Gujarat – Land of Lions

Background

Shruti’s dad has had several postings around Western India due to his job in the Department of Shipping. The in-laws were posted near Kandla, Gujarat this year and we were keen to see this area while they are here.

We got the opportunity later in our travels in India. However, one could say that in some ways we left the best to last!

Land of textiles

Gandhidham where Shruti’s parents currently are is in the Kutch area of Gujarat. It has its own language, culture and unique geography. On our trip to Bhuj, the city that was devastated in 2001 due to the massive earthquake, we noticed the colors of the clothing of women in the area. They ranged from bright green to red and even darker colors like brown and black. Interestingly, the colors they wore depended on the caste, age and marital status of the women.

Bhujodi village, Kutch, GujaratShruti’s mum and Shruti got down to buying some local clothes. We also visited Bhujodi village, which is basically a craftmen’s village where the traditional people of the region created cloth, paintings and accessories. It was a great effort by the local govt to keep traditions alive!

We saw more of the textiles and culture in the Bhuj museum. For a town that was nearly flattened 14 years ago, Bhuj has transformed itself into a textile centre and a gateway to Rann of Kutch. It was only the beginning of getting to know about it.

Road trip

Other than Kutch, Gujarat is famous for its temples. Our driver, Jaisukhbhai (in Gujarat, all males are addressed as bhai, which means brother, and all women add ben, means sister, after their first name) drove all of us from Gandhidham to Jamnagar and then to Dwarka, 150km away.

Dwarka area was the Hindu God Krishna’s capital which apparently now lies under the sea due to the sea levels rising and earthquakes in the region (nature doesn’t even spare the Gods!).

Bet Dwarka, GujaratBet Dwarka, Gujarat

We visited Bet Dwarka or Dwarka Island which houses an ancient temple. It is a beautiful boat ride away from the mainland and the island has the population of Hindus and Muslims. Somehow they all live in peace and the sea is amazingly clean which is strange for an Indian port.

 

Bet Dwarka, Gujarat

Our next stop was Nageshwar Temple which is one of the 12 Jyotirling, power centers of Shaivite Hinduism. The temple itself was quiet and peaceful, though the highlight was a huge Shiva statue with live peacocks sitting on top. Nag in Sanskrit means Cobra and on a certain festival, a male and a female cobras are brought to the temple. Sad that we couldn’t see a Cobra party!

Nageshwar Temple, Gujarat

Finally, we reached the main Dwarkadhish (Lord of Dwarka) temple, which is built next to the sea. The building itself was carved in sandstone and built in 16th century. However, the original temple at this spot is dated around 2000 years old. The carvings on the temple are beautiful but nature spares no one and the salty breeze is slowly damaging the temple. There was a huge crowd near the idol which unlike other Krishna idols, is adorned with jewellery. A king needs his bling after all!

Dwarkadhish Temple, Gujarat

The next day we drove for a long distance and reached the Somnath Temple. This temple is one of the biggest jyotirling temples in India. Moreover, no other temple has felt the wrath of Islamic invasions like this one. Somnath was looted and destroyed many times over the years by Afghan invaders. It was rebuilt by the efforts of Sardar Patel after Indian independence. It is an amazing view from the coast seeing this beautiful temple. However, this temple is also high on the hit list of terrorists for historic reasons and the security is very tight. It was so tight that males are not allowed to wear belts even if the belts are not made of leather (cows are sacred and belts may have bovine leather).

Somnath Temple, Gujarat

While on the way home from Gir Forest, we had a chance to visit Jaisukhbhai’s maternal village. We met his aunt, cousin and cousin’s wife who all talked to us in Gujarati and we could only do the universal nod as we didn’t understand a thing they spoke! However, their house was the old style village house with an open area, a storage room, huge kitchen and shaded areas to escape from the sun. I was served water in a steel pot, instead of a glass, and I had to drink water from it and pass it on. It was a different experience.

Drinking water from potStacked kitchen, Gujarat

Jaisukhbhai picked fresh lemons from the backyard, showed us the kitchen with neatly stacked steel plates and a storage room full of virgin cotton. We had never seen so much cotton from a farm. Jaisukhbhai explained that in older times the storage room used to be full of mangoes from the family farm. Oh how we wish we had come back then!

 

Cotton store room

Driving through the village, we realised how clean and developed the villages in Gujarat are. The entire village had concreted roads and rubbish bins something that is unheard of in India. Finally, we reached the family farm which was once an orchard. The buffaloes, cows, mango, chikoo & guava trees and a well. It was a highlight of the trip when we jumped on a mango tree and took photos.

Gujarat Farm, Gujarat

Beautiful Coast

The terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 was initiated by terrorists who entered the city by boat. This prompted the Indian Government to make the coast secure. We visited the radar systems on a family visit to see how the government keeps a track of the ships that come in.

Gujarat coast

Other than this, we were also able to visit a ship with chemicals as cargo. The size of the ship was magnificent. The deck of the ship and the engine room certainly had me impressed as it was the first time I had been inside a ship. It was an engineering marvel though I am no engineering fan.

Finally, our tryst with the coast had its pinnacle when we lived next to a light house for a night near Dwarka. It was no moon night and with our not-so-good-camera, we tried to capture the stars (those white tiny dots).

Dwarka LighthouseFamily at Lighthouse

The coast of Saurashtra has several lighthouses and we were lucky enough to get a view from the top. While we were on a holiday, we saw how tough life can be even in the most beautiful places. Women from the cattle herding caste were pulling out seaweed from the water to dry and feed their cattle.

