Tuesday, July 29, 2014

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK-MEMORIES ETCHED IN WILDERNESS

RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK-MEMORIES ETCHED IN WILDERNESS

We have all grown up hearing the famous quote from William Blake “Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night/what immortal hand or eye ! could frame the fearful symmetry.” The mere thought of seeing these majestic creatures in their natural habitat instills a feeling of awe and grandeur unparalled by any other wondrous sight of nature. With these mixed feelings we decided to visit the grandiose Ranthambore National Park about 130Km from Jaipur because I believe that the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page

Jaipur to Ranthambore by road( October to june)
We set off by car (leave by breakfast to catch the afternoon safari) taking the more hospitable road via the MI road (the central road of Jaipur which separates the old city from the new) straight to Dausa. The road from Jaipur to Dausa is a world class sixlane highway where you can whiz past the 65 km in about an hour in a comfortable pace, the stretch has lots of watering holes, petrol pumps and a colorful Rajasthan countryside. The type of clothing you are going to carry is determined according to the time of the year you are planning to visit- while a thin T-shirt would suffice during the hot summer months, it gets really  chilly during the winter months when you have to carry real warm clothing, carry your sunscreens, a wide straw hat, binoculars and camera with a zoom lens because animals give me more pleasure through the viewfinder of a camera than they ever did in the crosshairs of a gunsight,and after I've finished "shooting," my unharmed victims are still around for others to enjoy . It is best to visit the park as soon as it opens in October because soon after the rains the park is teeming with wildlife and plenty of water holes and therefore the chances of sighting a tiger increases fourfold.
 Just before you enter Dausa a small road on the right side leads you thru the town to a place called Lalsot-ask directions inside Dausa , because it’s a little confusing. The road to Lalsot is a normal single lane freeway well maintained , the country side is a mix of lovely bucolic wilderness of typical Rajashan countryside and it would take about two hours to traverse the remaining 70km. This road will take you straight to the town of Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambore which are twin cities. 

At Ranthambore
 As soon as you enter the town of Swaimadhosingh you cross a huge flyover transecting the city ,take the first left turn as soon as you cross the flyover ,suddenly you are into tiger country of Ranthambore. The RTDC tourist centre is on the right side and a host of hotels of different hues, budget and shapes line the left side of the road.
The main aim as soon as you enter Ranthambore is to make a beeline for the evening safari (starts at 1400hours) ticket at the RTDC centre as only government approved vehicles can enter the park
The tourist centre was in its characteristic turmoil with tourist vying over each other to get a safari ticket, the omnipresent middleman and touts hovering around you ,and by the time you come out victorious your patience starts running thin( I hope the government makes the booking online to mitigate the sufferings of common man and especially the foreign tourists who are innocent victims of the touts fleecing them away ruthlessly )-the safari can be enjoyed on either open maruti jeeps of six seater capacity or canters of twenty seater capacity (Rs375-420/-per head)  and the best part was they call you to the canter/jeeps as “char Indian/teen foreigner’ as if carrying a choice of fodder for the tigers at the park. Apparently the park is divided into four zones with each supposed to have 10 tigers and it is up to your luck and lottery as to which zone you would be allotted. It is also preferable to book a canter as it gives an elevated and wide angle view of the safari. Secondly the safari takes place twice a day , one during early morning hours(5:30-6:00AM) and second during the afternoon from 02:30-3:00PM) for an average duration of four hours.

The Hotels
 As soon as we got our evening safari tickets we walked into a budget hotel just opposite the RTDC. Do not book online as you get much better deals by on ground bargaining. The rent for the decent hotels range from Rs800/ (roadside single rooms) to Rs 2000/ (individual cottages) complete with a small swimming pool, bar, AC,broadband connection and breakfast thrown in for free.Try to stay as near to RTDC centre as possible to facilitate pickup by the safari vehicles. Initially the vehicles used to pick one up from the hotels but now it is mandatory to board at the RTDC centre where you bought your ticket.  

Safari   (Oct to Jul)
The canter with the guide set out exactly at 1400 hours and we were a mixture of motley crowd of twenty on the trip ranging from an elderly American couple, NRI Indians and young students from a Jaipur college.
As you enter the park the towering Ranthambore fort seats at the entrance as a mute spectator (a visit to the Lord Ganesha temple is a must), a sense of mystique, trepidation and apprehension albeit a little chill which was more because of the cool environs embraces you. The park is built alongside a mountain range which looks like a huge savannah dotted with large water bodies, old dilapidated hunting lodges bearing a testimony of the carnage carried out on the humans and the wild life by the so called royalty. The four hour drive was an experience in itself. It was rejuvenating, exhilarating out of the world experience where we came about hordes of wildlife in their natural habitat roaming around fearlessly and included langurs, Jackals, Black bucks,Chinkara, Civets and Common mongoose. The park also has a large number of marsh crocodiles bathing about lazily in the sun besides the tiny rivulets which crisscross the park.Not only that it also has a veritable collection of flora and fauna, a botanist’s delight but a huge collection of the winged variety the Graylag Goose, Woodpeckers, Indian Gray Hornbills, Common Kingfishers,Flamingos, Ibis, Pelicans, Storks, Pittas, Shrikes, Treepies to name a few making the park a birdwatchers delight. As our canter crisscrossed the landscape driving deep into the belly of the park,the sight which awaited us would be etched in memory till we meet our maker. As our canter was passing a small rivulet the guide suddenly beckoned us to keep our trap shut and the canter stopped to a halt-it was as if the whole world had come to a sandstill, the gazelles stopped on their tracks paralysed with fever and reverence, the langurs quietly scuttled away and for a moment even the birds stopped chattering-two tiger cubs slowly moved down the hillside along with their mother to have a bathe and an evening drink from the waterhole,after having feasted on a gazelle, for a moment time stood still we even forgot to lift our cameras   as the two tiger cubs made their way to the waterhole looking around in disdain with the attitude of true royal blood on their evening walk. The long golden rays of the setting sun reflected off their beautiful chequered skin giving a golden hue and they sat down inside the water hole in true royal style when a silent prayer sprang to my lips –‘May your world ever stay beautiful, your actions majestic, your nature merciful and your kingdom bountiful” . As the darkness begin to creep in the sudden revving of the canter engine broke our reverie and despite our yearning to stay back we had to make our way out of the park to our hotel room.
Before we left Rantambore we collected a memorabilia of tiger engraved T-shirts and caps to keep the moments alive because just as we do not remember days, we remember moments.


