Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Journey to the mystical lake

Three-storey-high Buddha statues, stupas and monasteries that look like they have been cut out from fairytale books and yaks with floor-sweeping hair are some of the unusual sights you see when you visit Ladakh, says Swetha Amit

We woke to cloudy weather and a slight drizzle. Sincere prayers were rendered in silence to not let the weather play spoilsport on our drive to Pangong Lake. The clouds soon cleared. Snow-covered mountains all around made it feel like Christmas season in the month of August.

Great heights: We soon reached the Changla Pass, one of the highest mountain passes in India. This is usually a stopover for many on the way to Pangong Lake. Similar to the Khardungla Pass, the signboard here too was adorned with colourful Buddhist flags. The hot cups of tea served were more than welcome in the freezing temperatures.

Going yak yak yak: One of the wonders of the Himalayan region is its exotic fauna. Excitement soared as we spotted some of them. Standing in solitude amidst green pasturelands were the mighty yaks. They are a type of cattle with long hair reaching the ground, quite common in Tibet. They were quietly grazing, immersed in a world of their own. They appeared oblivious to everything around them and didn't bat an eyelid as we hunched closer to get a couple of photographs. As we drove further, we spotted a whole herd of them resting beneath rocks after a mid-morning brunch. They were gracious enough to click some pictures with us without a fuss.

A ball of wool: A little further, we noticed a shepherd with his flock of sheep and goats. It was an image out of Johanna Spyri's Heidi. From a distance, the flock looked like a big ball of wool moving up the hills.

Eating out of our hands: When our guide stopped the car beside a patch of scanty grass, we were surprised. However, the sight of a group of people crowding around a burrow aroused our curiosity. We were out of our vehicle in a jiffy as soon as we spotted the tiny brown creatures. As we ventured closer, we were delighted to see big black eyes looking shyly up at us. The stout Himalayan marmots resembled large squirrels. We handed out a biscuit or two to lure them out of their holes. After initially backing off, they were soon eating out of our hands, allowing us to pet and play with them. The 30 minutes spent in their company made the trip a memorable one.

Filmy lake: We spotted a large mass of blue in the distance. As we drew closer, we saw a crystallised water body surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We strolled around the lake and recollected the last scene of the Hindi film '3 Idiots', which was filmed here.
The steamed dishes served at the tented stalls were a treat in the freezing weather. We spotted a boat with army officers and waved. The lake was close to the Indo-China border; half of it is in Ladakh, and the other half in the Chinese-occupied region.

Magnetic hill: We were told that the volcanic-resembling mountain that we passed was a 'magnetic hill'. We were told to park the car in the middle of the flat road and watch it being pulled towards the mountain. We stood aside and watched, though we weren't convinced. It did look like the car was being pulled.

A holy shrine: Situated on the Leh-Kargil road was the beautiful Pathar Sahib Gurudwara constructed in the memory of Guru Nanak. It was the first time we were visiting a Gurudwara. As per custom, we covered our heads with a cloth given by the authorities and entered the holy shrine. Inside was a rock, which had a story behind it. According to local legend, it was the same rock which was hurled by a demon at Guru Nanak with the intention of killing him. However when the rock touched the sage, it turned into wax. The demon tried to push the rock with his foot and was surprised to see his imprint on it. Guru Nanak's powers changed the demon who begged for forgiveness. The local lamas considered this rock to be sacred and offer prayers to it.

Inner peace: The sense of tranquillity remained as we visited two more monasteries. The first, unlike the others was situated on lowland. This was the Alchi Gompa, which was well known for its wall paintings in Indian style. It has three-story high statues of Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushree and is very preserved very well by the monks. The second monastery was situated on a hill top and is one of the oldest and largest Gompas in Ladakh. The Lamayuru Gompa houses about 150 Buddhist monks. The monastery once consisted of five buildings, out of which only the central one exists today. It had beautiful wall paintings carved inside. Masked dances are held here and monks from nearby monasteries participate in the celebrations.

