Distance travelled: ~1400 kms
Pilgrims: Santhosh, Santhosh's uncle, Sudarshan, Mahesh, Venkat, Naveen and Vinay
Dates: Dec 6 and 7, 2009
You must've seen thousands of men in black robes, wearing beaded malas, sometimes sporting beards and walking around in your neighbourhood. Many of us recognize them as swamis preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Beyond this obvious knowledge, many people are not aware of the deeper intent and the sanctity associated with these black-robed men. I was one among the know-nots till recently. Not anymore. A pilgrimage to the holy hill-shrine at Sabarimala has changed my outlook and perception of Ayyappa devotees. Thanks to Santhosh and his uncle who made this journey possible for me.
Our pilgrimage to Sabarimala was a packed program with almost no slack time. During the trip we realized that we had grossly under-estimated the travelling time to and fro Sabarimala. The pre-estimated 13 hours of journey took a beating in both directions. Checkpost stoppages, deviations from the actual path and the tyre replacement/puncture contributed in no less measure to these delays.
First Stop: Dec 6, 2009: Ayyappa Swamy temple at VV Puram at 5 am.
The Guruswami (a very senior Ayyappa devotee who has the authority to tie the mala and place the sacred Irumudi (see: http://www.sabarimala.org/irumudi.htm
for more info on the sacred Irumudi) on Sabarimala pilgrims. The priest at the temple smeared the sandalwood paste and bhasma on our forehead and body and prepared us for the journey by asking us to go around the sanctum sanctorum of the Ayyapa temple which had a replica of the 18 steps we would be climbing at Sabarimala.
From there we left for Sabarimala at 6 am, and on the way had a few scheduled stops for breakfast, lunch and tea, but also had to endure some unscheduled stoppages at Tamil Nadu and Kerala border checkposts. Despite a shortened route via Salem, Dindigul and Theni, the additional stoppages delayed our reaching time by at least two hours, in effect throwing our plan to have darshan the same night out of gear.
Second Stop: Dec 6, 2009, Pampa (Sabarimala) at 9 pm. We had a quick bite at a nearby hotel to gather energy for our tough 8 km climb up the Sabarimala hill. It was already 10 pm by the time we took the first step on the hill. The climb was a great experience. The first 3 kms of the climb is the most challenging. The hill is steep at this first phase, with steps that have rough edges. At many places steps are non-existant and we had to climb uphill without much support. However, devotees who have been visiting Sabarimala for many years now (like Santhosh's uncle) feel that the climb is much simpler now in comparison with yesteryears when there were virtually no steps.
Climbing this hill is a challenge not just because it has no proper steps, but because the devotees walk barefoot and carry the sacred irumudi on their heads. With this combination of factors (that subject the body to both compression and indentation pressures) and the profuse sweating (even in the December winter), the hill climbing becomes an unforgettable adventure for all devotees. The experience is to be seen and felt to be believed.
Third Stop: Dec 7, 2009, Sabarimala hilltop at 1.00 am.
We could not go for Darshan at this hour as the temple was closed. The Temple closes here in the night between 11 pm and 4 am. So, we decided to climb the 18 steps of the temple first, a privilege accorded only to the devotees who carry the sacred irumudi. And so, Santhosh, his uncle, Sudarshan and I climbed up the steps. It was an experience of sheer joy.
Later, all of us stood in the darshan queue and tried to catch up with whatever little sleep we could. By the time we approached the 4 am darshan time, the crowd swelled from all sides leading to a lot of jostling and commotion. It was almost 5.30 am by the time we had the darshan of Sri Ayyappa Swami. We could only get a passing glimpse of the Lord as the crowd was too much and the temnple guards were at their pulling best, pushing the devotees by grabbing onto whatever they could lay their hands on. Sri Ayyappa Swamy deity is a small 1.5 feet deity made of panchaloha. The face of the lord is supposedly a great sight to watch (we could see it in the innumerable photographs that were on display at the shops around the temple). We were all happy to have had the darshan of the Lord, albeit a passing glimpse.
After the darshan we performed the mandatory steps of breaking the coconuts contained in the sacred irumudi at pre-designated spots and emptied the ghee and different varieties of cereals and dry fruits that we carried in the irumudi. We had to go through one more long queue to get our temple prasadam ('Aravana prasadam').
Immediately after collecting our prasadam, we started our downhill climb. To our surprise, the downhill proved more difficult than the uphill. While the legs tried hard to hold the body back against gravity, the soft underfoot had to absorb the pricking of the protruding sharp stones on the steps. We reached the foothill in about 2 hrs. It was definitely a glorious experience. Unlike some other hill pilgrim centres in India (like Trirupati), there are no alternate ways to reach atop the Sabarimala hill than walking. This is what makes this pilgrimage so special and different.