 

Dwarka Lighthouse, Gujarat

We also stopped at a stretch of road which had a beautiful beach adjacent to it. The beach was clean, the water was cool and the sand was fine. I never thought I’ll be seeing a beach in Gujarat, let alone a pretty one. Having said that, people were not recommended to swim in it due to very strong currents.

Beach in Gujarat

Industrial visit

There’s not a lot for unemployed travelers to do in Gandhidham. That can only be a good thing as the city is full of industry especially transportation, shipping, cement and salt. Having said that, it left us bored and looking for things to do.

Seeing our boredom, my father-in-law sent us on a industrial visit. Initially, I wasn’t too keen on it as I couldn’t see a point of seeing machines and that we were swapping one boredom for another. How wrong I was!
We were met by the Head of Security of the fertilizer factory plant at the gate. We put on our construction place hats, face masks and boarded the jeep. On our way, we saw large mounds of ammonia which is one of the base products. Once inside, we saw the huge machines and the computer systems controlling the machines and their output.

Later on, we moved onto the ammonia storage tanks. The temperature is kept at minus 30 and the ammonia is received directly from the ships that dock at port. This combined with the chemical ship completed our tour of two industries of Kandla/Gandhidham. It may not have been the factory or the ship so much but we were awed by the industrial scale in Gujarat.

Invisible lions

Gujarat is the last home of Asiatic Lions in the world. We had an opportunity to visit the Gir forest which is spread across four districts of Saurashtra. Our safari was at 9am and we were excited to see a Lion roar.

Tip: Don’t forget to book your permit online here. There are limited number of safaris everyday and the officials are very strict about the number of people visiting the forest.

Gir Forest Safari

The driver and guide however were not so optimistic. Lions are extremely lazy and they rest for up to 20 hours a day. Their most active times are dawn and dusk. Unfortunately, having no prior experience we had picked the 9am – 12pm slot.

As soon as we got into the jeep, we had picked out directions to spot the lions. The guide was sometimes out of the jeep to view the tracks left by the lion. The forest itself was amazing. Lions live in dry forests or savannah. The dry forest provides the lion with enough cover and open areas to hunt.

Gir Forest, Gujarat

We tried several routes, saw deer and blue bulls but no lion. Unfortunately, the jeep can only go on marked tracks and the lions only come out there in the mornings and evenings. During our time, they were somewhere deep in the forest. The guide made us feel better by telling us stories of Amitabh Bachchan and Shankarsinh Vaghela, former Chief Minister, who had to try for several days before seeing a lion.

Gir Forest

Personally, it was not such a disappointment though. We learnt a good lesson this time in terms of wildlife. India has several national parks with big cats, rhinos, elephants and other exotic animals. Due to the strong Indian sun, most of them come out only at dawn, dusk and night. We will take better care next time!

But for now, see this picture:

Monkey, Gir Forest

Dholavira

Indus Valley Civilization is the ancient civilization of India. It existed from 3000 B.C. and helped created the modern Indian civilization as well as had a significant effect on Pakistan. Most excavated sites of this civilization were found between Indus river and the Thar desert, most of which now lies in Pakistan.
Gujarat has several sites relating to this civilization. For us, the closest was Dholavira situated on an island in the Great Rann of Kutch. The drive took around 3-3.5 hours, half an hour too long because I was learning the manual transmission driving.

Driving manual car

Once we reached there, the ruins were on one side and the museum on the other. As we walked up to the museum, the guard asked us to see the ruins first and if we wanted a guide. We declined and were left alone. The ruins were huge with the royal area, middle area, lower area, 2 stadiums and 2 rock cut reservoirs.

Dholavira, Gujarat

The build of the walls was so strong that they survived thousands of years before being excavated. Nothing is known about the language of the harrapan civilization and why it dissapeared. However, it was a civilization on par with the greatest civilization in the world for its time.

Dholavira, Gujarat

Great Rann of Kutch

Dholavira is situated on an island which is in the middle of a huge salty lake which fills up during the monsoon and then starts drying up leaving a layer of salt layer which is only found in a few places in the world.
Great Rann of Kutch, GujaratWe were able to see the Great Rann of Kutch lake which resembled an inland sea complete with several islands and sea birds in it. The lake had a temple and a BSF check post near it. It was really close to Pakistan, basically on the other side of the lake. A perfect location for a photo shoot. As it happened some Hindu religious guru turned up there with his entourage just as we were leaving. Strange place for a prayer though!

Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

We couldn’t leave without trying a few perspective shots in the salt pan. We stopped the car on the causeway and decided to walk down. We found that the salt was on the surface but underneath it was still muddy but strong enough to support our weight. We should have left it there.

Great Rann of Kutch, GujaratGreat Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

However, if we did that we would normal in the head. Therefore, I went to the other side of the causeway to try my luck. At first it appeared to be working but one step forward and both my shoes were in mud. I pulled out as quickly as possible while Shruti and the driver stood on the causeway laughing. I walked back like a batsman who got out on a duck, folded up my pants, put the shoes in a bag and told the driver to drive home with an angry face.

Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

Little Rann of Kutch

When we were looking at the map of Gujarat, we saw a green area at the edge of Kutch named the ‘Wild Ass Sanctuary’. The name itself made us want to explore it. Shruti and her dad were in conversations with a few tour guides for it.
In the end, we selected eco camp at Jogad with two safaris. Once we arrived at the camp, we realized it was right in front of a huge field where some animals were walking. As we looked closer, we realized that it was the beginning of the Little Rann of Kutch and those animals were wild asses :)

Wild Ass, Little Rann of Kutch
The camp was an amazing spot in open. Traditional mud huts with paintings and basic needs. We loved it!

Eco Tour Camp, Little Rann of Kutch

After we checked in, we grabbed quick lunch and napped for 30 mins below heading out in the safari jeep. The field was actually part of the rann where the water in the monsoon moved through. There were grasslands, small trees and lots of animals. Donkeys, blue bulls, black bucks and foxes are quite common in the area. In addition, we saw a few migratory birds and eagles scanning the grasslands for their next prey.

Wild Ass Sanctuary

Next, we moved to a unique landscape. Further in the rann, the water fills up during the monsoon from the great rann of kutch and then slowly dries up. However, despite this, the land is parched and cracked due to the brackish water. The land is a desert with no trees, no birds once it dries, no grass, no people and no sound as far as anyone can see.

Little Rann of Kutch
In addition, we then saw the salt making areas within this desert. Pools of water were stored next to each other. However, our guide, Mr. Devjibhai, explained that the pools were connected and the heavy (salt heavy) water moves to the end and crystalizes. It was beautiful to be there at sunset.

Little Runn of Kutch

Finally, we were able to see what we had wanted all along. We saw the white desert in the Little Rann of Kutch and walked on it! Our guide drove us to it after driving through dusty mud flat desert and we couldn’t believe that we were walking on a salt pan. In fact, it was the surprise which made it so much better. We had given up on walking on salt pans in India as they were not dry enough (read my accident above).

Little Rann of KutchLittle Rann of Kutch

Initially, the in laws were a bit concerned about walking on the salt pan as it was still muddy in places. However, seeing our enthusiasm, they also got into the photos and enjoying the rann. Somehow late but it was one of the best experiences that we had in India.

Little Rann of Kutch
Though we were tired, we spent half an hour star gazing and the sky at this place was amazing. We walked a little away from the camp and gosh the stars were everywhere. Our guide told us that they do star gazing expeditions for western tourists which generally involves giving the tourists a bed, some warm clothes and leaving then out there for the night. Scary and beautiful at the same time!
The next morning, we had another safari to see flamingos. We all got up very early and got in the jeep. However, none of us had imagined how cold it would be and to be honest, I was shivering because I thought one sweater works be enough. In addition, we had to drive 50 kms through villages and farms which left us coughing due to the dust.

Early morning

The end result however was magical. Once we arrived at the wetlands of the little rann of kutch, we could not believe our eyes. There were hundreds of flamingoes flying around and thousands sitting in the lake. The blue lake, blue sky and the pink flamingos made the sight picture perfect.

Here is a short video (sorry about my thumb) –

We walked closer to the lake carefully and observed the birds closely with a binocular. Our guide told us that all the birds were migratory and after monsoons hundreds of thousands come for nesting. We even saw some pelicans and seagulls. It was almost unbelievable that this is a yearly event.

Flemingo, Little Rann of Kutch

Staying with parents

It was kind of unrelated to our travel but Shruti wanted to spend some time with her parents. However, the fact that we were able to combine our time with the parents with a little travel around Gujarat made it perfect.
In addition, not only did we recharge our batteries but even I got to spend time with the in laws. It was a great time listening to the shipping stories of father-in-law while enjoying mother-in-law’s cooking and views on everything from the present generation, financial investments and mostly Indian politics.

Finally, it was good to see our relationship change from a formal one to one like parents and kids.

P.S. – Shruti’s mum was bang on about Gandhidham’s food being terrible.

Summary

Final thoughts

What to say about Gujarat? Firstly, Gujarat was never one area. Saurashtra, Junagadh and Kutch were always different to Ahmedabad and surrounding areas. This difference was obvious in our road trip. Kutch is mostly dry and industrial while Saurashtra was fertile and traditional. From our small time in Ahmedabad, it resembled Delhi. The buildings, roads, bridges and the riverfront made it look like a well developed city.
Whatever be the history, today Gujarat has developed tremendously while still keeping its culture and traditions alive. Providing good highways, Gujarat has made its religious and natural sites into a tourist hub.

While it may have had instances of sectarian violence in the past, everything now seems peaceful mainly due to having jobs and industry. It’s pretty hard for working people to be rioting with each other and its also economically bad for all communities.
While people may claim that Gujarati food is sweet and inedible, we found this statement to be false. All through our road trip, we found gujarati food to be spicy and different especially the breads of millet and sorghum.

Gujarati Food

In all, we were glad we spent time in Gujarat. Amitabh Bachchan is right in both his sayings “kuch din to guzairye Gujarat mein”(Try and spend some time in Gujarat) and “Kutch nahi dekha to kuch nahi dekha”(If you didn’t see Kutch, you didn’t see anything). While these lines may have been created to rhyme in Hindi, they are essentially right. Even we recommend staying in Gujarat and seeing the place while you should not miss out on Kutch. Many places in the world gave mountains and deserts but the salt pans and animal safaris together in one area are rare in the world. Do check it out!

Gujarat

The only negatives to the entire trip are that there is no alcohol in Gujarat officially and that the accommodation at tourist spots is not cheap. Firstly, I say officially because there is plenty of alcohol and deaths from alcohol but the government banned it due to Mahatama Gandhi’s beliefs. It didn’t work and there is plenty of corruption over it. Secondly, this may only apply to natural sights as they are either far from cities or are extremely popular. You get what you pay for!

