Monday, 24 October 2016

Places to Visit in Delhi: Qutub Minar, Alai Minar and the Iron Pillar

I have been to the magnificent Qutub Minar a few times. Recently I visited Qutub Minar with a Dutch friend and a German. Actually the area is not only about the Qutub Minar but there are several monuments within the same complex like the Alai Minar, the Iron Pillar, tombs of Imam Zamin and Alauddin Khalji, a mosque (Quwwatul-Islam Masjid) and a Madrassa (School/College). Therefore one must keep at least a couple of hours for sightseeing.

Qutub Minar and Alai Minar (on the left)

When we reached the ticket counter my friends got an unpleasant surprise that my entry ticket cost only Rs 30, but for the foreigners it is Rs 500 per person, 17 times over! Nowhere else in the world is there such a discrimination.

Qutub Minar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The structures have been restored painstakingly. It is commendable that the impression of fragments and ruins is maintained. The complex has well manicured gardens and paths. There are ramps also at a few places for the physically challenged persons. The location also provides a popular backdrop for Bollywood songs, particularly when the film is based in Delhi.

Calligraphy on the Qutub Minar

The Qutub Minar, at 73 meters, is the tallest brick minaret in the World and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Made of red sandstone and marble it has beautiful calligraphy on it.  As the name suggest the construction of this Minaret was started by the ruler Qutubddin Aibak in 1200 AD.

My happy friends under the arch of Quwwatul-Islam mosque & the Qutub Minar 

I remember climbing up its stairs as a kid but after a stampede in 1981 the public is not allowed to climb up the Qutub Minar.

The tomb of Imam Zamin, the Alai Darwaza and the Qutub Minar

The above photo has the Tomb of Imam Zamin in the foreground then the Alai Darwaza or the southern gateway to the Quwwatul-Islam Masjid. It has intricate carvings in red sandstone and marble. And also in the same frame is the Qutub Minar!

The Iron Pillar and the beautifully calligraphed arcged of the Quwwatul-Islam mosque

The seven meter tall Iron Pillar, a victory pillar, predates the Qutub Minar. It was erected first in Udyagiri during the Gupta period (402 AD) and established at its current location in 1233 AD. What is interesting is the non-corrosive property of the pillar that has withstood the vagaries of the Delhi weather over such a long time. I do remember people used to hug the pillar backwards for good luck earlier but now there is a small enclosure surrounding the pillar and one cannot touch the pillar anymore. The pillar has inscriptions written in Brahmi script of the Gupta period. Behind the Iron Pillar are the huge, beautifully cared arches of the Quwwatul-Islam Masjid.

The carved pillars of the  Quwwatul-Islam mosque

Quwwatul-Islam Masjid or mosque is the earliest mosque in India that is still surviving. It was constructed between 1193 and 1197 AD. The mosque was built by Qutbuddin Aibak and later enlarged by Shamsuddin Iltutmish and Alauddin Khalji. It has massive stone screen and arches. The screen is carved with inscriptions. The pillars have carvings that have human and animal figurines. This is definitely non-Islamic and it is believed that these pillars were brought from temples from elsewhere.

The Madrassa and the tomb of Alauddin Khalji

The Madrassa and the tomb of Alauddin Khalji (AD 1296-1316) have thick walls. This part of the complex is damaged to some extent as none of its buildings had a roof on it and some of the walls have also broken down.

The Alai Minar

Inspired by the grandness of Qutab Minar, Alauddin Khalji planned another minaret which would have been twice as tall as Qutub Minar called the Alai Minar. However only one storey was built and after his death the plan was shelved. Its diameter is the proof of it!

My friends were happy visiting the monuments but the humidity and heat of Delhi probably took its toll (it was Monsoon period) and it would have been nice if there was a cafeteria inside the complex to recharge our batteries. It is unfortunate that despite the expensive entry ticket, there is no place for the tourists to even enjoy a cold drink.

In the first photo of this post I was able to capture both the Qutub Minar and the Alai Minar in a single frame. The photo was taken a couple of km away from the complex.

The Qutub Minar complex is located in Mehrauli in South Delhi and can be reached by bus, auto, taxi and the metro. The Delhi metro has a station named Qutub Minar which is the nearest from this complex.

