the single file. We passed the banyan tree with the shy barn owl and ahead Dinesh sighted the changeable Hawk Eagle. He was simply the most glorious bird I have seen.

This time Dinesh veered us right towards Nakti Ghat instead of the usual left towards Salghat. At the Nakti Ghati pond I got a fabulous shot of a Sambar dunking her head and pulling out juicy weeds.

Back on the meadows word reached us that a Leopard had brought down a cheetal on Road no. 9. The Leopard was in the thicket and we could barely see it. “It probably is same Leopard we saw yesterday,” remarked Dinesh. “It will eat it’s full for now and then tear apart parts of its kill and hang on a tree. To eat it later”

Sighting the second Tiger at Salghat
At Road number 9, word reached us that a tiger was sighted on Jamun Nalah. We decided to try our luck and headed along Kanha main road. In any case the Leopard was busy on its kill and would probably not surface out.

We reached the Jamun Nalah. Dinesh saw signs of Tiger movements and asked Ramzan to continue ahead. We were on the Kanha road and had to make a choice. Either continue straight or turn right into Salghat. We moved straight on Kanha road.

Our first stroke of fortune as a single gypsy headed in from the opposite direction. Dinesh flagged him down and we learnt that the Tiger had not walked ahead on Kanha road. Ramzan turned around the gypsy in record time back towards Salghat.

The gypsy climbed up the hill till we came across two gypsies stationed ahead. They were waiting and listening for sounds. The Tiger was somewhere in the thick shrubs. We parked next to them when we had our second stroke of fortune. One of the forest ranger moved his gypsy towards a higher position on the road and peered into the shrubs.

Suddenly he was visible. The young male Tiger was crouched peacefully behind the shrubs and watching us all this while! The Tiger was about 300 meters away and we had some beautiful clicks of Tiger. My brother in law Prag is busy adding to his collections. The Tiger had walked quite a distance and was probably resting. Dinesh said Tigers are great walkers and are said to cover 30km in a day. But our time had run out. It was close to 6:10 and time for us to head to Kisli gate.

The Last day
Wake up at 4:00 am. Tea &Biscuits 4:15. Ramzan is already waiting in the Gypsy. The Jungle is a wonder for him. The eighteen year old can think of no other life. Bless him.

The word at Kisli gate is that the Tiger at Salghat got up just as we left and walked towards the Gypsies and crossed the road and walked into the Salghat hill. Others share that a Tiger was sighted near Shravan Taal in the evening. Maybe it is still by the pond at dawn.

At Shravan Taal there are fresh footprints of the tigress heading away towards the Neela Nallah. There are jungle calls. We lay watch. Two mahouts appear and speak to Dinesh and head right into the woods. Gypsies have to stick to the road and no person is allowed to step down from the jeep. Only the elephants with their mahouts have the privilege of making their own pathways.

We watch over an hour when I ask Dinesh if we should move to another place. Dinesh would rather lay watch but he senses my impatience. Ramzan turns back towards Shravan Taal where we watch two full sized male Barasingha with wonderful antlers negotiate a very – very cautious walk from Schaller Hide towards the pond.

Back on Schaller Hide we watch a mongoose cross our path. I dish out my Nikon when the mongoose surprisingly stops looks back and I get superb moment. Instantly it scoots away. “They are very shy and never look back” says Ramzan. The park abounds with Kipling’s characters.

The Tiger show at Chunnar Ghati
After our breakfast at Kanha Camp we spot a pair of Jackals running along Kanha main road. The word at Kanha camp was that a Tiger show is happening at Chunnar Ghati. For a Tiger show you have to pay Rs100, get a token and await your turn to mount the Elephant for a real close look.

There are four elephants at Chunnar Ghati that pick up people and take them close to the Tiger. The ride lasts at most a single minute.

The Tigress is sitting next to a rock. Our Elephant moves through the bushes towards her. Just as we turn towards her, she gets up and retreats into the thicket. I can just see her chest heaving through the shrub. But it is too quick to capture the moment. “I think the sun got to her” says the Mahout.

When we head back to Kisli gate, Dinesh says the Mahout & the Elephant who took me were the same Sabeer and the Himalaya.

Just before the gate Ramzan has sighted a beautiful Serpent Eagle with its distinct yellow beak.