Accommodation

We stayed mostly at home but when on the road we stayed in hotels and government guest houses.

Transport

We used mostly Shruti’s dad’s car.

Gujarat Gallery

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Punjab and a Wedding

The backstory

My mate Amrit met up with Jashan during our wedding in 2014. They got along very well and decided to get engaged later in 2014. We were eagerly waiting for the wedding date so we could plan our Punjab visit. Luckily the dates coincided with our original plan and we couldn’t wait to attend the wedding.

We boarded a bus from Gandhidham, got to Ahmedabad and flew to Delhi. We spent a day in Delhi and Faridabad with family. We were ultimately picked up by the driver at our Faridabad residence. We then drove to the airport to pick up Bharat who was flying in from Sydney. The entire journey to Mohali was spent talking and drinking.

Paronthe at DhabbaWe reached Mohali in the early hours of the night. The highway between Delhi and Chandigarh is mostly GT Road which in the oldest highway in India. Along the way there are plenty of McDhabas which started out as truck stops but are now institutions. We stopped at one of them and enjoyed the paronthe with a generous serving of desi makkhan (home made butter).

Apart from the food and drinks on the way, the other highlight was a daredevil on the bike. He was lying on his back while keeping the bike stable with his feet. Crazy guy! Here is the video if you don’t believe me.

A video posted by Shruti Shukla (@ss19rulz) on

Free flowing booze

The wedding was held in Punjab and Punjabis are known for their drinking habit, especially at weddings. The boys were constantly asked and handed out a beer each time we were idle, bored or without a reason. The pre-cocktail and the cocktail nights turned out to be massive booze sessions. It proved to be too much for many of us including me.

Pre-cocktail

Turbanators

While we were still in Sydney, Amrit discussed the idea of groomsmen and bridesmaids coordinating their outfit colours and the groomsmen wearing turbans. The idea sounded good to us and this is the main reason why I have been growing my beard for months.

All of us had to try the turbans on before the wedding. Think of it as a trail run and somehow the non-Indians looked even better in the turbans. Amazing!

Trail for Turbans

The Bhangra

One of the other pillars of Punjabi culture is the dance, Bhangra. While at the wedding, we all danced crazy a few times. The non-Indian mates were a hit with the crowd due to the awesome dance moves.

Bhangra Dance

A part of the weddings are boliyan where the dholi, the drummer, invites different relatives and friends to dance. The first two nights we had all the energy to dance but eventually we were all tired and found it repetitive. Nevertheless, we bhangra-ed our way in the baraat, the wedding party, again!

Cocktail Party

Lots of curry innit

No Indian wedding is complete without overeating and this wedding was no different. Each day, a feast of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes were laid out in front of us along with a variety of breads. My friend Bharat had the lions share of curd (yoghurt) while I ate as much meat as possible.

Shruti got heena tattoeed over her hands, I got to feed her as well. Modern Indian love as they call it!

It may be a mark of how good the food was that on the wedding day, we both realised we had put on a few kilos. Yolo!

Customs & Ceremonies

There are quite a few ceremonies that need to take place before and after an Indian wedding. Applying heena, rubbing tumeric, wearing the bangles are some common ceremonies that happen in most Indian weddings. Alongside, Jashan had a chunri ceremony as well where the groom’s family showered her with gifts and blessings.

As part of family customs, before the wedding the bride’s family officially invited the groom and his family for the wedding. Although the two families had spent a lot of time together prior to the wedding, it was good to see family customs still being followed.

Wedding Collage

Day of the wedding

The day of the wedding is utter chaos. Everyone is stressed, everyone is trying to keep things on time but Indian weddings are rarely on time. I was given the job of keeping all the groomsmen on time while Shruti had to visit the beauty parlor with the ladies.

Our alarm went off at 4:15am and after sleeping early at 11:00pm the night before, we were still pretty sleep deprived. Shruti was out of the door by 5am while I woke the guys up. The wedding creeps up on you like a rising flood or lava coming down a mountain.

This was evident as incredibly all the guys were ready by 6am but the turban professional was nowhere to be seen. The groom had signs of the wedding day paranoia, his sister had signs of project manager paranoia while I looked at everyone helplessly. We finally got our turbans on and we looked like real sardars. Especially Marcello the Italian Sikh!

Wedding DayApplying kajal

During the Sehra Bandi ceremony, Shruti got to perform ‘applying the kajal’ ceremony in Amrit’s eye. As she is the sister-in-law, applying kajal is to avoid the evil eye. It was a touching moment!

The wedding finally approached though we were an hour late. As the Indian joke goes, we finally put the donkey on a horse.

The groom is the king for the day getting on his horse to get his bride. We danced and took photos to remember the day.

 

Groom on horse

We finally proceeded to the Sikh Gurudwara where Jashan entered looking stunning as the bride. The Anand Karaj ceremony was performed and the couple were married as the almighty intended.

Shoe stealing ceremony

The film Hum Aaapke Hain Kaun made ‘groom’s shoe stealing’ as an official ceremony at every traditional Indian wedding. The groom’s shoes are stolen by the bride’s sisters and friends who then demand a price to return it. The groom eventually gives up and pays a price. However, the challenge is to avoid having the shoes stolen.