We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.  ~William Ralph Inge, Outspoken Essays, 1922




Friday, July 25, 2014

Sundarban trip-A pleasant diversion

Sundarban trip-A pleasant diversion
”We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we can seek them with our eyes open.”
Picnic, excursion, trip, expedition, jaunt-whatever you name it, are pleasant diversions. They break the monotony of life and bring into one’s daily life a touch of variety, for they carry us away from our everyday mundane world of daily existence into a world that is exotic, rejuvenating and exhilarating. Such short and  sweet jaunts give a touch of prose to the boring chapters of  life as they release the springs of joy chained down by the burden of duties and responsibilities.
            My trip to Sundarbans exactly gave me the same fresh lease of new exhilarating life and boundless energy as the muddy eddies of estuarine Ganges and the brilliant green of the sundari trees swept away the dreary cobwebs of city life.
            We decided to spend the nights amidst the natural environs of the mangrove forest to experience the nature at its best. An online research left us spoilt for choices from Government tourist lodges to a multitude of private resorts and there was varied accommodation to choose from AC cottages, huts , tents to executive rooms with prices ranging from 4000 to 7000/ per head(2days and one night) which included pick up from Kolkata in an AC bus to Godkhali from where you ride a luxury boat, to the resort just opposite the revered Sajnekhali Tiger Resort Camp . The package included cost of accommodation,transport, guides, entry fees to the tiger watch towers, food minus the beverages, boat rides and the deal if you look at it retrospectively it was a steal.
            As soon as the reservations was confirmed online, we started to pack our bags with little essentials, mosquito repellants, antivomiting, antidiarrhoeal tablets ,extra pair of shoes-lest we decided to tread thru the mangroves, light woolen jackets, sunscreens, binoculars, cameras just to name a few.
            Following the sermons of the tour operators we were in front of the Priya Cinema,Rashbehari Avenue  at 07:45AM, as Kolkata was stirring itself up from sleep and getting ready for the daily grind.At exactly 08:00 AM we were picked up by a luxury AC bus complete with a guide , fresh refreshments and  juices onboard (be sure to evacuate your bladder on the paid toilet opposite the Priya Cinema before you board the bus as first stop for refreshments is almost 2 hours away).  The morning hour traffic being light , the bus soon snaked its way in front of Ruby hospital and then towards Science City, taking a U turn in front of Paroma island its weaved its way to Basanti Highway finally for a 65Km journey to our boarding point at Godkhali .
            As we enter the Basanti Highway (under the bridge) all the way through striking countryside and bucolic bazaar with a brief stopover for tea and refreshments at Ghatakpukur, it is a sight to behold and consider by the environmentalists. The first view is the farming land on the right side which is called Dhapa where vegetables are grown on recycled land. This is followed by a local market which supplies a variety of local fish to Kolkata and the adjoining areas. Further down the road one notices the fisheries which are one of the main feeding centers for the range of an array of fish (prawn, Telapia, Tangra, Big Puti,and Catfish) to the fish loving Kolkatan appetite. On the left side throughout the journey you will find a sweet rain water canal running which supplies water to the farm lands on the left. As the bus glides its way, one notices the pyramid structure which forms the entry to the Calcutta Leather Complex which also happens to be the biggest in Eastern India. The later part of the drive includes a peek of the brick kilns and fisheries where prawn farming and local fish such as Telapia and Cat fish are cultured. The specialty of these brick kilns is that handmade mud cakes are baked and converted into bricks---these brick kilns are movable and are initially constructed on highlands which eventually become fisheries. As we pass through Malancha which is the biggest fishing village, it is a treat to the eye as local fish from the farms is auctioned in baskets with the highest bidder getting the basket. The paddy fields, the rural ethnic thatched mud houses along with few made of handmade bamboo sheets are a clear indication of life getting simpler and full of hardships as we move from the madding crowd of the city. The boat pickup point-Gadhkali arrives---a well equipped Help Tourism motor fitted country boat named Sundari after the mangrove which has also given the delta its name with packed food and fruits is what you need to be able to swan around in this barren land run through by rivers and rivulets and a skilled tour operator to fall back on, who is a multitasker and can guide you through the splendor of the Sundarbans. (It is impossible to travel in this dense, wild forest without organized assistance.)The eerie still of the forest shattered often by the chirping birds, deer and monkeys or the roaring Royal Bengal Tiger can only be found in this part of the world close somewhat to civilization.
            The cruise boat at Godkhali boarding point with a double deck, fitted with comfortable chairs at the upper deck, with a yawning in place, a neat and clean toilet at the back, an onboard guide, food and drinks to order completely relaxes the tired sinews of the bus journey as the silent propeller driven engine effortlessly guides your boat into the muddy estuarine waters past the last inhabitant island of Gosaba into the bowels of Sundarbans. Forget about remembering the myriad of islands dotting the myriad of estuarine tributaries(Google and Wikepedia is there to take care of it), just sit back relax and enjoy the panorama which the eternal being so effortlessly paints it in front of you. Doubtlessly the whole lot you will happen to see or come across in the feral mangrove forests of the Sundarbans will beguilingly draw you towards them. The astounding expanse of green, the blue heaven above your head congregating into the horizon, the eddying muddy waters of  waterways holding a promise of rich marine life, and the sinuous creeks lined by the sundari trees with resplendent fauna and flora-----all have a propensity to titillate your senses.
