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The

Pilgrimage Special

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N I RVA N A Va r a n a s i | ko l k ata | t i r u pat i | m a j u l i | h o n g ko n g


N AT I O N A L G E O G R A P H I C T R AV E L L E R I N D I A

November2017 VOL. 6 ISSUE 5

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VOICES

20 WHERE’S MY PASSPORT? Where is spirituality bred, in the heart or in the head? Perhaps somewhere else entirely 22 WAYFARING An ode to the ocean, whose waters help one understand life, loss and love 24 CREW CUT Commuting on the Paris metro is an experience both humbling and universal

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THE ITINERARY 26 PLENTY MORE FISH IN PHILIPPINES

Snorkel, take a sand bath, hike in forests and gorge on seafood in the island nation 34 GO WILD IN JAIPUR Jhalana Forest Reserve, Rajasthan’s newest wildlife safari destination, is a haven for leopards 38 MORE THAN YOUR PULSE RACES Six marathons around the world that promise beer, cheer, wine and verdant views

48 MONTREAL IS NEVER OUT OF TUNE

Exploring Quebec’s cultural capital as it commemorates 375 years 56 BEYOND THE CLICHÉ: 48 HOURS IN GENEVA

How to have fun in Switzerland’s glacial lakeside city without breaking the bank 64 HOW ITALY GETS SAUCY A traditional family-run trattoria in the port city of Genoa satiates an appetite for pesto

PHOTO COURTESY: ALPAKAFARM SCHABER

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44 THE ALPACA IS MY SHEPHERD The furry camelids lead a scenic hike in the hills of south Germany


Regulars 18 Editor’s Note | 152 Travel Quiz 84

THE CONVERSATION 72 WALKING ON SUNSHINE Twinkle Khanna and her family might disagree on how they travel. But that only makes their trips more memorable 78 IN SHIVA’S FOOTSTEPS Author Amish Tripathi believes it is devotion that makes a place holy

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THE ADDRESS 84 NO BAD APPLES HERE In the heart of Srinagar, The Lalit Grand Palace serves up the best of the Kashmir Valley 87 JUNGLE LODGED Bagh Villas in Madhya Pradesh might be all about tiger sightings in Kanha, but it’s the staff’s bonhomie that wins you over 88 A VIEW AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

At SaffronStays Villa 270° in the town of Dapoli, simplicity mingles with a touch of luxury

ON THE COVER N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 7 • ` 1 5 0 • VO L . 6 I S S U E 5 • N AT G E O T R AV E L L E R . I N

The

Pilgrimage Special

THE ROAD TO

N I RVA N A VA R A N A S I | KO L K ATA | T I R U PAT I | M A J U L I | H O N G KO N G

Otherwise reclusive, Naga sadhus choose the Kumbh Mela to make their austerity conspicuous. They might be ascetics, but they are also pilgrims, looking for nirvana, looking for some divine intervention. Abhishek Hajela here captures their boisterous attitude.

RUMELA BASU (BOAT), ABHISHEK HAJELA (COVER)

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THE DESTINATION 92 PRAYER FOR THE UNSUNG From Nagaland’s Kohima Cathedral to the Chausath Yogini Temple in Madhya Pradesh, 10 lesser-known holy sites across India 100 VARANASI: STARTING WHERE THE ROAD ENDS

A spiritual journey of time, emotion and transcendence in the Mecca of Hinduism 108 BECOMING HARSANGAT The story of a female American Nihang (warrior), who embraced Sikhism and embodies its spirit at the Hola Mohalla festival in Punjab

122 KOLKATA’S DURGA PUJAS: FROM THE INSIDE OUT

A mother navigates the chaos of a resplendent city with her young children in tow. She comes up with a definitive survival guide 126 NOTHING ORGANISED ABOUT RELIGION HERE

In Hong Kong, temples allow shoes and there are really no dress restrictions either. Faith has been subsumed into the general way of life 130 WATERWAY TO HEAVEN On Majuli, the world’s largest river island, a sect of neo-Vaishnavites has invented real happiness. To find them is to find home

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THE JOURNEY 136 VOYAGE TO A WHITE MARS The mythologies of Antarctica mimic those of outer space 142 WOUNDED, NOT BROKEN In the 1990s, Croatia’s Homeland War left Dubrovnik ravaged, but like a true phoenix, it still retains the enchantment of its past 147 TAIWAN: WHERE EVERY PICTURE IS A POSTCARD

From fields of flowers to shrines and hot springs, there is a photo op at every turn on this island