We must've been one among the 3-4 lakh devotees who had visited Sabarimala that day. By Dec 26, which is the day of Mandala pooja, the number of devotees would be a few tens of lakhs. What makes devotees throng to this temple in such large numbers? The reasons are self evident:
1. Unlike some of the other Hindu temples, there is no caste/creed discrimination at Sabarimala
2. Sabarimala receives devotees from all economic strata of the society, providing a common ground for all people to pray the Lord
3. The fundamental principles governing the Sabarimala pilgrimage are all noble. People have to follow a strict diet, need to walk barefeet, sleep on hard floor and stay away from the attractions of meat, smoking and other carnal pleasures. This is a great opprtunity for people to exercise self-control and be righteous.
4. The prayers, bhajans and slogans that devotees chant are in the local languages that are simple and easy to learn and assimilate, unlike other Hindu prayers in Sanskrit that make it difficult for people to identify themselves with them.
There are some small aberrations like not allowing women between the ages of 10 and 60 to visit the temple, but in the overall analysis it is a great destination that integrates people from all across the country irrespective of caste creed and religion.
Last stop: Dec 8, 2009, Bangalore, early morning.
After a great pilgrimage we came back to Bangalore late on Moday night (Tuesday morning) at 1 .30 am, with about 2-3 hours of delay necessitated by a tyre puncture on the highway in the middle of nowhere.
Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa!
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Trip: South Canara
Major Places visited: Kukke Subramanya, Dharmasthala, Udupi and Horanadu
Other Places visited: Ujire, Karkala, Pajaka, Kunjaragiri
Dates: Oct 1, 2009 to Oct 4, 2009
Who travelled: 8 members--My family, parents, sister-in-law and her kids
Mode of transport: Toyota Qualis- 9 seater
Number of kms covered: 1113
Kukke Subramanya: Took the weather beaten Magadi-Kunigal-CR Patna-Hasan-Sakleshpura-Subramanya route on Oct 1, 2009. The road is good till Hassan and reasonably good till Sakaleshpur. After that there is practically no road till Gundya on the Mangalore highway for about 25-30 kms. From Gundya to Subramnya (about 25 kms) is again a breeze. The driver dared the road and the weather and took us to Subramanya without any trouble. We reached the temple in the nick of the time at 7.50pm. Had a good darshan of Subramanya and Samputa Narasimha. Met the Swamiji of Sri Subramanya Mutt and had dinner at the Mutt before proceeding towards Dharmasthala the same night.
Practical tips: Take the Sakaleshpur road to Subramanya only if you have a skillful driver. The incentive, shorter travel distance. Reach the temple not later than 7 pm to have a peaceful darshan (closing time of temple 8 pm, extendible upto 8.15~8.30 pm depending on the crowd). Call Sri Subramanya Mutt well in advance if you intend to have meals at the Mutt (incidentally the Mutt food is good).
Dharmasthala: Left Subramanya at 9 pm, and reached Dharmasthala at 11.45 pm via Mangalore highway. Thankfuly I had booked rooms on the phone at Saketh guest house run by Sri Veerendra Heggade. We got two rooms with comfortable accommodation for 8. The rooms were clean and tidy and had access to hot water in the morning. We had a comfortable stay in Dharmasthala that night. The next morning (Oct 2, 2009), we went to the temple by 9 am. Parimala, Akanksha and I had darshan by 10 am, whereas the others completed the darshan by 9.15 am itself, courtesy a special free entrance. Had breakfast outside and visited the newly constructed Sri Ram temple at Ujire, before proceeding towards Udupi.
Practical tips: Book an accommodation for your stay at Dharmasthala by phone. Phone numbers are available on the Dharmsthala Website. There are 100s of rooms at Dharmasthala that are well-maintained and it is better to book it in advance as there would be rush for rooms always (room rent just Rs. 50 per day). The rooms can be claimed anytime in the day or night (24 hour reception available). For darshan, do take advantage of the special entrance right in front of the temple, where disabled (with an escort), old, women and children are allowed. However, the right of entry is dependent on the mood of the gatekeeper there. Men are usually not allowed in this entrance as I experienced. Parimala sacrificed her special privilege to come with me for Dharma darshan. It took us 1 hr for this darshan, but was good.
On the way to Udupi: Ujire Ram temple that is about 5-6 kms from Dharmasthala is a marvellous temple constructed very recently. Don't miss this temple if you are going to Dharmasthala. We also visited Karkala on our way to Udupi. There is a very old temple of Venkataramana Swamy and also a Anjaneya swamy temple here. We missed the Karkala Gommateshwara situated on top of a hill, but we heard that it is a place worth seeing.