The Tiger & the Wild Boar
In the afternoon after our meal and nap, the three of us troop out for one last safari. Dinesh joins us at the Kisli gate with the news that Tigress at Neela Nallah appeared after we moved away. And it walked on the tracks for over half an hour towards Shravan Taal

It’s a lesson in patience that I have to learn. Ramzan takes the shortest route to Shravan Taal through Salghat then skims along the meadows to reach Shravan Taal. There are a few gypsies ahead of us that stop to inspect the large pond and then choose to move ahead to Neela Nallah.

Dinesh is not convinced and borrows my binoculars. “There! It is sleeping” he exclaims pointing through the trees. Even through the instrument he is barely visible. A small speck

We decide to lay watch. As time ticks by others arrive spot the speck through the trees and wait. But after some time choose to move ahead or head back to the meadows. The sleeping male Tiger is oblivious to the expectation at the distant end of the large pond. Minutes tick into an hour.

Then a wild boar appears from the other end. It has not seen the Tiger. Unbelievable! Then instincts take over. In single instance the boar turns his head towards left and the Tiger raises his head backwards. The eyes meet and the boar darts back. There is muted laughter at our end. The Tiger goes back to sleep.

Occasionally it stretches its hind legs. Most watchers have got bored and left, only a few remain. But we want to implement our lessons in patience now.

After another hour the Tiger shows sign of awakening. It lifts its head towards our direction and then upwards to smell the wind. Gradually it lifts itself and deliberately walks back to the small mound and stops to watch.

The wild boar was thirsty. It appears in a few minutes and does not see the Tiger at its original sleeping place. Confident, it continues its descent into the pond. The Tiger takes a few strides and tightens itself. Then it charges down into the pond. The jungle is screaming with calls. A hunt is on.

The Tiger tears into the water. The Wild Boar makes crucial sharp turn and evades the leap. By the time the Tiger turns back the Wild Boar is out of the water and moving away from the pond. The Tiger makes a slow walk back to the mound.

“It will walk out of the other side and we may see it cross the road” feels Ramzan. He negotiates the gypsy backward and we drive along the pond to the other end. We wait for the Tiger to walk down from the covered mound and towards us.

The Tiger walks down and then stops to spray his marking on a tree. Then he enters the bushes and walks out 6 yards in front of us and crosses the road. Then he stops and clears the grass with is hind legs and eases himself. Done with the natures call he walks right by and into the grass leading to Schaller Hide.

We are in ruptures. What a moment.

“Its 6:15 Ramzan, you have 15 minutes to reach Kisli gate” reminds Dinesh. We blaze back.

It’s a trip and a place we will never forget and hopefully get back to soon. And I have learned a lot from the young Ramzan about his joy for life and experiencing the soul of the Jungle.

Getting There:
Most airlines have direct flights to Nagpur from Mumbai & Delhi. From Nagpur it is a 6 hour (240Km) drive to Kanha. The road is rough in patches, a good cab is recommended.
You could also take a train to Jabalpur and drive to Kanha (4 hours).

Staying there:
We stayed at Mogli resorts (INR 3000/day for a/c cottage, all meals). Park charges, Gypsy hire extra. It is located next to Kanha gate which saves precious time for getting into the entry Q. Other resorts, Kipling Camp, Tuli resort.

Mukhteswar- an ideal hill station

December was almost gone & I had not done any serious trips in the whole of 2009. The guilt was really high & I was asking some friends if they were keen on a road trip – anywhere from the hills to the deserts. After a lot of SMS, I realised by the evening of 26th that this was again going to be a solo trip- probably the best way to see a new place.

I spoke to my bro , who is a self-proclaimed authority on Himachal & Uttaranchal- and asked him for some recommendations & his top one was Mukhteswar.

I had heard about this place very often, coz almost all of my cousins had visited this small hill station in the last 3-4 years. I was also told that this time of the year, the winters would be severe- which added to the thrill. So Mukhteswar it was.

Within the next 3 hours, I got my bags packed, got a reservation done at IVRI campus & was aboard the State transport bus to Haldwani- the bus junction for most places in Uttaranchal.

Mukhteswar

The trip to Haldwani takes about 7 hrs from Delhi’s Anand Vihar ISBT.Reached Haldwani at 5.00 am only to realise that the connecting bus to Mukhteswar(a 4 hr ride) is only at 7.00 am and so I spent the wee hours of the morning strolling up & down the closed market place.