DANIEL BEREHULAK/STAFF/GETTY IMAGES NEWS/GETTY IMAGES

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116 FROM HERE TO KINGDOM COME Lord Venkateswara Swamy reigns over Tirupati. A visit to his court serves as a reminder of both our collective strength and fragility


Editor’s Note Shreevatsa Nevatia

ALL IN GOOD FAITH

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ambivalence seldom comes in the way of considering ideas that are bigger than me

became a journalist at the Kumbh Mela. All of 17 in 2001, I found myself in Allahabad for a mass pilgrimage I didn’t quite understand the significance of. I was a curious adolescent, not a pilgrim. Two years older, my cousin had more cunning plans. He slung his camera over his shoulder, and asked me to carry a pen and notepad. We wanted access to the akharas of the Naga sadhus. They had a reputation of being reclusive, impulsive and hostile. When faced with a camera, however, these naked, ash-smeared hermits performed their asceticism. It was clear they didn’t mind our audience. They brandished their tridents with glee, and guided us through the proof of their austerity—nails that hadn’t been cut for a decade, hair that hadn’t been washed, and chillums that helped forget all hardship. I asked one of them, “Why do you celebrate the way you do? What’s so special about the Kumbh?” The Shaivite took his time to reply. “We believe the nectar of immortality can be found here. This is where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and the Saraswati. No place could be more holy. But you tell me, why are you here?” His question had taken me by surprise. “Who doesn’t want his sins washed?” I replied. I was too scared. Looking into his fierce eyes, I didn’t think I could be candid. I was fascinated by pilgrimages, their rituals and purpose. There could be very little disappointment at the end of a journey whose goal was always noble, and

whose primary attraction was an ever beneficent, present, very resplendent god. A pilgrimage is also a collective affair. To take a dip in the holy waters of the Kumbh Mela, my cousin and I had to brave a teeming crowd of boisterous sadhus. Similarly, Shreya Sen Handley writes about surviving Kolkata’s Durga Pujas whilst being pushed around by thousands of revellers. Akhila Krishnamurthy stands in a queue for hours to get a glimpse of Tirupati’s Lord Venkateswara. Faith may well be a private matter, but the travel it encourages is often very public. My agnosticism sometimes makes me guilty, but that ambivalence seldom comes in the way of considering ideas that are bigger than me. Speaking in early October, Amish Tripathi was categorical—“You don’t have to be a believer to be a pilgrim.” Many of our contributors in this issue were outsiders who looked in to find splendour in both, mythology and devotion. Vivek Menezes found home in Majuli. In Hong Kong, Bhavya Dore discovered religion without structure and stricture, and Ashima Narain photographed a pilgrim whose faith defied her cultural otherness. Pilgrimages can sometimes force you to transgress. Writing about Banaras, Aditya Sinha asks, “What would happen if Lord Shiva suddenly appeared on Earth—would people seek his blessings or selfies?” We have only tried to answer that question.

National Geographic Traveller India is about immersive travel and authentic storytelling, inspiring readers to create their own journeys and return with amazing stories. Our distinctive yellow rectangle is a window into a world of unparalleled discovery.

​Write to me at natgeoeditor@ack-media.com or Editor, National Geographic Traveller India, 7th Floor, AFL House, Lok Bharti Complex, Marol Maroshi Road, Andheri East, Mumbai- 400059. november 2017 | national Geographic Traveller INDIA

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our mission


The Itinerary Philippines

plenty more fish in Philippines in an island nation that ticks all the boxes, you can Snorkel, take a sand bath, go on forest trails or gorge on seafood By Rumela Basu

ilocos

A kalesa ride around the main square is the best way to discover the Historic City of Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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brought to Vigan by Fidel’s ancestors, years before the European colonisers came here. The centuries-old method begins with a buffalo stomping on wet clay to break it down. It is then kneaded, shaped on the wheel, and finally decorated with hand-drawn motifs. The history of Ilocos’s Asian and European inhabitants comes together at Syquia Mansion, the family home of the late Elpidio Quirino, Philippines’ sixth president. The mansion is named after Quirino’s wife’s family, who hispanised their Chinese family name SyKia to gain social standing. The family home, parts of which are open to public, is filled with vintage wooden furniture and large portraits of family members. The terrace garden has an ornate marble fountain, and the peep holes in the master bedroom were once used to keep a tab on visitors.

national Geographic Traveller INDIA | November 2017

That Vigan takes its architectural aesthetics seriously is also evident in the newer buildings, which too are built in the colonial style; the Starbucks doesn’t look much out of place beside the 18thcentury St. Paul’s Cathedral. Out on the streets, cosy cafés sell local specialities like bagnet (fried pork belly) and longanisa (chorizo) sausages, and stalls dish out crispy crescent-shaped empanadas. Handicraft stores and tobacco and souvenir shops line Vigan’s narrow cobblestone alleys that brim with the familiar bustle of a modern small town. STAY The Playa Tropical Resort Hotel in Ilocos Norte offers both rooms and poolside villas (www.playatropical.ph; PHP3,800/`4,850). EAT Cafe Uno's old-word decor has nooks of knick-knacks. It serves local specialities including bagnet and longanisa sausages.