Udupi: Reached Udupi by 5 pm braving torrential rains all along from Dharmasthala. But it was a memorable experience. Had a darshan of Lord Krishna immediately as there was no rush due to rains. We witnessed the special puja conducted by Sri. Puttige Mutt seer seeking the Lord's blessings for those affected by the floods in North Karnataka and AP. We decided not to proceed any further and stay on at Udupi that day. Got rooms at the Puttige Mutt guest house (Indraprastha guest house). Had dinner at Srikrishna Mutt and retired for the day. Had darshan again the next morning (Oct 3, 2009) and left Udupi by 10.
Practical tips: Udupi doesn't have too many good places to stay and the temple trust doesn't have its own guest rooms. So, you need to make stay arrangements either on your own or through one of the Ashta Mutt accommodations, which are inexpensive and reasonably good.
Near Udupi: Visited two places around Udupi. The first one is Sri Balarama temple at Malpe. This is supposed to have been built at the same time as the Srikrishna temple at Udupi. My father says that the Udupi trip is incomplete if you don't visit this temple.
Next one is Pajaka, the birthplace of Sri Madhwacharya. This is a realy good place. Do visit if you are a Dwaita follower as you can see Sri Madhwacharya's childhood house, the place where he started his Akasharabhyasa, the place where he exchanged cattle for tamarind seeds and the actual stone slabs he lifted to place on milk and curd pots to prevent it from being stolen by thieves. There is also a Durga Parameswari temple atop Kunjaragiri, which is a nice place to visit.
Horanadu: Reached Horanadu at 5 pm via the splendorous Kudremukh national park. The sights and sounds at Kudremukh were simply breath-taking. It is worthwhile to visit this place exclusively and I have decided to do so sooner than later. Horanadu is across a wide river stream and the temple is marvellously structured. The best part about Horanadu temple is its diety (Sri Annapoorneswari) which is big and beautiful. The devotees are allowed to have darshan from about 10-15mts from the diety which makes it a very memorable experience.
Practical tips: Reach Horanadu from Udupi by taking the Sringeri route and take a deviation at a place called BajeGoli. From hereon you have to drive across the Kudremukh national park to reach Horanadu via Kalasa. Don't ever miss the Kudremukh national park and ensure that you take a fully loaded camera. On the way back from Horanadu, don't take the Kalasa route. Take a road that leads to Balehonnur, which is about 40 kms from Horanaadu. From there you can take the Chikmagalur-Hasan-CR Patna road to reach Bangalore.
Reaching Bangalore: We left Horanadu at 7 pm and with the road conditions being bad, reached home only by 5 am the next morning.
Hope you enjoyed this experience. Check out the pictures at: http://picasaweb.google.com/vinaybabu/DakshinaKannada#
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Background: Tirumala/Tirupati is an annual pilgrimage point for our family. Going to Tirupati has always been a happy experience for us and we have always had good darshan irrespective of time and context. One of the best ways to have good darshan and accommodation at Tirumala is to book the tickets at the Bangalore TTD office. Booking at Bangalore TTD office is simple. Everyday, an availability status list of darshan and accommodation tickets is published on the TTD notice board. If you plan well in advance (I suggest at least 2-3 months in advance), you can book the tickets and have a happy darshan. But the catch is that every pilgrim has to be physically present for fingerprinting and photography for before booking.
As we wanted to go to Tirupati at short notice and the availability status extended all the way upto September, we dropped the idea of booking tickets here and decided to go ahead with our plan of visiting Tirupati/Tirumala on July 12 as originally planned, despite no arrangements for stay and tickets. This is what made this trip a big adventure for all of us.
We also decided to go by our own cars (my brother's and mine). This decision was prompted by two factors--1) the high permit fees that taxis have to pay at the Andhra border checkpost (Rs. 2500 for cars and Rs. 3700 for TT) and 2) the fact that all my friends (that my wife knew of) had gone on long trips at about the same time (Santhosh had travelled to Chennai in his Santro, Naveen to coastal Karnataka in his Wagon R and Wagesh to Harihara in his Santro). The second reason was driven home strongly by me which broke the ice with my wife. The other factor that made Parimala give a go ahead for this trip was the fact that she could also drive and share the burden of driving the car with me on this long journey. We initially wanted to just go to Tirupati and come back. But the visit took us to some other interesting places as well. Let's begin the journey!
July 12, 2009, Sunday: We left home in the morning. Despite not being 100% well (due to fever and cough on the previous 2 days), I decided to proceed with the trip, as driving was a great incentive for me. It always happens with Tirupati trips--keep the first step and the Almighty takes care of the rest. Both my brother and I started off at 12.30 pm from Chamrajpet and decided to have our first stop only at Mulbagal Sripadaraj Mutt for lunch(http://www.sripadarajamutt.org/).
We reached Mulbagal at exactly 2.30 pm, but couldn't have our packed lunch there due to the rush at the Mutt on account of a special event that day. My father suggested that we go ahead and find some other place where there is some shade and water and we found such a place within 2-3 kms from Mulbagal. We emptied our supply of BBB and Mosaranna there and started again at 4.00 pm. From here Parimala took over and drove for about 120 kms till Chittoor. Since it was getting dark, she gave the steering back to me at that point. From there on, we went non-stop to Tirupati and reached there at 7.30 pm.