The Sundarban Forest- the largest mangrove forest in the world is situated in the south-west corner of Bangladesh. There are three wildlife sanctuary areas-‘KOTKA KACHIKHALI’, ‘HIRON  POINT’ and ‘MANDERBARIA’, number of unexplored natural beaches, innumerable rivers canals and creeks in the forest which are punctuated by tiger watching towers at places like Sajnekhali or Sudhanyakhali, one-third of which is water body making the waterways as the only means to go through the forest. It is famous as the habitat of its semi-aquatic tigers popularly known as the Royal Bengal Tiger-the biggest of the cat family which plays a very imperative role in the forest ecology as well as in the country’s rich mythology and legend. The forest treasures a reasonable quantity of spotted deer, wild boar, rhesus monkey, salt water crocodile, water monitor lizard, pythons etc amidst a mammoth sum of plant species- the Sal tree whose leaves are still used as plates and called ‘patal’ in Hindi, the Sundari mangrove with its aerial roots being the focal one for both the botanist as well as the photography enthusiast sharing the photos with friends or posting it on face book.(This forest plays an imperative role in the economy of the south-west region of Bangladesh as well as in the national economy for being the single largest source of forest produce in the country. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.
            After an impressive ride down the creek as human habitat gave away to swampy dense mangrove forests, we could see these waterways were much less polluted and congested, were the lifeline for the people who dotted the embankments, still to recover from the devastating effects of Aila and you become a bit saddened by the Janus face of tourism.
            The one and half hour drive on the waterways went like a jiffy where we saw a multitude of boats from cruise liners, merchant vessels to small fishing vessels dotting the estuarine tributaries as we turned towards the Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve whose embankment had been firmly cordoned off by steel mesh to keep out the ever elusive Royal Bengal Tiger to swim across the human habitats on either side.
            The tourist lodge is ensconced in island of Dayapur just opposite the Sajnekhali Tiger camp in tiny island of green-neatly laid down AC cottages, huts, tents with grass embossed  cobblestone paths and a garden containing flora and fauna that could rival any Mughal garden.A neatly laid down dining room under a thatched shelter and a well stocked bar, a pool table and the lodge was an ideal retreat to soak in the real essence of the isolation and wilderness and also an ideal panacea to the jungle weary limbs and body after a daylong jaunt at the Sunderbans. After a lazy sumptuous lunch we set out again on a boat cruise towards the Sajnekhali tiger reserve-which has animal enclosures for deers, crocodiles and even  monitor lizards. The reserve has a well stocked museum depicting the history of rich biodiversity of the jungles including life size figurines and rare snapshots of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. The fourstory watch tower was a dampner as shoddy constructional design had rendered the supporting pillars unsafe and as a result we were deprived of a bird’s eye view of the reserve forest.Be careful of the monkeys around the reserves,as the tourists feed them on the leftovers- these guys have an uncanny habit of snapping at your heels or snatch away any bags you are carrying with impunity.
            The cruise again takes down the river and is a titanic moment of splendor as you silently plough down into the setting sun and as the sun sets the boat brings you back towards the resort, for a funfilled campfired evening of adivasi dance and sumptuous food.  To de-stress the weary mind and body of the tourists, the lodge offers an indulgence to a dance programme by the native adivasis of the region where they feel too thrilled to teach you some dance steps towards the end of the show. The group dances as girls jointly take part like a segment of a garland in perfect rhythm with the beating of the drums locally known as madal and sing along with some folk saga-you will notice that the dance sequences are energetic and dynamic depicting a range of a feature of life in their simplest form and full of human emotional outburst and dreams on life in general. Sumptuous food with drink of your preference is palatable, thus soothing and calming every sense for a goodnight rest.
            You are awakened from your deep siesta early next morning with the energetic chirping of the birds, cackle of geese and  with the aroma of tea (again of your choice-herbal/green/black/milk) and freshly baked biscuits hitting your nostril. Dab on your sunscreen, put on your wide brimmed hut, arm yourself with your binoculars and camera and you are ready to take on the wilderness. It’s a full day river cruise with packed food and fruits and the boat maneuvering its way down the broader and narrower creaks with the early morning sun rays resplendent on the face and the cold breeze wafting. The river banks were full of variety of flora and fauna especially I was fascinated by the wide variety of kingfishers,deers, gazelles and river crocodiles.Although we missed sighting of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger- the trepidation of sighting one, the darkgreen sundari trees, the haplophytic roots, the fresh cool breeze wafting at your face leaves you wanting for more, more and more.
             A brief halt at Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower which again was a great spirit dampener, courtesy the inferior construction material used by the contractors- the supporting pillars were unsafe to climb and we had to really tough time fending off the monkey menace. These forest dwellers have slowly but surely developed a culture of their own, having an isolated life from the main stream, which has expressed itself in many ways, markedly suited to the local forest ecosystem. Survival, in a place like this where there is no electricity in most of the inhabited islands, where the rivers abound with fish as well as preying crocodiles and sharks, where the man-eating tiger prowls on land and water too, where poisonous snakes too slide along  land and water; makes a person a combatant against inclement forces under the watchful eyes of Banabibi whose temples along with Dakshin Ray dots the length and breadth of the mangrove forest(the folklore is an interesting read on Google e-books).
            The scheduled programme was coming to the closing stages-we had to go back to the lodge for a sumptuous Bengali lunch of hot basmati rice,prawn cum bhetki curry, shukto,cholar dal, begun bhaja, papaya cum tomato chutney(to name a few) and chilled canned beer (drink of your choice). As we left, a feeling of nostalgia and reminiscence filled every individual and with a promise to come back again to this beautiful, rich heritage cum abode of Bengal, it was once again time to get back to the grind of one’s daily life.
Here I endeth this travelogue with a poem I had recently read on today’s much acclaimed issue—‘Conserving the Ecology’---
He stood beside the tiger
Holding the tail of a tiger
He tried to hold it fast
But it bit him on the ass
And said, Make LOVE not WAR!!!!!!!!
















