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Kullu valley India digging in

Opening Up the Secrets of Kullu Valley India

Here you are. You’ve just arrived at Kullu valley, India. You’re all geared up to explore the Valley.

You even decided that you want to do things differently  this time…

So, imagine yourself coming to the hotel desk and asking the receptionist for some interesting things you can do and see while you’re around.

Here’s what the guy at the desk (a receptionist, dressed up in a 3 piece suit with his name badge pinned to the lapel) would tell you: “We’ve got a special cultural program tonight at the pool for you. It includes folk dancing and local singing. Would you like me to reserve a table for you sir?”

But that’s not quite it, huh? You wanted to get a chance for something new.

Don’t worry, because here’s what you can do…

(Before reading on, we’ve got a piece of advice for you: there’s a lot of information here that can be really helpful if you’re planning a trip to Kullu Valley in India, so we recommend bookmarking this page)

Move On To Naggar To Get A Proper Base Camp To Your Kullu Valley Experiences

After a short journey to Naggar, which is approximately 20 Km either if you’re coming from Manali or Kullu (the Valley’s capital), you’ll reach Naggar. Now you’re right in the center of Kullu Valley.

It’s time to check into the hotel, freshen up, and ask the receptionist the exact same question.

Jokh Naggar

Here’s the ancient part of Naggar also known as the ‘Jokh’

Only this time, the story is slightly different.

Meet the Locals and Get Involved

Let’s have a short simulation just to illustrate the difference when you come down to the receptionist asking the same question.

“Well…” That’s how he’ll start.

“As you step out this door you’ll be right in the heart of things. If you head to Shiva temple you’ll see a sacred puja (prayer) held every evening. Tonight though, there’s a special puja and the entire village is attending.

 

Villigers attending to the Puja at Naggar

Public Puja ( Prayer) held at the Shiva temple in Naggar, Kullu Valley.

You can just join in. Sit down with the crowd and enjoy the food and music. The Pujari (A Hindu priest) will be chanting some Mantras and everybody (one by one) will come near the temple’s sanctum to get a Darshan from the deity.

Darshan”– what’s that?”

“It’s the sacred sight – the whole purpose of visiting the temple. It’s when you’re looking at the deity and he/she looks back at you. The sight is a special realm of connection between you and the God.

He goes on…

“Tomorrow there’s a party going on. One of the locals is celebrating his retirement and he’s throwing a big party at his house. You’re invited!”

“Who, me?” you’re surprised.  “I don’t even know him… “

“Everybody’s invited! And I don’t only mean people from Naggar, but also folks from all over the valley. There’ll be great local music performances on the balcony. I can’t think of a better opportunity for you to see the local Kullu dances.

“He’s so happy to retire, huh?” You may ask.

“After 30 years in the forest department, you would be too.” Our imaginary receptionist may answer.

“So will you come?”

Do I have a choice?

“Sure! You can go trekking!”

That’s the end of our short simulation.

Now you know you’ve reached the right place to discover the authentic Kullu valley. And Naggar will be your base camp.

So Are You Ready For Some Trekking Adventures?

Naggar is perfectly located for some ‘foot-work’ explorations.  Just put on your trekking boots, and you’re all set to meet face to face with the nomadic societies that live where the alpine parts of the Trans Himalayan ranges begin, herding their cattle in the lush green meadows.

Trekking in Kullu

Endless trekking opportunities to explore the remotest parts of the Kullu valley

Spending a night or two in their huts, looking at the stars, is an experience you’re going to keep for life – guaranteed!

For that kind of experience, this is the trek you should do:

The Chandrakhani trek:

The two day walk from Naggar to the quirky village of Malana (which is worldwide famous for its Ganja) is the most rewarding trek in the lower parts of the Himalayas. Spectacular views with moderate alpine experience combined with pine forest walking. As usual, what makes it brilliant is the fact that it’s all wrapped up with some great local folklore.

To absorb the vibe of the remotest villages in Kullu, here are some more trekking options for you:

Naggar to Sohil ( Via Halan ) :

An easy trek which will add more flavors to your entire Kullu experience. It’s a short forest walk that starts at Naggar and ends at Sohil. It will give you a good impression of the way people live in the lower parts of the Himalayas. You can make it in just one day; however, you should stay the night at Sohil and absorb the village atmosphere. There’re no hotels or guesthouses in Sohil, but you can ask us  to find you a place to stay at there.

Note: Same as the Chandrakhani Pass – you should not attempt this trek without someone who can show you the way.

If you’d like to hear the temple bells ringing and encounter dwelling Sadhus (Hindu monks) searching for the universal truth, then you’d better head on to the Bijli Mahadev temple.

Naggar to the Bijli Mahadev Temple

In order to get to the Bijli Mahadev temple, you can take a bus from Naggar- you’ll reach there within one and a half hour. The bus will drop you 3 Km below the temple, and from there you’ll have to walk up. But why not walk by foot on the old pilgrimage trail straight from Naggar, the ancient capital, to the most important Shiva shrine in the region? And while you’re at it, don’t forget to stop by at Jana waterfalls  for the most authentic and delicious local meal.

The Naggar – Bijli Mahadev trek is an easy two-day trek that takes you along the range that runs above the Beas River. The Bijli Mahadev temple is located exactly where this mountain range begins. This trek is not just about breathtaking views along the way and from the temple itself, but you’ll also get the whole nine yards of a Hindu Yatra (pilgrimage) experience.

We do recommend you break down the distance and spend the night at Mata kuchi forest rest house, which is halfway between Naggar and Bijli Mahadev.

Don’t even think of skipping lunch on the 1st day at Mani Ram’s Dhaba at the Jana waterfalls.

Here’s a more adventurous one…

Hamta pass Trek

The 4 day Hamta pass allures many trekkers because it crams in a perfect combination of open meadows, green pine forests, glacier valleys and spectacular views of the 6000 meters Deo Tiba peak and the 6200 meters Indrasan. Not as easy as the three treks mentioned above, but definitely worth doing! For further details, contact us.

While trekking in and around Naggar, discovering the remotest villages, you may stumble upon some of the Black Magic and shamanic rituals that have always been part of the valley’s religious life.

Encounters with the Mysterious Sides of Kullu

Click the play button to see what we mean.

The person with long hair is the ‘Gur’ – that’s the shaman, or oracle, and he’s getting into a Trance in order to speak with the local gods in the name of the villagers. These shots were captured by Prashant ( Who always knows to catch the moments) on his mobile phone camera.

 

Kullu Valley is known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’, the Land of Gods. Naggar has been its religious center as far back as remembered. As its center, Naggar calumniates most of the important religious activities happening in the valley.

If you stay in Naggar for some time, chances are you’ll stumble across not only the conservative aspects of Hinduism’s daily life practices, but also the phenomena of Shamanism which is abundant in the Kullu Valley.

Kullu Valley holds a long and ancient tradition of a ‘different reality’ religious system. Some of the unique sacred rituals, magic and alternative religious practices, traditional healing techniques and exorcisms practiced can be seen just about everywhere at any time.

To get the full scale, you can check out the beautiful Discovery channel documentary that aired a couple of months ago, called “The Shamans of the Himalayas”.

So, as you can see, there are loads of things to do and see in Naggar and other parts of Kullu valley. We recommend spending at least 7 days here at Naggar in order to have a meaningful traveling experience.

You’ve Got To See The Fantastic Temple Architecture  At Naggar

There are 369 temples in Kullu valley, but the temples in Naggar are considered to be amongst the most sacred. Apart from playing the role of Kullu’s political center, then and now, Naggar is also Kullu’s spiritual center. The temples here display various architectural styles, which are the most spectacular in the valley (though I’m probably biased).

We’ll only mention the most notable and impressive ones here, so you won’t get the “oh they all look the same to me” impression.

Tripasundri Temple

Along with the Hadimba temple at Dunghri , the wooden Tripusundri temple exhibits the finest Pagoda style temples of the western Himalayas. This three story temple is alternately arranged with layers of stone and wood. Locals say that this building technique makes it earthquake proof. Fortunately, we never saw that come to the test. Most of Naggar’s public religious rituals are held at the Tripura Sundri temple. The temple is located just below the Roerich Art Gallery road.

Tirupasundri temple at Naggar

The beautiful Tirupasundri temple at Naggar

Krishan Temple

Dedicated to Krishna, the temple is located up hill above town and offers spectacular views over the southern parts of the Kullu valley. This beautiful Shikhara (tower) temple is probably the only Krishna temple in Kullu Valley. Nobody can really tell when it was built; however, the locals link the temple to the great epic of the Mahabharata.

Now, grab yourself a kettle of chai at the village below and climb up to the temple before sunset.

