Sunday, March 18, 2018

Gujarat Tour 2018

Having travelled through and reasonably  covered the southern shores through the years, it was a natural itch to go beyond the borders and what more could one have asked for when an offer of a trip to Gujarat covering some Jyotirlinga Sthalas and Divya Desam was made on a platter by Sree Janaki Tours (SJT)! The invite was irresistible as the trek around the state was never even envisaged due to the challenges of language and unknown terrain and when the trusted SJT went out of the way to even alter the schedule to accommodate my preoccupations, we had no hesitation to head westward in the early hours of 8th March. Despite the known challenges of language, weather at this time of the year and food, the unexpected bouncer came from the Ahmedabad Airport that we may have to take around 14 hours instead of the promised 4 hours due to airport maintenance. The team not only ducked the bouncer like the seasoned batsmen but also lifted their spirit over the square leg with a hook, enjoying the extended stay at Bengaluru despite the impediments posed by the hosts in virtually making us run for a piece of Roti!  Having weathered the initial hiccups the team of 38 landed at the gleaming and tastefully decorated Ahmedabad airport ,

Ahmedabad Airport
with the spirits in tact, which was further lifted by the ambiance and  Chef's culinary of Pristine Residency ( ). Any tough tour could be well handled with a good night's sleep and a food soft on belly, both of which were well taken care of by SJT throughout the tour.

DAY-2 (09-Mar-2018):

Basic expectations on a tour with tight schedule is to make an early start and SJT helps their customers with a steaming hot filter coffee made fresh as early as 5 AM and this USP of SJT is the one that pushes people from the bed to gallop at any time in the morning. Spurred by this south Indian specialty even as the team was in readiness after a delicious early morning breakfast, the bus driver induced a delay enabling us to have some exclusive snaps and we set out by 8 AM. Driving through the dusty roads of Gujarat, made more difficult by the relaying of the roads, the team broke only for a Gujarati meal and reached Jamnagar by 4 PM. Having travelled almost for two days and not wanting to spend any more time on travel we hurried through some famed temples of Jamnagar.

Local auto rickshaw wallahs helped us through the town with a first visit to Bhid Bhanjan , a Shiv temple with an inviting marble architecture.

Bhid Bhanjan Shiva Temple
Next visit was to Nilkand Mahadev Temple, which was fairly large but thankfully void of any crowd, enabling us to have a peaceful dharshan.

Nilkanth Mahadev Temple
The unscheduled visit was to the Bal Hanuman temple, which holds a Guineas record for longest continuous chanting

The Kasi Viswanath Temple that proceeded to was one of colorful minarets and the Siva inside was tastefully decorated with flowers.

The tiring party , zapped by the temperature was in no mood to travel further but the flowing music from Shenoy lured them like the pied piper into a Jain temple, where a birthday celebration was being arranged.

Jain Temple at Jamnagar
Over a hot cup of Gujarati Chai, the team was happy to beat a retreat into the waiting suites of the hotel, which had an unimpressive exterior, only to offer a better room and food to rest the aching heels.

DAY-3 (10-Mar-2018):

The early morning start enabled the touring team to speed through some beautiful buildings along the dusty roads of Gujarat dotted with windmills

En route to Dwarika
and before the sun caught up we were at the elegant Regenta Inn, Dwarika (, sipping a cold welcome drink.

The rooms were pretty plush and comfortable and after a tasty lunch, we proceeded to Nageshwara, Jyotirlingam and the towering Shiva statue beckoned the devotees to the sacred place even from a distance.

Nageshwara - Jyotirlingam
In a not so crowded temple, we had a wonderful dharshan and a bagful of memories through frozen frames, despite the belting sun.

We then proceeded to the nearby Gopi Talab, (Talab means Pond), where the story goes that 16000 gopikas on hearing of the departure of Lord Krishna from this world, shed their physical form and went to Vishnu Loka in search of Him. The physical form of those gopikas fell as a mud in this pond, which later turned as Chandhan (Sandal) and the revered place is also known for taking stones and keeping in one's pooja, for those who desire to build a house.

Gopi Talab
After a short travel through the slanting blades of a glaring sun, we reached Okha, from where people are being ferried to the other side for a short 20 minute ride. How many more tragedies should happen before the authorities really come down on these ferry rides, one wondered! Clearly each boat was being overloaded to the extent of a nervous passenger questioning the continued overloading and there was no semblance of a life jacket anywhere in the vicinity. Brushing aside all these risks the crowded boat waded through the sea, with the inmates enjoying the seagulls , in flocks, trying to catch the nuts thrown at them by the passengers.

