Sunday, December 06, 2015

The Chennai floods - 2nd life...

The crazy Tuesday

I woke up disturbed by the sound of commotion outside my apartment. As had become practice for the last few hours, the first thing I did was to take a look at the water level on the road. I switched on the torch and strained to see the road through my netted window. It was a surprise and then a shock. The footpath was not to be seen; on looking closer I saw water in our parking area; it had touched the bottom axle of the tyres. And my home was in the ground floor, about 3 feet higher. Without power for 9 hours, we had gone to bed at 8pm itself and at that time the level was below the footpath outside and it had stayed fairly constant at that level for a long while; now within 3 hours it had shot up by a feet.

The neighbours were chatting about the problem in Saidapet.
“The bridge has broken.”
“A water line has burst there and is flooding the place. The water is flowing through our area. It’s coming from the overflowing lake.”

About 15 minutes later I inspected the level; my reference point was the car tyre; my mind felt it had gone up but I calmed myself saying that it was probably because of some ripples that were flowing across. 15 minutes later, my doubts were erased - the water was definitely rising. This was the first time water had breached our complex which was built on a slightly elevated platform.

This had become a crazy day for me; in the morning I was reaching out to office folks to check their state and coordinate for help and information in case they were stranded. And now I was also stranded and cut off.

Is this the end?

At about midnight we dispersed since there was nothing we could do. I could hardly catch any sleep - my mind was calculating how fast the water was rising and how long it would take to enter our home; about 6am was my guess. No power, inverter would last for a short while and I was conserving it for night for my mom, no mobile connectivity, deluge of water all around (street had about 4 feet of water).

I decided to monitor the level whenever i woke up - which was pretty much every 30 to 60 minutes. At 2am I felt the pace had perhaps slowed a little and it would take a little longer to breach our home; ETA 8am.

I used a little bit of the inverter to watch the news on TV; and it was frightening - homes were flooded with water. Even when we used to have water only at the street level, I knew there were many places that got badly hit; with the current level in my place, the news confirmed that the levels reached elsewhere were life threatening. They announced that the airport was shut for 5 days. The headlines read “City of 5 million stranded”. Your heart aches when you see such images.

At 3am lying in bed, worried to hear the intensity of rain picking up, I wondered if this may be the end. The army was rescuing people in the city but how many people could they save? They were also going to be limited in resources and people. At least we had 3 floors above that we could move up to; but thousands wouldn’t have the luxury. And if nature wanted, it could keep the rains continuing and wipe the city.

At 4am the water had crossed the first step; another 3 steps or one more foot of water and it would be in our home. I recollected all the things I would have to pack up for evacuation.

During the night I heard a lady in the opposite bungalow calling out to her mom to come up to the top floor; theirs was a two storey home. It was painful to hear the worried voice - and there was nothing anyone could do since to reach their home we had to cross the street and that was almost impossible. All I could see was a candle, and I hoped that the old lady had reached upstairs safely.

All of life in a suitcase

At 5:30am, with some trace of daylight I got busy in action - the water had gone up a little but only by a few centimetres - it had slowed in the last hour for sure; at this rate ETA was surely after 8am. I plucked all documents and dumped them into a suitcase; and also packed a smaller bag with few clothes. At around 7am, one of the uncles said that the water has been at the same level since 4am. I wasn’t so sure but at 8am it definitely hadn’t risen any further. We spoke with our neighbours in the first floor and they told us to come over whenever needed; and in turn they also packed their important documents in case things went further downhill.

Finally all these years had come down to one suitcase! And I knew that if the situation went to a life or death case, even that suitcase wouldn’t matter. 

Fortunately, the water level didn’t rise after that. In fact we saw it go down a couple of centimetres; not much but it did give some room for safety and assurance.

The landline surprisingly worked - and i tried calling folks in the city; most were unreachable but one person said his place was ok and he kept me updated about the news. I heard from a person living outside the country that the forecast predicted rain for another week! The city wouldn’t hold up for another week of this.

The strength of the flood even displaced cars that were parked on the road by a few metres.

How long can you survive?

With the threat of our home flooding low, next worry was about supplies. Do we have enough to last this out - we had no idea how long it would take for the water to recede. There was no way we could drive; no way we could walk with elderly people through chest high water. I remember reading that we could live without food for 2 or 3 weeks but without water it was only 3 days.

We rationed the food we had – survived on dosa and idli for which we fortunately had some extra batter left and which even without the fridge didn’t get spoilt. We had stock of rice and lentils and some potatoes – food wasn't going to be an issue. Water was - all the homes in our complex had water for about a couple of days. We used edibles like oranges and tomatoes - I assumed that would help with getting some nutrients and satiate thirst.

