On the monastery trail in Ladakh

Have you ever thought monastery hopping could be wretchedly tiring? After the first three, the head begins to buzz, the eyes glaze over and all of them begin to look similar. And you know you want to see a few more. After all, Ladakh is known to have the highest concentration of Buddhist monasteries (gompas) outside Tibet.

And so I devise a small game to keep myself entertained. If I had to choose a monastery to live in, which would I pick? Will it be my personal favorite Thiksey, cascading down the hillside like a waterfall in hard stone? Or large and venerable Hemis, with its beautiful museum with the cold floors and friendly watchman? Lamayuru perhaps, sitting unruffled amidst breathtaking scenery referred to by guidebooks as moonscape? Why not Alchi then, set in the Indus valley and home to stunning frescos a thousand years old? Or even the unlikely contender Spituk, keeping a benevolent eye over Leh’s tiny airport?

Ladakh, which follows the Tibetan Mahayana school of Buddhism, is considered the last stronghold of Himalayan Buddhism. Spiritual life here revolves around the monasteries, which are places of worship and meditation (for both practicing monks and outsiders), as well as for religious instruction. They were used in earlier times by travelers as guesthouses although now only the serious spiritual seekers attempt to stay in monasteries. Most gompas are majestically perched on top of hills or on steep cliffs, making it difficult to access them and in the past, attack them.


The inner walls of gompas are usually covered with beautiful murals and paintings depicting the Buddha, Bodhisattvas (incarnations and manifestations of the Buddha) and other elements from Buddhist iconography. At every gompa we visit, we meet helpful monks willing to open locked doors to show us around; some are shy, some cheerful but all are friendly.

Ladakh itself has been like that – somewhat bashful, startled to find itself the focus of attention of so many tourists but waving a friendly and cheerful Juley! to everyone. Even as mobile phones and weekend tour groups are threatening to take away a familiar way of life, Ladakh is fighting bravely to hold on to its cultural heritage.


Of miniatures and moonscapes

Alchi is our first stop, a sleepy hamlet of just over a thousand people and now a hot favourite of the backpacker crowd. Alchi, unlike others is not set on a hill but sits in a valley, quiet and self-effacing. The drab exteriors of this temple complex do not reveal in any way the treasures hidden inside.

Apart from an array of clay statues of the Buddha, the highlight of the Alchi gompa is the 1000 year-old wall paintings. These paintings are of a distinct Indian (Kashmiri) style, different from other monasteries in Ladakh and without much typical Tibetan iconography. It is believed that the Alchi complex was abandoned in between and remained unknown until it was unearthed a few decades ago – maybe its anonymity has helped preserve the art inside. Great care is taken today to ensure that visitors do no desecrate the wall paintings in any way. I shine my torchlight (highly recommended, given the unlit interiors) over the hundreds of miniature paintings all along the walls, willing my eyes to get accustomed to the darkness faster.

From Alchi, we make our way to Lamayuru in the Western Kargil district. Lamayuru is a personal must-see in Ladakh; in a piece for the New York Times, famed travel writer Pico Iyer says of it that a gasp escaped his (jaded) lips when he first set eyes on Lamayuru. And so we drive up, up, up the winding mountain road. Each time I want to stop for photographs, our driver urges us on, “Further ahead is more beautiful, it is called moonscape.” Moonscape – the word rolls off his tongue easily, having, I guessed, rolled off a thousand tourist tongues earlier. Lamayuru is believed to be Ladakh’s first monastery and still one of the largest, housing over 150 permanent monks.


Of war goddesses and ephemeral mandalas

After the majestic setting of Lamayuru, Spituk seems to come easy. Very close to Leh, this gompa is home to the patron saint of all those intrepid travelers who fly in, over the magnificent Himalayas, landing on the gut-wrenchingly narrow strip that serves as the runway. And so Spituk sits, placidly overlooking the quiet of the Indus valley spread out beneath and the bustle of the airport. Apart from the traditional frescos and thangka paintings, this 15th century gompa also houses the temple of the Tibetan war goddess Palden Lhamo, who is now venerated by visiting Hindus (despite strict warning boards all over the temple complex) as the goddess Kali.

