Summer in Shimla

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When we visited Shimla, we did so with the optimistic and desperate hope of escaping the intense summer which was unleashing its wrath on the whole country. But when we arrived, I realized that Indian summer is an affliction few can be spared of; scorching even our beloved hills. The drive from Patiala to Shimla was hardly the breezy affair we expected it to be and we entered the hill station glistening with sweat.  The air was far from crisp as the sun danced openly on the compact, tapering streets. The throng of tourists strolled languidly with a slightly palpable disappointment of having to abandon their sweaters. The charming little cottages, neatly arranged into pyramids appeared as if they were simmering away in the juices of the hills they were perched atop.

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But the hills turned out to be nothing short of a consummate showman and every bit of a charmer. Whenever I visit Himachal Pradesh, on more occasions that one, I find myself thinking about Ruskin Bond. It was through his eyes that I took my first trip to the hills and truly appreciated nature. No matter when I read his works, it almost sickens me with an inexplicable longing and grips me with a raging urge to rush to the mountains and simply gaze at them. This time too, I could not take my eyes off of the magnificent hills before me which were awash in golden hues. Mountains have a strange quality to them; they are as much a symbol of might as they are purveyors of beauty – a perfect blend of menace and magic cloaked in enigma. Once you have seen them, you are forever in the grip of their echos. Their sight never leaves you, haunts you in the most enthralling of fashion. They hold the sweet comfort that everything is pure; the very epitome of clarity.

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Shimla is a busy tourist spot, especially during summer when people from all over India come here seeking an escape; an escape from their routines, an escape from the heat, an escape from the world in general. The whole town crawls with humanity; eating ice cream or steaming momos, taking pictures, shopping for nick knacks or just taking in the sights. Despite the constant deluge, Shimla manages to retain its quaintness and continues to be a window into a simpler, unhurried pace of life.

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This church is located on a slope in the heart of the town. Colloquially called as the Shimla Church, it was built by the British in 1857, when Shimla served as the summer getaway of British officials. It has survived many upheavals and still stands and elegantly watches over the bustle of visitors as they lose themselves to the trance of the hills.

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Himachal Pradesh is one of those enchanting states where arriving at a destination seems inconsequential. One can just drive along the hypnotic, curvaceous roads for weeks and be thoroughly content. It has the majestic Himalayas to boast of but what is most striking is its mystical aura of utter simplicity. The hills are unflinchingly seductive, be it in their endless allure or their promise of tranquility. Most of all, they seduce with their silent vow to never leave your memory, to come to you whenever you need a balmy reminder that there is beauty in this world.

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Poovar – Of Mangrove Trees and Hidden Surprises

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Quaint little towns dotted with eccentric houses, sleepy fishing villages gently swaying in the tropical breeze, serpentine backwaters with towering coconut trees, lush mountains peppered with tea gardens and fragrant spices wafting all over; the majestic state of Kerala is the closest I have come to experiencing paradise. For obvious reasons, Kerala is one of the most talked about holiday destinations and internet is swamped with countless pictures of every popular spot in the state. While I was planning my trip to Kerala, I was a little worried that this information overload would scrape off a bit of sheen from my experience. However, when I landed in the rain-kissed, lush green Cochin, I realized that my virtual tour was no match for the sight before me at that moment. Needless to say, my stay in Kerala was serene and picturesque as expected. However, I happened to stumble upon a gem of a place which was not on our itinerary and it convinced me that this state has magic in every nook and every corner.

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My family and I were returning to Trivandrum from an early morning trip to Kanyakumari and Suchindaram temple and were tired and drowsy. Our driver stopped at a fishing village near Kovalam and told us that our trip would not be complete without visiting it. Fresh from our excursions to Munnar and Alleypey, I was unsure about what more this little village called Poovar could offer and thus thought that we could give this is a miss. But my father had different ideas. Having lived in Kerala for a number of years, he has a sentimental attachment to this place and is well aware of its ability to spring unexpected but very pleasant surprises. We agreed to take a boat ride on the backwaters and could not believe our eyes, thus adding one more item in the long list of things I should thank my dad for.

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I felt like someone had taken notice of my wish to visit a Marquezian village and had transported me there. As our boat powered towards the gateway to the estuary, my jaws dropped as we saw mangrove tress flanking the narrow strip of water. Time seemed to have stood still and everything else was forgotten. We sat back and sighed happily as we sailed across the marshy, muddy water and took in the chirping of tropical birds. Every now and then, we would spot a kingfisher or a crane. We passed a few fishermen spreading their fishing nets in the water. As our boat tore through the humid, sultry air, a beach with golden sand appeared before us. I was enthralled as the spirited waves crashed against its pristine, golden shores went back to meet the sea. A few feet away from the beach, stood a rock with an underground church and on the banks, were a few floating restaurants and cottages. We spent around ten minutes sailing around the beach and then the boat turned to return where we had started. It was time again to return to the swampy marshes and muddy water reflecting the shadows of mangrove trees hovering above. For a moment, I felt as if I were in the swamps of Amazon and an alligator would leap out of the murky water. We spent around an hour and a half on the backwaters and with a heavy heart alighted the boat.

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Travelling is not merely checking off exotic places from a list. Travelling is meant to surprise, to astonish, to stir one’s senses. It is a profound way to teach us that the the world is vast and it’s treasures are limitless, much greater than one person and their ambitions and problems. As I was returning from the lake, my philosophical side kicked in. I reflected about how unpredictable life is. I was expecting a quiet ride back and one turn was all it took for me to gather a memory I would treasure all my life. And also, dads are always right!