En route to Byet Dwarika 
Beyt Dwarika, the considered residence of Krishna , amidst tightest of securities, was calm and serene as one stepped inside. At the small hall , seated before a painting of Krishna embracing Kuselar with a bag of poha in his hand, where a pundit explained the significance of  the place the vibration was so thick and palpable that one could touch it. One could not help or resist the goosebumps to think it was at this place that Lord Krishna walked and received his friend Sudhama !!
The return journey in the fading light of dusk was more dangerous with the usual overload and people heaved a sigh of relief when the boat hit the tyres on the shore ! Making a mid course correction and visiting Rukmini Temple proved to be a wise decision as even there we could reach only for the final Harathi , but the architecture of the temple was a marvel, which was sadly being corroded by the sea breeze around.
Rukmini Temple
The by now zapped group having been blessed with the dharshan of a Jyotirlinga and Krishna's residence was only too happy to take refuge into plush rooms of Regenta !

DAY-4 (11-Mar-2018):

The excitement of seeing the Lord of Dwarika , the official workplace of Krishna, (as against Beyt Dwarika which is the residence) triggered the group for yet another early wake up and before the crack of dawn, people were in front of the hotel listening to the learned Pundit Paresh, explaining how the city and Krishna emerged as a Swayambu while the vedas were being chanted and the guide was also  ultimately instrumental in walking us through the sacred Dwarika temple with a wonderful dharshan including the Maha Harathi, early in the morning.  At the end of an hour long tour of Dwarika temple having witnessed the Dwarakadish, capable of curing all illness, Madhava and Trivikrama , the troupe was ecstatic !

Dwarika Temple

The entourage, after a filling breakfast, started by 10 to Somnath and en route had a glimpse of  Mool Dwarika, where a small but beautiful Krishna temple is situated.

Mool Dwarka
We then proceed to Porbandar, the land of Mahathma Gandhi with lots of excitement and expectations. But, the dusty town attracting the tourists in the name of having the birth place of the father of the nation did little to maintain the place. A short travel by a rickety auto through an awfully maintained street took us to the birth place of Gandhiji.
With Mahathma's Parents

The huge house, well maintained by the Government reminded one of Chettinad houses, both for its look of legacy and chill emitted by the high ceiling.

Having set out with excitement to see and visit what was read decades ago but was disappointed at what was seen, in terms of maintenance, we hurried to another birthplace and residence- this time to Sudama Place, the birth place of Krishna's friend, Sudama.

Sudama Place

The place, of later year construction, was well maintained with some exquisite pictures and statues depicting its significance.

After a Jain lunch and passing through the heat and dust of the state, we reached  Balka Thirth, where the story goes that a hunter mistook Lord Krishna's toe to be a dove and shot Him, while the Lord was resting under a pipal tree.

Bhalka Thirth, Veraval
When the hapless hunter pleaded that he be forgiven, the Lord is said to  have replied that there is nothing for him to worry, as He was  going through his karma for having shot Vaali from a hiding in the earlier Rama Avatar. The small but elegant temple has statues depicting the incident and a visit to this temple at Veraval, Gujarat,  is worth for its significance.

We headed next to one of the biggest attraction of the tour viz., Somnath, Jyotirlingam temple. Security was extremely tight and in a way it was a relief to go inside a temple without the mobile. We were on time again for the evening Harathi and the huge TV screen was already beaming the Deeparathanai live. It was a sight to behold to witness the huge Lingam surrounded by gold plated pillars and walls that were reflecting the twilight and there was little doubt as to why Aurangazeb attempted 17 times to conquer this place! The temple architecture was a marvel and one needs some hours to go through the beauty of those carvings , with a fine tooth comb ! The special sound and light show conducted by the temple  for about 35 minutes, traces the history of the temple and it is a must see for any visitor ( )

To get the early morning Haarathi at the Divya Desam of Dwarika and in the evening at the holy Jyotirlingam of Somnath, lips automatically started singing 'Enna Thavam Siethanai' ('என்ன தவம் செய்தனை ') , as the tired but satisfied group started moving towards yet another grand hotel of   Somnath at :

Lords Inn, Somnath
As if the daylong consumption of Bhakti Rasam was not enough, the lavish dinner of the Lords Inn filled the belly, to hurry the touring party to hit the bed for a well deserved nap.

