Sunday, 9 June 2013


In May I went on a 3 day solo trip (sans kids) to Rishikesh, a small city located in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India. Rishikesh is scenically located where the Ganges River comes down from the Himalayas -- so the views are absolutely breathtaking. Many people visit this holy city to bathe in the Ganges River, the most sacred river to Hindus. Many temples, ancient as well as new, can be found along the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh. 

This was the view of the Ganges and Himalayan foothills from my car window as I was driving from the airport. 

I stayed at the Ananda Resort, a spa nestled in the Himalayan mountains surrounded by Sal forests and overlooking the Ganga River as it meanders in the distance. The Spa is concealed by the facade of the royal palace of the Maharaja (King) of the local area (shown below). 

I got a royal welcome when I arrived. 

This was the view from my balcony. It was pretty amazing waking up to this view of the Ganges. 

The Ananda is a retreat that focuses on bringing Yoga, Ayurvedic and Vedanta practices into your lifestyle. This is combined with international spa therapies. This amphitheatre is where I did yoga every morning. 

I got all types of spa treatments during my visit -- Swedish massage, salt scrub, reflexology, and a Himalayan facial. I also went to Meditation sessions, tried Yoga Nidra (Yogic sleep) and took classes on Vedanta teachings. The whole experience was pretty amazing. 

The day before I left I ventured out of the Spa to see a bit of Rishikesh. That morning I left the spa at 5 am to visit the Kunjapuri Temple-- the holy shrine dedicated to Goddess Sati, the consort of Lord Shiva. It is located 14 km north of the Ananda spa at 1645 meters above sea level. It is the highest peak in the nearby vicinity and offers a spectacular 360-degree panoramic views of the Ganges and Himalayan foothills to the North and Rishikesh, Haridwar and Doon valley to the South. 

Once you get there by car it takes another 306 steps to reach the temple.

I was very keen to get to the temple in time to see the sun rise over the Himalayan foothills and I arrived just in time. As soon as I set up my camera and tripod the sun started peaking through. 

I tried to capture the sun rising at three minute increments....

Watching the sun rise from such a peaceful and holy venue was one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced. It's almost indescribable. 

Once the sun rose these are some of the views of the foothills on the other side of the temple's balcony.

Once I got all the picture taking out of the way I visited the temple and attended the morning puja. 

On my way down from the temple I still caught some amazing views of the sun shining over the foothills.

That evening I traveled to the Parmath Niketan Ashram (shown below) situated on the banks of the Ganges to attend the Ganga Aarti. 

To get to the Ashram you can either walk across the bridge below (which I did on the return trip) or take a boat ride, which I opted for on the way there. 

White Water rafting is very popular on the Ganges, and apparently very challenging (level 5). I was told that recently Brad Pitt jetted into Rishikesh with his entourage for some serious whitewater rafting on the Ganges. 

As I waited for the boat I was entertained by some interesting characters. This monkey literally posed for me while I took his picture.

A cute woman selling offering for the Aarti.

My boat finally arrived...

Rishikesh is known as the the World Capital of Yoga and the Ashram I visited happened to be the location of the annual International Yoga festival in March. What a view the yogis had!!!

When I arrived the Aarti had already begun. The Ganga Aarti is a very auspicious Hindu ritual where prayers are offered to God. It is done daily at this Ashram and visitors come from all over the world to take part in the spiritual ceremony. 

This is the spiritual leader (Guru) of this ashram. The Guru with his devotees sing the prayers welcoming and thanking the River Ganga for being the source of life and prosperity for this region. 

During the Aarti a holy fire is lit called the "Yagna" (offering of a mixture of different herbs with clarified butter to the fire while chanting the prayers or Mantra in order to purify the surrounding environment and to invite the holy vibrations). 

Here the Guru's devotees sing prayers and are truly transfixed by the moment.

The experience, the view and the positive vibrations of the Aarti were so inspirational that it is difficult to put into worlds. It is something I will never forget. 

The evening ended with watching the sun set over the Ganges. All in all, it was a pretty incredible day watching the sun rise over the Himalayan foothills and set over the Ganges River. An amazing ending to my quick getaway to Rishikesh!