Further along the road, Phyong is quiet at that time of the morning, only four maroon robed monks at work on a mandala. Their heads bent over the low stool, they seem absorbed in their work, till one of them looks up and smiles as our shadows fall on the colorful mandala in progress. According to Buddhist iconography, a mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe and making one is part of the training for monks. Made from coloured sand, a mandala requires intense concentration, a trait that is believed to help a monk during meditation. A mandala, I remember reading, is swept away after prayers are offered to signify the impermanence of life; a pity, it seems to me, looking at the intricate patterns and vivid colours.

Monks at work

Mandala in the making

Of monklings and the Maitreya

Hemis, in contrast to the other far-flung gompas, is overrun by tourists when we arrive. Its proximity to Leh – just over 50 kilometers away – makes Hemis, Ladakh’s largest monastery a popular destination. Built as early as in the 11th century, it was reestablished in the late 17th century during the rule of Singge Namgyal who patronized the Drukpa (Red Hat) sect. After a quick tour of Hemis, we head to the underground museum with its impressive collection of thangka paintings, statues and artifacts. From a distance, the sounds of the loud chatter of young monks, interspersed with laughter floats in, suddenly bringing alive the setting to us. Hemis is also the site of the annual summer festival held to mark the occasion of Guru PadmaSambhava’s birth anniversary.


And then finally the 15th century Thiksey, picturesque and imposing amidst the green-brown barley fields – reminiscent it is said, of the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. We are there early enough to witness the morning prayers. A group of senior monks in maroon and gold robes are already immersed in their chants when we enter the main hall. A little while later, the young monks in training file in, silent and serious, to take their places.

Soon, I catch a few of them fidgeting, restless as only the very young can be. And when it is time for the teacups of the older monks to be filled, there is a mock fight to carry the kettles. Little monks started scurrying about with large kettles and containers with yak butter, like large red bees in a hive. The older monks dip their forefingers into the butter container, helping themselves generously to the salty butter. They stir it into their tea, licking the sticky remnants off their fingers without any reticence as they carry on with their prayers. The monkling (what else can I call him?) serves us with a shy toothy smile before scampering away purposefully.



And the highlight of Thiksey, an impressive statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha with his elaborate crown and the enigmatic, calm smile on his face, is what makes it my personal favourite.


Published in Sunday Mid-Day on May 19, 2013…
Also read my other story on Buddhism in Ladakh

Beyond Angkor, what?

Beyond Angkor, What?

So you have risen at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, and made your sleepy way to the Angkor Wat to see the famed sunrise. You have followed in the glamorous footsteps of Anjelina Jolie to the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple (where parts of the film ‘Tomb Raider’ was shot), held captive for centuries by the ancient trees. And at the Angkor Thom complex, you have been awed by the sight of the smiling Buddha faces on the walls of the Bayon temple. So, now what?

Good morning Angkor!

In the grip of nature

Discover Angkor, Wats and all: If you have missed the sunrise at Angkor Wat (though it is entirely worth the effort, despite the pushy crowds), head to Phnom Bakheng for the sunset. Get there early before the hordes and find a vantage position from which to watch the sun go down the Angkor archaeological park. Take some time to enjoy the smaller temples; in particular the exquisite Bantaey Srei (translated as the ‘citadel of women’). Diminutive in size, the pinkish sandstone temple is a welcome relief from the imposing size and dull grey-brown tones of most of the other temples here.

Art at Angkor: It is impossible to visit Siem Reap and not get tempted into watching an apsara dance performance. The apsara is a symbol of ancient Khmer culture and the performing tradition of Cambodia has seen a revival in recent years. Most restaurants offer them as part of the evening meal, though if you have the money and interest, it is advisable to watch it at one of the more up-market hotels, such as the Angkor Village Apsara Theatre or the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor. And if you have the time, make a trip to the Artisans d’ Angkor workshop (near the old market) for Khmer handicraft including stone and wood carving, silk painting and lacquer work – or head outside town to the silk farm, also managed by the same trust.

Apsaras - in stone and in flesh...