DAY-5 (12-Mar-2018):

Refreshed with a sound sleep topped up by the rich breakfast of Lord's Inn, the entourage continued to enjoy on its way to Bhavnagar with the initial two hours of the ride was spent on a round of introduction to the already familiar group. With an unhealthy competition on which is worse, the roads or the vile lunch, the oppressive heat not exactly helping the cause, the team persisted to reach Bhavnagar by 4 PM.  The place famous for the receding waters of the sea to reveal the five Lingas, that were installed and worshiped by the Pandavas at this place -  Nishkalank Mahadev Temple , Koliyak, looked deceptively simple when the temple tower was seen from the shores. But when we set out to reach the spot, we realised to our horror how deceptive the look was as the mud constantly washed by the sea waters was highly slippery and even a simple step appeared dangerous and people were seen holding others' hands and the steps reminded one of Adi Pradakshanam done at Mylapore temple. A simple 1.5 KMs took more than 45 minutes to trek as everyone feared for falling into the slush and soiling themselves as well as hurting themselves.

Slippery path to Nishkalank Mahadev temple
But having reached the place, the vibration prevailing was stunning to realize that the five different Lingas are ready to go under water in the next couple of hours. The thirty minute experience there doing an archana with Bilvam, was, for me , an unforgettable experience worth spending some back breaking travel through the energy sapping heat and dust along with the slush at the place.
With Nishkalank Mahadev , after the Pooja
With energy drained after the arduous trek in the slush and mud, the team unanimously decided to call it a day , to retire into the plush confines of the luxurious Hotel Top3 Lords ( )  at Bhavnagar.

Bhavnagar Hotel
DAY-6 (13-Mar-2018):

To catch up with what was lost on the first day, due to the unforeseen spanner  thrown at our plans by the Ahmedabad Airport , the touring party had to stir as early as 3:30 to leave Bhavnagar at 5 and SJT Ramesh's amazing filter coffee made good amends for the reluctant wake up call at 3:30 ! Not willing to leave the beautiful hotel environ people hastily took some slices of the ambiance with them .
Bhavnagar Hotel lounge


Thoughtfully packed breakfast was devoured by 7 at a picturesque spot, enjoying the rising sun and after a five hour rickety ride we reached Dakor Ranchhoraiji temple, the third of the Pancha Dwarika, where the beauty of Krishna was waiting to be captured, with the total absence of any restriction on photography.

Panoramic shot of Dakor temple
After a brief but good narration of the temple's history by a guide, we had a wonderful Harathi dharshan of the Lord, the third such Harathi for us in this tour !!!

The Lord
 The paintings around the temple were too beautiful to capture and people went on a shooting spree

Ranchhoraiji temple
After a good Gujarati lunch, we set out on the last lap of this tour by choosing to visit first the Sabarmati Ashram at Gandhi Nagar, the State's capital, where the remembrances of the father of the nation, who chose to perform so many of his activities in pursuit of the country's freedom, were neatly set on display.

Though the Ashram warranted more time, we could not afford as we were running against it.

A quick tour around Akshardham, marked the culmination of a long dream of a Gujarat visit and when we sat back at the airport to get into the night flight for Chennai, the filled heart was going through the dharshans at Dwarika , Nagesvar, Beyt Dwarika, Somnath, Nishkalank Mahadev and Dakor, and felt truly blessed for the opportunity, health and  resources to have such a blessed visit, thanks to Sree Janaki Tours, whose Ramesh and SriPriya played wonderful roles , towards achieving this.

More pictures of this Gujarat tour are planned to be posted at my picture blog: Please stand by

Friday, December 29, 2017

In pursuit of Siva !

Travelling is a never ending excitement particularly in a country like India and more so if the travel is in search of specific ideals and goals. While 2017 has almost kept my travelling kit ready through the year crisscrossing more of down south, when the bugle call from Sree Janaki Tours (SJT) for a short trip to Madhya Pradesh was blown , it was too irresistible an offer to ignore. The unexplored lands of MP jotted with some rare Jyotirlingas was beckoning and the spot decision to grab the opportunity is one of my quickest.

Due to the crowded calendar , the schedule and the places of visit shared by the Tour managers were never given deep thoughts and when the Indigo flight with a thirty member touring party soared into the evening skies towards Indore , a look at the schedule more for wanting to do something after devouring the mouth watering tomato chutney with soft idlies than for an analysis, it was surprising how much could be covered in such a short time.

When the flight landed blissfully before the scheduled arrival time, the gleaming Devi Ahalyabhai Holker Airport at Indore was a sight to behold with its clean environ and the entourage hurried into the waiting luxury bus, trying to take cover from the chill breeze of the place !

Indore Airport
The hour long drive to Ujjain was pleasant and the illuminated sight of 'Shanthi Clarks Inn Suite' was irresistible. A quick look into the suites confirmed the penchant of SJT to offer the best facility for their clients. The room was spacious, linen clean and wash room spotless. The steaming soup with a higher tinge of pepper and salt was soothing for the dropping temperature and as usual SJT bent backwards to specially summon curd rice for the guests from south India !