Behind the temple, there’s a balcony where you can just chill while looking at the sunset over the Himalayan Mountains.

Gauri Shankar Temple

This Shikhara (tower) style temple is dedicated to Shiva, and dates to the 11th -12th century AD. It is considered the last monument of the ancient Pratihara Dynesty  which ruled the northern parts of India between the 6th-12th Centuries. The stone temple’s walls are decorated with dancers, birds and musicians. Images of the goddess Gauri and Shankar are enshrined in the temple’s sanctum.

So, get your camera ready and hit the evening Puja while you’re there.

Now let’s go on to some of the villages around Naggar.

“The True India Lies In Its Villages” (Mahatma Gandhi)

While discovering Kullu’s remote villages, this observation by Gandhi becomes very vivid.

Naggar is surrounded by endless valleys, all dotted with tiny villages. Visiting its remotest villages is the best way to absorb the special vibe of the valley, or in other words, to penetrate into its soul.

Jana Village

Less than an hour drive from Naggar lays the Jana waterfall . More than any other village in the region, Jana preserves the distinct characteristics of traditional Kullu. Yet, most people tend to skip it for some reason. Most visitors come to visit the waterfalls and turn around. Make sure you’re not one of them. Jana Village still holds the old fashion lifestyle; the typical Kullu house architecture, traditional farming methods, traditional clothing and above all – warm hospitality. You’ll probably get invited for a cup of Chai at somebody’s house. Don’t pass on it!

So hop on the bus which passes next to Sonam hotel every morning at 7:45 for a one hour ride.

Rumsu

If you’re in the time travel business, you should try to climb up to Rumsu Village which is located 3 km from Naggar on the Roerich Art Gallery road. The absolutely gorgeous wooden Hindu temple, situated in the village center, is the finest example of kullu’s temple architecture.

Sohil 

A 30 minute ride from Naggar on the local bus to Haripur. Add 25 more minutes by foot and you get to Sohil. This pastoral village is locked between two enormous mountain ranges that keep it isolated from the rest of the valley. It was isolated enough for a few hippie families that settled in it permanently 20 years ago. Strange blend, but as it’s often said, India has a wired capacity to populate all sorts of things…

Pangaun Village and the Pangaun Monastery

You may be surprised to know that you don’t have to go to all the way to Ladakhif you want to see Buddhist Lamas. There are some beautiful, lesser known, Buddhist monasteries in Kullu in which you won’t get blinded with camera flashes. The small Niyngma sect monastery  near the Pangaun Village is definitely a must see if you’re interested in Buddhism. Do not miss the fantastic walk in the apple orchards towards the sleepy village of Pangaun.

Here’s A Bonus Point For You: The Best Moms In India for Less Than $1

If we must admit it, Himalayan food won’t be the thing you’ll tell about to your friends back home. And that is an understatement. If you want great food, you’ll have to go down to south India 

But sometimes, there are surprises. Simple ones, nothing fancy, and they are usually discovered when you follow the tips of the locals. One of these surprises has been a small Dhaba situated just below the Tripura Sundri temple in Naggar.

It’s called Asha’s Momo Dabha. Most people in Kullu Valley will tell you that Asha makes “the best Momos in India and even better than in China”. She’s been running this small place for 15 years now and serving one dish only- guess what it is? Momos. It comes in 5 pieces plates with a chili sauce on the side.  Okay, let’s put it this way: it’s addictive!

Now Over To You

Have you been to Kullu valley? Are there more hidden gems that we should know about? Leave a comment and let us know.

Kullu Valley is one of India's best travel offers

Explore Kullu Valley- The Authentic Way (And Take a Small Literary Detour)!

Here’s an unfortunate fact for you During your next visit to India, Kullu Valley might be your greatest miss. You may head back home after passing through it without even knowing you’ve just missed the best traveling experience India can offer.

Now, there’re two reasons why you’re going to cross paths with Kullu Valley (if you’re planning a trip to India between April – October)

One being that Kullu is the main gateway to Ladakh and to Spiti Lahol.

The second is that you’ve been advised to stop by Manali, Kullu Valley’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

So, there’s that. Now please – do yourself this favor and give this amazing area the chance it deserves.

 Instead of starting off with the obvious ’10 top travel destination in Kullu Valley’, let’s kick it with a really fresh twist, like a really imaginative reference to a great piece of Russian literature!

Nicolai Gogol

Nicolai Gogol

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?  

Gogol’s Praise of the Mundane

In his masterpiece Dead Souls, the Great Russian novelist Nikolai V. Gogol  describes one of the most memorable moments ever written in modern literature, in our opinion at least.

It starts with the moment of a traveler’s homecoming after a long and tedious journey on the roads.

… At last espies a familiar roof and lights in the windows, and then he enters the familiar rooms, hears the joyous cries of the servants running out to meet him, the happy excitement of the children and his wife’s comforting, quiet speeches, interrupted by ardent embraces… and so on.

Home sweet home, huh?

But then Gogol takes a twist in the tale.

He starts by telling us how fortunate and great is the writer who can pass by all the mundane and trivial, all the raw and everyday-like, only to extract and depict

       “… The characters who manifest man’s lofty dignity, the writer who out of the maelstrom of images that spin past him every day has selected but a few rare exceptions… has never descended from his heights to his wretched and paltry fellowmen and, without even touching the ground, is completely absorbed in his remote and exalted images.

Here comes Gogol’s great moment of self-realization, of total exposure. The whole reason why we’re suddenly discussing Russian literature in a post about travels in India.

Check out the following:

… And different is the destiny of the writer who dares summon forth all that is constantly before our eyes, yet that which indifferent eyes do not see: all the terrible, shocking mire of trivia which enmesh our lives, the full depth of the cold, fragmented, humdrum characters… the writer who has dared with a bold stroke of his remorseless chisel to display them in full and vivid relief to the eyes of all men!

Wow, Gogol was not kidding around here…

What Gogol basically says here is – give mundane a chance. Just forget for a second about romantic images of great expectations, about a once in a lifetime experience, about escaping the everyday and other such promotional slogans. God is in the details. And so is India.

Connecting the dots already?

So let’s get back to it. India it is.

Soaking yourself in the mud of life is the only way to write, to live and (in our case) to… Travel.

The same way Gogol didn’t want to compromise on his literature, you shouldn’t compromise on the authenticity of your travelling either.

So let us just say that if Gogol had to plan a trip to Kullu Valley, he would have probably told you that it all boils down to one of these two options…

Which Option Do You Prefer?

1. Travel safely to the ‘Top 5 Highlights’ destinations. This way, you won’t miss on anything in the books or on what your travel agent has told you. All those places will be staged for you, wrapped up in a shiny cellophane paper and be handed over to you as a nice souvenir. Looking up towards the starts (touristy highlights) can be done from everywhere; it doesn’t matter where you are.

Or…

2. Play wild with your choices as a traveler and mingle with the mundane. Come down to Ground Level. Dig in and engage with locals, see how they live: in their houses, their fields, their schools, their shops and markets, their temples, their restaurants. Only this way you’ll realize the ‘little things’, the subtle things that make a place what it is. This and nothing but this can expose you to their story, even if it does turn out to be “an exalted image“.

So, which one is it?

Faces of Kullu Valley

Engage with the locals and not with ‘travel agents’…

For a Well Rewording ‘Ground Level Exploration’ In Kullu Valley, What You’ll Need Is a Good Base Camp

Digging in Kullu valley is an outstanding opportunity for you so observe a very special kind of belief system which includes shamanic rites, black magic traditions and all sorts of esoteric religious practices. Surprisingly, it has all been integrated with the orthodox Hindu religious practices.

The spectacular Kullu temple architecture as a backdrop for the religious scene makes the experience even more enticing.

You’ll get to see how people survive in the remotest regions on earth – farming their lands and managing to maintain a self-sustained economy under the roughest conditions you can possibly think of.

There are also the nomads (not ‘Nomads’ as in the titles for traveling websites or blogs) who roam the upper parts of the region and herding their cattle along the alpine meadows.

Nomads on the upper parts of Kullu valley

Nomads on the way to the Chandrkhani Pass

To get it all in full scale, you’ll have to spend some time in the valley and not only to cross path with it. We recommend a stay of at least 7 days to get a glimpse of what’s happening. But for that you’ll need a good base camp.

Now, sorry to let you down, but Manali just won’t do the work. It has completely lost the Kullu vibe.

You’ll need a place which right at the center of the valley; A place that managed to keep the special atmosphere of the valley yet can still provide solid tourist services.

Don’t worry, we’ve got something for you!