The real adventure started here. When we called up the guy who was supposed to provide us darshan tickets, we realized that he had not made any arrangements for us and told us that it was risky to go to Tirumala (top of the hill) as there was too much rush there. When we enquired at Udupi Mutt where we had hoped to stay, we came to know that they had no rooms. This was a twin-blow for us.
All of us started working numbers on our mobiles to our own contacts trying to see how to get both accommodation and darshan. We cursed our fate and ourselves for not having made proper arrangements before leaving for Tirupati. Parimala called one of her relatives who is a manager in Vijaya Bank in Tirupati and tried to see if we could get darshan tickets. In the meanwhile my brother along with my father and kids went atop the hill to look for a suitable accommodation as we didn't know where to spend the night. On my part, I dialled Archana to find out if she could help us in getting darshan tickets. I remembered her saying that she knew someone in TTD who could get us darshan by paying some extra amount to the ticket collector. Fortunately, Archana could help us by arranging for VIP darshan at 5.30 am in the morning. While the payment part was not a worry, my tension was more about whether this guy would really do the job for us. Nevertheless, we decided that we would try out one of the two options -- through Parimala's relative or through Archana's contact.
After getting some confirmation on the darshan, we started looking out for an accommodation at Tirupati, while my father and brother were looking out for a place at the top of the hill. We went to ISKCON at Tirupati, as both my sister and I are life patrons of ISKCON and we are supposed to get accommodation at ISKCON guest houses anywhere in India and around the World. To our utter disappointment, ISKCON refused accommodation and the ISKCON in-charge there refused to even talk to us. My regard for ISKCON has come down to a large extent with this experience, but I will talk about that later in some other blog :).
On top of the hill, my father had booked 2 rooms at Shankara Mutt. But that was still not sufficient for the 10 of us. Fortunately (thanks to Santhosh) we got a place to sleep in the Vaikhanasa Ashram along with 50 other people in a big hall. But that was still a luxury for us as we wanted to catch up with at least some sleep before we went out for darshan the next day. My brother and I decided to sleep at the Ashram while the rest of our families slept at the Shankara Mutt. It was 1 am in the mid-night when we slept.
July 13, 2009: Got up at 4 am and both my brother and I went to the Mutt and woke up all others. It was one herculean task to get everyone ready by 5.15 am. I ran before everyone else to the designated spot (Vaikuntam Q Complex) at 5.30 am where I had to meet this person who would allow us darshan. I waited there for 5 minutes with a lot of doubt in my mind whether this would work out or not. When the guy didn't show up for 5-10 mins ( I didn't even know how he looked), I requested the guards at the VIP entrance to allow me to meet this person. Fortunately everyone there knew this ticket collector's name and allowed me in. I went in search of this guy and after 10-15 minutes I could spot the guy who was busy allowing people inside after checking their tickets. When I called his name and introduced myself, he immediately recognized me and asked me to bring in my entire gang. Phew! what a relief. I ran out immediately and saw everyone waiting for me at the entrance at 6 am. Our helpful ticket collector let us all in.
We went through the queue and in flat 45 minutes we were having the divya darshan of Lord Venkateshwara. This time I felt the darshan was really very good and I could see the 'foot' of the Lord and could also show it to Akanksha. This was probably due to less crowd and special podium provided at the darshan area and of course my natural height advantage!
All of us came out completely satisfied and highly pleased with how we were able to have darshan despite all the confusions and disappointments the previous night. We attribute this delightful experience only to the Lord's great blessings and nothing else. Of course we cannot forget the quick work Archana did to help us out of the tight situation. Surprisingly the area around the sanctum sanctorum was crowd-free and we had darshan of Vimana Venkateshwara and then sat around for sometime before proceeding towards the free Prasada.
Later, my brother and I went to the ticket collector to thank him for his help. Ten of us (7adults and 3 kids) had a good darshan because of this person and we were filled with gratitude. I went in to collect the bag and there he was waiting with 10 laddus reserved for us. He looked like a messenger of the God to me. Despite a little extra money spent, we had a great experience and this was thanks to Lord himself who helped us in the guise of the ticket collector. We then vacated the rooms at 8 am and went to Mayura hotel and had breakfast. My father then suggested that we would go to Kalahasti and then to Vellore to see the Golden temple.
As decided, we went to Kalahasti first, which is 40 kms from Tirupati. We spent the next 3 hours there, stuck in a free darshan queue (http://www.srikalahasti.org/).
We then rued our decision not to have taken a special darshan ticket which would've saved us at least 2 hours. We left Kalahasti towards Vellore at 1 pm and on the way had lunch at an APTDC restaurant. From there Parimala took over and drove all the way to Sripuram, which is a little more than 100kms from Kalahasti.