We were on our game from the start and hid Amrit’s shoes safely in Nitesh’s car. After we returned from the Gurudwara, all the groom’s men and Pree’s (groom’s sister) shoes were gone. As a result, the groom went barefoot in protest for our photo shoot.

In response to this unfair tactic, Nitesh stole the car keys from one of the bridesmaid, forcing them to drive in one car. Once we returned for lunch, we were laughed at but we wouldn’t do anything to let the bridesmaids take the grooms shoes. Eventually, Jashan’s mother gave us slippers which went perfectly well with the traditional outfit. Not!

Feeling that the groom would look bad in the photos, we were urged to bring back the grooms shoes. We did so and this brought out the ‘hunter’ in the girls. Eventually they ganged up on the groom while on stage but we weren’t giving up so early. It was a brawl but I managed to save one shoe making it impossible to do the trade.

However, as is tradition, we had to give up and the groom had to pay a fee. Our shoes were returned and everyone went home happy. A fun but expensive game for the groom!

Sneaking out early

We left the wedding a little early on the day of the wedding reception. We had said our goodbyes the night before and were out the door by 6:30am. Being sleep deprived for 3 nights, we fell asleep as soon as we were in the train but saw enough of the Punjab heartland between Ludhiana and Amritsar including yellow mustard fields. Yash Chopra would be proud!

Sarso Fields, Punjab

Holiest of the Holy

Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib is perhaps the most well-known building of India after Taj Mahal. It was built in 1604AD and was commisioned by Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan of Sikhism.

The precinct is huge and mostly White while Central Temple is Golden. The Central Temple has water in a man made lake on the sides which makes it looks beautiful beyond words. As we saw this view, we noticed the carp in the water and the crowd waiting to get into the central temple. To say we were in a hurry would be an understatement as we had a train back to Jalandhar at 7:30PM.

Golden Temple, Amritsar

Amritsar Temple QueueHowever, once we entered the line, we forgot everything. The 10 Sikh gurus, the religious figures of Sikhism, were incredible poets as well as competent in traditional music. The Sikh scriptures are sung by trained singers according to the raga (note) of the day. The bani (words) of the gurus makes one forget about all the problems in life. The peace one gets can certainly not bought with money!

 

Golden Temple, Amritsar

Volunteer, Golden Temple, AmritsarAfter visiting the Golden Temple, we walked around to the langar (kitchen) hall for lunch. Free meals for all was set up by another Sikh Guru a few hundred years ago and till today has been feeding all sorts of people. The food is simple and vegetarian but is tasty and fulfilling. The system works on volunteer basis with people cutting vegetables, cooking, serving and cleaning up. A salute to the volunteers from us!

Langar, Golden Temple, Amritsar

Patriotism at the Border

India and Pakistan have a great rivalry, which is reflected in cricket as well. At all the borders with Pakistan, a “parade” or ceremony is conducted for the opening and closing of doors. The soldiers on both sides go through a ritual of handshakes and marching while taking down the flags and closing the gates.

Attari-Wagah Border, Amritsar

The most famous of these is the ceremony in Amritsar at the Atari-Wagah border. A taxi driver willing to take us to Wagah border on a shared basis met us outside the Gurudwara. We met him at 2:30pm, as he asked us to, but in true Indian fashion, never really got on the road till 3:00pm. The ceremony starts at 4:30pm so we would be there just on time.

Attari-Wagah Border, Amritsar

Attari-Wagah Border, AmritsarUnfortunately, the border ceremony has become incredibly popular for people visiting Amritsar. Therefore, when we reached the seats were already full and the crowd was so big that we could not see the border gates. It was disappointing as we had to watch the entire ceremony on a large screen though it was only 50 metres away.

Eventually the crowd moved away a little and we were able to get some good shots of the Indian Border Gate. At last, we walked back to the taxi as soon as we could so we could get back to the station in time for the train. We made it easily and managed to board our train to Jalandhar to visit the family.

 

Attari-Wagah Border, Amritsar

Summary

Final thoughts

The wedding was an organized chaos and Amrit and Jashan’s families worked very hard to get everything on time. We were thankful to them for inviting us. It was great fun!

We highly recommend becoming friends with a Punjabi so you can enjoy the craziness of a wedding. Attending a full blown Punjabi wedding should be a must do on everyone’s list.

Bride & Groom

In addition, we were in Amritsar were only for a day but managed to see 2 main highlights of the city. It was a quick but amazing visit.

Transport

We did not use any of our own transportation during the wedding but did use Ola and Uber for visits to Chandigarh and train station.

A free bus service is available from Amritsar railway station to Golden temple every half hour. Shared taxis are also available from Golden Temple to Wagah border parade.

Accommodation

We lived at Hotel Tulip Sec 71 Mohali during the wedding and that was a good hotel.

Punjab and a Wedding Gallery

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Kanpur

The Motherland

Though Shruti grew up in Mumbai, her family comes from Kanpur area. Kanpur was a British cantonment named Cawnpore and was known as the Manchester of the East due to its mills.

The city is based along the Ganges river and is now most famous for its tanneries.

The Family

Whilst in Kanpur, we visited Shruti’s tauji (paternal uncle) and mamaji’s(maternal uncle) family. They were happy to see Shruti and me after the wedding.

Shruti stayed in her paternal house until she was 3 and this brought alot of memories back. She reminisced the house being completely different but remembered all the nooks and crannies.

Day at the Village

It was Shruti’s wish that we all go to their native village to see the temple and the old house. We were meant to leave really to make it to the village by 11am but running on the Indian Standard Time, we ended up leaving the house by 11am.