The journey to Mukhteswar winds thru some of the most picturesque landscapes you would find in this part of the country.The fields were all covered with a sheet of white dew and we were mostly shivering through the uphill journey.

Mukhteswar is a small town with the whole local economy revolving around the IVRI campus that was built during the British rule. The sprawling campus is spread across many hills and houses some of the top labs & Indian scientists.
I stayed at the Lingard House- a 140 year old bungalow, now used as a Guest house within the campus. The bungalow had all the charms of the colonial era, and one could imagine the lifestyle the senior profs would have had at this place.

My room was on the first floor, reached thru a rickety wooden staircase which creaked with each step. I dumped my bags, took a quick shower, had a bite and went off to explore the campus. I went from the admin office at the top thru the animal labs on the slopes to the cattle breeding station down below. And did i mention how lucky I was that the sky was clear & sun was shining ever so brightly- this meant that when I was walking in the sun, it was almost burning thru my clothes, but every time I walked under the shade of a tree, I realised how close I was to the Himalayas 🙂

The sun sets early and it starts getting cold around 4ish. I was sitting at the top of the water tank watching the Himalayas change colors under the setting sun, when I saw these wood cutters chopping up timber for fire.We started talking & they told me that this is what they do during winters, when there is mot much work in the fields. Also realised that the campus alone gives contracts to chop off 1300 Qunitals of wood every year in the 3 winter months.After another 40 minutes of chat with them and sharing a glass of really sweet tea, I went back to the Lingard house to kill the rest of the evening ahead of me. And boy was that a challenge !

I had unfortunately not brought any interesting books along with me, the TV didnt work and I wasnt too tired to sleep early. So I asked the care taker to light up the fire place & did what I enjoy the most at new places- listening to the local stories.
The caretaker it seems has been with the campus for almost 20 years and has been at the Lingard house for almost 4 years.Though he has a separate quarter in the compound, his family doesnt stay with him. His wife is at the village (probably to look after the land etc) and his son is studying engg at Haldwani.Imagine spending weeks after weeks at a place like this without your family just so that you ca support them. I then checked with him about the places which have the best view of the mountains, so that tomm could be spent doing just that.

Got up early to catch the sunrise & the snaps were all out-of-focus- coz of the numb fingers. I walked up from the IVRI gates, towards the PWD guest house, which has probably the best view in town. They have this small garden out in front, which doubles up as a view point. The garden entrance is barricaded but with no one around, I climbed over & started clicking the Nanda Devi & Trisul peaks to my heart’s content.

Well if you think I had the perfect break at the hills, you are mistaken. My unplanned trips are almost always accompanied by some mis-adventures. With this trip, it happened on the journey back home. The ride back to Haldwani was pretty comfortable but at the bus stand, realised that there is no AC bus back to Delhi for the next 4 hours, so my only option was to take a state transport bus. I told myself, its ok, coz I would be saving around 2-3 hours …. but that was not to be.
The bus I took had some engine trouble, we had barely reached Udhamsingh Nagar when there was smoke coming out of the gear stick 🙂

I was not so much afraid of this thing catching a fire, as of being stuck in the middle of no where when it broke down. So I got down at the next stop, somehow got myself a refund (that in itself was a test of my negotiation skills …. he he)and boarded the next decent looking bus. Here, the bus was in top condition, with the conductor flashing a handheld ticket dispenser & all- but it seems that the driver used to drive a road-roller in some past life… He just wouldnt go beyond 40-45 Kmph !

What is vipassana?

Disclaimer: I have attended just one course and my understanding of Vipasanna might be inaccurate. I would recommend interested people to read literature on the same by Goenkaji or actually attending the course.
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vipassanaVipasanna is best summarized as a meditation technique that revolves around body sensations. Sounds strange- right?
But apparently this strange but simple technique was what helped Siddarth Gautam (The Buddha) to progress on his path of enlightment & nirvana in top gear !