So stay tuned because we are about to tell you soon ( very soon ) where your Kullu experience must begin…

Over to You

Are you a Galaxy traveler who’s after the top destinations or you preferring Ground level explorations?

Pangaun Monastery Kullu

The Beauty Which Guidebooks Often Miss – Pangaun Monastery

Here’s a question for you:

If I would tell you about a place to visit which is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet or any other guide book, would you consider it not worthy?

I met a guy few days ago who answered YES.

This post is for those who would answer NO. 

It might be easy to say ‘no’ right now when you’re sitting in front of the computer but when you’re out there, on the road it’s getting tougher. 

Why? Because we all want to play it safe.

Your holiday clock is ticking and what has been verified by the major guidebooks is probably worthwhile visiting, while the rest is presumably a waste of time (that you don’t have).    

Apart from that, the guide books give you some sense of security. They all provide detailed information on where to sleep, what to eat and where, how to reach there, and how to go back. It is fundamental and reassuring.

But there’s a price for that.

It is the lack of being exposed the authentic layers each place you’ll be visiting. Whether you like it or not, travelling with highly authoritative guidebooks can get you to read them not as suggestions but as imperatives. And you are not alone here. Everybody’s travelling with guidebooks even if they have a local guide with them who knows the places much better than any book.

So here’s a suggestion which is not mentioned in the guidebooks. It has been left deep down under the radar of guide books and at the shadow of the major tourist attractions surrounding it. 

It is called Pangaun Monestary. It is a Buddhist Monastery (Gompa) in the Indian Himalayas in the state of Himachal Pradesh.

Inside the Pangaun Monastery

Oil lamps at the front hall inside the Pangaun monastery. Photo by Elad Greenberg

Here’s Why you should visit Pangaun Monastery

Pangaun monastery is one of the lesser-known Buddhist monasteries in the Indian Himalayas. Here you won’t find endless lines of tourists for the 6 a.m. Puja like at the Tikshey monastery in Ladakh. With no flashes from cameras and no TV teams from some geographical channel, the Pungau monastery is isolated in its peacefulness.

This monastery is probably one of the most awe-inspiring beauties I’ve seen. It hangs on a steep cliff above the Beas River between vast areas of apple orchards. Out at the monastery’s main courtyard, you’ll find spectacular views over the Beas River and Kullu Valley.

Add to this the kindness and the hospitality of the nuns and monks and you’ll get a must-see location, simply because it will warm your heart.

A Little Background About The Pangaun Gompa and the Nyingma sect

This peaceful Gompa (Monastery) belongs to the Nyingma sects; that is, one of the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Nyingma school, is the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded in Tibet during 742-797 CE. The tantric masters Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava were the first to introduce Buddhism in Tibet.  According to Tibetan Buddhist mythology, that changed when Padmasambhava challenged the local gods of Tibet and converted them to Buddhism. The gods agreed to become dharmapalas (Dharma protectors). From then on, Buddhism has been the principal religion of the Tibetan people.

Padmasambhava is said to have had twenty-five disciples, and from them a vast and complex system of transmission lineages developed.

 

Splendid views from the Pangaun Monestary

Splendid views of Kullu valley

The Chinese invasion of Tibet and the 1959 uprising caused the heads of the major Nyingmapa lineages to leave Tibet. Monastic traditions re-established in India while Lama Thubten E-vam Dorjey Drag has been settled in Himachal Pradesh.

Until recent time the Nyingma was the only school of Tibetan Buddhism that never aspired to political power in Tibet. Although the Nyingma School never had a head, in exile a series of high lama have been appointed to the position for administration purposes.

The Alternative way of the Pangaun Gompa

Unlike most monasteries, with the Pangaun both nuns and monks study in the monastery. They all live in small units (condos) above and below the monastery, cooking their own food, and maintain separation between their duties to the community and their own personal lives, at least to some degree. The fact that the nuns and the monks are living outside of the monastery creates a special atmosphere reminiscent of a small Tibetan village.

Most of the Lamas originally belong to Kinnaur district, and they all need to pay tuition for studying in the Gompa. This is rather uncommon for Buddhist monasteries, which are mostly financially supported by donations.

The wheel of Dharama at the main terrace

The wheel of Dharama at the main terrace

 

The Gompa was founded at the mid 60th by the Guru Kinbo Tupden who had come to meditate at the caves above the nowadays Gompa. It didn’t take long for many followers to come close and settle down near their spiritual master.

The religiously tolerant attitude prevalent in Kullu valley was perfect for many Tibetan people to come over and make this place their home. Patlikhul the major town between Manali and Kullu was blasted with Tibetan people back then.

How to reach Pnagaun Monastery?

Either if you’re coming from Manali or from Naggar you first need to get to Patlikul. It is the nearest town to the Pangaun Monastery and located exactly in between Manali and Kullu.

From Patlikul’s bus stand you can grab a taxi for a 6 km drive. It should cost you around 200 Rupees. The taxi will drop you just above the monastery and from there you’ll have to walk in the small allies down to the entrance of the monastery.

 Don’t worry about the way back. You can send the taxi driver back you’ll be returning on a different way.

Much better way…

A Special Bonus For Those Who Will Be Visiting This Unique Gompa

Behind the Gompa there’s a small trail that will drop you off at the Manali- Kullu Road. It’s a carousal gate at the back of the main building. If you can’t find it just ask one of the Lamas they’ll show you the direction to this backdoor. The Lamas use it when they go to Patlikul, to bring food and other supplies to the monastery.

The 1.5 km fantastic trail is a real candy. It’s a nice and easy walk downhill passing through apple orchids. It’s the kind of walk that will make you feel like you’ve just been dropped into the story Alice in Wonderland.

Within 30 minutes you’ll hit the Manali – Kulu main road, from where you can grab any bus that passes through – they’re all go to Patlikul. The 10 minutes ride will cost you 5 Rupees.    

 Now over to you

Have you been ever visited a place which hasn’t been covered by guidebooks and asked yourself: how the hell did they all miss it?

Hadimba temple manali

Blood Offerings, The 2013 Version- Hadimba Temple Manali

For many of us India, presents overwhelmingly visual impressions. It is beautiful, colorful and sensuous; captivating, intriguing and puzzling.

My last visit to Hadimba temple in Manali had it all. I witnessed a unique Hindu ritual that has been under controversy even within Indian society for ages.

This rite is not exclusive to this region. You may see it throughout India, but it was the first time for me.

Read more

spiti

History and Geography of the Spiti Valley India

Spiti, originally pronounced “Piti”, means “The Middle Land”, reflective of its position between Tibet and India.  The Spiti Valley is a desert mountain valley nestled in the Indian Himalayas. It borders Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan and constitutes the north-eastern part of the Himachal Pradesh Indian state. The capital, Kaza, is situated along the Spiti River at an elevation of about 12,500 feet (3,800 m) above mean sea level.

Spiti Valley

 

The diversity of this area can be seen in the dialects spoken; moving from one valley to another can bring an entirely new language, and sometimes multiple dialects are spoken in the same valley. Spiti is historically linked with the region of Lahaul. Historically, Spiti was part of Western Tibet (Nariss Korssum).  Nariss Korssum was divided in the 11th century by the king, Nimagon, amongst his three sons.  Therefore, Spiti and Zankar were formed into a separate kingdom. However they often paid tribute to Ladakh, Chamba and Kullu. In later times, Spiti and Zanskar were incorporated into Ladakh, governed by a hereditary wazir, known as a Nono. The Nono was assisted by five Gyatpos who were elected by the people of their Kothi. Spiti was independent after the Ladakh-Tibet war of 1681-83; however, Man Singh, the Raja of Kullu, invaded and took control of this region.

In the 18th century, control was regained by Ladakh. amd administration continued to be primarily presided over by the Nono and locals. In 1846, the East India Company took control of Spiti after the defeat of the Sikhs in 1846. From 1846 to 1940, Lahaul formed part of the Kulu sub-division of Kangra district, but the Nono was still entrusted with local administration. In the late thirties, kuth brought unprecedented prosperity to the people, and their consequent awakening created a formidable challenge to the power and influence of the Nono. Accordingly, the government considered implementing the standard administrative system. In 1941, Lahaul and SPiti were formed into a sub-tehsil, and a naib-tehsildar was posted at Keylong to take over. This system remained in effect until June of 1960, when the Lahaul and Spiti district was formed with Kaza being the center of government.