Village, Kanpur, UPAlong the way, we went through small and big villages through an unruly part of India. This area was famous for its dacoits and revolutionaries during the British times, the most famous being Chandrashekhar Azad. Despite this, the countryside was incredibly beautiful with rice fields and trees everywhere. As a added bonus, we saw some beautiful migratory birds in the fields. We also saw the traditional thatched roof or ‘kuchcha’ houses which were also beautiful. Ancestral Temple, Kanpur, UP

At Shruti’s ancestral village, we visited some temples and the old ancestral property. It brought us great joy to set the area where Shruti’s great grand father lived with his family. On the other hand, it was sad to see the house in disrepair and people fighting over the property.

 

Ancestral Home, Kanpur, UP

First Serious Sickness

Sick ShrutiUp until now, we had been avoiding getting sick. However, Shruti started getting a cold on the day in the village. However, the next day, the cold turned into a fever and a Delhi belly. Having a sickness in an Indian family is nothing short of a circus with everyone giving different advice and medicines.

Eventually though, the fever got too high and Shruti had to be taken to a doctor. Other than the diagnosis, this turned into an interrogation of why we are traveling for so long and why the doctor and our family thought it was a bad idea.

In any case, he gave us good advice on how to avoid water borne diseases. In a few days, Shruti recovered and we are thankful to the doctor for it.

Till the Cows Come Home

Having bad Internet connection and a sick wife, there was not much to do in Kanpur. The biggest entertainment was the cows in the area. Since the farmers cannot afford to feed the cows when they give less milk, they let the cows go walkabout all day. Therefore, like a cat, the cows go outside to walk, eat and then come back to the same house from which they left. Though it’s common in the fields, recognising the correct house in the correct street was amazing. As a final act of their skill, the cows moo outside the door at sunset to indicate their arrival.

Summary

We had planned to see a few things in Kanpur and Lucknow but all those plans took a backseat to Shruti’s sickness.

Village UP, Kanpur

Kanpur Gallery

Varanasi

Centre of Hinduism

Ganga, VaranasiVaranasi is an ancient city on the banks of river Ganga or Ganges. It has been the spiritual centre of Hinduism for a few thousand years and the centre of knowledge since the medieval period. People travel to bathe along its banks as well as to die here in the old age as it is believed to give one a good birth in the next life.

Additionally, Varanasi is famous for its boat rides. The Ganga is quite calm in this area and its a charm to be on a boat looking at the ghats (bathing steps). Each ghat has a story and its the job of a boatman to tell the story of the biggest ghats.

Boat ride, VaranasiWe decided to enjoy the boat ride in the evening. Our boatman, Ramesh, told us the stories of the ghats as well as about life in Varanasi, his kids and his struggle as a contractor boatman. At the time of Ganga Aarti, he parked us at the main ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat. It was an incredible experience being in the water on a boat surrounded by hundreds of boats watching the aarti.

Boat ride, Varanasi

We also walked along the ghats towards Assi Ghat. We crossed the Raja Harishchandra Ghat, which carries out the Hindu Cremation. Shruti was worried crossing the ghat as based on Hindu beliefs, ladies aren’t supposed to be present during the ‘burning of corpse’. It was definitely a weird experience for us as no hindu wants to be so close to funeral pyres in any form.

On a light note, it was amazing seeing the locals, religious followers and tourists sharing the common path and enjoying the banks in their own way. We were surprised to see so many westerns relaxing and interacting with the locals. They are probably there to ‘find themselves’ :)

Budhism Centre

Varanasi is also one of the holiest sites of Buddhism. Sarnath, around 8km from the centre of Varanasi, is where Buddha preached the basics of Buddha Dharma for the first time. The Dhammekh Stupa in Sarnath is a pyramid shaped structure with the relics of Buddha. Having a belief in the teachings of Buddha, it was a moving experience for me knowing that this is where the journey of Buddhism started.

Dhammekh Stupa, Sarnath, Varanasi

Moreover, The site is also famous for the Ashoka Pillar – the Four Lions on top of a pillar overlooking in each direction. Originally it was meant to represent Buddhism and the Dhamma Chakra but since 1947 was adopted as the emblem of India.

Finally, though we didn’t visit them, Varanasi is also home to important sites of Jainism, Sikhism and many other smaller religions connected with medieval saints.

Day Trip to Bodhgaya

Somewhat unusual for us, we had planned to go Bodhgaya which is across the border in Bihar but never booked any tickets. A last minute call to Shruti’s dad helped us secure tickets for the train. We left around 4:30am in the morning to catch the 5:20am train but it was late by 2 hours and we missed out on sleep for nothing!

We got to the village of Bodhgaya around noon and went straight to the Mahabodhi Temple. Gautama Buddha was a prince in the Indian-Nepalese border region but left his palace when he felt disillusioned from a comfortable life. He tried various techniques of meditation but eventually found enlightenment in Bodhgaya after 7 weeks of meditation. The Mahabodhi Temple sits at the exact spot where the Buddha found enlightenment.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

The temple, along with other important Buddhist pilgrimage centres, was made by Indian king Ashoka. The tower of the temple is huge but the iMahabodhi Temple, Bodhgayanner temple is only small and comforting. The Bodhi Tree, on the other hand, where Buddha sat for meditation was a nice respite from the heat and was incredibly peaceful. Monks from different denominations of Buddhism meditated or softly chanted hymns under the tree.