Saluting the martyrs: Our last stop for the day was the Hall Of Fame dedicated to martyrs who gave their lives selflessly fighting for our nation. We looked at the photographs of our heroes and listened to accounts of their valour, grit and integrity with pride. There were maps of India-Pakistan and India-China borders and models of rifles used in the wars. In one corner were articles that provided a glimpse into the life and traditions of Ladakhis which gave us a good insight into their lives. It was a thrilling end to the day as we had the privilege of visiting the Hall of Fame on Independence Day. We returned with a stronger sense of patriotism and pride in our defence forces.
Ladakh offered us treacherous climbs and adventure; it also encompassed us in serenity which enabled us to rediscover ourselves. We left with treasured memories of this unique land.

One has the option of camping in Pangong Lake. The cost would be approximately Rs2,000 per person.
Entrance fees to the monasteries would amount to Rs50-100 per person.
To enter the Hall of Fame, it would cost Rs70, including a camera pass.

Essential guidelines
If camping at Pangong Lake, one needs warm clothing, a torch, and medications if one is prone to altitude sickness.
Please dress modestly while visiting the gompas


The valley of illusion

Three-storey-high Buddha statues, stupas and monasteries that look like they have been cut out from fairytale books and yaks with floor-sweeping hair are some of the unusual sights you see when you visit Ladakh, says Swetha Amit

We had an early start as we had a long drive up the mountains ahead of us. It was a sunny day. We noticed something unusual; the mountains seemed to change colour as we drove along. As we climbed the steep passes, we realised how difficult it would be for bikers who were passionate about exploring these steep mountain paths. Approximately four hours later, we reached the Khardungla Pass.

On top of the world: A cold gust of wind greeted us as we got out of our vehicles. It was about 18,380 feet above sea level. We were on the highest motorable road in the world. The signboard was decorated by little flags which symbolised the Buddhist culture. We were awed by the magnificent view. All around us were snow-capped mountains, which looked even more beautiful in the bright sunlight. It was fascinating to see the interplay between sun and snow. We walked around a bit, drinking in the 'on top of the world' feeling. Nearby was a small temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tea stalls serving hot beverages, biscuits and Maggi were comforting in the cold weather. We met a few bikers who were exhilarated after a wonderful ride from Kargil.

Bon appetite: After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch at a small place tucked away in the mountains. Run by the Ladakhis, they served piping hot momos - a famous Tibetan dish made out of corn flour, steamed vegetables and meat. This is a local delicacy which is eaten as the main course. They served Maggi and Tibetan soup which were very welcome in the cold, making us realise that it was the simplest things in life that gave us the greatest pleasure.

Mountains, sand dunes and streams: As we descended from the pass, the beautiful Karakorum Range came into view. The Khardung village fields were lush with crops. Further ahead, the stunning view of the Shyok Valley soon gave way to a glimpse of the Shyok River. When water levels are low, the river appears like small streams that run parallel to one another. The banks were covered with dense bushes offering us tantalising glimpses of the river. We drove past the Diskit Gompa which we were scheduled to visit the next day. We passed several other villages, and were soon rewarded with a spectacular view of sand dunes. It was fascinating to see sand dunes, mountains and streams together.

A bumper ride on the double humps: As we walked amidst the dunes, the silence was disturbed by the sound of bells. Turning around, our jaws dropped in amazement. A herd of Bactrian double-humped camels were trotting towards us. The camels had a double hump, were shorter in structure and had broader legs than regular camels, and had abundant hair on the neck and knees. We mounted the camels and were taken around for an hour. We soon got into an animated conversation with our camel tender who said that these species were exclusive to Ladakh. After the ride, we walked to our camps.

In nature's lap: Strolling down a pebbled pathway we were pleasantly surprised to see bright white tents, one of which was reserved for us. The secluded tent overlooked a garden of fresh vegetables and sunflowers. The entire place was well maintained. Meals were cooked with vegetables plucked off the camp vegetable garden.
It was around five in the evening and the chill set in. Grabbing our jackets, we decided to take a stroll around the village escorted by a guide. We learnt that the India-Pakistan border was about 70km away and that there was an army base camp in the vicinity. We were told about the numerous trekking trails, which would require a minimum of three days. The village appeared deserted. However, the main road found us in the company of a few school children returning home. They were sweet enough to oblige us with a few photographs. It was getting dark and we headed back to our camp. Our cosy tents were well equipped with warm beds and attached rest rooms. After dinner, we were lulled to sleep by chirping insects outside our tent.