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Banaras – Land of Truth and Salvation

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Banaras – the city is ancient in the most profound sense of the word. Time is the greatest foe of civilization; it wields a megalomaniac influence. It is the one true hallmark of strength, of endurance, of relevance. History is witness to countless lives, to innumerable cities buried under the harsh tides of time. And yet, stands a city which is unfazed by this cruel dimension. It seems like this city precedes time; it has never daunted this extraordinary city. Instead, time has stood as a sentinel to Banaras, gently bowing its head to generations after generations of humanity that has passed through its gates. It is not difficult to infer the tremendous value family name holds here. Older the family, greater is the respect accorded. Understandably so, after all they are accomplices in nature’s greatest feat – conquering time.

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Banaras wears many hats. Not only is it one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities, it is believed to be created by the Gods themselves. With the holy Ganges gracing the city, the mystical aura surrounding it draws millions of travelers in search of divinity and salvation. I have always struggled with religion and still don’t fully grasp the purpose of it. I get baffled by the ease with which people around me have taken to religion and God while I grapple with the most basic principles. Thus, when I was planning the trip to Banaras, I did not expect it to be a sacred experience. But I was counting on it to provide me with some perspective on religion, to give me a spiritual context which I could build upon. 

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My first reflection of Banaras was that it was unbearably hot and delightfully chaotic. One has to tear through a sea of humanity and an army of cattle to discover the serene quality Banaras is famous for. This did not come as a surprise to me because I know that like the rest of India, madness can seamlessly coexists with the mystical here. We made our way to the famed ghats and as I descended the ancient stairs to make our way to the river, I could not sense an air of divinity right away. It was business as usual as we haggled with a boat owner to take us on a ride along the holy river. As I sat on the boat, I wondered if this was underwhelming for the rest of the visitors as well or was I just not spiritually qualified enough to appreciate the beauty of the ghats. But as we rowed along the river and I looked around, I realized that the entire circle of life was unfolding right before my eyes. I could see children learning to swim, people making a living, some sadhus meditating, worshipers taking a dip in the river, newlyweds seeking blessings and dead bodies being cremated; all in a single panorama. What a complex, profound sight it was; people going about the business of life and death with an equal degree of diligence and sense of duty.

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Hindus believe that being cremated in Banaras brings salvation and sends them straight to heaven. Many come to die here, it consummates their lives. Out of the 85 ghats, two of them are dedicated exclusively to cremating dead bodies. Cremation is a lucrative business run by some of the oldest families, responsible for providing livelihood to thousands. This is the most striking aspect of the ghats; in a way it honors the starkest, deepest meaning of life – death. Even death is a ritual laden affair executed with a businesslike stoicism. One slip in the ritual and the path to heaven may close. Hundreds of pyres burn along side each other, difficult to distinguish one body from another. What is the point anyway, they are all going to the same destination.

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All the hustle and bustle at the ghats culminates at dusk in the grand Ganga Arti where six priests offer their prayers to the Ganga, the giver of life. This is a sight to behold; a beautiful contrast is created with heavily lit lamps against the background of the darkening sky and the resting river. For about an hour, the air is charged with the sounds of conch shells, bells and chants as thousands of people gather to witness this spectacle. The arti is a classically Indian affair, a perfect blend of spirituality and splendor. The atmosphere is a melange of deafening noise and dignified prayers and falls into silence after it is over. The devotees then bid adieu to the river for the day, leaving her in the presence of the faint smoke of incense sticks and gradually dimming lights.

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 Mark Twain said that Banaras is older than history, time and legend put together. This land has fascinated many; from scholars to commoners, from saints to sinner. It promises to hold the answers we all seek, the secrets to the truth of life. Many people wander around in the city, scouring its dusty, time honored alley for divine wisdom and spiritual illumination. I did not have the good fortune to spend more than a day here and am hardly an authority on the limitless wisdom the city holds. But I am happy to say that it brought me a small step closer to appreciating the greatest creation of all – life.

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Nepal Quake

Nature is the greatest equalizer. Every accomplishment, every virtue, every vice becomes inconsequential when it strikes. All that is left are hapless men and women, scampering to protect themselves from the cruelty they did not know was simmering underneath their feet. No one deserves to watch their city reduce to ruins. No one should have to dig up their family from the rubble that was once their home. It is the most terrifying thought, isn’t it? Someone going by his day as usual, acutely unaware of the fact that his life’s work will be gathering dust in the next few minutes. How does one overcome this kind of utter, thorough loss?

Our neighbor, Nepal fell prey to a horrible destiny last week and I am still grappling with the magnitude of devastation in that beautiful country.India is no stranger to natural disasters by any means. She has endured her fair share of loss of humanity. But there is something about this earthquake that refuses to leave my thoughts. A few hours after the news of the quake reached, it struck me that I had a school friend living in Kathmandu. I hadn’t seen her in over a decade but the thought of someone I knew trapped under a collapsed building filled me with unimaginable dread. Thankfully, I later learned that she is now safe and back with her family and I couldn’t be happier. Sadly thousands of others were not as fortunate. Earthquakes frighten me the most, mostly because they strike without any warning and take everything with them. Everything vanishes; exposes the stark vulnerability of human life.

When I was younger, I experienced a few earthquakes, although of low intensity. Even at that age, the panic it created shocked me. I could not believe that everything I was and knew could end so unceremoniously. Growing up on Bollywood movies perhaps gave me unreal expectations that life was a like a theatrical production which would never be deprived of a proper climax. Well, now I know that is not and it is quite unfair, isn’t it?

I am very proud of the relief efforts carried out by our government in Nepal. They are not alone in this time of need and India does stand with them. I request everyone to donate to the relief efforts in any way they can. Nepal is staring at a onerous task of rebuilding the nation and they deserve every help.they can get. I really hope the wonderful Nepalis get back on their feet soon and show that there is nothing that can suppress human will.