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n adventurous 4x4ride over the sandy coastal desert at La Paz Sand Dunes, in Ilocos Norte province, feels much like a dash across the Emirati deserts. The experience however is in complete contrast to everything else in Ilocos Norte’s capital, Laoag, where the most intrepid ride is one on a traditional horse carriage or kalesa (PHP2,000/`2,500 per vehicle). These kalesas (PHP150/`190 per hour) also clatter on the cobbled streets of Vigan, the capital city of neighbouring province, Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan is the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in all of Asia. Steep roofs and window panes fitted with a mosaic of capiz shells characterise most buildings here. In one of Vigan’s narrow lanes, Fidel Go’s pottery workshop offers a glimpse into the Chinese tradition of pottery


Pampanga

With famous dishes like sisig and kare-kare originating here, one of Pampanga's biggest draws is its food. Kapampanga, the people of the region, pride themselves in being good cooks.

soak (PHP3,000/`3,770 per person, including activities and lunch). All the staff at Puning are from the local Aeta community. The Aetas are believed to be Austronesians and Philippines’ first inhabitants. Much of the Aeta’s lands and the region’s landscape was reshaped by a violent explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. But members of this community, who take pride in living in harmony with nature and who had helped train their American colonisers in jungle survival in the 19th and 20th centuries, rebuilt their lives. The volcanic eruption, however, forced many of them to vacate their homes in the nearby Pamulaklakin forest. About an hour and half from Puning, Pamulaklakin is an ecotourism zone today, and is maintained by the Aetas. They conduct guided trails through the forest, telling visitors about their connection with the land. Among other things, they talk about the uses of the region’s flora—the rattan tree, whose pulp supposedly helps cure diabetes,

the sour vinegar leaf used in cooking, and the gugo tree whose crushed bark when mixed with water lathers up to make shampoo that’s still used by some locals here. This particular forest walk ends with a rendezvous with Tata Kasoy. Dressed in traditional Aeta clothing, comprising only a loincloth and sash, the almost toothless Kasoy demonstrates how to make fire and even fashion a spear from bamboo. His mischievous gummy smile and flirting serves as an add-on. STAY Clark, in Angeles city, about two hours north of Manila, is a convenient location to explore Pampanga. The 154-room Park Inn by Radisson has comfortable rooms and is right next to the SM City Clark Complex (www.parkinn.com; doubles from PHP3,570/`4,500). EAT Two of the Philippines’ well-known dishes, sisig, finely chopped wok-tossed pig ear and face, and kare-kare, a peanutbased beef curry, originated in this region. At SM City Clark, the restaurant chain, Max’s, serves these and more.

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laustrophobia battles with curiosity when being covered by warm, grey volcanic sand while lying in a trench dug out on a sand bed. This is the sand bath at Pampanga’s Puning Hot Spring and Spa on Luzon Island, couple of hours northwest of Manila, and at the base of Mount Pinatubo, the region’s most famous volcano. The entire landscape of Puning is almost primitive. Plunging gorges cut through forested limestone mountains and a lahar-swathed dry riverbed. Following the cocooning on a coal-heated bed of sand is a 10-minute massage, which involves the slight masseuse gently walking over visitors’ arms, legs and shoulders—a rather relaxing experience once the initial awkwardness passes. The session ends with a volcanic mud pack. Besides the sand treatment, a visit to Puning either begins or ends at the hot springs. Concrete pools of mineral-rich spring water from Mount Pinatubo, surrounded by shacks with lounge chairs, are perfect for a rejuvenating


The Itinerary switzerland

Beyond the cliché: 48 Hours in Geneva How to have fun in Switzerland’s glacial lakeside city without breaking the bank By Jharna Thakkar

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t’s taken me three trips over a decade, almost half a year’s savings converted into Swiss Francs and a whole host of local and expat friends to unearth the under-the-radar Genève. Because far from the crowds and clichés of the posh tourist mainstays—starring the super-rich, Michelin-star eateries, chic boutiques, artisanal chocolatiers, luxury watch museums, flashy convertibles and seriously rude waitstaff— lies a colourfully warm and real, slightly bohemian side to Switzerland’s second most expensive city.