S



Santiniketan-Paush Mela- An ode to the Bard.

                                      

                                         Santiniketan-Paush Mela- An ode to the Bard.
-Happy the man, whose wish and care
 A few paternal acres bound
Content to breath his native air in his own ground.
                                                                                                Alexander Pope
Santiniketan is quintessential rural Bengal. A village town nestled in the Birbhum district of West Bengal about 160km from Kolkata which has been blessed by the Nobel Laureate- Rabindranath Tagore  and has morphed into a world class tourist destination.
Both trains and a six lane 168km National Highway 1A ( leading to New Delhi ) connects Kolkata to this abode of peace literally where tranquility and peace  leisurely rolls on the lap of time and was the real stimulant of the beatific prose and scintillating literary works which flowed out of the bards pen.
The best bet is to take the BarrackporeTrunk  road to Dunlop and turn left on the Nivedita Toll Bridge and on to the National highway –NH1A leading to Delhi till you hit Panagarh. You would be doing an injustice to your vehicle if the speedometer comes below 100km/hr, lush green countryside, immaculately maintained highways punctuated by green coconut vendors whose invigorating water leaves you fresh and wanting for more zip behind as God paints the picturesque countryside with his golden pastel into a mesmerizing canvas.
Shaktigarh- a must pay obeisance for connoisseur of Bengali sweets –“ Langcha”,”mihidana” etc will tickle your gustatotary  senses to an orgasmical frenzy. The place is about 90 km from Kolkata as you approach the town of Burdwan and consists of a motley collection of roadside eateries dishing out these mouth watering recipes at the most affordable prices.
As soon as you reach the town of Panagarh, cross the town market and the Darjeeling More take the right turn towards Santiniketan – distance of about 25km –bumpy half the way and smooth the other half as this part has full patronage of the State government.
There is no eye which can consume the  wealth on stone and wood and mind that can fathom the tranquility of Santiniketan. The best time to visit  is between 23-25 Dec every year when the annual Poush Mela or fair is also held. A perfect blend of rural smile with ethnic style.
As soon as you park your car, you will be swarmed by a rickshaw pullers or ‘vano’ drivers –which is the best way to go around the hotspots if you are a first timer as these guy double up also as your guide reeling out folklores and stories which even Rabindranath Tagore never knew. Be sure to haggle with them or you are in for a thorough fleecing which would be worse than a sheared Australian sheep.The fare may range from 100/ to Rs. 250/ depending upon your capacity to bargain.
The tourist spot has four distinct areas to roam about
a)The Science department   (b)The arts Dept   (c)The museum and the houses of the Tagore family
(d) Paush Mela.   
(a)The Science department  
The Science Dept consists of series of relatively new buildings housing different branches of science under the Vishwa Bharati university. Then as you enter the main campus you will pass by the house of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and reach the Arts department.
 (b)The Arts Dept  
The Arts Department is a unique blend of contemporary art, life like statues depicting the varied life of rural Bengal by the famous artists of yesteryears Nandalal Bose. The pedagogic concept of yesteryears- Gurukul is still practiced in letter and spirit to this modern era- where the students are made to sit under shady banyan trees  while the teacher enriches them with their lifeskills and values. Each structure in the venue be it the –blackhut, life like statues of Buddha , sandhya made of stone and concrete , the thatched houses bifurcated by a palm tree at the centre, the three step banyan tree has a unique story attached to them which your rickshaw puller guides would narrate to you with zest and humour.
  