Later on, we visited a few buddhist temples before going back to Gaya to catch a train. Seeing the holy sites of Buddhism as well as seeing a Tibetan buddhist ceremony was an outstanding experience though we were exhausted by 8pm!

Day with Parents

Shruti’s dad is a big follower of Lord Shiva and Varanasi has one of the important Shiva temple. Seeing we were in Varanasi, he was very keen to join us. He decided to travel to Varanasi for a day!

Once they reached Varanasi, we freshed up and decided to visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It was an amazing experience to go through the tiny lanes and queue up to offer our prayers to Lord Shiva. Post brunch, we headed to Sankat Mochan temple to pay our visit to Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God.

Shruti's Parents, Varanasi

In the evening, we took a walk down the ghats and then watched the evening aarti from the steps of Ganga. It was a unique spiritual experience limited to rivers in India.

Unique Experiences

As mentioned, going down the Ganges on a rowing boat and attending the aarti are unique experiences of Varanasi. In addition, we lived in a guest house near Munshi Ghat and walked through tiny, occasionally dirty lanes. It was true blue Varanasi experience!

The sun rise and moon rise along the banks of Ganga was amazing as well! The reflection of rays in the water were mind blowing – we were left speechless at the beauty.

Moon Rise, Ganga, Varanasi

Fried food was another experience. Varanasi is famous for fried food and we had our share of poori, kachori, samosa and jalebi. In addition, we had lassi many times which was absolutely delicious.

The best and the most unique was the bhang thandai. Thandai is made of icecream and spices and drank in summer for the best. However, we stumbled upon a store where they add bhang or cannabis to the drink. We enjoyed bhang thandai two nights in a row and enjoyed great sleep. The only side effect – dry mouth. Eat something sweet or suck on a lolly and enjoy the slowing down effect.

Summary

Transport

There are plently of transport options available in Varansi – from share tuk tuks to cycle rikshaws and e-rikshaws. Suit an option based on your budget and comfort.

From the airport to Varanasi hub, we took the state bus and paid just Rs. 45 per head. We definitely saved around Rs. 250 there ;)

Accommodation

We highly recommend living close to either Assi Ghat or Dashashwamedh Ghat. There are plenty of guest houses close to the banks of Ganga – go through Trip Advisor and you will find lots of good options.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed Varanasi and the spiritual experience at Bodhgaya too. The aarti by the river Ganga is definitely a very unique experience because no where else in the world do people gather round a river or water body to pray.

Also, definitely enjoy the lassi and bhang thandai while you are in Varanasi – one is a sugar rush while the other leads to a calm feeling.

Sun Rise, Ganga, Varanasi

Varanasi Gallery

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Places to see in and around Delhi

Delhi has been the Capital of Hindustan during Mughal and British rule in India. This makes it a big hub of history dating from 11th century. In the recent years, new monuments have been erected thus making it a great mix of past and present attractions. Additionally, its geographical location makes it a great place for day trips and short getaways as well.

In the last few days, we have visited quite a few monuments and traveled around Delhi as well. Though we couldn’t see everything the city had to offer, we did explore quite a bit. I must say, there is so much history here and it makes it evident that India was looted and ruled by loads of ‘outsiders’.

Delhi

See below for the list of places to see in and around Delhi –

Old Delhi

Capital during Mughal era built by King Shahjahan. It was the walled city of Delhi. The walls were destroyed by the British but some remnants and gates remain.

Lal Quila (Red Fort)

Lal QuilaThe palace of the walled city. It housed the royalty from the 16th century to 19th century. Every year, the Prime Minister of India delivers the Republic Day and Independence Day speeches from its ramparts.

Though it appears grand and stupendous, in reality, many of the building inside were destroyed by the British after they won the war against Indian forces in 1857.

Jama Masjid

It was the royal mosque of Delhi. It is a magnificent building overlooking the markets and the Red Fort.

Tip: Women may need to dress conservatively but they provide a full length robe for a small price.

Jama Masjid

Chandni Chowk

Moonlight/sparkling market with small lanes and shops. It still is the heart of Old Delhi.

In my opinion, Chandni Chowk is the stereotypical Delhi. You will find animals, rickshaws, cars, trucks and people on the same road. Somewhat amazingly, it all works and people are able to go through their daily chores without hassle.

Markets

Each lane in Old Delhi sells something different and are known as bazaars. On a normal working day, it is very difficult to walk against the moving crowd. Some lanes are 5-6metres wide and shared by people on foot, rickshaws, hawkers, two wheelers and cows. It is definitely an experience that can only be gained by walking around the area.

Food

Indians love food. Period. Due to the number of people and cuisines, Old Delhi offers some amazing foods. There are traditional fast food shops, parantha (stuffed pancake) shops and kebabs. The kebabs are spicy and you can wash it down with a chilled glass of Mathura Lassi. It is the local variant of the restaurant kind.

Tip: Please be aware that Delhi Belly could be a common occurrence. Always buy bottled mineral water or sealed cold drinks.

Qutab Minar

Qutub MinarBuilt by Qutubuddin Aibak in the 12th century after his victory over the local Hindu kings of India. Its a 20 metres high tower made of red stone with delicate carvings which has stood the test of time. This particular king destroyed Hindu temples and placed pillars from these temples in the complex.

Lotus Temple

Built by the followers of the Bahai religion in 1980s, it is now a symbol of Delhi. It is a beautiful white building resembling a lotus flower and the ambiance inside is peaceful.