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Apart from tiny secrets I’ve shared in this fondue-free weekend guide, here are a few more gems imparted by the locals: It’s not Lake Geneva, it’s Lac Lèman. Only tourists call it Lake Geneva. Some buildings and landlords won’t let you use the loo after 10 p.m., so remember to read your accommodation rules carefully. Marijuana was legalised, sans any fanfare, earlier this year. And finally, natives like to lunch on filets de perches (perch fillets), served fried, à la meunière or in a light white wine sauce; not cheese and chocolate.

InnaFelker/shutterstock

Swiss artist Daniel Berset's "Broken Chair" was installed in August 1997 as an appeal to countries to sign a treaty for the banning of landmines.


The Itinerary switzerland

DAY 1 – Saturday 9 A.M. COOK AND MAKE FRIENDS While volunteering and Switzerland aren’t words that any traveller would ever think to string together, you should start Saturday with self-introductions to a small slice of Geneva’s English-speaking community at Feed the Needy soup kitchen. Your mission for the morning is to cook lunch for the underprivileged, along with 10 to 20 expats, students and residents. You’ll be assisting finance and debt specialist-by-week and chef-by-weekend, James Hall to shop for and prepare a meal of rice and chilli con carne (a hearty meat stew made with chilli peppers, tomatoes and beans). You will also help prepare a healthy coleslaw and fruit salad for the 150-200 homeless folk who regularly eat at the refurbished old eatery, on every third Saturday of the month. But before that, a word of caution for spice lovers from coordinator Rohan Oberoi: “This crowd tends to get very vocal when the curry is too spicy so we won’t entertain any chilli-crazy helpers.” (www.glocals.com; join the Geneva Volunteering Group to sign up. Feed the Needy is open to public.)

3 P.M. CALLING COMIC CONNOISSEURS Fans of Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Dave Gibbons, Jean Giraud and Osamu Tezuka can pour in and talk in hushed whispers over the works of their favourite comic creators at RolandMargueron’s unusual, semicircular, gallery-cum-comic book store, Papier Gras. Here, the comic king of Geneva supplies the populace and tourists all the classics, with a spectacular view of the Rhône no less. He also doubles the 30-year-old ambi-dextrous space as an art gallery. It is well known for openings, exhibitions, discussions, readings and performances based on the “ninth art.” (www.papiers-gras.com; open Mon-Fri noon-7 p.m., Sat 10.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; free entry.)

After an indoor morning, it’s time to soak yourself in the sun with an al fresco lunch. Food, like everything else in Geneva is expensive, so remember to pull a local and ask the garçon for a plat du jour (day’s special), during the week. On weekends, opt for a portable picnic lunch from Geneva’s best bakery, Boulangerie des Bains or their annex in Old Town called Pierre & Jean run by an award-winning, baker-pastry chef duo, Pierre-Alain and Jean-Claude. I dare you to steer clear of their signature breads (notably, the olive or fig-and-walnut), artisanal Viennese pastries, jams (take home the Fruits de Bois, which won Gold at the Swiss Bakery Trophy) and head for the freshly baked goods and sandwiches, instead. So will that be a curried chicken sandwich or ham quiche with those brownies, éclairs and strawberry passion mousse? (www.boulangeriedesbains.ch; open MonFri 4.30 a.m.-6.30 p.m., Sat 2 a.m.-1.30 p.m.; CHF30/`2,000 for two.)

5 P.M. GO CRATE DIGGIN’ To take a step back into the 1970s, head to the best-kept secret in Augustins’ neighbourhoods, Bongo Joe Records. Locals usually meet here to flip through vintage LPs (33t-45t), cassettes, CDs and books on sale, and grab an in-store show, while sipping local Genevian craft beer. Manned by Cyril Yeterian, Geneva’s grooviest LP shop, which is also an independent record label, holds only a handful of tables, a tiny chalkboard menu of hot and cold drinks and an extensive vinyl collection spanning folk, blues, soul, funk, rock, garage, psych, world, country, disco, jazz and Latin. Your hunt for the hippest place to start an early apéro hour ends here. (www.bongojoe.ch; open Tue-Sat 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; entry free.) November 2017 | national Geographic Traveller INDIA

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XXXXXXXXXXXX (XXXXXXXXX) Denisfilm/istock (food), photo courtesy: Papier Gras Facebook Page (bookstore), photo courtesy: Bongo Joe Records (music)

12.30 P.M. LUNCH LIKE A LOCAL, READ FOR LESS


THE CONVERSATION

IN SHIVA’S

FOOTSTEPS By SHREEVATSA NEVATIA

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Author Amish Tripathi believes it is devotion that makes a place holy


AMISH TRIPATHI

PHOTO COURTESY: VINAY TRIPATHI

I meet the locals, listen to their music and hear their stories. What really is culture? It is a collection of stories we all believe in

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THE CONVERSATION

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Amish, for his part, remains more engaged than reclusive. He likes listening to the tales locals tell, and culture, he argues, is but a collection of stories we all believe in. Without travel, Amish wouldn’t have his backdrop.