Also read:
Places to visit in Delhi: Mirza Ghalib ki Haveli
Places to visit in Delhi: The Isa Khan’s Garden Tomb
Places to visit in Delhi: Ugrasen ki Baoli
Places to Visit in Delhi: Humayun Tomb

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Baru Sahib in Sirmaur, Himachal


Gurudwara Baru Sahib, Sirmaur

On the Solan to Nahan road hidden deep in the Sirmaur valley of Himachal Pradesh lies Baru Sahib. I had heard of it when I had gone to Rajgarh in 2008 but due to time constraint could not go that time. But this time I decided to go and see the place. I had not done any research on it before going and the place was a complete surprise for me.

River Giri close to Baru Sahib

From Rajgarh Baru Sahib is about 30 km and first it is all downhill till you reach the river Giri (a tributary of river Yamuna) and then uphill for a few km.


Baru Sahib, Sirmaur

I thought by the name that Baru Sahib will have a Gurudwara and maybe a township or village but when I reached there I saw that besides the Gurudwara there was no village or town but almost an exclusive educational township managed by the Kalgidhar Trust under which there is an Akal Academy, an IB School and a private University. Basically it is a venture of NRI Sikhs, mainly from Canada. The Trust runs Eternal University here and the Akal University in Damdama Sahib in Punjab. Most students seem to be from Himachal or Punjab. Some NRI students are also present. The main focus of the studies in Baru Sahib is theology but there are the usual professional courses as well. The undergraduate programmes specially are only for the women. There are several hostel blocks and all seemed full. The place had its own vibrancy.

Baru Sahib Gurudwara & the education township


The place is also called land of meditation or Tapobhumi. Baru Sahib valley is also known as 'Valley of Divine Peace' (and probably that is why the name of the University as Eternal). Baru Sahib was ‘discovered’ by Sant Teja Singh, a disciple of Sant Attar Singh, with the help of Bhai Iqbal Singh in 1956. It is said that Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, had also visited the holy site of Baru Sahib.

Darbar Sahib of Baru Sahib is huge

When I entered the Gurudwara I was amazed to see the size of the hall. It is the biggest that I have seen till now but otherwise very simple and not gaudy. The work on the outside is yet to be finished.

Girls singing hymns at Baru Sahib
 
Another big change was that there were girls who were doing the recitation from the Guru Granth Sahib. In another room I saw several girls taking lessons in the recitation of the sacred texts. There is a huge music drum (nagara) to accompany the prayers. There is a non-stop Langar in the basement which I also partook. The Darbar Sahib building is 6-7 storey high and has various rooms for various activities of the Gurudwara. The place has made special efforts to tap the solar energy and I could see several solar panels on the hills nearby.

Nagara (drum) used during prayers

The way from Rajgarh to Baru Sahin and back was laden with wild flowers and there were plenty of birds to see.

Wild flowers on way to Baru Sahib, Sirmaur



Also read:
Hidden Himachal: Rajgarh
Rajgarh: Pretty as a Peach?
Around Rajgarh in Himachal Pradesh
Wild Flowers of Rajgarh
Wildlife in Rajgarh

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Hidden Himachal: Rajgarh

There are so many places in Himachal that the mainstream tourists do not visit or are not aware of.

Sheeps & Goats grazing in the fog covered forests near Rajgarh

One such place is Rajgarh, a small town located at an altitude of 1555 metres in the Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh. The town in itself has nothing to boast about but it is the surrounding areas that are bountiful in their nature and beauty. 

A fruit laden tree near Rajgarh in Sirmaur

Economically the area grows lots of peaches and in fact is also sometimes called the Peach country. 

Resin being extracted from the pine trees

There are wood and wood products like the resin and turpentine oil extracted from the pine trees. See the cone shaped receptacles attached to the trees in the above picture. Cuts are made on the bark of the tree and the resin that flows from it is collected in these receptacles.

A farmer carrying a tomatoes laden basket from the field

Also some commercial vegetables are grown in plenty like the tomatoes. 

A misty path near Bhuira village beckons you to its secrets

One can make Rajgarh a base for some beautiful treks including the Churdhar Wildlife Sanctuary. If you are with family and do not have the skills or options for a longer trek then you can do small day treks for which the area has plenty of options like going to the Bhuira area (Yes the famous Himachal jam maker Bhuira is from this region) or the Bhat-ka-Saina with beautiful meadows all around. 

A fairy tale picture? This is Rajgarh in Sirmaur

As the altitude is such that the pines are in plenty but the deodars have also started (though not big ones) the effect in the mist is beautiful.

A beautiful meadow near Rajgarh, Sirmaur

I went to Rajgarh close to Monsoon, 1st July. It was drizzling mildly and thus it was perfect weather. The other advantage was that we got Off-Season discount in the HPTDC hotel. 