Ujjain Hotel
Day-2 (19-Dec-2017)

After a comfortable overnight sleep and a decent breakfast, the group headed to the Mahakaleshwar temple, one of the Jyotirlingas, situated in Madhya Pradhesh , hardly few minutes drive from our hotel. The unique temple Gopuram of this area was everywhere to see and the gigantic statue of King Vikramaditya was an overpowering structure welcoming the guests to the holy city ! Though the Chief Minister of MP was scheduled to visit the temple on that day , it is to the credit of the authorities that the visiting pilgrims were rarely put any hardships due to the visit of the high profile dignitary.

Near Mahakaleshwar Temple
The security checks were not that stringent though people were advised not to carry mobile phones  and even leather bags but the dress code of women  as 'only with saris' was insisted upon , though not much was said about for men. The spacious and somewhat clean environment of the waiting hall, ushered into, was a comforting factor and before long we were close to the big Shiva Linga and as is the wont in North Indian temples, devotees were allowed to pour milk and also embrace the Linga and pray ! The vibrations at the sanctum sanctorum was palpable and one should only visit to realize and feel the same.

It is surprising as to how professional photographers were allowed inside the temple and make quick bucks, while tourists were not even allowed to carry the mobile phones ! While group photos were being taken, there was a woman group of around 20 or so with the dolak performing real foot tapping bajan numbers and no one missed to stop by the Hanuman Sannidi to get immersed in the religious fervour being generated.
Mahakaleshwar Temple
The Badey Ganapathy temple , outside the Omkareshwar temple is rightly named after its huge size. The redeeming feature of this temple is the Pancha Muka Anjaneya with Lord Narasimha as one of the five faces.

The Har Siddhi Maa temple , a Sakthi peedam , is believed to be the abode of many Goddesses . The attraction of this temple is the structure which is made up of a rock smeared with turmeric paste  and vermilion, which makes the temple magnificent when the lamps are lit during Navrathri.

Har Siddhi Maa Temple
The Maa Ghadkalika Devi temple that we visited next is the place that houses Goddess Kaali which the great poet Mahakavi Kalidas worshiped, as displayed in the stone inscription there . I could not stop reminiscing the sequence of events in Kalidas's life beautifully depicted in the Tamil film 'Mahakavi Kalidas' , which I would have seen over a dozen times.

Maa Gatkalika Temple
Maa Gatkalika Temple Inscription

The Sri Kaala Bhairav Temple, our next stop, gave an ancient look and was dominated by hordes of monkeys deeply involved in a hide and seek game while the devotees respectfully avoided their field of play !

Kaala Bairava Mandir
By then the entourage was sagging with hunger but the cook at the hotel seemed to have a liking for the famous Andhra Chilly in that all the items were so hot that people even approached curd cups with trepidation !

Post lunch first visit was to Sree Mangalnath Mandir , a temple for  Mars,  and the temple structure reminded one of  New Delhi planetarium. The winding arm of river Kshipra behind the temple was a sight not to be missed and it is a photographer's delight to exercise the photographic skills in the fading sunlight !

Mangal Nath Mandir

Kshipra river behind Mangal Nath Mandir

 Sandipani Ashram near the Mangalnath Mandir is the place where Krishna was supposed to have learnt the skills along with his friend Sudhama under the guidance of Guru Sandipani and there were enough pictures and artifacts adding to the significance of the place.

Sandipani Ashram
Having taken in enough for the day, the team retreated to the hotel for a dinner later to suit the dipping temperature outside.

Day-3 (20-Dec-2017)

The rejuvenated team set out early for the town of Maandu, about 80 KM from Ujjain, and the travel time en route was well utilized for networking that brought people closer. What started as a two hour drive almost stretched for four hours before we hit Maandu and the lunch served there was much better and tolerable than the one we had the previous day.

Having quelled the cravings of belly, the team set to explore the structures and ruins of the ancient city of Maandu, which presented some exquisite sights. Visiting places like Jahas Mahal (Jahas meaning a ship) ,  Hindola Mahal and Roopmathy pavilion, one could experience the beauty in the form of butterfly shaped pond, Sauna bath place and other such spots , which were well explained by the local guide , who unfortunately could not speak English.