Walkabouts: Walk along the river when the weather is cool, towards the Psar Chaa old market to shop for souvenirs and local food. Also drop in at the Angkor night market – open till midnight – just at the end of Pub Street (off Sivatha Road) for unusual Khmer artefact, and the experience. A good place to visit even before you get on the temple circuit is the Angkor National Museum (even if you are not the “museum types”) – at $12 for an entry ticket, it is an expensive but excellent way to get an orientation of Khmer history, both ancient and recent. Several hundred statues, hidden for the last century and therefore preserved, have found their way here and the stories on the well-made audio-video guides are interesting, if only for the striking similarities with Indian mythology. If you ever make your weary way to FCC Angkor hotel, a visit to McDermott gallery nearby is a must, for sepia-tinted glimpses of Cambodia and the Angkor temples.

Travel in style: And I do not mean the tuk-tuks here, even those unique Cambodian ones, pulled by motorbikes. Go up on a helium balloon or a helicopter for a comprehensive aerial view of the Angkor temples. At sunset, take a cruise on the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating village; Chong Kneas is the closest and has a floating school and church among other things. The boats usually dock at the crocodile farm (which doubles up as a small coffee and souvenir shop) and the view from the rooftop is stunning. The lake sprawls all round you like a minor placid ocean, and the Vietnamese refugees who have made it their home go about their routine evening activities, as the sun sets in the horizon. If you are fit and adventurous, hire a bicycle or motorbike to travel around the Angkor archaeological sites; the terrain is flat and most of the major temples are located close to each other.

Entering Angkor Thom

Eat, drink and be merry: Siem Reap has some excellent café and restaurants, including several authentic – I am told – Indian restaurants (KamaSutra, Maharajah). Most of them are clustered around the main market area and the accurately if unimaginatively named Pub Street. Eateries here compete for business, not just with great food, live music and cheap booze, but also with clever names; I was lured by Kampuchino, Angkor what?, Blue Pumpkin and Laundry Bar. A drink at the FCC Angkor, overlooking the river is highly recommended, as is a (vegetarian) meal at the Singing Tree Garden Café.

This piece was published in the Sunday Mid-day dated January 17th.
More photographs from the Angkor complex here

A space to call their own

Jama Masjid

It is Sunday morning and the roads leading to Chandni Chowk are deserted. We cross the chaotic merry-go-round of Connaught Place in a trice and head to old Delhi. Where are all the people? The buffaloes that amble through the roads listlessly? The children who dart at unexpected moments across the road? It is so quiet. Where are all the vehicles? There is no orchestra of blaring horns, no tinkle of cycle rickshaw bells as they weave their way through the narrow lanes, just managing to miss running over innocent feet and getting run over by speeding cars. Before I realize it, the Red Fort is to my right, imposing and grey in the early morning light, not fully awake.

And inside the Jama Masjid, the sense of stillness follows us. On an earlier trip late one afternoon a few months ago, I remember the contrast the interiors of Jama Masjid presented to the Babel of the streets and market surrounding it. At one of the gates, the cap seller is just taking out his stock, arranging them carefully into a delicate house of cards. He ignores my intrusive camera, shrugging his indifference even when I show him his photographs. I can see he is pleased though; he summons his friend to see them and then calls out to me a few minutes later to share the meagre breakfast of parathas they have all carefully carried from home.

I stand near the gate that looks on to the Red Fort, sharing the moment with families sitting on the steps. And later, from the top, having made our way up the narrow, winding steps, we see old Delhi sprawling before us, bursting at the seams. My mind keeps going back to the past, to the place this must have been, to the better days this area has seen. Now, people are washing their clothes on a tiny stream between the mosque and the fort, vendors are setting up shop all along the road, children are running around trying to catch chicken and each other in a game that makes sense only to childhood.

Back again on ground level, people are quietly doing their own thing. Near the pool in the preliminary cleansing ritual, under the arch staring out blankly into space, on the corridor offering prayer, behind the pillars fast asleep; all outside noises are filtered by the thick red walls along with their worries and anxieties.

Inside Jama Masjid, each individual seems to have found his own space.