A plant with multi-coloured stem

One could see all kinds of vegetation growing in the wild like the multi-coloured stem of this plant trying to camouflage itself in the surrounding area. The area was full of wild flowers. 

Wild Blue Berries near Rajgarh

I also saw several berries including the blue and black berries. Sometimes I felt as if I was walking in the clouds and at other times as if I was walking above the clouds. 

Wild flowering plant with water droplets 

The fog and the mist added to the surreal beauty of the place. The water droplets on the leaves after the rains were shimmering like diamonds. 

A fairy tale house?

However, in terms of food joints Rajgarh is not the right place. There are few eateries in town. The town has practically nothing interesting to offer. The Tourist Inn run by Himachal Tourism is located at a height. It has decent rooms with view of the nearby hills. It serves decent food. On the positive side, its rates are much less than the more popular tourist destinations in Himachal.

How to reach Rajgarh: Rajgarh is about 340 kms from Delhi, 100 kms from Chandigarh and 39 kms from Solan. One has to leave the Chandigarh - Shimla national highway 22 at Solan and take a State Highway road for Rajgarh via Ochhghat and Giripul.

Also read:
Rajgarh: Pretty as a Peach?
Around Rajgarh in Himachal Pradesh
Wild Flowers of Rajgarh
Wildlife in Rajgarh

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Jaggo – a Punjabi wedding tradition


Punjab has several rituals cum celebrations that take place pre and post wedding. These may be shared functions or they take place either at the bride’s or the groom’s home.

The start of the Jaggo ceremony

Some of these functions are the Rokka, Mangni, Sagai, Chura etc. Although Delhi has a sizeable Punjabi and Sikh population I have never seen so far a Jaggo (literally translated as Stay Awake!) function in Delhi.

The start of the Jaggo procession from the bride's home

It seems it is more specific to Punjab, particularly in the interiors of Punjab. So when I was invited to a wedding in Hoshiarpur I decided that I must attend the Jaggo function which happens a day or two before the wedding.

The decorated pot is carried through the streets to the homes of relatives & friends

Jaggo is celebrated at the bride’s home at night. This is a ceremony in which there is lot of dancing and singing on boliyaan. It is mainly attended by close family and friends and is decidedly more women-centric.

The Jaggo moves from house to house

Two decorated gharas or copper pots with lamps filled with mustard oil are carried by the bride on her head accompanied by the beats of a dhol and a professional boli-singer. Bolis are to put it in simple words four line verses with references to various family members.

The bride along with friends in the Jaggo ceremony

The procession moves through the streets of the village/town singing folk songs and boliyaan in the darkness of the night. The maternal aunts take turns in carrying the pots on their heads. In fact the pots keeps getting transferred to various friends and relatives.There is also a decorated stick with bells on it to announce the arrival of Jaggo.


The Jaggo moves to another house 

They halt in front of a relative or friend’s house where the woman of the house pours some mustard oil at the threshold, as a form of welcome and then the women enter the veranda singing and dancing gidda. The punch line is: Jatta jag, vee jaggo aia. Sweets are distributed and then they move to the next house.

All smiles at the Jaggo

The bride, her sister, parents and other relatives enjoy the ceremony by vigorously participating in the fun and frolic. It is a kind of announcement of marriage for all in the village. Jaggo retains the charm of old Punjab, when Phulkaris and Baghs were embroidered by young girls as their daaj.

The aerial view of Jaggo at a house 

What is probably new is that once the round of the village/town street is over they assemble at one place where there is further fun, dancing to the DJ and of course drinks and food. After all how can a Punjabi evening be complete without fish pakoras and alcohol (at least for the men!).

A lady beating the winnower at the Jaggo

Also read:
No, It is not a painting
The Clock Tower of Hoshiarpur
Water Tank Themes in Punjab

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Visit to a Tea Estate in Kangra

I have visited tea gardens in the Palampur area in Kangra earlier also but this time I was able to see the process of making tea as well. Kangra is the tea capital of North India.

A Tea Garden in Palampur, Kangra, Himachal

I was staying at the Himachal Heritage Village which is on one side of the town whereas the tea garden that I visited was on another side of the town and we passed through pristine pine forests to reach the gardens and factory of the Himalayan Brew.

Green tea leaves being processed

This is a 150 year old tea estate that has its own tea plantations, processing and blending unit where the tea is produced under strict quality controls. They mainly produce the green tea with various flavours.