So here’s how this course approaches the technique:
– For the first 3 days one is asked to practise what is called Aana-Paana. This refers to an exercise where you tell your mind to focus on the normal breath- as it comes in & goes out. It might sound easy- but trust me its really tough to keep the mind focused on such simple things. The idea of taking breath as the object of focus is cos this is always with the person, you can hence practice this anytime, anywhere right upto the moment you die !
Initially we are supposed to observe the flow along the full length of the nostrils and the area above the upper-lip, but by day 3 this area has been gradually narrowed down to the tip of nostrils and the area above the lip.
This narrowing of the area (to focus on) helps make the mind sharp and ready for the next technique- Vipasanna.
Also all throughtout the techniques one is told not to verbalise or visualize anything. These might help focus faster but then it beats the purpose as you are not focusing on the breath or body sensation but the word or image.
It is this aspect which also proves that Vipasanna is not aligned to any religion. Many including me feel that this is a Buddhist technique and sometimes that creates its own set of apprehensions or perceptions.

– Gautam Buddha felt that there has to be a path that should actually help one become equanimous. The power & need for equanimity in life was something that had been highlighted for ages, but most sages/philosophers had failed to find and show the path to reach there. In his quest to find such a path, Gautam Buddha started looking within.
He found that the mind is made of 4 parts:
1.The Cognitive part which is basically taking the input from the senses; 5 senses and 6th being thoughts
2.The Recognitive part which basically takes the input and tries to match with its existing database. Say the cognitive part feels a smell, its this part which will say it smells like rose.
3.The Feeling part which actually starts reacting to the input and manifests itself as body sensations. This is the part which would say, ah the smell of rose, its good!
4.The Reaction part is where the mind finally reacts to the body sensations. It is this part of the mind that is deep rooted and always working (even when we are asleep).

It might sound strange at first that our mind actually reacts to body sensations and not directly to thoughts or sense inputs. But think about it for a moment and you would remember that there were a lot of bio-chemical changes you experienced in your body when you were really angry, when you saw that woman who you really feel passionate about, when you were “trembling” with fear….

So Buddha asked himself, how can one break this chain, and he realised that the only point it can be done is between stage 3 & 4- i.e. if one can train the deep rooted, always awake mind to “observe” body sensations and still remain equanimous, the cycle is broken, we are not prisoners anymore 🙂

– So Vipasanna begins by making the mind focus on each body part and the existing sensation there- whatever it might be. In some cases it would be unpleasant, and we would have to keep on telling the mind, this is impermanent and hence dont react. Similarly once we come across pleasant sensations the same argument applies.

So from day 4th to day 10th we basically observe body sensations and there are various variations that one does in the approach.

– Even before the course starts there are some strict rules that one must observe, basically the 5 shilas- or vows of morality like no stealing, no lies ,no sexual misconduct etc. These are taken to ensure that one approaches the meditation with a calm and pure mind.
– The silence also helps one in achieving focus as there is less noise of the thoughts. I also think that since we hear nothing but Goenkaji’s words during the course, our minds start giving more attention to his words 🙂

My experience of the Course
My own experience of the course was amazing as it helped me see myself as a stronger person. I saw that many people had moved their cushions and chosen a spot where they could rest against the wall. I was really tempted to do this myself, but then I saw this really aged chap- must be 60+ who was sitting with an upright back and I felt ashamed of myself. If he can do it, so can I.

Similarly, after day 3 there are 3 sessions of 1 hour each when you cant move at all- no opening of eyes/hands/legs- in my first 2 sessions I kinda cheated- found a pose where my arms were supporting the back and I was happy with myself for being so smart. But then again, stepping out of the hall, I saw this Jap kid sitting like a true Buddha, cross legged and calm even after 60 minutes of no movement, and the same wave of inspiration washed over me again…

I couldnt sleep for a minute on day 5 & 6 and you can well imagine how I felt on the 7th morning. I was out of the dorm at 3.00 in the morning, pacing the lawns.Somehow managed my sessions and was having chai in the evening when I realised that my mind was again wandering off to things far away from the course. I started asking myself, whats the point of all this meditation if even after 7 days, I cannot get my mind to focus on present, and then a thought stuck me- maybe I am supposed to practice aana-pana or Vipasanna when I am drinking tea. And I was thrilled with myself (am still far from the desired state of equanimity you see !)- and I started observing my breath as I took my walks that evening.
And then it happened, the evening discourses started and the first thing that Goenkaji says in that is that some students might be having trouble sleeping. It felt that he was speaking directly to me- I looked around- how many others had a trouble sleeping- I distinctly remember hearing 4 sets of snoring last two nights from 17 other occupants 🙂
Anyways I was relieved to know that sleeplessness is common and then came the next shock- He said the next two days need real hard work & he expected all students to keep on practising Vipasanna even when they are not sitting for the course. I could feel my hair standing, was it telepathy- did I read his instructions a day before?
Coz even during the 4th day something similar had happened.