For Spring Break we ventured South to Kerala, a state nestled on the southwest coast of India that is known as "God's own Country" because of its splendid natural beauty. Kerala is blessed with a very scenic chain of lagoons and lakes that lie parallel to the Arabian Sea Coast (the backwaters), amazing wild life, and a culture completely unique to this region. The people, known as "Keralites", are very simple and kind people who speak a language called Malayalam. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. 

Once we arrived we immediately noticed how the state felt quite different from any other we have visited in India, presumably due to the communist rule. We were struck by it's cleanliness, safety and educated population. The state boasts 100% literacy and 100% employment as everyone is guaranteed an education, proper healthcare and nutrition. As a result Kerala has the lowest infant mortality and the highest life expectancy in India. Everyone is pretty equal here so those Keralites who want a higher standing of living migrate to places like Dubai. 

Our first stop was Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. The city is one of the oldest in India and was a famous port during 1050 BC when it had trade relations with many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. Today Trivandrum is one of the primary commercial and industrial areas of Kerala. The city is characterized by its undulating terrain of low coastal hills and busy commercial alleys. 

On our drive from the airport I was struck by the many fishing villages we passed by. At this time of day the fisherman had all come in from their work at sea and were relaxing with their peers.  

Some other scenic views from our drive to our hotel. 

We stayed at a charming seaside resort in Kovalam, just 12 km from the airport. This was the view from our hotel. 

Our first order of sightseeing was Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The shrine is run by a trust headed by the royal family of Tranvancore. We had read about this temple about a year and a half ago in the Wall Street Journal because of the vast amount of jewels stored in the locked coffers of the temple, which were only recently opened. During ancient times people who worshipped the temple gave offerings of gold and other precious stones and metals to the God. Those offerings were subsequently stored in the temple vault.

The vaults were only opened for the first time in 2011 by a committee set up by India's supreme Court in the course of hearing a case about who should manage the temple, presently run by members of the formal royal family of the area. The precious diamonds, gold, emeralds, rubies, antique silver, brass and gold idols found in the vault are estimated at $22 billion.

Only five of the six underground chambers has been opened, and temple officials say the sixth will not be open, citing "ancient legends of a bad omen befalling the state as well as those involved in the exercise". Who knows how much more wealth is stored in this chamber!

The gold encrusted temple is shown below. The temple attracts millions of visitors each year. Only Hindus in full traditional dress are allowed in to the temple.

The street leading to the temple was adorned with these big idols of Pandavas, characters in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

From the temple we ventured to Napier Museum, an art and natural history museum that displays a vast collection of prized stone sculptures, wood and ivory carvings and handicrafts. The ancient sculptures and artifacts of this museum are a major draw for visitors.

The next day we drove to Kumarakom, which was about a three hour drive. Our hotel was beautifully set on a lagoon, which our charming cottage faced. The setting of the resort was so serene and beautiful. The kids especially loved riding bikes around the property - something they terribly missed by living in Delhi. There were a number of other kids staying at the resort, a number of whom were classmates at the American school in Delhi.

This Victorian two storied bungalow shown below was the main dining hall for the hotel. It was built by British missionary Alfred George Baker in 1881 on huge pieces of Teak wood rafters packed in mud as a base. It was the house of four generations of the Baker family, for over a hundred years, before Taj hotels restored it. This bungalow, called the "History House" is the setting for Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things"

That evening we attended an annual South Indian temple festival. This festival was a tribute to the temple's presiding God, Lord Shiva, who emerges from inside the temple only once a year. This elaborate festival featured a large procession of bejeweled elephants, drummers and other musicians.

This elephant is carrying a statue of Lord Shiva. Over the next several days this elephant will visit every home in the area to bless everyone individually. It is the only time of the year that God leaves the temple and visits people's homes.

Here the elephant is descending the long staircase and is being welcomed by the masses.

This festival was quite an experience for us, as it is unique to Hindu devotees in the South. 

The next morning we started our day by visiting the Kuramakom Bird Sanctuary on the banks of Bembanand Lake. It was a great opportunity to watch all kinds of bird life up close. 

We roamed away from the sanctuary and saw nature at its best.

Jack fruit!

Later that afternoon we boarded a houseboat to cruise the famed backwaters of Vembanad Lake. This was a true highlight of this trip. On the cruise we were treated to an unbelievable beautiful paradise of mangrove forests, emerald green paddy fields and coconut groves interspersed with enchanting waterways and canals. Traveling by houseboat was pure relaxation!

This was our houseboat. 