“Chadim tala –another landmark in the campus is famous for the the chadim trees and the enclosure which houses a small podium and is open to the public only during special occasions like –felicititations, vasant utsaav or uttarayan.
 (c)The museum and the houses of the Tagore family
The centre piece of attraction is the museum or “Rabindra Bhavan” and the seven houses in which the Tagore family resided. The museum is open from 1000hrs to 1630hrs which is relaxed during Paush Mela and with an entry fee of Rs.20/ you are taken down a priceless memory lane of the great Bards.Each tree, each stone, each piece of furniture is associated with poets folklore.The museum houses the whole life history of Rabindranath Tagore in a picture com commentary format starting from his birth to death, The pens, the clothes , various accessories and varied glimpse of the bard life and various memorabilia are arranged in neatly compartmentalized enclosures which gives a realtime panoramic view of the bards life. A life lived to the fullest , a life dedicated to the pursuit of art and literarture, an iconic brain from whose pen the ink danced and flowed in great abandon , joy and shining purity. You could also visualize the replica f the original Nobel plaque as the original one was stolen-a heinous purolined act. Mobile and Cameras are strictly off limits.    
Santiniketan Griha- Maharishi Devendranath Tagore made this house on 20 bighas of land and named from where the locality got is name. Next to the museum is Udyana-conceived by Rathindranath, Shyamali- a mud house with a mud roof  has its outer wall artistically decorated by students. “Punascha”-a serene house with a serene terrace where the poet was inspired to wield his pen .He was present all quarters of the earth despite being in this small terrace  “Konarka” –house famous for its red verandahs where the poet used to hold his poetry sessions.” Udichi”-the last house built the poet where he came to live before his demise. 
(d) Paush Mela   

Tourism, melas and fairs is a heady concoction of percentage industry. It fattens your intellect while slimming your wallet. Every item is jacked up by 100 % , and then sold to you at discount of 30% depending on how outlandish you look , the branding of your clothes and the conviction of your bargaining prowess. That is what Paush Mela is all about-it is a conglomeration of all aspects of Bengals rural culture under one roof-  from music, dance ,handicrafts to culinary delights. Every year on 23rd Dec the Mela is inaugurated by the glitterati alumni of Santiniketan at “Chadimtala” early morning at 0600AM with the accompaniments of lilting songs and dance recital by the student troupe, and therefore try to make it to the town a night before if you want to catch up with the mesmerizing ritual.
The huge mela ground is divided into three sections. The first section deals exclusively with Bengali folk rural music especially ‘Baul songs which are rendered by ascetically clad local singers, with the accompaniment of ‘ektara’, ‘madol’ and drums-self composed, self conceptualized with each word giving the smell of earthy rural Bengal. You can just sit down , relax and enjoy their rendition from a elevated platform till midnight. The life of this gypsy like balladeers could be found in the well researched work of William Dalrymple ‘s “Nine Lives”.
The next section is the disorganized  cottage industry of rural West Bengal at its organizational best . It’s a shopping haven for ladies especially no sane lady will miss the golden chance of gorging on the wide range of ethnic cosmetic wear, sarees , wall hangings, bags , baskets  at mouth watering prices would even drain out a dedicated shop alcoholic. The second day of the mela is punctuated at night by an hour of crackling fireworks which would rival any of the well known pyrotechnic show.
                               The last section consists of the Bengali gastronomic delights with culinary skills at professional best. Counters after counters of lipsmacking delicacies from rural Bengal ranging from fishes in all forms and shapes, to chinglish dishes,steamed sweet rice cakes, rice rolls , pan shops in a neat array to cater to the varied taste buds complete with a paid well  maintained toilet makes the mela experience a heavenly one..                                                                                                    
Santiniketan is not a tourist spot –it is a blissful experience, every corner of the place has been touched by the bards life as if he is taken a pause and will join us again as per his own words-  “Death is not extinguishing the light : it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
Because Santiniketan visit gave me a new dawn in my life as the bard said-“ I slept and dreamt that life was joy . I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold service was joy.
Acessible from Kolkata-By Road(165Km-NH1A), By Train
Time of Visit:23Dec-25Dec