A woman sorting tea leaves at the tea factory

After reaching the tea estate we were welcomed by Mr Rajiv Sud, the owner of the estate and Himalayan Brew. In fact Mr Sud is a Singaporean national but came back to take care of his family’s tea business. He showed us around the processing factory and explained how the blending and processing is done right from green leaves to the steaming, pressing, retention of the flavour etc to the final product. Most of the staff at the factory was female and he explained that the work done by them was better than the males.

Various stages of process of tea making at the Himalayan Brew factory

Later on he took us around his estate including the meadows where he sometimes camp. From the meadows the view of the surrounding area was majestic. After this we went to one part of the tea garden where some women were plucking the leaves.

Women plucking tea leaves at a tea estate in Palampur, Kangra

The background of snow capped Dhauladhar Mountains did produce a magical effect and I wished that I could own a small house in that surrounding. Some of the plucking is done by hand though he has some Japanese machines also which does the plucking and pruning.

Mr Rajiv Sud, Ownder Himalayan Brew at his tea estate

Mr Sud prefers the hand plucking systems as it generates employment in the region. One thing I did notice was the fact that the persons employed at the factory were the locals whereas the ones doing the plucking work were mainly migrants. The migrants though were provided housing facility on the estate itself. There is of course division of labour with plucking at the lower end, in terms of wages, and the factory workers at the upper end.

The Himalayan Brew products

After this we went and saw the packing process and also bought some of the tea flavours like the Kangra Masala tea, Malouthi tea, Pinewood smoked Tea. I am even now enjoying a cup of the Kangra tea that I had bought from my visit.

Also read:

In the Lap of Nature – Himachal Heritage Village Palampur
When I flew Like a Bird
McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal
Why I love to go to McLeodganj
Skywatch Friday - Sunset at McLeodganj, Himachal
Places to visit in McLeodganj: Bhagsunag Waterfall
Places to visit in McLeodganj: The Church of St John-in-the-Wilderness

Saturday, 14 May 2016

When I flew Like a Bird

Paragliding - a lifetime experience at Bir-Billing, Himachal. PC: Akanksha Dureja 

On the recent trip to Palampur in Kangra, Himachal I was very keen to do paragliding. So the moment I reached Himachal Heritage Village in Palampur where I was staying for couple of days I immediately headed to Bir-Billing. By the time I reached Bir it was already lunch time and on inquiry I was told that the weather conditions are not right for flying. For paragliding the wind speed, direction, thermals which provide uplift to a parachute and cloud cover do play a crucial role. In fact some of the fellow bloggers who had reached Palampur the day earlier were able to do paragliding in the morning but later on the conditions deteriorated. Listening to their accounts I was all the more interested to do it as well. I was disappointed but not defeated.

My team unloading the parachutes from the Jeep at Billing

Next day when we inquired about the weather conditions we were told that it is perfect to fly. So we headed to Bir. At Bir we shifted to a Jeep of the Paragliding agency to go up to Billing which is the takeoff point for the paragliding.

The takeoff point at Billing is among the best in the world

From Bir it is 14 kms of narrow, steep road along the flowering rhododendrons all the way up to 8000 feet (2400 meters). Billing is an excellent takeoff site.

A small video of takeoff at Billing

When it was my time to get ready I wore the seat harness and locked the karabiners. Being a mountaineer I am familiar with this equipment. Next the parachute was spread out fully at the back and the strings were checked that they were not entangled. Then I and my pilot fastened to each other. Once done we ran a very short distance together and were airborne in only 5-6 running steps. In this sense the Billing takeoff site is among the best in the world. The thermals lifted us immediately several hundred feet above the takeoff site. I was also filming the whole ride using the GoPro camera with selfie stick as well as using my own camera as and when possible.

I got amazing bird's eye-view of the valley below from my parachute

You get the adrenaline rush in the beginning and it is definitely an experience of a lifetime. Within seconds you can sit down in your bucket seat harness and soak in the scenery containing the mighty snow capped Dhauladhars, terraced farms, monasteries and villages 4500 feet below you. In fact taking advantage of thermals an experienced pilot can go up several times higher and higher instead of descending.

Another view of Bir and surrounding area from my paraglide ride

Now I realise what the bird’s eye view is and what fun they have up in the air!

Steppped fields as I approach the landing site at Bir

It was smooth ride that day as the wind conditions were very favourable. But when the pilot asked me whether I would like to get some ‘real experience’ of turbulent conditions and some wild swings I said why not. Then the pilot made the parachute swing like a pendulum and it did become a bit scary but I enjoyed that experience as well. We were up in the air for about 35 minutes and now it was time to land. 

