November 30, 2015

Dhaaba stopovers

A road trip in India, especially in the northern states, comes with the mandatory pit-stops. Halting at a 'dhaaba' to stretch one's legs and to feast on robust local fare is a given.
Originally meant to cater to the truck-drivers who ply on these highways, dhaabas are almost synonymous with basic, plain local food  but served hot and minus frills. Homely and wholesome and most serve food that is just too delicious to be restricted to only truck-drivers. So every traveller has his own list of must-stop dhaabas that he swears by.    

Driving from Delhi to Chandigarh, we were told we just had to stop for a bite at Pahalwan Dhaba at Murthal. So we did.  And wolfed down plate after plate of steaming hot rotis and parathas with soft, creamy white butter (it has to be white butter. That too is mandatory, I'm told )
Do you blame us? It was just SO good!

The paneer paranthes disappeared with a smear of hot, melting butter and scoop of channa slathered in a thick masala gravy.

On the way in, heaped-up trayloads of fried mouthfuls are displayed. Golden yellow with lashings of turmeric and soaked in batter then deep-fried to what looked like a junk-foodie's version of heaven. Me, I saw the pista green walls behind the rich yellow and smiled into my camera.

The jalebis need no recommendation, though. There's something about a jalebi that still glistens in its syrupy juice that can activate all the tastebuds south of the Himalayas (and that's not counting the ones from other directions too, I'm sure).

Not all dhaabas are as organised or clean as this. In fact, compared to most of the other dhaabas we passed or stopped at, this one was almost a 5-star version!

It even had a satellite of stalls and hawkers, including a guy selling ber (Indian Jujube). I was fascinated by his re-purposed tyre-tray.  Seeing my fascination, he offered me a ber but I was too famished to settle for ber when I could have paranthe just a couple of steps away.
In hindsight, I know I should have bought some ber too!

July 6, 2013

Golden Temple by night

The Golden Temple at Amritsar

It had to be fate that we reached Amritsar on Baisakhi. It was not a trip which I had intended to make. Nor was it a site I would have ordinarily chosen to visit.
I'm usually not overly keen on visiting prominent religious sites, mainly because they are almost always over-crowded to the point of suffocation. And mobs of pilgrims, excited about reaching their longed-for destination and the inevitable hordes of hawkers belligerently pushing their wares, leave me half-panicked and hunting for the nearest exit (yes, the term 'claustrophobic' does pop up in my mind).

But reach there we did, late at night and famished and tired after a long drive from Chandigarh. After trawling the streets for the best dhaabas (the people of Punjab are famed for their love of good food, so it stood to reason that we'd find some of the best eateries here. And we wanted authentic Punjabi fare, so a dhaaba it had to be! ), we suddenly found ourselves in the vicinity of the Golden Temple. We were scheduled to visit the next day, with a proper guide escorting us (and equally important, with enough light to click all the pictures we wanted). It was close to midnight but it was just too tempting to resist. Just a quick look, we promised ourselves. Here we had the holiest of holies of the Sikh religion and we just had to answer the call. Even though none of us in our group of 10 were Sikhs.
There is something very powerful about the atmosphere here. It is almost magnetic!

The Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple is one of the most imposing sacred sites I've seen, yet it is surrounded by a quiet dignity. It is a juxtaposition of conflicting images. The serene simplicity of the structures around it and the extremely grand heart of it all. The tranquilty of the Harmandir Sahib in the middle of the Sarovar (or the sacred pool), is magnified by its softly gleaming reflection.

But first, to enter the Temple complex you have to cover your head and remove footwear. If you're an impromptu visitor as I was, don't worry. You'll get scarves for your head near the entrance and a cloak room that will store your shoes too till you leave.

I had no idea what to expect really. Apart from the grandeur of the Golden Temple and the legendary 'Guru ka langar' (the incredible community kitchen which feeds all visitors to the Temple around the clock), I didn't really know much about it. Which is how I like it ... minus all the preconceived ideas, prejudices or biases.
But, if you'd like more information, this is where those links at the end of the post will come in handy.