Gompa on a rocky ridge: After a good night's sleep, we drove back to Leh. En route we stopped to visit the Diskit Gompa. This is the oldest and largest Gompa in the Nubra region. The statue of Maitreya Buddha is majestically seated on the ridge of a mountain that overlooks the valley below. Steps lead to the entrance of the Gompa, which pass through the monks' living quarters.

Dashing through the snow: The cloudy weather that morning was in stark contrast to the sunny skies that smiled the day before. As we drove along the winding roads, we spotted fresh snow on rocks. Delighted at seeing snow at such close quarters, we got out of our cars to play. As we finished our lunch of momos, we saw drops of water on the windshield. To our delight, we were told that they were snowflakes. We stepped out to feel the soft flakes of snow, a novelty for seashore dwellers like us. Continuing our drive through snow flurries, we reached our hotel by dusk. We were scheduled to visit the mystical Pangong Lake the next day.

The cost for a camel safari is Rs150 per person for 15 minutes.
Camping in Nubra Valley would cost Rs3,000-4,000 per person, meals included.

Essentials and guidelines
Remember to take sufficient warm clothing as the temperature dips unexpectedly.
A torch is essential with the high frequency of power cuts.
Carry necessary medication. The high altitude and bumpy roads can make you sick.
One can go to Zanskar instead of camping overnight in Nubra Valley. It offers an exciting river rafting experience. The cost is Rs2,200 per person.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Ladakh: Spiritual awakening in the land of the gompas

Three-storey-high Buddha statues, stupas and monasteries that look like they have been cut out from fairytale books and yaks with floor-sweeping hair are some of the unusual sights you see when you visit Ladakh, says Swetha Amit

Some places offer exciting wildlife, while others are known for their bountiful beaches and tropical weather. A few boast magnificent sand dunes and others leave you gaping in awe at their mighty mountains. Serenity and awe battled for dominance as we drove past barren terrains, mountain passes at an altitude of 18,000 feet above sea level and lonely monasteries in a wonderful land called Ladakh.

A vast wall of mountains greeted us as we drove down from the airport to our hotel. We were allowed a few hours of rest after our long journey to the Himalayan destination. We were told that we would require some time to acclimatise ourselves to low oxygen levels in Leh. We set off in the evening to explore Shanti Stupa and the Leh Bazaar.

Sojourn with serenity: The Shanti Stupa was built by Japanese Buddhists to promote peace, and inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1983. It was a steep climb to the stupa. Surrounded by mountains and glistening in the setting sun, the stupa was a treat for the sore eyes. Symmetrical in shape, the stupa had a statue of Buddha standing guard. After paying homage, we walked around the area taking in the picturesque surroundings. We could see the entire village of Leh from there. After clicking a few photographs, we proceeded towards Leh Bazaar.

Souvenirs and shops: Leh Bazaar bustled with activity. Many shops sold souvenirs, caps, shawls and Buddhist prayer bells. We noticed that the locals resembled Tibetans. Not surprisingly, many of the residents had migrated from Tibet years ago. They were simple folk, friendly, and peace-loving.
The souvenir shops had statues of Buddha in all shapes and sizes, prayer bells, purses, T-shirts portraying the pride of Ladakh, jewellery and caps. We were taken aback by the prices; most of the items cost Rs500 or more. They seemed overpriced, but careful selection gave us our money’s worth. We then headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Carving of the five Buddhas: We set off on a spiritual quest the next day. Ladakh is famous for its monasteries, and there is history attached to each. We drove down winding roads in sight of mountains in various hues, like an artist’s wide strokes on canvas. Our first stop was the Shey Palace. It was one of the ancient capitals of Ladakh. As we approached the palace from Leh, we spotted the spectacular rock carvings of the ‘Five Buddhas’. They were carved in the early Indian Buddhist style and are credited to King Nyimagon. The palace gompa (monastery) contains an 8-metre statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. When we entered the sanctuary, we were actually entering the second floor and found ourselves at the level of the statue’s shoulders. The walls were decorated with paintings. Beyond the palace is a small group of stupas or chortens. Each had a design with a symbolic meaning. Those who wished to stay the night in Shey had several guesthouses to choose from.