Watch my short video as I land at Bir

I straightened my legs and had a super smooth landing. (I did notice one landing which was kind of a thumping abrupt landing). Again Bir as a landing site is very good as there is no obstruction nearby.

I approach the landing site at Bir. PC:Akanksha Dureja

And finally I land at Bir. PC:Akanksha Dureja

After the exhilarating experience I reached the software shop where they downloaded the GoPro video and gave it to me on a CD. Then I headed back to the Himachal Heritage Village after this once in a lifetime experience.

Also read:
In the Lap of Nature – Himachal Heritage Village Palampur

Saturday, 30 April 2016

In the Lap of Nature – Himachal Heritage Village Palampur

Some days back the Travel Correspondents and Bloggers Group invited me to visit the Palampur area of Himachal so I accepted the invite immediately. It is another thing that due to office work I was unsure of going till the evening of the previous day.

Himachal Heritage Village with Dhauladhar Mountains in the background

I am currently located in Sanghol and from here it was showing 250 kms journey. I decided to go by my own car and left at five in the morning and landed in Palampur at 10. The place, Thala Kandi, where I was to stay was five kms from the town up the valley near Neugal Khad (rivulet). When I reached the Himachal Heritage Village I was amazed to see almost the whole of Himachal, architecture wise, located at one place with the Dhauladhar Mountains providing a beautiful backdrop. As of now there are five buildings and all of them have different architecture representing different regions/villages/towns of Himachal. Four of these are residential buildings for the guests. Una, Kangra, Barot and Khaniara style houses represent these areas while the dining area and office building is made in the Kinnaur style.

The bedroom at the Una House, Himachal Heritage Village

On the first day I stayed in the Una style house which is made completely of sun dried mud bricks and no cement has been used in its construction. The windows are beautifully carved and painted and the roof is made of bamboo whereas the floor is made of mud. Though the basic structure is made of mud but all modern amenities have been provided inside including glass enclosed shower area etc.

The chullah at Una house, also observe the old style switchboards

The first floor where I stayed also had a traditional chullah (earthen fireplace for cooking) for ambiance. The room made of traditional material was cosy and warm and I could sleep in only one blanket comfortably. The management has taken extra pains to ensure that the look of the building reminds one of the old days for example they had to secure the old style switchboards which are no longer used from Old Delhi.

Bonfire at Himachal Heritage Village

In the evening we all sat together with the bonfire giving us warmth and the stars for company as we watched the moon rise above the hills. One can sit for hours in such a beautiful setting!

The dining hall is built in Kinnauri style

After spending a wonderful evening under the stars we all went in the dining hall which has been made as per the architecture of the kinnaur region.

Traditional Kangra food being eaten in Himachli style 

The dinner was a local Himchali affair served on the floor in Pattal (plate made of leaves) and to be eaten with hands. The food was fantastic and truly prepared in the Hiamchali style. I especially liked their Khatta Maas. I am told that they serve the Himachali food at least once to all the guests.
HImachal Heritage Village, Palampur

The next day I had the full attention of the person behind the concept Mr Hem Dogra who narrated to me how they have brought the water from 500 meters away to form a pond as well as creating a waterfall. The project started in 2011 and took four years of painstaking work and skilled labour to make the houses in real traditional style. Nowadays most people even in the hills make concrete cement houses and it is difficult to find skilled labour to make such houses now.

Khaniara style house at the Himachal Heritage Village

The second day I shifted to the Khaniara house so that I can experience it as well. Unlike the Una style this is made completely of stone found in Khaniara near Dharamshala (and that is why the name).

My bedroom in the Khaniara house

Again like the Una house no cement has been used in this house as well. The floor however is made of wooden planks. The bathroom in Khaniara house is luxurious with even a cascading waterfall inside!

The bathroom in the Khaniara house

There are plenty of options to spend your time here. One can go on short or long hikes. There is a naturally formed serene pool, a short walk from this place, which gives the impression of a huge tub in the lap of nature. Palampur and its surrounding area is known for its tea gardens, temples, monasteries and paragliding. But about these things I will write in separate posts.

I had a wonderful, though short, stay at the Himachal Heritage Village. I would like to go and stay there for a longer period.

Also read:
McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal
Why I love to go to McLeodganj
Skywatch Friday - Sunset at McLeodganj, Himachal
Places to visit in McLeodganj: Bhagsunag Waterfall
Places to visit in McLeodganj: The Church of St John-in-the-Wilderness