These pictures will share some of what I saw. It's not very comprehensive nor are some of the pictures as clear as I would like (I was using a point-and-shoot at night ) but they're the best I have to go with right now.

The main entrance to the Temple complex
The main entrance is imposing enough and gives no hint of the Golden Temple within.

These guards at the entrance were so tall! Quite daunting to look at, but they were nice enough to pose for a photo when a visitor asked them (why didn't I do that?!).

So many people. All awake at midnight (quite a few children too), answering the call of their faith. Strangely enough, there was hardly any noise or bustle that one would ordinarily associate with such a large gathering. Instead there is a quietness that is very soothing. Almost a meditative silence of being.

A whole flight of steps leads you down to the circumambulatory path around the holy tank.The water (referred to as 'Amrit', meaning 'nectar'. Amritsar or Amrit Sarovar is a reference to this holy tank of nectar ) is almost alive with the golden reflection of the Harmandir Sahib.
If anything, it is rendered even more grand by the simplicity and purity of the white structures and white marble path around the tank. But, see for yourself ...

And, around the tank, there were huge rolls of matting. I was told that the daily cleaning was being done by the 'sevadars' or the devout who had volunteered to work as a mark of their faith. I found that so heart-warming! There were no loud protestations of faith, but a quiet getting-on with whatever work needed to be done, no matter how menial.
I can't think of anything more grace-filled than that.

Perhaps certain things are meant to be. Perhaps a certain grace moves the universe so that everything works out in the best possible way.
I, for one, think the universe definitely swung me a huge favour when I got to experience the wonder of the Golden Temple by night.

Guide map of Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple)
Art and architecture of the Golden Temple
Golden Temple
The Granth Sahib

April 23, 2010

Mumbai : The colours of Summer

Nothing ... absolutely nothing ... paints the vibrant colours of Summer in Mumbai even a fraction as much as ... golas!
Hard-packed globes of crushed ice wrapped around a stick, lollipop-style. But it doesn't stop there .... dipped in a glass of flavoured sweet syrup spiced with rather mysterious masalas, it transforms into the stuff of dreams. Dreams of frozen icy cool on a miserably boiling hot day. Of sticky, sugary flavours to be slurped up, tantalising the tastebuds and teasing the memory cells.

And the colours! Lurid, ravishing, vibrant ... golden mango, explosive orange, sunny pineapple, grape, kaalakhatta.... definitely more flavours than fruit trees could dream up .

But it is not for the squeamish or the faint-hearted. Being a transplant to Mumbai, I always found the rather dubious antecedents of the gola a bit of a restraint every time I was tempted to try one.

I found a long line of gola-wallahs busy at work on their carts on Marve Beach the other night. Don't you just love the way those bottles glow like jewels in the warm light of the lanterns ?
The colours fascinated, the icy coolness lured, but I resisted its charms. My Mumbai-bred husband shook his head at my stubborness and proceeded to gorge on frozen golas, leaving me melting in the summer heat.

Amazing how such a rickety contraption as a hand-cart, a manual ice-crusher and a super-model line-up of syrups and spices can transform into a superhero for so many Mumbai folk!

Then the other day we were driving down Linking Road, sweltering in the blistering heat with the sun snickering at the a.c. which was on full blast but might as well have not been functioning for all the good it did.
Many sweaty miserable minutes later,my husband stopped at an all-too familiar stall. And this one time, I was tempted once too often. And I gave in!

What can I say? It was like the monsoons had come early... in a sweet orangey flavour speckled with rock salt and chaat masala!

(At the time of publishing, the writer is still alive and not suffering any ill-effects after having eaten a gola. But the writer refuses to accept any responsibility for the same if the reader is tempted to have one too ;D )

March 28, 2010

Beach-hopping in Mumbai

Juhu, Versova, Madh ... 3 of Mumbai's most famous beaches.
Geographically so close, yet so far by torturously circuitous road routes.
The setting sun's rays gild a spectacular path to Juhu beach, while people on the tip of Versova beach indulge in a game of beach football. Maybe Madh Island in the background is the goal?