Sripuram is 10 kms from Vellore and is a town by itself created in the name of Goddess Lakshmi. Sripuram is a massive effort with a grandiose temple and supporting infrastructure. The person behind this grand project is Shakti Amma who has created the fabulous spiritual centre. I will not explain Sripuram to you. Please check out this site (http://www.sripuram.org/) for more information. We also booked accommodation at the Guest House there as we had reached the place at 7 pm in the night and couldn't have started back to Bangalore the same day as Vellore is 220 kms from Bangalore. Moreover the darshan itself would take about 2 hours as all devotess have to walk 3 kms to reach the central golden temple.
The golden temple is a great sight to watch. The entire temple, including the walls and the pillars are in gold (unlike Tirumala temple which has only the Gopuram in gold). The entire temple is sorrounded by crystal clear water. You can see coins deep inside the clear water from the top. After 3 kms of walking to reach the main garbhagriha, the sight of Goddess Lakshmi is a sheer enchantment. The beautifully adorned Lakshmi is a great sight to behold.
The guest house at Sripuram was also amazing. For Rs. 500 a day, the air-conditioned rooms provide the best of facilities for the pilgrims complete with European style toilets, hot water geyzers and good cots and beds. After going to the guest house we came to know that the rooms cannot be booked on the spot and had to be booked in advance via a demand draft. We were fortunate to get the rooms, though.
July 14, 2009: After spending the night at Sripuram, we left at 10 am on Tuesday morning back to Bangalore. On the way, we had breakfast at Vellore and continued on the ultra smooth Bangalore-Chennai highway. When we reached Hosur, we decided to visit a site my father has purchased in the border of Anekal very close to the Pearl Valley. The place is actually in Tamil Nadu and both my father and uncle own a site each at the layout called Dharma Sankula. We visted this place and saw the developments made by the plot owners' association and started back home. On the way, we had snacks (khali dosa) at the famous Raghavendra Bhavan in Anekal.
We reached home at 9 pm that day after three great days of adventure, devotion and exhilaration. This trip will be etched in my memory for a long time to come for all the good things we did and all the the things we shouldn't do on a trip to Tirupati.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Huh! what a great feeling! I always wanted to have a blog, but didn't have the right opportunity nor the inclination to publish one. Now that I am just fresh out of the Great North-Eastern Trip (Thanks Naveen! for that title suggestion) I have enough to write and share through this blog.
Let me try and make this livelier by adding pictures and some links wherever I can. The idea is to not sound like 'this seems to have been written by an old man' (Santhosh, you recognize this all too well). Also, I don't want my first blog to be an academic exercise. So, let me try and make it short and informational for you guys. I'll try and give some practical tips wherever I can.
How did it happen
The great north eastern expedition didn't happen all of a sudden. BTW, before you guys (other than Naveen, Venkat and Santhosh), start thinking that this is some sort of great Siberian experience that I am going to narrate, let me tell you that the the great trip was to North-Eastern state of West Bengal covering Darjeeling and Kolkata and nothing beyond.
Coming back to where I left. The seeds of such a trip were sown after my wife Parimala and I completed trips to the metros of North, West and South India. We were waiting for an opportune time to go to the East of India. And there it came towards the end of May when I knew that I would be relatively free of my regular releases in the office. Before Santhosh jumps in and says gaseous elements, releases here are project releases I am responsible for at my office. I gave 1 month advance notice to Parimala to free herself of all her appointments for 8-10 days and that worked. She could plan out her patient schedules and convince her superiors about a week-off. And as far as my daughter Akanksha is concerned, she was raring to go, what with 2 months of holidays in her school KV that extended till June 22. And there we were, ready to go to the Eastern sojourn.
Our plan was to go to Kolkata by flight, take a train to New Jalpaiguri and from there take a toy train to the top of the Darjeeling Hills. And on the way back, visit Gangtok and return back to Jalpaiguri before reaching back Kolkata.
Our trip started off exactly as planned. We left on May 24 2009 from Bangalore. Before we took the flight, I had to endure a scare. I was carrying a backpack that had some food items and few other things that Parimala had added. I happily sent it through the security check, but when the bag didn't come out in the normal queue I asked the security guy and found that the bag had been kept separately. When asked why, I was told that the bag had more than 100 ml of liquid items. It was only then that I discovered that the bag contained Parimala's cosmetics that amounted to more than 100 ml of liquid. Due to this I had to go through the checkin procedure again that consumed 20 more minutes and also almost made me lose my new mobile phone. After checkin in I had to send the mobile phone alone into the security scanner and didn't remember to pick it up again as I proceeded towards boarding. Just before getting onto the aircraft I remembered the missing phone. Thankfully the alert Spicejet ground staff recovered the phone for me from the security check. Phew!!