Exotic gompa: As we approached Thikse, we saw a sight which was probably close to illustrations in fairy tale books. The vibrancy of the multi-coloured structure left us awestruck. It looked exactly how an exotic gompa would look like in our imagination. Built across the slopes, it resembled a village in itself.
The gompa was famous for a beautiful giant statue of Maitreya. Maitreya is the Buddha of the next age, popularly known as the ‘Future Buddha’. Here, as in Shey, we entered on the second floor and found ourselves standing level with the statue’s shoulders. The statue, made of terracotta bricks and clay and painted gold, is 12 metres tall. We paid our homage but were not allowed to pose alongside the statue. As we climbed up, we found prayer bells on the way, which we rotated chanting the Buddhist mantra. At the top, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the Indus valley before descending.

The gompa of vibrancy: Situated in a small side valley in the Stok range was the Hemis Gompa. It is quite close to the village of Hemis. This is the most famous gompa in Ladakh, where the annual Hemis Gompa festival is held during the summer months of June-July. The festival features a dance drama called ‘Chams’ performed by monks in colourful robes and grotesque masks.
It was an elaborate structure with painted verandas protruding from the upper floors. A row of prayer wheels went up the steps leading to the main area where the deities were present. We paid our respects to the beautiful statue inside and visited the treasury below, which had different statues and objects representing Buddhism. We also visited the souvenir shop for gifts.

School of monks: On the way back to Leh, we visited a school affected by the cloudburst that occurred in August 2010. The school, where the famous Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’ was filmed, had a resplendent sunflower garden. Some of the monks obliged us by posing for photographs.
We learnt that anyone could become a monk irrespective of age, but that they need to be well versed in Buddhism which was taught in the schools. Restoration was on at parts that were most affected by the floods. After an interesting day, we headed back to our hotels to get a good night’s rest before proceeding to Nubra Valley the next day.

How to reach Leh
By air:
Several airlines operate from Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar.
By road: Adventure lovers usually opt for the road journey from Delhi, Srinagar and Manali. There are several buses operating from these places.

Best time to visit
The best time to visit Leh would be between the months of June and September. In winter, the temperatures often dip below zero degrees.

A week’s stay in Leh would cost anywhere between Rs18,000-25,000 per person, excluding airfare.
One can also opt to camp in Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake or any of the monasteries. The cost would range from Rs3,000-4,000 per person, all meals inclusive.

Essentials and guidelines
One must adhere to monastery rules and maintain silence while visiting the gompas.
Do not take photographs along with the statues of Buddha as it is considered offensive.
Remember to take sufficient warm clothing as the drive up the mountain passes can be extremely cold with snowfall.
Frequent power cuts are common in Leh; a torch will be useful if one decides to camp overnight.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Baby girl fighting for her life


A battered baby girl was brutally bashed against her head and is currently battling for her life. Reading the appalling news above makes one go through a whirlwind of emotions. Fury at the culprits who were sadistic enough to vent out their incorrigible rage on a poor little innocent being. Sadness that a young soul who has hardly opened her eyes to the world undergoes through so much suffering.

This is inhumane and barbaric. How could anyone in their right mind even have the heart to bash a baby's head against a wall? Its turning out to be a cruel world. Hope the culprits get stringent punishment meted out to them. Meanwhile prayers are with you dear Baby Falak. Wishing you a speedy recovery.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Journey to the Marathon

I had always been a spectator of the Mumbai Marathon every year until yesterday. I had read and heard a lot about the spirit that prevails throughout the race from my husband who had been running for the last 3 consecutive years. This inspired me enough to enrol for the 2011 edition. However fate didn’t favour me as I took ill enough to be hospitalized for 10 days which left me with no other choice but to skip the marathon. 2011 embarked a new journey ahead as I fiercely resolved to get my fitness back on track. I had lost a lot of blood and my physique had succumbed to weakness.

The first quarter of the year was a slow and steady one with a lot of emphasis to get my strength back. The month of May took a positive turn as my intensity in my cardiovascular exercises began to show a marked improvement. My confidence began to grow as I hit the treadmill with a vengeance in July. Meanwhile I had also started to take coaching in Tennis which helped me improve my stamina. In August I was signed up by my trainers for a competition scheduled in November. As I resumed training for that, my cardio intensity went a notch higher. In the meanwhile I had also started training on the road for the marathon from September. We made it a regular routine to run every Sunday without fail.