On day 10, when we could talk to co-students, a monk asked me how my experience was. I related to him the incidents of day 4 & particularly day 7 and summarized it thus – ” I feel that Vipasanna was always within me, and it just got discovered here”. He smiled.
And then in the discourse that evening, Gonekaji says that there are two types of students- ones who had the seeds of Vipasanna already and it got sprouted here and the others in whom it has been planted now.
I looked across the hall to the monk- with a look saying “See. Told you!!”

Whatever way you look at it, I think if your own mind seems to find the next step on a path, it might be a path worth walking- So here I am back in normal life, trying to give Vipasanna a good try…

Time only will tell how much progress I make & where it takes me ! But I have AY & his mom to thank for persistently nudging me to sit for the first course- really good to have such friends in life.

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Disclaimer: I have attended just one course and my understanding of Vipasanna might be inaccurate. I would recommend interested people to read literature on the same by Goenkaji or actually attending the course.

My first vipassana course- part 2

Couple of masala-teas later,when the shock of the situation had been absorbed, I started figuring out how best to utilize my time before the registration (which was to start at 1400hrs).

dkotAY had already told me about a good trek to Bhagsu village, but I needed to freshen up and dump my stuff somewhere. The chai shop owner told me that I could go into the center office once it opens at 0900 hrs and use the facility even before registering.

So sharp at 9, I walked into the campus;told the guy that I just reached a little early for the registration and needed a place. He asked me to dump my stuff in the dorm and showed me where the showers etc were. Now, this dorm was one damp place as there were no brick walls to it- it was just a tin-roofed place with plastic sheets as walls and partitions. Given how much it rains at Dharamsala, you can well imagine how the place would have looked. As I walked into the dorm, I kept telling myself, that this doesnot look like a place which is used to house students, so I need not worry! I took a quick shower, packed my camera & stepped out to have a look around.

It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly every time it dodged the clouds. I took a small road downhill and was clicking at the corn fields when this Aussie came up. We both acknowledged how lovely the day was and started talking about Vipasanna- he had already done the course sometime in the last 2 months that he had been at Dharamsala.
He said he was on his way to Bhagsu to move into a different guest house.He had a habit of moving into a different locality every 15 -20 days so that he could get to see and experience more.
His only comments about Vipasanna were – “Mr Goenka is a funny man and he will make you laugh in the evenings….”

I spent some time @ Bhagsu and then decided to trek back to the center to be on time for the registration process. As we were waiting infront of the office, exchanged brief introductions with a lot of people – an Indian priest who looked all of 30 and said he couldn’t say where he was from as he has been on a spiritual journey for many years, a lady from NZ who was working in Rajasthan with NGOs, a Brit who was training to be a TaiChi teacher…..

Given that it was Dharamsala, more than 70% of the students were foreigners…even the volunteer helpers for the course were all foreigners… I couldn’t stop wondering that isnt it a shame, that its a technique which originated here (didn’t know that Goenkaji was Burmese) is being tested, adopted and accepted more by people from abroad. What is it with us? And the only answer that came to me was that we are more skeptical than others in such matters.

The registration started a little late but was managed very smoothly, we were asked to deposit all valuables including any reading/writing materials; asked to sign a form saying we will not “run away” from the course or atleast try our best;given a laundry bag each and finally given a detailed set of instructions on how to conduct ourselves. And then came the shock!

I was told that my room is B4- B being the alphabet that adorned the dorm – I wasnt sure I had heard it clearly so I asked again- “Do you mean that dorm out there?” and they said yes. Am not kidding you, but I really thought I should just pick my already-packed bags and leave. There was no way I was going to spend 12 days in that damp place- the morning trailer had told me what to expect.

But somehow I didn’t say anything and just stepped outside and it occurred to me that if these other guys can sweat it out there so can I. I also realised that its the old students and the aged first timers, who were being given the “better rooms”. So I told myself that see the whole Vipasanna thing is a test. And as Al Pacino says in “The Recruit”- “Everything is a test”- maybe this is also a test- just that mine got a notch tougher than some others.

So I settled in into B4, which turned out to be half of an 8×8 enclosure that I was to share with someone else- our individual areas separated by a curtain.