February 22, 2010

Mumbai : Global Vipassana Pagoda

The mangroves of Marve creek form the perfect frame for the golden-hued Global Vipassana Pagoda across the waters in Gorai.
At night, it looks almost ethereal... gleaming with soft lights that seem to reflect the stars.

If the newspapers are excited about it being one of Asia's largest pagodas (325' high), what I find even more fascinating is that in this modern age, here is a massive structure built of stone and lime mortar. That's right, no iron or cement used!

And even more amazing? The fact that the centre of the pagoda also has the world's largest stone dome built without any supporting pillars.
Imagine meditating under that!

(Post-script : I just wanted to add this photo of the pagoda taken from the other side of the backwaters, near Gorai)

November 9, 2009

Mumbai : Street performers

The streets of Mumbai are one of the most interesting places to people-watch. Contrary to popular belief, it is not lined only with beggars. Performers of every hue and calling display their talents and marketing skills here for a few rupees and heart-warming smiles.

I don't know whether I should be calling the Kadak Laxmis street performers or social activists. After all, their livelihood involves taking on the spirit of other people's illnesses onto themselves and whipping themselves till they bleed to get rid of it.

I saw this Kadak Laxmi striding purposefully down a road, dressed in the brightest of vivid colours. A blood-red skirt-like lungi, topped by another shorter multi-hued one. Silver discs encircled his arm and a silver belt, his waist. And as he walked, the bells on his anklets chimed a challenge. But the most important part of his attire, the thick rope with which he whips himself was slung oh-so casually over his shoulder. Everything seemed to clash like a tropical storm but it certainly drew attention to him.

In sharp contrast, his wife following a good 10 feet behind him, was almost drab. As if carrying a baby in a cloth sling and a drum to set the tone for his performance were nothing out of the ordinary, she balanced a large bundle which seemed to carry all their earthly goods, perfectly on her head.

The drum was the accompaniment of choice for another set of performers too but this woman was balancing a small altar with a statue of a deity on her head. She was joined by another girl and a young boy ( I think) wearing a shirt and skirt and carrying the same thick rope used by the Kadak Laxmi. Hardly as dramatic-looking as the older man but maybe he is in training?
He didn't seem in the least bit bothered by the prospect of whipping himself but was laughing and chatting with his friends.

The first photos in this post are not very clear as the people were quite a distance away. For a truly amazing view, take a look at this photo from Charmayne and David de Souza's book "Itinerants : Mumbai's Nomads". Isn't it fantastic ! And the whole book is crammed with more mind-blowing photos of the very colourful people who make their living off the streets of Mumbai. Go... buy a copy for yourself to feast on. It's more than worth it.

(This last photo is from airoots )

September 23, 2009

Mumbai : A link to modernity

Move over Gateway, the people of Mumbai have found a new icon to identify themselves with.
The Worli Sea Link .
I know it's been officially named the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, a.k.a the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, but everyone I've heard seems to just call it the Worli Sea Link. Let's leave the longer names for politicians, shall we?

And now, voices are being heard, asking for a change. It's time to put the Gateway of India out to pasture, they say. That symbol of colonial times has to give way to this proud new tribute to modern India.

Seen at night, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link takes on magical proportions. The network of cables spanning out from the tall towers gleam softly like something out of a fantasy. It is a wondrous thing indeed that such fragile-looking strands can actually hold the whole thing up.

So would I support such a sea change in symbolism?
Oh yes! I would... a hundred times over. The Gateway stood for another age, when the strength of India bowed to colonial powers. A stodgy old lady, not quite in touch with anything anymore .
The Worli Sea Link is a symbol of the new, rejuvenated, empowered Mumbai. A thing of beauty as well as engineering skill.

Plus, if I can see if it from almost 25 kms away, across half the length of this city, it damn well deserves to be the symbol of Mumbai!