You’ve said you visit a Shiva temple every Monday morning, so what does ‘pilgrimage’ mean to you? The English language has some limitations, so I’d like to use the Sanskrit word for pilgrimage—tirtha. The meanings of Sanskrit words all evolve from a root of sorts. The word

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA | NOVEMBER 2017

tirtha, for instance, means ‘the point of crossing over’. It’s a place which has been deemed holy by the devotion of the pilgrims who go there, and so it becomes a place where you can cross over to meet the divine, where you can touch and feel it. Hinduism is not a congregational religion. Hindus are not duty-bound to gather and pray. That’s not how pilgrimage is defined in Indian mythology. Ours is an individual journey. New places, as a result, can emerge as tirthasthans. In the end, what makes a place holy? Our devotion makes it holy. God exists within us. Much of this, I admit, has been forgotten, and a lot of this perhaps needs to be revived.

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eimagined by Amish Tripathi, Shiva is an immigrant. He is used to long journeys. He is also used to the idea that travel can change lives. There is no irreverence in Amish’s adaptation. When National Geographic Traveller India visited him in his office, it soon became clear that the writer was first a believer. His faith, though, still allowed him to think atheists too can be pilgrims. Amish can cry in Banaras. Chasing Shiva, he also desperately wants to see Mount Kailash. The author of the Shiva trilogy told us, “As a traveller, Shiva can live in a bubble, but he can also be completely immersed.”

Along with being the source of the river Ganga, Mount Kailash is also known as the abode of Shiva.


AMISH TRIPATHI

His son's enthusiasm has led Tripathi to visit national parks. A close encounter with a leopard in Masai Mara has been his family's most memorable experience in the wild.

Banaras and more specifically, two places within Banaras, namely the Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan Temples. The first is dedicated to Shiva and the latter to Hanuman. The first time I had been to Banaras, my parents had taken me to see the morning aarti at Sankat Mochan Temple. I got very emotional, and I don’t know why, but I remember I had started to cry. The decision isn’t intellectual. You instinctively decide that this is the place for you. One place I really want to go to is Kailash Mansarovar. I’m hoping to go next year, and I think that might be the highlight of my life. Physically, it’s a fascinating place. Kailash Mansarovar has a lake next to it—Lake Mansarovar. It is full of life, and very close by there is Lake Rakshastal, where there is

absolutely nothing, and they are both right next to each other. It is from the radius of Mount Kailash that most of Asia’s rivers emerge. The rivers are together the source of life for over two billion people, so Mount Kailash is a special place.

Tell us about Shiva, the traveller. What were his quirks? The thing that most of us Shaivites like about Shiva is his contradiction. These contradictions even manifest in the way he travels and sees the world. He becomes one amongst the people. Of the Holy Trinity—Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva— Shiva is the only one who is said to live on earth, on Mount Kailash. Across the Indian subcontinent, you’ll find stories that talk about Shiva’s arrival. In Kerala, you’ll hear stories about how he appeared as a fisherman. At some points, though, he is detached, more intent on his meditation. As a traveller,

he can live in a bubble, but he can also be completely immersed.

India’s geography itself is sacred. If you go to Baanganga, they’ll tell you that Lord Rama had shot an arrow here to make the Ganga appear. How do these stories impact travel? For me, these stories are very important. Whenever I travel with my family or by myself, what I always try and do is travel like the locals. I try and eat local food. I meet the locals, listen to their music and hear their stories. What really is culture? Culture is a collection of stories we all believe in. So, it’s only when you listen to the local stories of a place, do you truly come to understand its culture.

Do you think one needs to be a believer to be a pilgrim? No, and I say this because in the Indian

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Even though there are so many tirthasthans, devotees do have favourites. Which one is yours?


After a dip in the holy waters of Varanasi, pilgrims wash and dry their clothes by the ghats.