Closed on : Wednesdays , Museum Time: 10AM-0430PM   

Gulmarg-a heaven on earth









Gulmarg Trip.
Experiencing snowfall, building snowman, skiing down the pristine white slopes or simply snowballing each other is a dream for every individual who is fond of nature, because they say when “snow falls even the nature listens”. 
Keeping this in mind we decided to make a short sojourn to the valley of Gulmarg 56Km from Srinagar at the end of March. The petite flight from Jammu to Srinagar (about 15 minutes) took lesser time than the time to check in and boarding due to strict security military exercises at the Jammu Airport (be sure to check in 02 hours before departure time at Jammu and Srinagar Airport to avoid inconvenience due to elaborate security check up). With the low cost airlines charging between 1200/- to 1400/-, sometimes the return fare thrown in for free, it is a steal.
Be sure to pack in protective eye glasses (the UV glare of the snow hurts your eyes when you are out skiing), gloves (if you want to stun each other with snowballs or build a snowman), extra pair of boots (preferably the water proof ones), caps and gloves besides the extra layers of woolens for your body. Of course not to mention some painkillers (need them if you are a first time skier), ointments, moisturizers, sunscreens and antiemetic if you have motion sickness while negotiating the mountain curves. Even if you forget to do that, there is no problem as about 13km short of Gulmarg is Tanmarg where you get full set of protective outfits on hire.
Flying at an altitude of 20000 feet over the Pir Panjals Range, the breathtaking sight from the plane windows just give you a prelude of the magnificent scenes to unfold and unfurl once you reach the ground. If you are lucky the Air Force sometimes gives you the consent to fly over the sanctified shrine of Vaishno Devi where you can see the temple nestled snugly among the mountains with the serpentine road snaking its way up from Katra.
The trip from Srinagar to Gulmarg, usually a distance of 56 Km usually takes an hour and a half and the taxis usually charge between 1400/ to 1600/ for the round trip depending on the type of vehicle you hire. The snow at Gulmarg usually lasts till mid April, and to enjoy both the sun and the snow we decided to visit it towards the end of March when one can combine the trip with the once a year opening of the Tulip garden in Srinagar which remains  etched in your mind.   
As soon as you land in Srinagar the chill in the weather and the warmth of the people strike you. The valley has gone a sea change; the town shorn of its ominous presence of security forces has been given a fresh breath of life. With tourism in full swing, you could see life and vibrancy coming back, with smiling bubbly children in neat uniforms making their way to schools, shops and restaurants doing brisk business and the city bustling with multitude of tourists, taxis, hawkers and shoppers-you could feel that peace had been given a fair chance to bring back the smile and prosperity san the shadow of the guns.
Cruising along the national highway towards the apple town of Sopore, the countryside just demonstrates the commencement of spring with the bare apple orchards, maple, and Chinar trees slowly rousing up from their winter slumber with the primary offshoot of fresh green leaves.
Midway you take a left turn leaving the national highway towards small bustling town of Tanmarg about 13km short of Gulmarg.The road to Tanmarg is a  slow but sure climb almost flattish with a panorama of snow covered PirPanjal range dotted with fir and pine trees in front of you. The temperature begins to  drop suddenly as you traverse Tanmarg and the road winds uphill lazily , both sides lined by huge piles of pure pristine snow, which I have  seen only on the silver screen or  perhaps dreamt. The cold nippy clean mountain air, the smell of the pine and fir trees, and the perfect silence fully justifies the saying-‘if there is heaven on earth it is here-but it goes beyond that –if you want to be one with the maker of this earth this is the place to be.’ During the winter months when the roads are covered with snow the cars bind their tires with iron chains to prevent them from slipping which are put on from Tanmarg itself. It takes about half an hour to reach the mountain top and cross the threshold into the town of Gulmarg or the meadow of flowers which during the winter months turns into an immaculate ring of ice. Situated at a height of 2730m above sea level in the district of Baramullah, on the lap of Afarwat Hills in the Pir Panjal range the main town is around a 3km x 1km valley which is overlooked by the snow covered majestic peaks of the PirPanjal range whose gentle snow-covered peaks are a delight to many national and international skiers. Surrounding the valley is an array of hotels from heritage to budget type which are also available through online bookings from various travel portals (the price ranging from 1500/ to 8000/ per night). Be sure to acquire a room with a view which directly overlooks the valley and the hills because of the spectacular vision of the hills which changes its color and hue during different hours of the day as nature brandishes its paintbrush from bright yellow golden sheen in the early morning to the vibrantly shining pristine white of the midday and finally to the sublime orange color in the evening leaving an everlasting vision etched in your reminiscence for lifetime.
The two main attractions of the town during winter months are skiing and the Gondola ride. Depending on whether you are a novice or a professional skier you can take your pick. The gentle slopes of the valley are ideal for beginners, with prices ranging from 600/- to 800/- you can put on your ski boots which clamps on to the skis with a professional guide who teaches you the nuances of skiing first on the gentle slopes of the valley. Watching the skiers performing on the sports channel is totally a different ball game than when you put on the ski boots for the first time-the wearing of the ski boots is a daunting task in itself for it seems that somebody has hugged you in a bear grip. It is fun once you get a feel of it and  be sure to learn as to how to brake by splaying your feet, or take a turn before zooming on the steeper slopes but it is great fun to get thrown on the soft snow which cushions your fall like a bed of goose feathers.
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating, and there is really no such weather as bad weather only different kinds of good weather, and you get a combination of all these at Gulmarg. The sun shines brightly, the wind whispers on your ears and virgin snow beckons you up the slopes of Afarwat Hills after your preliminary basic education at skiing and what better way to go up the slopes than the Gondola-the ropeway which is a marvel in engineering and consists of 36 six seated cable cars supposedly the highest in the world supported by 18 solid steel towers with the capacity to ferry about 600 persons per hour and is in two stages. The first stage takes you to a height of 3950m to the bowel of Kongdoori Valley and the second stage for professional skiers and snowboarders to a height of 4200m. The charges for the Gondola ride is minimal (Rs.300/ for each stage) for the enlivening breathtaking site that awaits you , the ropeway winds its way through pine and fir covered trees whose branches are laden with soft powdery snows like dripping molten candle wax, the mountainside dotted by gujjar hutments all pregnant with snow and as you look at a distance you can see the creator on his full glory-snow covered Nanga Parbat in the horizon, ragged peaks haughtily reaching up  to the sky, gentle sloping snow covered valleys -it is the journey of a lifetime as you are hauled up the slopes in a gentle swooping motion.  The first stage of gondola takes you up to the gentle bowl of the Kongdoori Valley which is a smooth expanse of snow, dotted with few restaurants, avid skiers and snowboarders enjoying the wonderful slopes, and breathtaking panoramic view of the whole mountain range. The guides and skis’ are available here also who charges you from Rs. 800/ to Rs 1600/ depending whether you just glide on the valley or come down the mountain slopes skiing with a guide and of course you have a choice to come down in a man pulled sleigh also, but that seemed a little inhuman like the Kolkata rickshaw pullers. So we decided to do a little skiing on the gentle slopes, while my ten year old daring son decided to have a go at skiing down the mountain slope while we took the easy way out by descending down the slope on the gondola. Our heart skipped a beat when he took a little more time to come down, but I can vouch for the guides, they are considerate and really well   trained as they guide you down slowly and surely down the slopes, where there are  multiple tracks from the straight simple road down for the beginners to the much tougher pathways which winds across the gondola towers   for the professionals. At the base of gondola if you are not still satisfied with your histrionics you have the snowscooter ride traversing you across the valley. The breathtaking beauty, the nippy fresh air, the love in the air keeps your mind and belly satiated. As the night settles the town the valley becomes totally deserted, not a single soul is seen on the streets  and a comforting peaceful  silence settles down, pierced only few sporadic sounds of dogs barking, and just sitting out on the balcony room and gazing out into the town annihilates you in a world of inner peace and tranquility. And as the time of parting was drawing nearer, I just muttered an old Irish blessing “May the road rise up to meet you Gulmarg, may the wind be ever be at your back.  May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain and snow fall softly on your fields.  And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand. 
santanu