You might be thinking, why am I sharing so many details about the infra etc when I should be talking about the course. I believe that most experiences are based on how you are feeling & thinking when the moment starts, so for you to understand how I felt through the course, its imperative that you see what I was thinking & going through on Day 0 :-). Maybe some of you will also land up in the dorm during monsoons – if you do lets compare notes…. ha ha

Also met this young chap who was in a really bad shape- altitude sickness symptoms he said. He said he would see how it goes and if it does not improve he would quit in-between- but that would be a real shame ! Little did he know that he would become a source of motivation for me also…

On Day 0 they serve you light snacks at 5.00 and I had not eaten anything since morning except the toast I had with chai. So I decided to utilize the time meaningfully and stuff my tummy for the tough ride ahead…and then I realized that I had just submitted my wallet 🙁

I went down to the office again and asked the guy in-charge with valuables if I could open the sealed bag again (the one that I had just submitted 5 mins back !!!) and he ever so politely said- sure. That was the first time I realized that maybe these old students have more patience than normal folks- coz trust me even on my best day, I would have frowned upon such a request.

Stepped out, grabbed a heavy lunch and picked up a shawl and umbrella also on my way back- two things that would prove to be very useful in the next 11 days!

My first Vipasanna course- part 1

Life is best lived if one learns to read the signs (so says the Alchemist) and most of us have at some point or another read those signs and followed em.
Vipasanna was one such sign that had been staring me in the face for almost 3 years. The first I heard about this seemingly tough course was when I was back in Chennai and had met AYs mom for the first time. Not sure what prompted her to say this, but she asked me to attend a Vipasanna course at the earliest possible. I used to think that maybe its coz am a “loud” person or seem ever so excited- that she thinks a meditation course would calm me down.

And so it went on for almost 2.5 years, with aunty & AY telling me that I should do the course soon & I making promises that I kept on breaking inspite of best intentions. Then one fine day, I got up and was having a chat with my mom while reading the newspaper and she mentioned about a relative who had just gone for a Vipasanna course. I went back to my room and saw a text from AY saying- “Dude, i hope you sit for Vipasanna this year”….and this was like 7.00 a.m. I was spooked by the coincidence and decided it was time to act- so went online & booked myself for the course at Dharamkot (Dharamsala)… I told myself if I have to sit & meditate why not do it at an exotic location (they do have courses in Delhi & few other places in N India).

Registered myself for the course that started on 1st Aug 09. So I took an overnight bus and landed at Dharamsala early in the morning. Luckily found another bus that said “Dharamkot” so without much asking around, I found myself infront of this colorful gate saying- Dharamshikara Vipasanna meditation center.

Since it was not yet 9.00 a.m. I decided to kill time at the “Himalaya Tea shop” the last taste of civilization (as we know it) before the course and the first glimpse of the real world- once you are out in the open… Trust me its everybit as dramatic 🙂

While walking around & stretching my legs I glanced upon the time table for the course that was listed there- and it would be an understatement to say that i was scared.
It read something like this:
4.00 am – wake up bell
4.00-4.30 am – get ready
4.30-6.30 am- Meditation
6.30-8.00 am- breakfast
8.00-9.00 am- GROUP MEDITATION
9.00-11.00 am- Meditation
11.00-1.00pm- Lunch
1.00-2.30 pm- meidtation
2.30-3.30 pm- GROUP MEDITATION
3.30-5.00 pm- Meditation
5.00-6.00 pm- Tea
6.00-7.00 pm- GROUP MEDITATION
7.00-8.15 pm- EVENING DISCOURSES
8.30-9.00 pm- Meditation
9.30 pm- Lights Out

For those who missed the critical items- NO DINNER, 11 hours of meditation !
Add to this complete silence for the complete duration of 12 days (this was the only bit I had known & prepared myself for…)

Jungle path at Vaishno Devi

Almost the whole gang from work- some 27 of us- went to Vaishno Devi early this month. There are two routes that one can take to reach “Bhawan”- the new shorter and cleaner (as no ponies allowed) one or the old one that goes through Sanjhi Chatt.

As usual we took the new route and had just reached Him Koti, when we saw a sign on the hill side saying – Footpath- Sanjhhi Chatt-1.5 Kms. Something inside me jumped at the adventure that lay ahead in walking the jungle path in this holy place.. Me & my friend we both started up this narrow path which was almost a vertical climb.