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THE DESTINATION


UTTAR PRADESH

Varanasi

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Starting Where the Road Ends

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THE DESTINATION

A spiritual journey of time, emotion and transcendence in Lord Shiva’s city and the Mecca of Hinduism Aditya Sinha Photographs by Abhishek Hajela

“Where all others’ paths end, ours begins,” the Aghori baba near Harishchandra Ghat says. His skin is deepest burnt-brown; his head-cloth and body-wrap black. Only his eyes blaze white, answering my questions with weary amusement. I’ve caught him during his daily late afternoon hunt for wood from a spent funeral pyre at the cremation ghat. Varanasi is Hinduism’s Mecca and Lord Shiva’s city, mystical and weird like Shankar Bhagwan. It is the Lord’s Matrix: it is spiritual punk. Foreigners come perhaps because they see the mysticism with a clarity that sometimes eludes Indians, for whom Varanasi is a filthy, squalid, never-ending small town. Varanasi is the departure spaceport for salvation-seekers before they head to the s-dimension (“s” for spiritual). Varanasi aka Banaras aka Kashi (city of lights) aka Anand Kaanan (forest of bliss): The name derives from the five kos of land between the rivers Varuna and Assi. Mythically, Varanasi sits on Shiva’s trishul’s middle prong. Eighty ghats watch the river Ganga flow by. A handful of lesser, postmodern ghats have lately sprung up. Cremation mostly happens at Harishchandra Ghat and the larger Manikarnika Ghat. Located near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Manikarnika Ghat is a few hundred metres before the popular Dasashwamedha Ghat. Manikarnika’s mythology is that Shiva was passing by with Goddess Sati and she lost an earring (mani karna in Sanskrit) here, condemning the spot to forever have funeral pyres. I take a boat up the Ganga at dusk, and as I pass Manikarnika I count eight pyres. “How could it continuously have had funeral pyres when in pre-history, people were less?” I ask shastriji, an octogenarian scholar of physics and the Vedas. We sat one morning under a peepul at Shivala Ghat, both of us taking a 102

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deep dive into Kashi. “Instead of eight there would have been a single pyre,” he retorted with a cosmic wave of dismissal. “Instead of three hours it would have burned for six.” The myth has variations. One says that after the Daksha’s yagya, to which son-in-law Shiva was not invited, a humiliated Sati self-immolated. Her corpse was cut into 51 pieces by Vishnu, each landing in what are now 51 Shakti peeths; her earring landed in Manikarnika. Another says the earring fell off while Shiva danced his wild tandav. There must be more. Manikarnika Ghat is now run by the dom raja, whose azure house stands metres away. The dom are traditional carcass-handlers. This dom raja is reputedly rich, with orchards across Bihar. The Aghor sect is among Shankar Bhagwan’s varied devotees. My mother was unimpressed when I spoke of going to its ashram. “I don’t like the Aghori,” she said, echoing Hindu orthodoxy. The Aghori smear themselves with cremation ashes, wander about dishevelled, and wear skulls (like Shiva). Caste-conscious Hindus avoid them and foreigners seek them out, though both miss the point. By my meagre philosophical understanding, the Aghori try to transcend the categories through which we comprehend the world. They try to rise above our pigeonholes of perception and knowledge. The Aghori attempt to defy duality. This means mastering one’s prejudices. Control of the mind is key to the spiritual (or non-material) life and the Aghori symbolise this by drinking from a skull—the mind’s location. Foreign documentary makers come looking for Aghoris who eat human flesh but this is just an “urban legend”. No one here has heard of such an Aghori. “The theory is that to rise above

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This sadhu never begs for alms but has "fans" who voluntarily offer him food and money.

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WEST BENGAL

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A mother navigates the chaos of a resplendent city with her young children in tow. She comes up with a definitive survival guide

olkata’s Durga Pujas FROM THE INSIDE OUT

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There is magic in the Kolkata air tonight. The autumnal night sky is lit in rainbow hues. These colours reflect off the pandals, those magnificent, glittering, multi-coloured marquees. Tonight, our pandal-hop starts from South Kolkata’s Selimpur and ends in Park Circus. The Gariahat Road on which we walk is long and busy. We see hundreds of pandals, big and small, all decked up as distinctively as can be. We spot everything from a giant-bird marquee to the slightly less fantastical South Indian temple. We stop at a pagoda-like pandal in Ballygunge. It is stately, not serene. Nothing is serene during the Pujas. Though the air is filled with loud music and voices, the pagoda is worth the halt and deserves a better look. But that’s precisely our problem. We—two little children and their diminutive mom—don’t think we will get that better look tonight. In fact, close to the ground as we are, even the magic in the air slightly eludes us. Air itself does too, hemmed in as we are by a large surging crowd, jostling and jabbering. “Oh Mommy,” said my seven-year-old daughter, “it’s bootiful, but I can barely breathe.” It was time for the Himshim Manoeuvre. Like the Heimlich Manoeuvre, Himshim brings escape from a particular kind of choking peculiar to Kolkata at Pujo-time. I was about to find out if I’d grown rusty from my many years living away in England. Gripping my children’s hands tightly, I ploughed through the palaver of people till we’d breathed refreshing air on a quieter side street. There were enough people there to fill a small hall, but still. Soon spirited home in our car down similar back streets, the children