Mandarmoni-a rhapsody on sea

Mandarmoni-a rhapsody on sea
The car lurched down the steep stony embankments and suddenly before my stunned eyes a rhapsody on sea –the beachside hamlet of Mandarmoni burst open in its full splendor and glory basking in the afternoon sun.
As the tyres spin their way through the longest motorable beach you have a dejavu feeling of a set of a Bollywood blockbuster as the sun kissed beach lapped by the gentle surf shimmers- trying to embrace the distant horizon and as you are cruising on the beach, you wonder at the creative power of God Almighty.
If you have planned for a quick weekend getaway from Kolkata, to shed the drudgery of everyday grind at a place unfettered by hustle and bustle of metro life, Mandarmoni is the place to go. Situated at about 175 Km and a three hour leisurely drive from the heart of Kolkata and with a galaxy of beachside hotels lining the small sleepy hamlet it is an ideal weekend getaway. Book your stay online on a host of travel portals offering you rooms ranging from 1200/ to 2400/ on a twin sharing basis and depending on the amenities, be sure it is a beach side property to stay next to the sea. Be sure to carry cash instead of plastic money as most of the hotels do not have a card reader and also load your favourite beverages if you worship Bachus as they are available at a premium around the roadside shacks where the quality is a suspect. A set of sunglasses, sunscreens, wide brimmed hat, swimming shorts, loafers and a soothing calamine lotion to soothe your sunburn completes you itinerary.
Have a leisurely breakfast and set yourself on the road to Vidyasagar Setu, and as you cross the engineering marvel latch on to Koyna expressway and head for NH6 as the expressway gently curves towards the left just before the over bridge to Dunlop and head straight for the sixlane highway to Kolaghat.As soon as the thermal towers of Kolaghat starts looming in the horizon- indulge in a delightful gastronomic spread at the Shere Punjab joint before you hit the road to Contai via Tamluk. As soon as you reach Contai be sure to tank up your car and cash as you get neither of them till you reach Mandarmoni. As you reach the hamlet of Chawlkhola on the Digha Contai road take the left turn towards Mandarmoni –a 13km drive weaving through the lanes and bylanes untouched thankfully by the tourism department of West Bengal where the villages are still warped in an era of fossilized fantasy. Huge speed breakers to be negotiated with care lest you lose your undercarriage, giving the right of way to the ambling ducks with their ducklings and goats, giving the speeding tuk-tuks and urchins a wide berth-you sometimes rue your decision for the weekend misadventure till your car hits the sea beach and suddenly your tensed up mind is wiped clean, the brow creases flatten out as you are into a rhapsody of sun, sea and sand.
The beach is a mixture of sand and clayey soil making it hard and motor able and it was heartening to see that the seashore had still maintained its pristine virginity  uncluttered by sea of humanity and the sea of nonrecyclable garbage that inevitably follow them. Gentle waves breaking down into a gentle surf as if the sea is whispering into your ears and the beach slopes down gently into the sea and you could walk almost a km inside the water which only rises waist high. The sea water albeit has not escaped the vagaries of mankind with the oil spill from the passing seafaring vessels making it albeit a little muddy and oily.
Most of the beach property hotels are located idyllically facing the sea with huge French windows providing a picturesque view of the whole scenic panorama, try to choose one as near to the sea as you can. Most of the hotels have well equipped dining hall and we just gorged ourselves with the hot fresh authentic Bengali cuisine of hilsas, crabs and prawns. A host of shacks and eating joints have also sprung up outside these hotels and therefore when you book your rooms do not include the meals as then you have the liberty to saunter out at ease and have a sumptuous meal of crabs  and local snacks of puffed rice and pakoras at a very nominal rate.
We got up early in the morning to catch the first glimpse of the rising sun and the creator came out to oblige us with an array of paint brushes as the darkness gave way to shimmering light and as the morning sun made its way up from the shimmering waters the world stood still in the bright golden glow of its ambient light. The gentle whisper of the surf , the salty cool early morning breeze,  the silhouetted fishing boat against the huge ball of fire with cool seawater swirling at your feet with the crustaceans, starfishes and shells nibbling at your feet you feel you have attained salvation. You do not want the magical moment to pass by as your reverie is broken suddenly by the shout of the fisherman winding up their huge Chinese fishing nets, the shout of the ‘tuk-tuks’ and the SUV’s serving as supply chains to the beachside resorts.
Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge engrosses us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among the seaweed and whitened timber like the homesick refugees of a long war.Therefore do not forget to carry your shell collection bag and as the day warms up the seashells are there on the virgin beach in abandon to take a pick and with the slithering worms, the lazy starfishes and the busy cormorants propelling their busy legs like a helicopter propeller you have lots of company as the breakfast time approaches. Alternatively you can take a ‘tuk-tuk’ to the nearby delta or mohana as the local dialect goes for a meager Rs.100/ and enjoy the estuarine tributaries and the red crabs.
A generous swathe of sunscreens, swimming trunks and after a sumptuous breakfast you are ready for an exhilarating bathing session. Gentle surf, gentle waves gentle sloping beach where you can walk for a km inside the sea with only waist high water leaves you wanting for more till you spot the omnipresent ‘dabwallah’ strategically placed with his wares at your exit point to quench your parched throat- rejuvenate yourself and dive back for another swimming session till  lunch. If you are outdoor sports type, you can carry your Frisbees, cricket and football set to enhance the thrill. Be sure to take an after bath in the hotel foyer to wash down the sun and the sand or you are bound to make your room a mess.
The sumptuous lunch, early morning antics and mid morning swim will lull you into a deep dreamfree afternoon siesta and you wake up rejuvenated to take on the evening.The evening hours unlike the morning is a bit crowded at the beach  with burgeoning water sports like zipping around in sandbuggies at a cost of about Rs.500/ gives you an added  touch of adventure with beachside shacks doing a brisk business  ,having exotic items o their menu list.
Again it was time for the creator to come out with his paint brushes as the setting sun gradually settled down to be devoured by the sea in the far horizon.The dark velvety night, punctuated by few shimmering lights of the passing merchant vessels, the gentle whispering surf and the dimly lit beach from the reflected resort lights beckons you to a lazy afterdinner walk where you are humbled by the enormity of the universe as the twinkling star canopied sky silently watches over you.
Next  it was time to bid goodbye, and my ten year old son gave the ultimate tribute to the great weekend by asking me “when are we coming back Mom?” and I promised I will be back again soon because ‘The cure for anything is salt water-sweat, tears or the sea”





Thursday, July 24, 2014

Black is beautiful.

Black is mystique, Black is mesmerising , Black is ephemeral , Black is beauty and still black has no colour. I like the blackness of the night just before it climaxes to an kaleidoscopic dawn. Black looks as exquisite in a sartorial finery of an evening gown or a tuxedo as it does on the cascading mane of a wild stallion. Black is the colour of the eyes which can kill with ease with their murderous and enticing looks.There is no word to describe the colour black. The Black thoughts of Victor Hugo Classic- Le Miserable or Thomas Hardy s Mayor of Casterbridge makes us realise the value of actual pain, mirth heartbreak or the value of a lovers sigh.Black is like two headed Janus- while one fa├žade may look bottomless, colourless and fathomless the other facade in the deep lies the sublime beauty when you  dive deep into its depths , like a river or the ocean where the jet black water of its deepest part  holds the most exquisite wonders.
A thing of "black' beauty is joy forever. Even in our 'fair & lovely'culture a black skinned ebony beauty with black kohl lined eyes with an overflowing mane resplendent in sartorial black is the cynosure of all eyes.this is my first weakness of anything and everything black.
A sartorial taste for a well tailored black trousers , complemented gracefully by glinting ambassador shoes blossoming under jet black cherry polish with jet black sun glasses and jet black gelled hair as essential accessories is my second fad.Basically I like-"Men in Black" in any parts.
My electronic and electric equipments have become like an inseparable conjugal twin unseparated at birth and in life almost an extension of my arm and its blasphemy if the colour of my smartphone, pad, laptop camera , TV is anything but jet black.
Black is the colour I do not like when it taints the money. The root of all decadency, greed, economic retrogression, social ills and evils are when the colour black seeps into the economy.
Thus black is not only a colour, its a celebration of life. Knowingly or unknowingly it has brought joy, and colour in our life as it has gridlocked itself in every aspect of our daily lives and that is the absolute truth without any shades of grey or white but of absolute unadulterated pure black is the true colour of life..
Santanu

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