Lahaul and Spiti are surrounded by high mountain ranges. The lowest point is 11,000 ft, and villages are found as high as 14,000 ft. The region is sparsely populated and poor in cultivatable lands and natural resources. Rainfall is limited by the high mountains, and the monsoon season has little effect.  The Rohtang Pass, at 13,054 feet (3,979 m), separates Lahul and Spiti from the Kullu ValleyLahaul and Spiti are cut off from each other by the higher Kunzum Pass, at 15,059 feet (4,590 m). A road connects the two divisions, but is often inaccessible during winter and spring because of heavy snow. The valley is likewise cut off from the north for up to eight months of the year by heavy snowfalls and thick icing conditions. A southern route to India proper is periodically closed for brief periods in the winter storms of November through June, but road access is usually restored a few days after storms end, via Shimla and the Sutlej valley in the Kinnaur district. This region is one of the least populated in India for a reason.

 

 

North India in June

Who else wants to get the most out of North India?

Here’s a short story:

A traveler walks in the great desert of the Sinai Peninsula. He’s almost spent. He doesn’t know where he is and where to go. Fortunately, he sees an old Bedouin standing under an Acacia tree.
Man, please tell me where I am and how far is to the nearest town!?” The traveler asks. Bedoin under a tree
“You should go there…” the Bedouin replays while pointing his finger towards the mountains.
“And how long it takes to get there?”
No reply for that question. The traveler asks again. All he gets in return is silence.
He’s exhausted. “Just tell me how long?” he screams at the Bedouin guy. But the Bedouin remains quiet as the desert itself.
Disappointed, feeling his fate is doomed the traveler starts walking and leaves.
“You are 3 hours away!!” He hears the Bedouin shouts.
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
“I had to see your ‘mood’, your natural walking pace in order to tell you the right information…”
The Bedouin replied.
The main point here is that each of us has our own way of traveling and our desires and moods change while we’re on the road. That’s why in this post we go for three possible moods you may have while traveling in North India this June.
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[list_item]  Mood #1- Getting socialized – looking for company? List of places where you can get friends in less than 5 minutes

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[list_item] Mood #2- Stay away from the Mob – would you like to read a book without getting nagged

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[list_item]  Mood #3- getting cultural – want to find out about events and festivals in north India where you can engage with local culture?

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(We are a bit more flexible than the Bedouin guy who didn’t wanted to say a thing until he could see the guy walking for real)
Let’s start

Want to get socialized? Mood #1

In this list you’ll find some of the most popular destinations in Northern India. Everybody who’s traveling in North India at this time of year will presumably be visiting at least one of them. Chances are that they’ll visit all. Here you can find all types of tourist: backpackers, volunteers, high budget or even local tourists; you name it. If you want to get social, these are perfect places to hang out.

1) Manali, Kullu Valley Himachal Pradesh. 

Old Manali

Old Manali

It’s 17 hrs by bus from Delhi. Or a 1 hour flight from Delhi to Bhuntar (A local airport in Kullu Valley) plus approximately 2.5 hrs from Bhuntar by car and you are in Manali. The peaceful mountain town has become a delta for all types of travelers and it can get quite packed on its peck season. Travelers use Manali as a base for round trips, like to Spiti valley and Ladakh. And Some simply chill out in the super tourist friendly town.

2) Parvati Valley , Kullu, Himachal Pradesh
15 hrs. by bus from Delhi, or a one hour flight to Bunthar airport and you’ll reach the entrance to Pravati valley. Parvati Valley is a well-established travel hangout. Several small towns along the valley have been transformed into hippie resorts. It is loaded with hip Israeli backspaces and is known as an ‘Israeli colony’. You’ll find cheap accommodations, international food and a nonstop reggae soundtrack, plus crowds of dreadlocked and taffeta-skirted travelers. The attractions of the valley are peaceful scenery, the hot springs at Manikaran and plentiful wild charas (marijuana), with all the risks that entails.

3) Dharamsala, Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh.

Dharmsala. Foreigners feel at home.

Dharmsala. Foreigners feel at home. Image by oded Keet

15 hrs. by road from Delhi will get you the nearest to his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. For those of who do not know, it is the places where the central Tibetan administration is located. When we say Dhramsala we actually refer to three places:
• Macleod Ganj – A small town where the exiled Tibetan government is located.
• Bhagsu / Bhagsunath – A small village located 10 minutes walk from Macleod Ganj
• Dharamkot – another tiny village located 5 minutes walk from Macleod Ganj hosting the Sikhara Dhamma Vipassana meditation center.
Dharamsala, like Manali, is another of North India’s Mega Tourist destinations.
Dharamsala attracts loads of tourists from all over the world. The social scene is highly developed. Many tourists usually stay for longer periods to take some of the endless courses available. We’ll cover more in the Cultural mood section below. That’s why Dharamsala is a perfect place to hang out and socialize.

4) Leh, Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh

Leh, Ladakh

2 days from Manali by Bus (one of the most beautiful rides in the world). 1.5 hrs. flight from Delhi.
Way up north, surrounded by snowy peaks mountains, on the Tibetan plateau lays the famous capital of the kingdom of Ladakh. The city attracts travelers with a high sense of exploration. Trekkers, jeep safari groupies, expeditions groups, motor bikers, and cyclists are all coming to Leh this time of year and bring a lively vibe.

We’ll get back to Leh later when the mood of being cultural will fall upon you.
In the meanwhile, let’s give the loners some great places to hide.

Feeling like you want to be left alone?  Mood #2 

We selected some places where you will be able to read quietly on a guesthouse porch. You will be able to practice Yoga without being nagged from all around. Tranquility is sound and promised -You are saved from the mob!
Still, rest assured we didn’t let you get lost in hard core India. While choosing these places we kept a few important rules:
• They should be relatively close to the main travelers’ routes.
• They must be touristic friendly i.e. accommodations, food, internet
• You won’t be the only foreigner around

1) Kasar Devi, Unttarkahand – If it was good enough for Bob Dylan it’s good for you too.

5 hrs from Rishikesh to Almora and another 20 minutes with the local taxis and you’ll get to the peaceful village of Kasar Devi. It is the place whereSwami Vivekananda, one of India’s greatest modern philosophers used to meditate. The scenery from this tiny mountain village was inspirational for both him and Bob Dylan.
2) Jibhi, Banjar valley , Himachal Pradesh – Go now before it gets crowded

With a 5 hrs bus from Manali to Banjar town, and another local ride, you’ll get to Jibhi. It is a small pastoral village in Banjar valley. Endless hidden places within the gigantic Himalyan Oak forests around it make Jibhi a perfect place to stay close to both nature and yourself. Here is a great article for further details about Jibhi and banjar Valley.

3) Riwalsar Lake , Mandi area Himachal Pradesh – Om Mani Padme
Om Mandi is 10 hrs by bus from Delhi and 4 hrs from Shimla.

Riwalsar lake is a small Buddhist oriented village with a super easy-going vibe. With a lake in the center of the village and a complex of Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) around it, you will definitely find the place so relaxing that you might not even want to go back to the noisy traveler scene.
4) If you feel like moving Kinnaur –Spiti circuit can work great for you. 2 weeks within magnificent scenery starting from lush green mountains into the high altitude desert of Spiti. Kinnaur-Spiti circuit is a perfect round trip to hop on to from Manali if you feel you just had enough.
There are some great treks in the area. We have just launch a a full guide for one of the best treks in the region. Subscribe to our news letter and get it for free.

 

Feeling cultural? Mood 3# 

Here’s a review of some destinations in North India which are an integral part of Indian culture and religion(s). We assume that if you are in a mood of being cultural, you would like to know about events and festival that are going on this June.
Rishikesh and Haridwar, Uttarkhand  6 hrs by bus from Delhi.

People are bathing in the Ganges in Haridwar

Pilgrims are bathing in the holy Ganges River.

Rishikesh is a small town on the Ganges River bank. It is known as the world’s yoga capital. You can find Yoga courses and trainings from beginner to advanced levels in every corner of town. Rishikesh and haridwar are two of India’s most significant pilgrim destinations. It is the place where the Holi Ganges River hits the mighty Indo-Gangetic plains.
On Tuesday the 18th of June, there will be the Ganga Dussehara festival In Haridwar, a neighboring town. If you want your sins to wash away, you should plan to pay a visit to Haridwar. You’d better get ready with loads of space on your camera memory card.

Ladakh_june

 

Let’s go up to Ladakh now, and see what they can offer us in when we get into the culture section..

Here we are back to Leh and the surrounding area with two major festivals that you won’t want to miss.