The saaj, or ornamentation of the Durga idol, was traditionally done in white papier mâché made from local shola plants. Later, foil or rangta, then imported from overseas, made an appearance. Since it came via post or daak, the decoration came to be known as daaker saaj.

were relieved but also eager for more. “Shall we do it again?” asked our young man of nine. Of course we would! That’s why we were in Kolkata for the Pujas after 12 long years. We visited annually but till 2015, the kids had seemed too young to enjoy the colour and chaos of the Pujas to the full. And much like the goddess Durga’s own homecoming, as celebrated by the Pujas, it was meant to be a triumphant one. We weren’t meant to scuttle away after a single attempt at rubbernecking. We had not covered ourselves in Pujo-hopping glory on our first foray into the festivities. I was, however, determined not to be deterred by a puny crowd of thousands. Did Durga down arms and slink away when confronted by the macho Mahishasura? No, she grappled him to the ground instead. And so would I, I decided, find a way to master the Pujas all over again, introducing its magic and mayhem to my eager young ’uns, in the most painless way possible. I could no longer, I had to admit, flow through crowds like Saraswati’s swan through water, or match Ganesh’s nose for the finest grub. This time around, for example, it took a while to find the most mouthwatering double-chicken-egg rolls at the resplendent Park Circus Puja, which would have been the work of a mere practised seconds years ago. Yet some things hadn’t changed. The enthusiasm was still there, as was the pluck. Most of all, the mind ticketh over as before. It was formulating a plan with the practicality of Lakshmi and the maternal instincts of Durga. And that all-conquering arsenal in the latter’s 10 powerful arms? I would need those too. Just adapted to less NOVEMBER 2017 | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA

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ARUN SANKAR/CONTRIBUTOR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

BY SHREYA SEN-HANDLEY


THE DESTINATION

Waterway to

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obody should go to Majuli the way I did. Any sane and reasonable person should take the safe route—direct passage by a comfortable fast ferry from Jorhat on the southern bank of the turbulent Brahmaputra. Alas, I am not that guy, and never have been. When the Satradhikar (monastery head) of the renowned Uttar Kamalabari Satra telephoned me with an invitation to experience the Bihu harvest festival with him, I was on the northern bank of the river in Lakhimpur, the “gateway to Arunachal Pradesh”, and immediately ignored all the advice everyone had given me. Instead, I decided it would be a waste of time to drive most of a day to make the river crossing from the opposite side. After one (suspiciously overeager, I realised later) taxi driver assured me he’d take me directly to my destination, and had pocketed his fare, we sped bumping and scrambling up precipitous dirt roads, then right down to the riverside. Careening wildly through slush, we closed in on a flat patch where a knot of Mishing tribals was packing densely onto a tiny vessel, just a few planks lashed together over two canoes. Even from a distance, I could see the little platform already crammed with men, women, children, goats, bicycles, huge baskets of produce and bales of cloth. This obviously wasn’t my ride. It didn’t have place for another person, let alone the vehicle. So I got out to ask about ferry timings, and started to wade ankle-deep towards the crowd, which swivelled en masse to watch my approach. Then I heard the taxi start up again, and turned to see it screeching away. My suitcase was deposited in the muck. The last shout I heard from the scoundrel who abandoned me was “Majuli that waaaay.” I looked at the Mishings, and they looked delightedly back at me. It was late afternoon, and the sun’s rays slanted molten gold. I was wearing a linen blazer and trousers, penny loafers oozing mud, and by my side was an oversized shiny Samsonite. It felt uncannily like I was in a Wes Anderson movie, with Bill Murray about to amble onscreen alongside. Tearing myself back to reality, the only option that made sense popped into my head. Obviously this was time for retreat. Use the mobile phone. Call the hotel to send over another taxi, make yourself comfortable on the suitcase, and wait. Unfortunately, as already pointed out, I am not that guy. Instead, with a host of Mishings riveted wide-eyed by my every move, I carefully folded away my jacket, and packed up my shoes, hoisted that absurd giant hardtop onto my shoulder, and trudged to the waterline. It was only then I discovered no one spoke English or Hindi. There was no way to communicate with anyone in sight. In any other place in the world, this is the point where you should panic, and I would profitably take to my heels, sprinting backwards through the mire as fast as my bare feet could carry me. But this was Assam, home of the most gentle and hospitable people I’ve ever encountered anywhere. Over a decade, I’ve returned repeatedly to the magnificent Brahmaputra valley and its peerlessly lush surroundings, for long periods of time, by myself and with family. It is never enough. I always crave more. This time, the draw was three separately powerful attractions that converged on Majuli. Bihu, which expands to a month of revelry. Uttar Kamalabari Satra, the most storied of the clustered monasteries which together comprise the “holy seat” of Assamese identity. But most of all it was the irresistible lure of the world’s largest river island, incalculably totemic because of my ancestral roots.