Practical Tip 1: Don't carry more than 100 ml in hand baggage (not even water). Remember to pick up your phone, watch and laptop that are separately scanned before moving on to boarding the plane.
Kolkata - first pass
We reached Kolkata at 12.30 pm after 2.5 hrs of flight journey. We didn't want to waste anytime before the 7.30 pm Kanchenkanya Express to New Jalpaiguri. So, we went to the 'Science City' at Kolkata. To our good fortune Kolkata was not so unpleasant as we had expected, with some welcome rains. We had heard stories of how Kolkata would be sweltering in the month of May and were dreading the experience. But it was good to see some rains and cooling. What we didn't realize though was that these rains were the precursor to a brewing cyclone in the Bay of Bengal.
Science City is a fabulous place for children and adults alike. When you visit Calcutta never miss Science City as it is both educative as well as entertaining for all. We spent about 3 hours at the Science City and it was a memorable experience for us, even though we felt the time we reserved for this visit was very short.
Practical Tip 2: Reserve one full-day (if you can afford it) for Science City. There are lots of educative things for children and to learn and immerse yourself in experiments and other events you need a full day. Don't miss Evolution Park, Space Theatre, 3D Theatre, Mirror Magic, Van De Graff generator (hair raising experience, see pic) and the rope way ride. Remember that different parts of the Science City have different entry fees. But the fees you pay is worth it. One more thing, take the ropeway ride towards the end of your Science City visit, as the rope way drops you almost at the edge of the Park from where you can go out easily. Also, don't visit Kolkata during May or any of the summer months. The best time visit Kolkata is Nov-Mar.
Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri
After the Science City visit, we rushed to the Sealdah railway station where we had also kept our luggage. The worrying part for us at the station was the non-confirmation of our berths. The previous day, the seats were in RAC and we were confident that we would get berths when the final list would be announced. As expected, we got confirmed berths, but the problem was Akanksha had got a seat away from the two of us. After some negotiations, we got her a seat next to us. The journey on this train was anxious for me, not because of the travel experience, but because of anxiety about the IPL final, where Bangalore was playing Hyderabad. I was in touch with Santhosh over SMS all through the match and used to get blow-by-blow account of the match progress. Unfortunately Bangalore lost the match, but I lived through the match every moment even though I was travelling on the train. On the train journey, there were other ominous signs as well. Rains were pouring outside throughout the night journey. We didn't quite understand why it was raining so heavily at this time of the year in West Bengal, without an inkling of Aila cyclone.
Practical Tip 3: Try and get a confirmed ticket if you are travelling on train to a place where train is the only mode of transport. If you cannot get a confirmation 5 days prior to your journey, go for Tatkal booking. Tatkal is now an easy option and by paying few bucks more, you are assured of confirmed berths. But, ensure that you book Tatkal 5 days prior to the journey as Tatkal seats are limited.
New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling
Once we reached New Jalpaiguri, we took an auto to the New Jalpaiguri bus stand, as we had heard that we could get sharing vans from there to Darjeeling. As far as toy train was concerned, which was one of the attractions of our trip, we had to drop the plan as people on our Kolkata-NJP train told us that it too slow and too time-consuming to travel on toy train and with rains, the experience could have been bad. In hindsight, skipping the toy train we thought was a wise decision as the Cyclone Aila almost completely halted the toy train due to massive landslides in Darjeeling on May 25 and 26. Instead of the toy train we hired a reserved Tata Sumo and had a deal with the driver to take us to Darjeeling via Mirik. This again was a wise decision, Darjeeling route via Mirik is a picturesque path dotted with tea gardens, lovely flowers and breathtaking hill-valley scenes. We agreed to pay Rs. 1800 for the Sumo trip to Darjeeling via Mirik that also included a visit to Mirik lake and the Nepal border where you get duty free imported items.
Practical Tip 4: Toy train to Darjeeling would be a great experience, but the long journey could bore you. If you want to experience the toy train, do travel on a shuttle train between Darjeeling and Ghum, that would provide the same experience at a lesser cost and lesser time. One more thing is that, in Darjeeling and nearby areas, reserved taxis are expensive, but it is good to hire them as you get to see places at your own pace, that you can never do on a shared taxi. Don't forget a visit to Pashupathinagar on the Darjeeling border where you get duty free cosmetics, woolen, fancy items, shoes and jackets. But don't buy electronic items as the Indian checkpost there could levy duties on them.
Darjeeling - Day 1
We reached Darjeeling at 5 pm in the evening on May 25 after the Mirik visit. We checked into the Pine-Ridge hotel and relaxed a bit, before we came out to look at the nearby shopping areas. We were excited to see a series of makeshift shops just in front of our hotel. We also discovered a pure vegetarian restaurant-Hasty Tasty on the same street as our Hotel.