  •  Hemmis Festival (18th- 19th June) A half hour drive from Leh is the famous Hemmis Buddhist Gompa ( Monastery). It is a two day festival which commemorates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. There’s traditional music, colorful masked dances, and a fair full of striking handicrafts.
  •  The Sindhu Darshan festival ( 1st – 3rd June ). It is a 20 minute ride from Leh on the bank of the Indus River. This festival is a celebration of the River Sindhu or Indus. More than anything else, the Indus River represents the ancient Hindu civilization and gave India its name. The festival aims to project the Sindhu as a symbol of multi-dimensional cultural identity, communal harmony, and peaceful co-existence in India.
  • Beside the Festivals we’ve mentioned , discovering the beautiful Buddhist Gompas in Leh and around it sure will leave a magical impact on you :
  1. Check out the 6:00 a.m daily puja ( prayer) in Thiksey
  2. Treat yourself with a sunset climb up to Shanti Stupa (relics monument).
  3. Cross , Khardung La, the highest motor pass in the world to visit the impressive Diskit Gompa in the Nubra Valley.

In the Himachal area there is lot of cool stuff waiting for you….

In Manali: The Manali Summer Sundowners – Sounds United Project music festival features live concerts of blended genres and styles every Friday and Saturday throughout June.
• In Dharamsala: The Dharamsala Film Festival ( 11th -13th June)

Buddhist lama in Macloed Gang.

Buddhist lama in Macloed Gang.
Image Oded Keet

Beside the annual film festival there are loads of curses that you can do In Dharmasla. The most famous Vipassana course ( see the link above), but also Yoga, Tibetan Language Classes, 10 days Introduction to Buddhism/meditation, Reiki, Cooking classes and much more. Also there’s a lot of volunteering stuff that you can do. Two popular ones would be Lha Charitable and Mountain cleaners
In Shimla: The annual Music summer festival has been held since the 1960s. Food fairs and local handicrafts are on sale, too. The event will begin in June 1st until the 9th.

Feel free to leave a comment below!

 

Akbar's tomb at sikandra Uttar pradesh

“Go to Akbar’s Tomb” – That Was All He Said

1) Who was Akbar? 2) Who built Akbar’s tomb 3) Architectural Style 4) The Garden 5) Agra juice 6) How to reach Akbar’s tomb?

Go to Akbar’s tomb!” Every day I got the same answer from the sweet Chai walla (street Tea stall owner) whom I would visit almost every afternoon while studying in Agra. I wanted to explore that city, ensconced in the mighty shadow of the the Taj Mahal. While drinking Chai at my friend’s, near the main Kandhari intersection, I would squeeze him for ideas and information about places in Agra that can challenge the symbol of India.

Had I only his suggestions to rely upon, my “Agra project” would have failed; he repeated over and over: “Go to Akbar’s Tomb!” Either he knew the name of only one place in his hometown, or he had found Akbar’s tomb so captivating that nothing else in the city could compare (not even the renowned Taj Mahal – which he never once mentioned).

At first, his fixation was incomprehensible to me. What was so special about this Tomb? Now my experiences compel me to say just one thing:  “Go to Akbar’s Tomb!”

Why? The story makes a place worth visiting, and perfect harmony between a place and its story heightens the appeal. The story of Akbar definitely makes it a “must” to visit.

Who was Akbar?

 emperor Akbar image

Meet emperor Akbar

Akbar was the third emperor of the Mughal Empire, which ruled in India (and other territories in Asia) from 1525 through 1857. In that year, England’s prime minister, Benjamin DiIsraeli, presented India to Queen Victoria as the “brightest Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.”

The Mughal Empire was the world’s largest in its time. In many senses Akbar was the key to the empire’s tremendous power and far-reaching influence. Akbar’s rule represented the peak of the Mughal dynasty, while historically speaking, his death was quite literally the beginning of the end.  Without getting into the complexities of his contradicting historical character, it is clear that as a Muslim ruler he was the only one who could overcome the enormous challenges of having Muslim minority to govern a Hindu majority in such an efficient way.

Akbar was never literate, but he was addicted to knowledge. When not overly occupied with expanding his empire through the employ of his charisma, he surrounded himself with intellectuals spanning the full spectrum of India’s various disciplines- both Islamic and Hindu.  His constant dialogue with so many different voices from Indian society served to inform his rule.

Abul Fazal, his biographer, mentioned numerous times Akbar’s affectionate and protective approach with Hindus. Lord forbid what would have befallen poor Fazal had he mentioned some other, less benevolent, approach in his book Akbarnama. Aside from Fazal’s testimonial, there are various ‘objective’ documentations of Akbar’s favorable attitude towards the Hindus, such as that of the Portuguese friar Sebastian Manrique in The Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique, a brilliant book for historical exploration loversSebastian Manrique travelled in India during Akbar’s rule, and was unfortunate enough to land himself in trouble by offending local Hindus beliefs in a small village in central India. Standing at trial he was absolutely amazed and shocked at Akbar’s tolerance towards the uncivilized pagans. Especially when he discovered that the Hindu-protective Mughal rules couldn’t be bent, even for a civilized western friar. What an outrage!

Although there has always been tension between Hindus and Muslims in India, there was something special about Akbar, either in his personality or in his genuinely liberal approach for not only allowing other’s faiths culture and ideas but even embracing them.

Akbar is perceived by many Indians as the penultimate of Kingship. Some even compare his qualities to those of the empyrean king Ram, the main character in the great epic The Ramayana (others think that would be going too far…).

Joddha Akbar

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai

Hrithik Roshan

His myth is very much as alive today as he was then (maybe even more…after all who really likes authority?). It’s no wonder that the 2007 bollywood movie “Joddha Akbar” has become one of the most celebrated films in India. The gorgeous Aishwarya Rai playing Joddha, Akbar’s Hindu wife, didn’t hurt its popularity either.

Anyways back to the tomb…

Who built Akbar’s tomb?

Akbar himself started construction of the Tomb during his lifetime around 1600. He was buried there after his death in 1605, and his son Jahangir completed the work between the years of 1605-1613.

Architectural style

Akbar s tomb a sight from the inside

Inside the Akbar’s tomb

The Architectural style of his tomb perfectly fits his philosophical vision as a ruler: the value of unity is higher than that of harmony.  Akbar’s tomb is a blend of Hindu, Mughal and Persian elements. Like him, the tomb reflects an eclectic and experimental vision rather than a single defined style. The sloping dripstones, finials surmounting all the domes, balcony windows and pierced screens are all local Hindu elements of architecture. Based on the pillar and beam principle, the tomb is built like a tiered wedding cake, using carved columns and brackets typical of Hindu construction which are meant to create openings on the upper levels. However the pointed arches surrounding the base are Islamic, as are the inlaid geometric designs around the archways.

Detail of inlay, piece of art

Detail of inlay, piece of art

Like other monuments built at this time, Akbar’s tomb displays extensive use of Red Agra sandstone with white marble. The entrance to the tomb is through the bombastic reddish gateway based on the Buland Darwaza (giant gateway) architectural motif as seen in Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s former Capital.

The red gateway is decorated with floral, geometric and calligraphic designs. There are four white marble minarets at the four corners of the gateway. Through the gateway, there is a huge Charbagh style garden. This is an architecture motif meant to divide a space into four equal quarters. The tomb is at the center of the peaceful garden. Beautiful arches and floral, geometric and calligraphic designs in white, red and golden colors decorate it. The uppermost of five levels is crafted from white marble and Akbar’s tombstone is on the ground floor.

The Garden

The spacious, relaxing garden around the tomb is a reason of coming by itself. It is one of few places in the town where you can relax without being pestered by queries to take pictures or stares. The garden allows for you to lay back a bit and enjoy some moments of urban nature. You can even see animals wandering, notably deers, monkeys and squirrels, as if they were part of the original plans- didn’t I say Akbar liked fusion? If you have been in India long enough, trust me, you’ll appreciate this garden!

Bonus:  Agra Juice (char Rang Ka juice or four colors juice)

I have already dedicated a post to that distinguished institution of Agra’s which calls so many people to drink and celebrate the art of juice making. This is the Taj Mahal of juices. Think I’m exaggerating? Check it out for yourself. The Juice stall near Sanjay roundabout is a mandatory stop whether you are going to visit Akbar’s tomb or you just came from there.

How to reach Akbar’s tomb?

Akbar’s Tomb is located 9 km from Agra towards Delhi, alongside the Delhi-Agra road. The place is referred to as Sikandra. Any motor rickshaw driver will know the way from Agra. If they tell you that it’s too far for them, ask to be dropped off at Kandhari junction where you can swap rickshaws.

 

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Feel free to leave a comment and we will be happy to get ideas and suggestions for future articles

 

bahu_places to visit in Himachal

Away From the Travelled Path: Places to Visit in Himachal

 1) Chitkul, Sangla Valley 2) Bahu, Banjar Valley 3) Chandra Tal, Spiti Valley 4) Short story 5) Rewalsar Lake 6) Get Directions

Choosing a list of amazing places to visit in Himachal Pradesh was not as easy as we thought. There were some arguments; with each one of us coming up with our own ideas from experience, passion, and knowledge. We started with a list of over 50 locations, knowing that we had to whittle it down to 5. We failed.