Published in the Mumbai edition of Sunday Mid-day…

Come home to Sindhudurg

My piece on the Culture Aangan homestays in Sindhudurg appeared in yesterday’s Mid day – here it is…


‘Safety on the roads is safe tea at home’, proclaims the sign on the Mumbai – Goa highway, just one of the numerous well-meaning signboards that make this route so enchanting. We have been on the road since early morning, and think longingly of the tea, safe or otherwise waiting for us just an hour away. Sure enough, when we pull into Nandan Farms at Sawantwadi, just as the sun is setting, our hostess Amrutha Padgaonkar welcomes us with her cheery open smile and steaming cups of tea. As she takes us around the house, I can hear the pride in the voice when she talks about her family home. The place, with its beautiful bamboo furniture and colourful decor is as warm and welcoming as the hostess. It is my first time at a homestay place, and I am instantly hooked.


Over the next three days, Amrutha (“everybody calls me Ammu”) spoils us silly with home-cooked meals and heavy-duty bargaining on our behalf at the local market. The hearty home-cooked meal (well, the way to our hearts is certainly through the stomach) seems to be a common theme across the homestays, as we find with Vaishali Loke who is our host at Pitruchaya at Shirgaon. The mango season is over but she manages to surprise us at dinner with delicious aamras and fresh Deogad mangoes the next day. There is solkadi with every meal and sabudana khichdi for breakfast served with tips for finding the best vada pav when we step out later that day.

Come home to Sindhudurg

Introduction to Culture Aangan

Nandan Farms and Pitruchaya are two of the homestays established and managed by Culture Aangan, a Mumbai-based organization. At present, there are three more such homes spread across the district, in Oras, Valaval and Talavade. Each of the homes is unique and has a character and charm that is defined strongly by the personality of the host family.

Rashmi Sawant, who runs Culture Aangan has an animated smile on her face as she reminisces over her childhood days in Kumta, in North Karnataka. “All of us kids, cousins and friends used to meet up during summer in my grandmother’s house and spend all our time in the open aangan in the middle of the sprawling house. Games, food, sleep, fights, everything was out in the aangan”. And years later, when she began setting up the homestay network in Sindhudurg, one of her prime motives was also to restore and preserve the underlying cultural ethos of the region, and so the name Culture Aangan was born.

Vaishali and Vijay Loke of Pitruchaya were the first couple to come forward when Rashmi started the initiative a couple of years ago. Since then she has campaigned tirelessly among locals, trying to convince them to open their homes to visitors, and do their bit towards developing what is officially Maharashtra’s Tourism District. And once the owners agree to be a part of the Culture Aangan network, Rashmi’s business partner, George Joel steps in with his magic touch. With a background in engineering and design and an eye for unusual detail, George manages to transform the basic room into an inviting and aesthetically pleasing space.

Apart from the homestay network, Rashmi also manages a couple of other initiatives aimed at the development of the district. The Pinguli Arts Complex set up and managed by Rashmi and George is an effort to revive and preserve the traditional arts and craft of the region, including Chitragathi painting and shadow puppetry. Additionally, Rashmi has mobilized 160 Self Help Groups (SHGs) with over 3000 women producing speciality food and beverage items. The SHG organization is named Hirkani in honour of a milkmaid in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s kingdom, who climbed down Raigad fort through a rough path late in the night to get home to her child.


Head to Sindhudurg in the rains

So why go to Goa when you can go to Sindhudurg, a couple of hours closer to Mumbai? Sindhudurg is the ideal monsoon get-away, with over twenty beaches that are clean, pretty and quiet. So quiet, some of them, that the only sounds you hear are the crashing of the waves and your own thoughts racing, wondering about the point (or pointlessness, more likely) of your busy lives back in Mumbai.

early morning at Mitbhav beach

There are several things to do in Sindhudurg – for those seeking active holidays. Visit the ancient temple of Rameshwar, climb up the lighthouse at Vengurla, go for a boat ride on the placid waters of Damapur Lake or take a nature trail through the verdant slopes of Amboli, the hill station discovered and patronized by the British. The region is also home to several of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s forts, including the early 13th century ‘fort of victory’ Vijaydurg, and Sindhudurg, the fort in the sea which lends its name to the region.