Once we got to the heart of the scenic lake we came across plenty of traditional country crafts, boats and canoes. The backwaters houses a variety of species of both fauna and flora so there are plenty of fisherman looking for the catch of the day!

Tons of coconut palm trees lined the rivers. 

A fisherman's home.

We walked inland to see a fishing village.

What an amazing afternoon we had on the backwaters! Later that day we headed back to our hotel to celebrate Holi - an annual festival that marks the beginning of Spring. The Holi festival commemorates the victory of good over evil, brought about by the burning and destruction of the demoness named Holika. This was enabled through the unwavering devotion of Lord Vishnu.

Holi got its name as the "Festival of Colors" from Lord Krishna, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who liked to play pranks on the village girls by drenching them in water and colors.

The kids had such a blast celebrating Holi!

The next morning we left for Kochi, a two hour drive from Kumarakom. Kochi is a major port city on India's western coast and is also the state's most densely populated city. 

Kochi was the centre of the Indian spice trade for many centuries. It's spices were exported to the Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese since ancient times. 

Our first stop was Jew Town. The Jews first came to the Kochi area as early as 700 B.C. because of trade. Jews eventually became so plentiful in the area that the Hindu Raja granted them a seat for their own town, called "Jew Town" right next to Kochi. Although many Jews flocked to Israel or were converted to Christianity, many Jews are still in the area. The main attraction in "Jew Town" is a very old synagogue, which is still revered by Jews from all over the world. 

Unfortunately we were not able to visit the synagogue because it was Passover. 

Shailen with some cinnamon from the spice market. 

Jew Town is still the centre of the Spice Market. The exotic odor of the finest ginger, cloves, cardamom, turmeric and pepper emanate from the spice warehouses lining the streets of Jew Town.

Then we walked to the Harbour to see the Chinese fishing nets.

The Fort Kochi street market showcase bursts of colors - clothes, bags, jewelry, and these pretty dolls.

The real draw to the Harbor are the Chinese fishing nets, shown below in the background. They operate on principles of Physics advanced for their time when they were developed in ancient times. Presently these types of fishing nets are mostly found in Kerala.

The fish nets are huge mechanical contrivances which hold out horizontal nets of 20m or more across. Each structure is at least 10 m hight and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea. On the other end large stones suspended from ropes act as counterweights. The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend in to the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised by pulling on ropes. Although the catch is usually modest, it is usually sold to a passerby within minutes.

Here a fisherman is selling his fresh catch, presumably from the Chinese fishing nets.

Next we ventured off to St. Francis Church, the oldest European built church in India. The Portuguese constructed it in 1503.

The famous Vasco Da Gama, the first European to reach India by sailing around Africa, was buried in Kochi for 14 years after his death in 1524 and was later transferred to Lisbon. His tombstone is inside the church. 

Vasco De Gama's tombstone, now empty, is just inside this window. 

Nearby is Santa Cruz Cathedral. It was originally built by the Portuguese and elevated to a cathedral by Pope Paul IV in 1558. Some beautiful paintings can be seen here. 

We loved the colorful homes in the area.

Next we visited a washing village in town, called Dhobi Khana. Washing establishments like this one were established during British rule when officers brought in villagers to do their laundry. The men usually do the washing, while their wives join them to dry and iron the clothes.

As we drove back to our hotel I captured the colorful boats that were docked.

That evening we went to a cultural show featuring Kathakali Dance, one of the most popular dance forms in Kerala. The genre of dance is termed dance drama. Kathakali involves the presentation of a drama through the expression of dance. The performances are accompanied by instrumental as well as vocal aids. The basic expressions of the dance form are delivered by the hands. The expressions suggested by the subtle hand movements are complimented by the movements of the face, particularly the eyes.

The next morning we visited the Mattacncherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace, as the Dutch did substantial renovations to it. The Portuguese built this palace in 1557. The palace is knows for its famous murals that depict the various scenes of the Ramayan, Mahabharta and legends of Hindu gods. It has since been converted to a museum.

The Grounds of the Palace were so beautiful; we waited an hour for the museum to open so we had plenty of time to enjoy it. The flowers were in full bloom.

Priya loved the small zoo on the grounds. She was a magnet to the spotted deer.

This ended our amazing week in Kerala. We are so glad that we had the chance to visit this beautiful coastal state with so much natural beauty, culture and history.