Here are our top four destinations to visit in Himachal, each one being a pure gem on its own:

Chitkul, Sangla Valley

The amazing way from Sangla to chitkul

On the way from Sangla to Chitkul

Deep inside the Sangla Valley, between burly mountain slopes, where evergreen forests rise to alpine meadows crowned by snowy summits, lays the village of Chitkul. If there is one reason to get in Sangla Valley today, Chitkul would be it.

It’s unfortunate to say that Chitkul is the last reason left to visit Sangla Valley. I remember the charm and enchantment the valley had before the invasion of modernity and technology. Sangla Valley was once a blissfully peaceful village of low wooden houses and slate-roofed temples looking out over a pristine valley, but the hydroelectricity plants changed all that. Chitkul, however, remains almost untouched by the fuss of the Sangla Village and the rest of the lower parts of the valley. Most of the tourist who come to visit Chitkul will be coming for a day trip from Sangla, and return on the same day.

Places to visit in himachal -chitkul

Local guys gave us to drink homemade wine

Due to its high altitude (3,800 m), most of Chitkul’s villagers move down to lower proximities come winter time, while only a few stay behind maintain the small family farms. The winter weather in Chitkul is not friendly, and often leads to road closures. In January 2011 around 100 tourists from Kolkata got stuck in the region due to heavy snowfall, and they could only be rescued after the roads were cleared a few days later. Needless to say, unless you want to be stuck there, the best time for you to visit Chitkul is May to October.

Chitkul has an extremely pastoral ambiance with its old-style gristmills right between the narrow alleys inside the village homes. There are few enjoyable walks around the village that I would suggest to you. You can walk south east Chitkul through the barley field trails towards the army check point. From there you’ll have to turn around because it is prohibited to go any further.  The Tibet-China border is very close to that location, and the Indian army can get quite suspicious with your intentions to keep on going. To return, you can use the trail along the Baspa River- you won’t miss it, as it is just below your feet.

Another nice walk around Chitkul is climbing up the mountain on the north east side of the village. To start the trail, you just have to go inside the village until you hit the path that goes towards the mountain. The higher you go, the better! The incredible views from the mountain will make up for your sore feet, just be sure to take plenty of water with you!

Bahu, Banjar valley

Bhau vilillge in banjar valley

Bahu village in Banjar Valley

Hidden away in the mountains just above Kullu Valley, you can find the serene Banjar Valley. Banjar Valley has just recently become an alternative for those who wish to run away from the ultra-busy Parvati Valley. It is a perfect destination for peace seekers, nature lovers and the wildlife enthusiast. The valley is surrounded by stunning panoramic views of snow-capped peaks of the neighboring Kinnuar and Spiti Valleys. Banjar Valley is abundantly covered with apple orchards on its lower elevations, and ancient cedar forests as you rise up to higher points. Exotic birds, butterflies and exquisite flowers adorn the forests. At the top of the valley lays the magical tiny Bahu Village. The village is a perfect example for a traditional Himalayan community, with fine of local architecture, sometimes dating back to over thousands of years ago.

Along the valley there are many places to explore such as Shri Ngarishi Temple, Chaini Fort or in its local name, Chaini Kothi, and the beautiful Saryolsar Lake, near Jalori Pass.

Chandra Tal Lake, Spiti Valley

Chandra Tal, literally means the Lake of the Moon. It is located below the famous Kumzum La (Pass) in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. The lake is at an altitude of 4,300 meters, and mountains overlook the lake on one side, and a magnificent cirque circle it on the other.

Chandra Tal Lake places to visit in himachal pradesh

The Magical Chandra Tal Lake

The lake is very popular camp ground for trekkers who are looking to begin the Chandra Tal trail to Barachala La. The vast meadows are perfect camping sites, and during springtime, the meadows are carpeted with hundreds of different wildflowers.

A Short Story about Chandra Tal

Like so many other places in India which are connected to a story, Chandra Tal too has one. In Himachali folklore, Chandra Tal was daughter of the moon and Suraj Tal (nearby lake) was the son of the sun. The two fell in love with each other deeply. Unfortunately, they could not fulfill their love because both rise in the sky at opposite times. The two sweethearts decided to challenge the natural order and to meet up on Earth, and Baralacha Pass was supposed to be their meeting point.

Bypassing the laws of nature and sacrificing the rules never goes without paying for the price in Indian culture. Sadly, when they came down to earth; they landed on different sides of the Baralacha mountain range and were unable to meet yet again.

The grief was unbearable and tears turned them into two lakes, and with time the water swelled, letting two mighty rivers break free– the Chandra and Bhaga Rivers, which flow around the mountain range. The two rivers finally meet at a confluence at Tandi in Lahaul district. At least there was some comfort in their  brave act of love!

Besides the Himachali folk tale, Chandra Tal got its name because of the resemblance to a crescent shape. Chandra Tal is a popular destination for hikers and campers who attempt to trek to Baralacha La.

The lake is accessible on foot either from Batal, or from the upper Kunzum Pass. There is also a road suitable for driving from Batal, which is 16 km away from Chandra Tal, however its conditions can be bad if you go before August. The road above Kunzum Pass is only accessible by foot, and it is about 9 km long. The best time to go is from late May to early October.

Rewalsar Lake

Rewalsar Lake

Rewalsar Lake

Although Rewalsar Lake is quite a popular destination for travelers (especially for those who feel related to Buddhism), we have deiced to include it in our off-beat places to visit in Himachal suggestions. Don’t worry! Rewalsar Lake is far from being too crowded or too overloaded, and surprisingly its easy-going atmosphere is almost never disturbed. It’s a 20 minute drive above the central city of Mandi, at the main intersection of Kullu Valley and Kangra Valley.

Aside from all the fuss, the pastoral village, with its small sacred lake in the center, is famous for being the place where Guru Padmasambhava (“The Lotus-Born”) departed to Tibet to speared the word of Buddhism in 8th century AD. Around the lake there is a complex of three Buddhist monasteries, called Tso Pema. Another holy lake, ‘Kunt Bhyog’, which lies a little bit above Rewalsar, is the lake linked to a dramatic scene mentioned in the great Hindu epic of the Mahabharata, where the ‘Pandavas’ escaped from a burning palace of wax.

Rewalswar Lake is also extremely important to the Sikh religion. Govind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru most likely lived here for a part of his life. A magnificent pale blue Gurdwara was built to honor him. In the other direction, at the Tso-Pema Ogyen Heru-kai Nyingmapa Gompa you can soak in the atmosphere and participate in the daily pujas (prayer rituals) from around 7:00 am to 3:30 pm.

 Get some directions

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Fishing nets Fort Cochin. Image courtesy of Trekearth

God is in the Small Things – Places to Visit in Cochin

Kerala and Cochin in particular always remind me of the emotional story of “God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy. The novel takes place in a small village in Kerala, south India and describes the collapse of a local family who are full of charm amongst the tropical rural small town life of Kerala.

There is something about the contrast between the peaceful, tropical paradise of Kerala and the pain of the characters suffering from the darker sides of India’s history and strict social structure that saddens the heart. In a way this is the story of India.

The border line between fiction and reality blurred upon my arrival in Cochin. I try to think about the hard life that was the fate of Rahel, Estha and Ammu and in all the bitter-sweet events and relations they share.  It is a great thing to actually travel in the natural habitat of a beloved story and try to track down the places and views. So my first recommendation before visiting Kerala and Cochin is to read this great book.

In practice, the city of Cochin (Kochi), the second largest city in Kerala, is a beautiful port city steeped in history. For centuries Cochin was considered an important strategic point, and the first place where Europeans settled in the sub-continent primarily the Portuguese. They arrived to Kerala 600 years ago. Since then, the area was also colonialized by the Dutch and the British, who traded the great exotic variety of Keralan spices and while doing so left their mark in the city. Fort Cochin harbour area, which is today the city’s tourist centre, is the highlight of Cochin. The smell of the sea and the fish surrounding the Chinese fishing nets, local fishermen working in the blazing sun and the spectacular orange, purple sunsets at dusk are among Cochin’s best. Jews also have left their mark in Cochin, in what was the oldest Jewish community in India and today the remains of a thriving neighbourhood called Jew Town. There are hardly any Jews left today but their history is still present. Cochin offers a wonderful mix of churches, synagogues and mosques, which only strengthens its diversity and uniqueness. The atmosphere is relaxed and pastoral, picturesque alleys and wonderful food which all make Cochin one of the most popular destinations in South India. It’s also a good place to gear up and go to other destinations in Kerala like Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Munnar, Alleppey (for the best backwater boat trip) or to the amazing archipelago of Lakshadweep. Travelling around the city of Cochin is very easy and things are relatively close to one another. There is a lot to do and lots of places to visit in Cochin so let’s go!