Practical Tip 5: Darjeeling is a nice place to buy woolens, jackets, shawls, stolls and carpets. If you are a vegatarian, remember Hasty Tasty, which is a self-service restaurant that serves south Indian, north Indian and Chinese cuisine. In service restaurants, don't pay tips as Darjeeling Gorkhas don't accept tips. Even if you leave some change in the bill bowl, they'll chase you and return the change.
In almost every shop of Darjeeling, you see 'Jai Gorkhaland' slogans. Darjeeling inhabitants are demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland as they feel they are being discriminated by the West Bengal government, despite being highest revenue earner for the state through TTT (Santhosh, this is not that TTT :)) -- Tea, Toursim and Timber.
Darjeeling - Day 2 (Rain and more rain)
On May 26, when we woke up, we heard the roar of heavy rain outside. The intensity of rain was so high and the pouring was so intense that we understood that this was not a normal rain. As a confirmation, the hotel manager told us that due to the cyclone Aila hitting the Bay of Bengal, there were heavy rains all over West Bengal, killing people and destroying property worth crores in its wake. We were blissfully unaware of this as our mobile phones were not working, there was no power due to rains in Darjeeling and we had not seen newspapers for the last 2 days. At about 10 am, that day Parimala's phone started working and that is when we realised the intensity of the cyclone attack. My parents were worried and were trying all options to reach me. Parimala's brother was continuously trying to reach us. Since national TV news carried footage of Aila's destruction, everyone was worried. We called home and spoke to everyone immediately and assured them that we were inside the hotel and not caught in rains. It was definitely a scare and we were happy we didn't get caught in the cyclone and also could comfort our folks back home. That whole day, we were indoors, except for the occassional visit to the nearby shop to buy Akanksha and myself rain jackets.
Darjeeling - Day 3 (Sunny Day)
When we opened our eyes at 5 am alarm on May 27, we were surprised to see bright sunlight outside. We knew that the worst was over. But, we didn't know that the destruction caused by one full day of rains would make moving out almost impossible. There were massive landslides in Darjeeling that had killed many people and rendered thousands homeless. It had also blocked all roads to the scenic sight-seeing places in Darjeeling. Despite that we hired a taxi to go around the town and see whatever we could as we had lost a lot of time to rains. Fortunately for us we could see the Dali Monastery, Ava Art Museum, the Wildlife Museum, the Zoo, the mountaineering institute and the botanical gardens. We were happy that we could see something in Darjeeling that day. The Zoo is a good place to visit and the best part of our zoo visit was that we could take snaps of Akanksha wearing Nepali dress.
Practical Tip 6: When you hire a taxi, ensure that you know exectly how many sight-seeing points that the taxi guy would show you and what they are. Ask him the total distance he would be covering. Based on this decide on the taxi hire charges. Even though you end up paying Rs. 1000 and more you will exactly know what you will be seeing. Inside the zoo, there is a nice souvenir shop that sells fancy boxes, caps and bags. They are cheap and good. Also, don't forget to buy a picture book of Darjeeling that also has tourist information available at this souvenir shop.
Darjeeling - Day 4 (Tiger Hill)
We had to drop our plans of going to Gangtok due to road blockages caused by the landslides. We lost money on our hotel booking at Gangtok, but that gave us one extra day at Darjeeling. Thankfully we made the best use of this opportunity to visit the famous Tiger Hill, from where you could watch the Sun rise and also witness the sunrays falling on Kanchenjunga (the second highest peak in the World after Mount Everest). On May 28 at 3 am in the morning, we were woken up by the hotel staff to go on our Tiger Hill trip. We left the hotel at 4 am. And to our surprise there was already bright light outside. We reached the hill top at 4.45 am and ran to the visitors' lounge to witness the Sunrise. At 5.15 am we saw the Sun rise in all its glory. That was a great and memorable moment for us. Eventhough we couldn't see the Sunrays falling on Kanchenjunga, the Sunrise experience was good for us. We then wound up our Tiger Hill trip by visiting Batasia loop from where you can see a 360 deg loop of the toy train track and also a binocular view of the great Kanchenjunga.
Practical Tip 7: Ensure that you leave for the Tiger Hill as early as possible and occupy front seats of the lounge atop the Hill from where you can see the Sunrise and Kanchenjunga. Choose the Rs. 30 level of the lounge for a good view, eventhough the Rs. 40 level is supposed to give you an even better view of the mountains. Don't forget to eat hot bajjis at the Batasia loop on the way back to Darjeeling from the Tiger Hill. It is a perfect combination in the early morning chill along with hot tea.
Practical Tip 8: Don't plan your trip to North-East for just one week. Let it be for two weeks at least. Don't pack too many places in your itinerary in the space of a few days. Reserve at least 3 days each for Darjeeling and Gangtok. Apart from that you can also visit Kalimpong, Kurseong, Ghum and Mirik to see the scenic beauty and tea gardens.