As the famous Bagh caves of Maandu could not be accessed due to an accident on the way, the team after a visit to the Echo Point and a tasty tea in too small a cup, a specialty of North India, set out to the town of Maheshwar, which has some beautiful temples under its fold. Ahilyeshwar temple  is basically the place where the idols worshiped by  Devi Ahalya Bhai were maintained and the number and sizes of Shiva Lingas were mind boggling ! There was even a golden swing where Krishna was resting and whether its for security purpose or closing time, we were allowed to have dharshan only through a window, but the sight is worth a small trek to reach the temple.

In the fading beauty of twilight, Jaleshwar temple with the background of river Narmada was enchanting and with the oil lamps lit on the steps leading to the temple adding grandeur, the scene was too tempting for snaps. But, as the pundit of the temple had some other work the temple was closed even at 6:30 PM, clearly an hour ahead of the schedule- so much for the visitors thronging the place from far and wide ! As for me from a far off place like Tamilnadu, I feel a golden opportunity has been missed, as visiting this place again will be too much of an ask, health and purse wise ! Hope  the Madhya Pradhesh Tourism serve the visitors better than this !
Jaleshwar Temple
The Raja Rajeswara temple visited next was well lit and sported a brand new look with many sannidhis and people were happy to finish this dharshan fast as the shop selling popular Maheswari sarees were enticing them from the next door! But the myth of buying such popular items at a better rate from the places of their making was busted when the sellers at these places were also found to jack up the price and bring them as discounts. But such revelations were not to deter our folks who ended up buying a handful of saris before proceeding to Omkareshwar, an hour's drive from the place.

RajaRajeshwar Temple
Day-4 (21-Dec-2017)

The MP govt resort at Omkareshwar beat all the expectations and turned out to be a pretty good host in terms of clean and  ready rooms, good food and pleasing service. Wish our TTDC folks could take some leaves out of such places as the memories of our stay at TTDC, Coimbatore few years back, with dirty linen and crawling bed bugs still haunt us. The master stroke again was to shrug the morning blues and start early and to beat the early morning chill , which was pretty daunting, some local 'TATA magic cabs' were engaged and that protected us well from the weather.

Omkareshwar Entrance
Ours was almost the first group to enter the Omkareshwar temple, which was surprisingly without much security hassles that haunt such popular places and visitors were even allowed to carry their mobile phones.

The dharshan that followed was out of the world, without any pushing or 'Jarugandis' by the temple staff, who even allowed devotees to take photographs of the presiding deity, which even now I am unable to believe.

Due to the thin crowd , we could even make multiple visits and satiate our dharshan thirst and people there warned us not to take this as a regular feature as people had to wait for hours normally and that we were extremely lucky today with such an outing! Then followed an elaborate ritual outside the praharam, where a pundit made all of us to perform a pooja to a Siva Lingam with sankalpam and an abhishekam , while a professional photographer kept clicking to offer copies at dirt cheap price but the satisfaction derived by the whole experience was complete and worth all the efforts !

Sankalpam Abhishekam and Pooja 
A boat ride, that  followed,  on the river Narmada , upto the Triveni sangam there, enabled the touring party to relax and enjoy the beauty of the river which runs very deep, we were told.

Narmada Boating
We were then offloaded at the other side of the river bank to have a dharshan of Mamleshwar Jyotirlinga. It is believed that a trip to Omkareshwar is complete only if one visits both Omkareshwar and Mamleshwar temples. Some also believe that  Mamleshwar is the actual Jyotirlinga and not Omkareshwar !! The temple was old but grand and after an exclusive dharshan and a filling breakfast the team set out to Indore on its last leg of the tour.


The smooth two hour drive to Indore covering around 80 KMs was spent by the group, more to catch up with some sleep that was deprived by an early morning wake up call and to kill time before lunch we visited the Indore Lal Bagh Palace, where the security was multi fold, more than the Jotirlinga temple, but the marble environs where the royals lived left everyone jealous.

Indore Lal Bagh Palace
The parting gift of Madhya Pradhesh was a visit to the Anna Poorani temple, a brand new looking temple, before we set out for a typical north Indian lunch.

Indore Annapoorani temple
After a stroll on the Indore streets just to look for some simple easy grabs of purchase from the Raja Wada street, we moved back to the gleaming Indore airport.

The well lit Indore airport was at its impressive best and the waiting time vanished in no time with the touring party munching over the past few days that just breezed through !

While the tour, despite the hitherto unknown and unexplored terrain of MP did not have any jolts, the Indigo flight compensated it well on its way to Chennai with a sudden but severe jolt mid-sky that prompted almost everyone of us to call the Jyotirlingas we had seen, to our rescue ! Other than that parting shakeup , the team enjoyed the tour well, with the Tour managers doing a wonderful job and when we hit the roads of Chennai heading back home late into the night, we had a feeling of having completed a near perfect and satisfying outing!!