Heaven

ASSAM

ON MAJULI, THE WORLD’S LARGEST RIVER ISLAND, A SECT OF NEO-VAISHNAVITES HAS INVENTED REAL HAPPINESS. TO FIND THEM IS TO FIND HOME

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Young boys, including little babies, are committed to the order. They grow up in the monastery and gladly pitch in with its upkeep. NOVEMBER 2017 | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA

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THE JOURNEY

VOYAGE TO A

WHITE MARS THE MYTHOLOGIES OF ANTARCTICA MIMIC THOSE OF OUTER SPACE

TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS BY HIMALI SINGH SOIN

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ANTARCTICA

In the starkness of Antarctica, a Zodiac raft stops in awe and passengers in their yellow jackets realise their scale against the breathing, blue ice.

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THE JOURNEY

Being aboard a vessel in Antarctica is full of potentialities. One never knows when a gentoo penguin, or a large colony of them, might come into view. For the writer, travelling with Irish wildlife guide and ornithologist, Jim Wilson, meant understanding the continent in all its surprises and complexities.

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lenticular cloud loomed. The wind swirled its stillness into the shape of a UFO, like a potter pinching, pressing, pulling her clay. Below, an iceberg emerged out of the blue. The wind chaffed its creviced sides, causing an infinitesimal inclination. At first, it wavered, then insisted on itself, tipping back in place. A 105 years after Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, I set sail from Ushuaia in Argentina, towards Antarctica on the Drake Passage, known colloquially as the Drake Shake or Drake Lake, depending on the state of the seas. Watching the sea and the sky, I thought about the myth of the North, of Njörðr, the Norse god of ships and seafaring, and the fur-clad female warriors that came riding through the sky. But the South did not so easily yield such stories. In the absence of human life beyond the boat, I was left imagining the superstitions of the early explorers, whose journal entries began with scientific logs and ended with ruminations on being. The ocean was infinite, vanishing points everywhere with no object in sight to give perspective or scale, save the occasional albatross or petrel swerving above. The waves lashed, 37 feet high and perpetual. For several days, life on our 450-foot ship was led at a 60º angle. It was laughable, till we adjusted to it. We sought balance without denying the tilt.

Routine Surprises

On the bridge, the ship’s control room where silence was mandatory, the stoic Romanian captain charted the wind, which was sinuous. Signals criss-crossed, buttons beeped, screens blinked, maps were uncreased, and binoculars lay on hand. The captain looked out with attention but let out a whisper a notch louder than was allowed. He had spotted a fin whale. Even after a decade of Antarctic travel, he could still surprise himself. Then, the sun burned through the mist. Mountains rose from the ocean’s helm. When the first iceberg, almost a kilometre high from base to tip, emerged, I gasped. This would only be the overture. For the next 10 days, every iceberg seemed more spectacular than the last. I began to reckon with the history of the search for the continent from 300 B.C. when Aristotle hypothesised that a mythic southern continent must exist, based simply in the rationale of equilibrium. Antarctica was named by Aristotle, from Greek anti and arks, meaning ‘opposite the bear’, the name for the constellation under which the Arctic lay. Time here exists at scales that far transcend those we can grasp. The older, denser bits of ice were a piercing sapphire. I understood the captain’s joy: Even after 10 years of navigating the Antarctic, its stark intensity could not become customary. NOVEMBER 2017 | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA

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National Geographic Traveller India November 2017  

Preview of the October 2017 issue of the Indian edition of National Geographic Traveller.

National Geographic Traveller India November 2017  

Preview of the October 2017 issue of the Indian edition of National Geographic Traveller.

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