It was not an easy journey as the infamous November viral caught up with me-10 days before my competition. However medication and will power aided me as I went on to win the running competition in my gym. My marathon training continued. December again didn’t prove to be very favourable as I had a relapse of the previous year's illness. Thankfully, the degree of severity was that of a mediocre one and the doctors gave me a green signal to run the marathon.

I worked harder, took extra precautions to maintain my diet and most importantly, never lost faith in the almighty. The day dawned nice and bright despite the fact the sun hadn’t peeked out from the clouds yet. 6:15 am, the gun shots were heard and the half marathon commenced. With the iPod playing in one hand and Gatorade in the other, I set off to finish the first race of my life.

The first amazing feeling was running on the beautiful Bandra-Worli Sea link. Seeing millions of all age groups run was enough inspiration for one to accelerate their feet to the maximum. When we reached Worli Seaface, a roar of applause greeted us with enthusiastic supporters egging and cheering us on. Many of them were kind enough to offer refreshments in the form of biscuits, bananas and water. I continued with a vengeance enjoying the colourful atmosphere that prevailed in the air. Peddar road however proved to be a steep climb literally as I lost a little of the momentum there. However my beloved companion Gatorade held my grit throughout as I picked up speed on Marine Drive. I glanced at the Sun which was up by then and murmured a silent prayer. Racing past a few runners, I continued my journey smiling and waving at the onlookers. I finally saw a glimpse of the finish line about 500 metres away. Gathering all my energy left, I sprinted across with my arms wide open as I swarmed into the finish line feeling the runner’s high.

I stood there waiting for my husband to join me which he did 10 mins later. Euphoria had embraced us as we relished the moment of completing 21 kms in good time. While I finished in 2 hrs,3 mins, my hubby did it in 2 hrs,10 mins.

Jan 15th no doubt is an unforgettable day which marks my debut in the half marathon. Thinking back to those days where I would struggle to lose weight, never did I imagine there would be a day when I would attain a lean athletic physique to be able to run. It makes me feel that when running is enough to give you a high, it’s worth kissing goodbye to those sweets, savouries and late nights which do nothing but add bulk and bulges.

I also thank my dear trainers at Five Fitness whose constant support and encouragement kept my spirits up throughout the run. And my dear friend God who has been a silent supporter in this roller coaster ride. Running has instilled a new sense of faith, belief and generated a lot of positivity within me. As 2012 progresses I look forward to an even healthier and fitter me, gearing up for the next half marathon.


Monday, January 02, 2012

'And Thereby Hangs a Tale’: Short and sweet


Fans don't need a second push to pick up Jeffery Archer books. Stories drawn from the author's own life make his short story collection ‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale' an added bonanza for fans, says Swetha Amit
Swetha Amit

Author: Jeffery Archer

Published by: Pan Macmillan
Price: Rs260
Classification: Fiction

Life’s lessons are sometimes learnt through encounters with other people. The uniqueness of this book lies in Jeffery Archer penning down such experiences to share them with millions across the world. Jeffery Archer’s book ‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale’ is a compilation of 15 short stories derived from the author’s real-life experiences and imagination, of which 10 are from life. The stories undoubtedly leave a long-lasting impact on the minds of the readers with their unexpected twists and turns.

This collection portrays an interesting mix of stories gleaned and experienced by Archer during his travels around the world. A few of the stories in this collection are especially riveting and deserve a special mention. ‘The Queen’s Birthday Telegram’ is a wistful story about an old man waiting for a queen’s letter of appreciation to his wife on her 100th birthday. ‘High Heels’ is another story which talks about a loss adjuster working on his first case. ‘Blind Date’ has a touch of irony, and is about two visually challenged individuals who have a conversation across tables at a restaurant and are unaware of each other’s physical condition. ‘Caste off' is the story of an Indian couple whose romance blossoms after a chance encounter at a traffic signal. As the name suggests, it is also about an inter-caste marriage and how it affects their lives.

The language of the stories is explicit, similar to many of Archer's earlier works. The tales are narrated wittily and make a compelling read. While some linger on in the minds of the readers, others do not make much of an impact. However, each story certainly manages to evoke an emotion. Overall, a light travel read which can be flipped through quickly.