Outside Vijaydurg fort

Alternatively, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the rains with a book and endless cups of tea in one of the Culture Aangan homes. A homestay is a unique experience that combines the comfort of personalized service, with the warm hospitality of a home. Staying with a local family in their home is easily the best way to get the true flavour of the region. For instance, Mr.Kadam of Shreeyog Paryatan (the homestay in Oras) was a certified tourist guide with the Deccan Odyssey luxury tourist train, and is full of stories and trivia about his land.

May all your troubles last as long as your New Year's resolutions. ~Joey Adams

Eat delicious home-made food (have I mentioned it already?) including fresh fish that you can try your hand at catching (in season, there is a deep sea trawler fishing activity you can take part in) and cooking. And perhaps most important of all, a significant portion of the money you spend goes back to a local family in some form or the other, keeping the local economy thriving.

Travel Information

Several trains from Mumbai on the Konkan line pass through stations in the Sindhudurg region. Your best option is the Konkan Kanya (departs 2305 hours) from Mumbai CST. The nearest airport is Dabolim in Goa, from where the homes are 2-3 hours away. Culture Aangan also provides a pick-up from the railway station / airport and arranges for local transport, if required. Alternatively, a drive on the Goa Highway is a stimulating experience in the monsoon, and will take from 7-9 hours from Mumbai, depending on the state of the roads and your destination within Sindhudurg.

For more information, check out the Culture Aangan website at http://www.cultureaangan.com or contact Rashmi Sawant directly at: info@cultureaangan.com

Don’t google, just go!

This piece appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Mid-day as ‘How google almost ruined my holiday’ – I had initially titled the piece ‘Death by google’ 🙂

Don't google, just go

Mild disorientation I can live with (and do, all the time), nausea and headache too. Breathing trouble? Ah, not life-threatening. So far, so good. And then comes the bit about High Altitude Pulmonary and worse, Cerebral Edema (hi! my friends call me HACE). And I have just seen 3 out of the 6,17,000 results that Google throws up (pun unintended) for ‘Altitude Sickness’. I am in Gangtok getting ready for my trip to the high altitude areas of North Sikkim and looking at Google to help me through the perils of altitude discomfort. And that is how we almost end up not going to Gurudongmar Lake in the north.

As Google provides the ailments, so does it provide the cure. In this case, Diamox (chemical name acetazolamide) said the Google gods. None of the pharmacies in Gangtok seem to stock it, indeed many of them have not even heard of it. And I am panicking. A couple of mornings later, we are heading towards Gurudongmar taking deep breaths all along the way to stock up on oxygen. Everything I have read online about altitude sickness flashes through my mind, as every mild cough feels like a death rattle. No, I don’t think your brain is swelling, your head feels larger because of the three scarves you have wrapped around it – I can hear my husband’s thoughts.

And so we reach Gurudongmar Lake, breathtaking, somewhat literally as to be expected at that height, but more in its beauty. And as I get off the cab, I am greeted by the sight of dozens of large families; six year olds and sixty year olds are walking around (the former running) with an insouciance that suggests not even a nodding acquaintance with cerebral edema, or indeed altitude sickness. They have merrily got into their Tata Sumos and headed to 17000 feet, clutching packets of popcorn, the locally recommended panacea for any altitude discomfort. And to think we almost cancelled this trip. We spend too much time on the internet… we both have the same thought.

American journalist Charles Kuralt is supposed to have said sometime in the course of his famous television series ‘On the Road With Charles Kuralt’, Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. That was in the late 1960s in the USA. Now in the early 2000s I can say with confidence that thanks to the World Wide Web, it is possible to travel across the country, indeed the world without moving from your seat in front of the computer.

There are books (and ebooks) that promise to prepare you so thoroughly for your travel that all you need to do is catch the flight on time – and I am sure there is a note instructing you in words of single syllable on how that can be achieved. An absolute personal favourite is Peter Greenberg’s epic ‘The Travel Detective: How to Get the Best Service and the Best Deals from Airlines, Hotels, Cruise Ships, and Car Rental Agencies’.

Extremely useful, since recent research suggests that the average traveller now makes 12 searches and visits 22 sites before actually booking anything. My submission however, is that if you need a guidebook to understand how to get the best service from say, a restaurant, you would do well to first practise your basic manners as mother taught them (say Thank You, son).