Attractions in Cochin:

Chinese Fishing Nets

Chinese fishing netsLocated on the coast of Cochin, the huge nets are a tourist attraction and rightly so. The unique fishing method is based on the Chinese method in which a crew of fishermen raise and lower the large net to and from the water every few minutes by pulling ropes connected to stones. The days catch is sold at the end of each day at the local fish market, located right next to the fishing nets. The fish are weighed and an auction takes place. This is a fascinating in itself and you should try to arrive in the evening to witness it.

Jew Town and Paradesi Synagogue

The inside of the synagogue in Cochin's Jew town. Image courtesy of  Wikipedia

The inside of the synagogue in Cochin’s Jew town. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Jewish Quarter of Cochin known as Jew Town (city of the Jews) was once a large Jewish community. This is the oldest of the Indian Jewish communities and the traditional account is that traders from Judea arrived in the city of Cochin in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple. The distinct Jewish community was called “Anjuvannam”. The still-functioning synagogue in Mattancherry belongs to the “Paradesi Jews”, the descendants of Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492. Today only a few Jewish families are left here. If you take an afternoon stroll around the small streets you will be confronted with signs in Hebrew, mezuzas (a piece of parchment, often contained in a decorative case, with a blessing inscribed with a specific Hebrew verse from the Torah) on the doorways and Stars of David on the windows of which were Jewish houses. Today most of the houses in the quarter have been transformed into shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs. In the heart of the ancient quarter is located the main Synagogue, built in the 16th century (and partly destroyed by the Portuguese in the 17th). The Synagogue’s beautiful central hall covered with painted Chinese floor tiles (they say that each of them is unique and slightly different from one another), chandeliers and a golden central stage. This magnificent synagogue is a real piece of history and a live testimony of the religious and cultural variety and tolerance of Cochin. A visit is a must.

Address:  Jew Town Rd., Mattancherry, Kochi

Admission: 5 Rs.

Opening hours: 10am – 1pm and 3-5pm Sun-Thu. Closed in Jewish holidays

Dressing codes: shorts and sleeveless tops are not allowed inside

Santa Cruz Basilica and Saint Francis Church

The outside of the Santa Cruz Basilica Church in Fort Cochin

The outside of the Santa Cruz Basilica Church in Fort Cochin

These two churches built by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century make an important part of the history of the city which is another example of Cochin’s rich cultural heritage and a popular tourist sites. Basilica of Santa Cruz is a beautiful Gothic structure, impressive both outside and inside with spectacular Italian paintings.

Address: Parade & KB Jacob RDS, Fort Kochi, Kochi

St. Francis is the oldest European church in India, and is less impressive but with an interesting history. This is the burial place of Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer who discovered the sea route from Europe to India.

Address: Bastion Street, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Matancherry Palace

Built in the 16th century by the Portuguese for the Raja of Cochin and renovated by the Dutch and hence nicknamed “Dutch Palace”. There is are impressive well preserved Hindu murals, mostly described scenes of the beloved Hindu god Krishna from his various legends and incarnations. This is a unique art style and definitely worth a visit. And at the price of 5 rupees entrance it’s a bargain!  Above is a nice museum dedicated to the history of Cochin.

Entry fee: 5 Rs.

Photography is prohibited

Open all week except Fridays, 8am – 5pm

Address: Bazaar Road, Mattancherry, Kochi

Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary

An incredible green spot with an extensive variety of life and an ecologically sensitive area situated at the centre of Cochin and known as the ‘green lung of Cochin’. Primarily a bird refuge, the innate appeal of Mangalavanam is augmented by the Arabian Sea which borders the sanctuary and adds to it a panoramic ambience. Mangalavanam is a paradise for bird watching. It is a great place to soak up some nature and greenery without leaving the city. The place is easy to reach by a taxi or rickshaw from anywhere in town.

Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary in Cochin. Image courtesy of Mangalavanam.com

Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary in Cochin. Image courtesy of Mangalavanam.com

Vaipan Island

If you are interested to go to a nice beach, try one at Vaipan Island. Located some 25 km from Cochin, the small island has few beaches. Recommended is Cherai Beach. Overall, not an amazing beach but rather a nice place to visit for a day trip. There are options however to stay over with several guest houses and restaurants on the beach, try Chill out Cafe. You can reach the island by ferry from Cochin and then take a bus or rickshaw to the beach.

Kathakali

The famous dance theatre of South India. The state of Kerala is known for its Kathakali performances of dance drama based on the stories from the Hindu mythology. With

Kathakali

Kathakali performance in Cochin

emphasis on facial expressions (especially incomprehensible control of the eye muscle), heavy makeup and colorful costumes, Kathakali performance is unusual and fascinating. In Fort Cochin, Kathakali performances are held at Kerala Kathakali Centre. You can arrive about an hour before the show to see the actors putting on their makeup. The centre offers 3 programs each evening and you can also enjoy Kalaripayttu (Kerala special martial arts) and India classical music and dance performances. Priced at 250 Rs. per head for a show. The center also offers courses if you interested to learn this beautiful ancient Indian art.  Check out their site: http://www.kathakalicentre.com/

Ayurvedic treatments and massages

Kerala is well known for its famous Ayurveda treatments and Cochin is a great place to have a luxurious Ayurvedic massage. Try Cochin Ayurvedic Centre.

Address: Santa Cruz School Rd, Fort Kochin

Phone: 0484 2217103

Email: fort_hs@yahoo.com

Cooking classes

In lots of the hotels and home stays they will be happy to refer you to a Keralan food cooking class. Cook & eat is Mrs. Leelu’s famous 2 hours cooking classes for small groups at her home. (11am & 6pm, Quiros St., phone – 2215377, E-mail – simonroy@hotmail.com, 550 Rs. For the class).

Sleeping in Cochin:

Fort Cochin is a charming and interesting area, and recommended for some good accommodation. There is much variety and choice to suit every budget and style and some very smart and sophisticated places. Cochin’s home stays are fabulous and a great way to enjoy the hospitality, warmth and laid back atmosphere of the Cochin residents.  Note that prices are getting more and more expensive in recent years, especially in season.

Guesthouses

Princess Inn: located on very central Princess Street in Fort Cochin, close to most attractions. This is a homely guest house with clean and cosy rooms, shared central space and a living room with couches and tables, a great place to meet other tourists or relax and read a book (God of Small Things). There is also a kitchen for the guest to use. Good value in Cochin.

Green House Homestay: one of the most charming places in Fort Cochin and very close to the main street, Princess Street. Although there are only a few rooms they are clean, spacious and beautiful. Here too there is a common living area with TV, Internet and refrigerator. Very relaxed atmosphere, charming owner and a lovely family.

Address: 1/1040 A, Kunnampuram Cross Road, Njaliparambu, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Phone: 919 895 262 296

Email: greenhousehomestay@yahoo.com

Leelu Home Stay: is on a quiet street but close to the centre, in a renovated Victorian house. Mrs Leelu is a lovely Indian woman who rents four rooms in her house. Rooms are clean and comfortable, and in this hospitable, warm and luxurious house there is also a friendly dog. Leelu also offers Indian food cooking classes.

Address: Cheerans Ebenezer 1/630, Quirose Street, Fort Cochin

Phone: 914 842 215 377

Eating in Cochin:

Cochin excels in its tea and coffee houses, and of course in fresh fish and seafood. A great dinner is to go to Fort Cochin harbour area and buy from the catch of the day. You can ask to cook it for you in a restaurant for a nominal fee. Here are some of the recommended cafes and restaurants:

Teapot Café: is the most special coffee shop in Fort Cochin, decorated with lots of antique teapots, thus paying homage to the days of old tea trade of Cochin. It’s an elegant and cool place with good food, wonderful cakes and of course great coffee and tea.

Address: Peter Celli Street, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Solar Café and Kashi Art Café: are the combination of coffee and art work. Solar is a very colorful cafe, whose walls are decorated with paintings by local artists and serves organic food, coffee and excellent juices.

Address: Bazaar Road, Kochi

Cafe Kashi has a gallery, and the cafe is a lovely tropical garden restaurant with art pieces and sculptures. The place serve light and delicious food and again, excellent coffee.

Address: Burgher St., Kochi

Mango Tree: is a pleasant and popular rooftop restaurant in central Fort Kochi. The restaurant, has a large mango tree in the middle, offering Indian and Western food. Good atmosphere, Best Italian dishes and of course fish and seafood.