Darjeeling to Siliguri
After a successful Tiger Hill visit, we left Darjeeling at about 2 pm in a shared taxi. We couldn't get a shared taxi to New Jalpaiguri, but instead we went to Siliguri from where we could get an auto to New Jalpaiguri. The journey from Darjeeling down to Siliguri is even better than the views in Darjeeling. You will savor every moment of this journey. We reached Siliguri at 5 pm and from there we took a shared 'Patpati' to New Jalpaiguri.
Practical Tip 9: Siliguri is a big town and is at the foothill of Darjeeling. Eventhough Siliguri is in the plains and is much larger than Darjeeling, the entire district including Siliguri and Darjeeling town is called as the Darjeeling District. However, New Jalpaiguri is in a different district--Jalpaiguri district. Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri are at the same distance from Darjeeling hills. But there are more taxis to Siliguri than to New Jalpaiguri. Yet, you need to go to New Jalpaiguri to catch long-distance trains. The reason for this is that New Jalpaiguri has broad-gauge tracks while Siliguri is still in the narrow-gauge era. It is best for you take a shared taxi to Siliguri from Darjeeling. From Siliguri, New Jalpaiguri is only Rs. 5 per head in shared auto and the autiwallahs don't cheat you.
Kolkata - second pass
We took the Darjeeling Mail from New Jalpaiguri to Kolkata and reached Kolkata on May 29 morning. We checked into the Hotel on VIP Road, had a small fight with the hotel staff as they refused to give us a room before the check-in time. From there we took a reseved taxi for sight seeing in Kolkata. Surprisingly the taxi charges (Tata Sumo)for a full day in Kolkata was just Rs. 1000 for 10 hours, excluding the parking charges. We saw the Belur Math, Dakshineswar Kali Temple, New Market, Indian Museum, Victoria Memorial, Kali Ghat before reaching Gariahat, the shopping hub of Kolkata. Gariahat is a good place for shopping sarees and leather items.
On May 30, we visited Gariahat again as Parimala wanted to buy more sarees and bags/leather items. On the way back to the hotel, we took the famous Metro and it was a great experience. With this good experience, in Metro we can't wait to see our namma Metro in a few years.
Practical Tip 10: Kolkata is a cost-effective place. You see all items cheap here and I thought Rs. 1000 for 10 hours in a Sumo was a good indicator of the prices here. The best part about shopping in Kolkata is that no hawker wants to lose a customer. This is a phenomenal attitude of customer oreintation. Even at the cost of only earing a few 10s of rupees, shopkeepers are ready to sell their goods. They don't want to lose a customer due to price alone. However, bargaining is rampant. You will never know the price of the goods. A safe bet is to quote a price that is 50% of the price told by the shop-keeper, especially for bags and leather goods. For sarees, a 50% cut may not be possible. So, a 40% bargaining for any saree more than Rs. 500 is a good one. Since bargaining is prevalent, sometime you also lose money. So, it is always good to talk to a few shopkeepers before deciding on your items.
Gariahat is a good place to shop for all sarees and leather goods. Bada Bazaar is also a good place for shopping, but it is a wholesale market. New Market as the name suggests is new and has several malls. Here you get goods at the same price as anywhere else in India. The NewMarket-Dharamtala area is a place where you have good restaurants.
Back to Bangalore
After the Kolkata visit, we took the flight back to Bangalore via Air India flight. We were thrilled to get meals on board as the same was not given on the Specejet flight. On landing in Bangalore, we could feel a fresh whiff of pleasant air. The Bengaluru international airport (BIAL) is a great marvel and this is all too evident when you come back from Kolkata. The airport is well organized and the sign-boards don't leave you with any doubt of how to navigate yourself out. On the periphery of the airport complex, just before you exit you see the counters of authorized taxis, rent-a-car and Golden Chariot train. You can make your choice and go ahead. Just outside the exit, you also see the BMTC Volvo bus stand. Journey from airport to the city is a breeze with so many options at your disposal.
Practical Tip 11: The authorized taxis from the BIAL are the Meru, EasyCabs and KSTDC. We took Meru on the way to the Airport and EasyCabs on the way back home. These taxi services are really good even though they are expensive. These cars are airconditioned and have meters fixed. At the end of the trip you get a receipt that indicates the distance, price per kilometer (Rs. 15) and the the total charges. Quite a transparent system.
With that we ended our great North-Eastern expedition. Hope you enjoyed reading (not tired!) this as much as I enjoyed narrating it (ouch, my fingers are aching after a couple of hours of typing!).
Check out the tour pics at: http://picasaweb.google.co.in/lh/sredir?uname=vinaybabu&target=ALBUM&id=5342605751299748769&authkey=Gv1sRgCKzZ9LXnjPCAugE&invite=CNCPg78H&feat=email