Earlier, the traveller packed a careless backpack, throwing in on top a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet – or a Frommers or Rough guide if he wished to seem discerning. Now, there are guides on the internet to cover every contingency and taste – family travel, travelling with children (and in case of the British, with pets), gay travel, wine-tasting travel, tee-total travel, how-to-nearly-get-killed travel (in some circles known as adventure travel), gap year travel, and so on. There are even websites that offer to research your travel research (such as this one called UpTake which says, among other things – We sifted 20 million opinions to give you a recommendation based on what other travelers said.)

There truly seems to be no dearth of ‘How To’ guides out there. Imagine this. You have reached your destination safely (having got the best flight deal and caught it on time and then having got the best hotel deal and – you get the point). The next morning, you set out bright and cheerful, having tucked in a huge breakfast (part of the hotel deal, of course) and find, follow me carefully, a bunch of monkeys on the street outside the hotel. Fear not, for there is help at hand. A quick glance at How to Prevent a Monkey Attack (on that fabulous website WorldHum) before you set off and the monkeys will soon know they have been in a fight. The Situation: Among the many worries a traveler may be forced to contemplate—catastrophic bus fires, itchy money belts, hemorrhagic fevers—one menace is typically overlooked: monkeys.

Indeed. I may be wondering why blazing buses and itchy leather accessories figure in the same list but I am taking nothing away from this piece cautioning the frequent traveller against monkey attacks. I put myself in this situation – a drive on non-existent roads to a high altitude lake when I have to worry about cerebral edema and monkey attacks. Enough to make one not want to travel, what?

Now I am all for the need to research, to be knowledgeable and prepared. It is one of the high points of a traveller’s life to be finally in a place he has read or even dreamed about endlessly. My own first experience with travel déjà vu was extremely pleasant, even eagerly anticipated. That was when I first started travelling around England soon after I had landed there as a student. From P.G. Wodehouse to William Wordsworth all the way through Enid Blyton had prepared me for what was to come. In fact, one of the first trips (call it a pilgrimage) was to Ickenham, home of the irrepressible Uncle Fred (known in exalted circles as Fredrick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, the 5th Earl of Ickenham).

Careful research (not to mention simple logic) tells me the main reason for this increasing dependence on armchair travel research is the need for more bang for the buck – optimizing the time and money spent on travel (recession or no recession). Research helps you prioritize and ensures that you do not miss out on any unmissables. Further, the anticipation of travel that research and planning creates can be almost as pleasurable as the travel itself (blasphemous, I know but true); your trip begins days or even months before the actual dates of travel and you know exactly the best places to get that fabulous view and the cheapest cafes for eating at. I am all for this; user reviews helped me find some excellent (and otherwise little-known) home-stay places in Sikkim – and they also reminded me to take adequate warm clothes.

Quoting from travel writer Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding, “And, as Phil Cousineau pointed out in The Art of Pilgrimage, I tend to believe that “preparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting, or the tea ceremony.

However, an age where there exists a ‘Journal of Travel Research’ (brought out four times a year by the venerable Sage Publications) is clearly one where there is too much significance given to travel research, don’t you think. Whatever happened to the joy of spontaneous, unplanned travel that the poet sang of (now don’t ask me which one, knowing these poets, one or the other of them is bound to have sung of such a thing)?

There is much to be said for leaving the guidebook (and if possible the guide too) behind to just walk, look and see. Jan Morris vouches in an interview for what she calls E.M.Forster’s guide to Alexandria, The best way to know Alexandria is to wander aimlessly. Potts further says in his book, The key to preparation is to strike a balance between knowing what’s out there, and being optimistically ignorant. The gift of the information age, after all, is knowing your options – not your destiny – and those people who plan their travels with the idea of eliminating all uncertainty and unpredictability are missing out on the whole point of leaving home in the first place.

And if you don’t believe me, go now and browse through the ‘Sudden Journeys’ series on National Geographic to understand what it feels like to break away, to give in to the impulse, to succumb to the “aesthetic of lostness” (as did writer Ray Bradbury). Go feel the wind on your face and do not panic if you find mild difficulty in breathing; it is just that heady rush of adrenalin, and not the initial signs of pulmonary edema.

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