Address: Princess Street, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Oceanos: is considered by many to the best fish restaurant in Fort Cochin. It belongs to the hotel Elphinstone and managed by a chef who specializes in Mediterranean cuisine (Portuguese influence). It offers fresh fish and seafood in different sauces some are served on a banana leaf. The chef of the restaurant also conducts cooking classes for those who wish to learn the secrets of this excellent cuisine. Reasonable prices (around 200 Rs. for a main course) for such a quality food and place.

Address: Elphinstone Residency, Elphinstone Road, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Shopping and Markets in Cochin:

Arts and Craft in Jew Town. The Jew town of Cochin no longer has too many Jewish residences, but it is full with shops selling antiques, artefacts, souvenirs and various handicrafts.

Fort Cochin Market is near the Chinese fishing nets is the local tourist market with souvenirs, such as jewellery, sculptures, mobiles, lamps and lampshades and bags.

Weather in Cochin:

Cochin climate is tropical and the temperatures are quite high during the whole year. In summer humidity is high, especially during March – April. May is the beginning of the monsoon season and between June and August it’s rainy and windy most of the time. The recommended time to visit is from September to February, when there is nice breeze and low humidity.

Transportation in Cochin:

Flights: Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery is located 29 km from the town. There is also a domestic flights terminal for destinations in India. A bus of KSRTC – Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation runs every half hour from the airport and arrives in Fort Cochin an hour and a half later. The bus also runs in the opposite direction but is less frequent. The station is near the Chinese fishing nets. There is also a prepaid taxi service at the airport.

Trains: Cochin has a large train station called Ernakulam Junction Station and is located in the Arnkolem part of the city. Most of the trains in Kerala pass through this station, and trains leave and arrive from places all around India like Chennai, Mumbai, Goa, Delhi and more.

Buses: There are local buses and tourist buses that run between major cities in the south, and Cochin is linked to most of them. In general, a train ride is faster and more convenient, and recommended for far destinations. Use buses when travelling within in Kerala to get to the smaller and closer places.

Ferry: is a popular form of transportation in Cochin. The naval Shuttle has fairly frequently routes between Arnkolem and Fort Cochin and at a cheap price.

Hope you will enjoy Cochin!

Goagil

Goa then,Goa today: An evolution of paradise

1) Imagine there’s no Country 2) The times they are a-Changin 3) God is a DJ

Today, Goa has become one of the wealthiest and prosperous states in India. Most of this success happened thanks to a brave collaboration between the Goan people and the rest of the world, mainly westerners who travelled there in the happy days of the  70’s. Those days, the borders of the world and human consciousness fell down for short time, and allowed  many people to break through both their personal borders and physical borders dividing nations as well. At least for sometime the world was wide open for everyone to wander and explore freely, to seek their own happiness, wherever they could. Indeed that time in history was a renaissance in the full sense of the word, spreading the message of peace  and love around the globe.

The first to come..This image is from the rare collection of Goagil

The first to come..
This image is from the rare collection of Goagil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a time the old worlds met new. A lot of those people who wanted to go out, wander and experience, fell in love with the beautiful beach strips and the lush green jungles surrounding it, right at the south west of the Indian sub-continent. They fell in love with the nature, and the peaceful character of the locals people that were living there, and their easy going life style alongside the sea shores.

“Imagine there’s no country, it isn’t hard to do…” (Lennon)

The early-comers to this little paradise, were those 70’s hippies. Those hippies ran away as far as they could, from trapped conventions and the well organized anachronistic society. The same society that had just gotten out of a cruel war. They were in a search for freedom. Freedom to express themselves, freedom from those boundaries of the western world, freedom from winning and losing, from earning and materializing. They were in a search to find their humanism, and they found it in Goa. It was the best place for those long haired bizarre folks, with flowers in their hair and endless smiles. Goa and its people just light their imagination to make this dream possible.

Although they had traveled all over India, Goa’s beaches and the tranquil lifestyle were particularly welcoming. Thanks to the history, 15th century  Portuguese that were there before them and brought the trade route and Christianity as a practice for the local people.

Because of that, Goa based itself as the happiest “Hippy Land” on the planet. Wild parties and raves of sunsets and sunrises kept going for days, little simple houses and huts were built on the beach and in jungle, little restaurants, and villages shops sprung up,  a lot of music making & love doing . Goa “lived” off free love and cheap drugs, as the myth were starting to become a reality.

With the time went by Goa became more and more famous around the world. Many of those party kids stayed to live there eventually. They bought little Portuguese homes, with a buffalo of their own, merging themselves easily in the local scenery, and blending in with the local community who was fond and amused of the new funny humans that came from a far land to their jungle. They also established new businesses, and developed by that strong connection with the Goan people.

Those new comers brought with them a more commercial attitude, and new touristic approaches, which helped the Goan natives to earn from their efforts, and made it easy for other travelers to come and enjoy this primal paradise. Indeed the integration of all those factors together at that time, made Goa one of the secret diamonds of travelers in India.

“The Times They Are A-Changin” (Dylan)

Surly Goa earned it name proudly. In the air were sparks of madness, colored people with a big smiles spread on their faces while they searching coconut tree to lean on, and sex(y) activities all along the shores. Indeed the sea, the sun, and the drugs released people from their bounds and inhibition, helping them to enjoy and be happy from what was there available on the spot. In short, it was the intoxicate smell of real freedom.

Goa today has become one of the most important clubbing scene in the world

Goa’s clubbing scene

As the new “hippy land” became more and more famous around the world, many more wanted to pay a visit and experience this human gathering that was happening there. Goa became a source of attraction for travelers, seekers and many others. People from the rest of the world that travel the Hindi sub-continent, or just came to Goa to “rest” from the world, Many kinds of music lovers and musicians came, but the major scene in Goa which gradually developed and eventually became a label for itself, was the trance music! Goa Trance.

God is a DJ (Faithless)

People came to celebrate this beautiful fusion, a mix of cultures, worlds, races and ages. People came to be part of the real “hippy land” emerging, basically, from a spontaneous gathering of shiny happy people with new ideas and the local fishermen community at the south Indian beaches.

This rare integration that happened in that place and time and transformed many people’s consciousness and lives.

As years went by, and the parties kept going, the villager’s lack of sleep continued  along with many cases of drug abuse and other less beautiful “side effects” of freedom. Some changes needed to be made. By that time the Goan people were already more established financially, and were able to make the necessary changes. They used their knowledge and experience to built five stars hotels, and fancy resorts, enticing other crowds to come, turning Goa once again into a commercialize and tourist friendly place. The local noon-market became an international night market, with artists from all over, selling their goods and performing their talents and arts. The market has few bars and also some international cuisine with exotic new smells. Now with the new touristic phase the Goan passed the Ten O’clock law, referring to any event, and party, including concerts are allowed to play until ten o’clock pm, a law which still exist to this day. It seems everybody found a place in Goa where the local could sleep again, and the tourists could party. Goa had it all.

Though in the recent years Goa has changed again like a lot of places in this day of age, “all”  was  not enough. Modernity is reaching almost everywhere, and not always in it best expression. Though some people say it is for the worst, and some say it is a natural progress of modern lives. Anyhow money reaches Goa leaving its marks, and the old naïve days are going away, clearing the way for the new-age. Whenever tourism becomes a massive industry, welcoming mainly people with money, it pushes the dreamer to look for a new paradise to dream about.

Today most of the local people are quite established, financially speaking. More people come as tourists and vacationers for short time clubbing or just for a short ‘spiritual’ vacation on the beaches of the Arabian Sea.

The modern Goa today, with the Yoga schools along side with the fancy restaurants, the hillers, and the spiritual workshops, along side with modern resorts, the nomads artist, with the musicians with the clubbing culture, all co-exist together side by side, reflecting, and expanding the “Goa fusion” for making it what it is today.

Will Goa lose its charm?  Hard to say, nobody can predict what stands at Goa’s doors. Goa keeps living upon the seasons so strongly, and it’s certain that it will continue this with any new scene coming ahead.

But on a clear day, if you look carefully, you can see the old Goan spirit, sometimes rising out amidst the new comers, while their busy running around catching enlightenment and some beer.

 

Sitting doing nothing at Goa's beaches.Thanks to GoaGil for the great Image

Sitting doing nothing at Goa’s beaches.
Thanks to GoaGil for the great Image

If you go carefully with your scooter on Goa’s road along the coconut trees and the relaxed buffalos, you will notice the small hippy community that is still there, playing their music and spreading their smiles for free. You might speak to a few locals that miss the days of the crazy laid back people, those people that came for months or years just to live by the sea… making nothingness as their “business”… and the nowness as their “possession”.