Akshardham Temple

Built in 2005 by the followers of the Swami Narayan sect of Hinduism, it is the largest Hindu temple in the world. Its made of pink and red stone and the architectural carvings are extremely detailed. Akshardham TempleThere are 3 exhibitions which are a part of a journey through the history of the sect, Hinduism and India. The exhibitions and the lights and sound show are very much recommended. The ideal time to visit is around 4:30pm as it can be very hot and the lights and sound show is at night.

Take note, you are not allowed to take any electronics inside – so forget about taking photos!

New Delhi

New Delhi was built by the British as their capital in the early 20th century. It was planned by Edwin Lutyens and it is now the capital of India. It is contrasted from Old Delhi by its wide streets, trees and cleanliness.

The opposite of Old Delhi, New Delhi makes one feel like they are no longer in India. It is too organized to be India.

Connaught Place

It is formed by an inner circular road and an outer one with shops and markets in both.

This area offers a wide variety of shopping ranging from brand outlets in the shops to street markets in areas such as Janpath and Palika bazaar.

We picked up trinkets and souveneirs on the street for a small price. Similarly, we were able to bargain for clothes in the Janpath markets.

Tip: Make a judgement call but it is recommended to start with half the price of the shop owners and meet them in the middle.

Government Buildings

This area has a wide range of monuments such as the Indian Parliament, India Gate, Museums and Embassies.

Haridvar & Rishikesh

These towns are around 5-6 hours from Delhi along the river Ganges. At least two nights stay are recommended to enjoy the ambiance.
Haridwar is a Hindu pilgrimage centre and Rishikesh is famous for Yoga, white water rafting and Hippies. Taking a dip in the gushing current of Ganges is set to wash away all your sins. The evening aarti (prayer) in Haridwar at Har ki Pauri is a must watch.

Haridvar

Tip: Be mindful of the conservative crowd and the religious significance of the place. Be careful of the priests and beggars. It is recommended to ignore them or turn them down humbly otherwise they will nag you. Additionally, once the aarti has concluded, the crowd rushes towards the river for blessings, either walk along with the crowd or step aside to avoid any accidents.

Rishikesh

Agra

Taj Mahal – It is the most famous Indian landmark in the world. It is a grand and beautiful building made of white marble by Emperor Shah Jahan after the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. It was commissioned by the Emperor in 1632 and completed entirely in 1653. The building is the best example of Mughal Architecture in India.

Tip: The Taj Mahal can be seen for 5 days at night every month, two days before and after the full moon and the full moon night itself. The light from the full moon makes the white marble glow.

Taj Mahal

Red Fort – The primary palace of the greater Mughal rulers, it is around 2km from the Taj Mahal. The fort is built of the red stone like many other buildings in India and houses some amazing examples of architecture from around India.

As the Taj Mahal was built after the Red Fort, from almost every part of the fort one can see the Taj Mahal. Also, walking around the Red Fort made me feel I was on the sets of the hindi movie, Jodha Akbar.

Tip: Guides are available at a small cost and they show you some amazing secrets of the fort.

Red Fort Agra

Vrindavan

It is the town where Lord Krishna was born and spent most of his young life. This is a small village around 2-3 hours from Delhi full of temples and religious fervor. This town has a lot of legends to tell of Krishna and Radha, his childhood sweetheart.

In our experience, we only went to Banke Bihari temple but stopped for the famous local lassi and aalo tikki chaat before taking the bus home.

Red Fort Agra

Modes of Transport

As Delhi is the capital of India and shares border with 2 states, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, there are lots of transport options available.

Metro

This is by far the best mode of transport within Delhi. The metro has connected most of the suburbs and attractions, thus making it very easy to move around.

Tip: The people at the station and inside the train are generally helpful so feel free to ask someone if you think you are unsure or feel lost.
The metro can be very crowded during peak time so be mindful of that.
Get yourself a smart card as queuing for tokens can be rather painful due to the crowd. Also, you will be saving some money too.

Tuk Tuks

In the city, tuk tuks use a meter system which avoids a lot of haggling for fare. Tuk tuks are generally used for distances more than 5km.

Rikshaw & eRikshaw (cycle cart)

The city offers rikshaw as a cheaper mode of transport for short distances, under 5km. These usually run based on sharing or you could hire an entire rikshaw by paying slightly more.

Hire Car / Shared Cabs

There are lots of private and shared cabs available around the city. Hotels usually provide car hiring service (with a driver) which can cost about Rs 1800-2000, ~AUD40.

Buses

For short getaways or day trips from Delhi, there are lots of inter-state buses operated by the Delhi and neighboring state government. Some of the popular routes have AC and Volvo bus options as well.
Alternatively, there are plenty of private buses operators too.

Trains

As India is a big country, it’s Railway System is very well connected. If you are keen to travel to other parts of India, train is a good option as well.
The Govt. have provided numerous online portals to check for train schedule, plan journey, check rates and also for booking.

Food Options

Street food

India is known of it’s street food and also the Delly Belly it can cause! Our recommendation is to skip these all together.

Halwai (sweet shop) & Dhaba

Local cuisine can be enjoyed from sweet shops and dhabas. These outlets usually prepare fresh food each day.
Tip: Ask your hotel operator or a local for recommendation.

Restaurant

There are lots of fast food and restaurant options available across the city, usually in malls. These outlets serve various cuisines from across India and other popular international cuisines with an Indian touch.

In and Around Delhi Gallery

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