When I heard from a colleague staying in a nearby hotel that the hotel told their residents to leave because they could only provide food and water for 2 days it was worrying; if they couldn’t get supplies where would we?

I spent the daytime reading a survival pocket guide which I had bought many years ago. It was written by a SAS (Special Air Forces) agent; part of their training and role requires them to survive in extreme hostile conditions - floods, hurricanes, forests etc.

The guide read…
“Do not venture out in floods if you have provision to go to higher ground. Do not stop rationing of supplies till you get supplies replenished. Do not use salt water or urine for drinking even after boiling them. They can be consumed if you distill. Boil rain water and consume. Do not use flood water because sewage will exist.”

For some reason I had never thought of rain water till then; with rains lashing us and with us having enough gas to run the stove, that seemed a good option. And that’s what we did on day 3. We even opened our overhead tanks to fill up rain water; used buckets to get a few and supply them to homes in our complex.

Quite a situation - the city was flooded by water and yet no water to drink; an elderly man in our place said, "We have to go back to the old days; build wells that we can use."

We lived in darkness for about 4 days. There were people from low lying areas who were trying to migrate to higher ground; we heard some neighbouring roads were clear of water. It was a painful sight - an elderly man carrying a suitcase on his head and holding his wife by the other hand wading through hip high waters; we tried helping some as they passed by. But being ourselves down on supply there was only little we could do.

Partial return to normalcy

Late in day 3 the rains had become scattered and few - but those few bursts were frightening because they struck with intense force; on day 3 a few folks ventured out for supplies in an SUV - they got a couple of drinking water bottles for their homes; a few small shops were open 3 or 4 kms away; at least the milk was being sold at normal rates in this area - i heard that in some places they charged 4 times the money for it. Vegetables were expensive - about 5 to 10 times more expensive than normal. ATMs were out of money and supplies in supermarkets I heard ran out quickly. Petrol bunks that happened to open were flooded with people filling fuel in cans and bottles. A lot of this would have been due to fear and wanting to stock up on supplies. 

A few kilometres away there was still seven feet of water on the main road; people were dumping spoilt supplies (rice, lentils etc.) and damaged electronics and furniture in the water. Dead cattle was floating around and even one dead person was floating.

Towards end of day 4 power was restored and we began to get back to normalcy; shops still shut but at least with power we could get drinking water at home; water logging had gone down to ankle height. Few people did leave the city of day 3 since cars could ply certain roads. Some neighbouring roads are still in hip deep water.

We were among those very fortunate and privileged. So many lives had been lost, homes swept away, sewage flooding homes, property bought after years of hard work damaged and washed away. And there were more sad stories of few folks who tried rescuing people getting engulfed by the flood.

One person on television said,It is like a second birth for me.
He said it from the standpoint of materials he lost; but there is a lot more meaning in that statement.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

India travelogue 14 - The end

Birla Mandir (the name outside will say Shri Vishwanath Mandir) - Called Birla temple because it was built by the Birla industries group. This is inside the Benaras Hindu University (BHU); a large sprawling campus with a lot of greenery. The minute we entered the campus I could feel a cool breeze; the effect of greenery. The temple is made of marble; it is a Shiva temple and built based on the famous Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. At the centre is a Shiva lingam. The temple is very spacious; along the walls are plenty of inscriptions - in Hindi and some in English. I read through the English ones - quotations from the Gita and Vedas. Some were quotations from the Dhammapada (a collection of quotes by the Buddha and another scripture in Buddhism). They had some quotes about God being one, about desires, about the mind, about emotions etc. Very neatly kept place and was great walking around reading the scriptures. They have a nice outdoor area as well. 

Next day I was up at 4am; 30 minutes before my alarm time. I wanted to walk to Assi Ghat to see the early morning Ganga aarti (puja). I wasn’t sure at what time it exactly was but I started from my place at 4:30am. I planned to walk the 2.5 kms by trusting Google Maps. At this hour there was no sign of daylight; the streets were dark and deserted. A few tea shops had started preparing tea for early risers; good business idea because they had barely any competition. Along the way I saw a couple of cops; there were many positioned all over the city. I got to see the sun rise in Assi Ghat; the aarti here is a smaller version of the evening aarti. Not many people, not crowded, pleasant to see the Ganga river at this early morning hour (a pleasing clear blue) with the sun rising in the background. Great sight to behold.

This early morning aarti is to provide a platform for upcoming singers and performers; and also to encourage early morning exercise. I stayed on till about 7am; after that was the carnatic music and then I guessed there would be some yoga happening. On the way back I saw a government park and went inside; this was very shabby but there were still people exercising and walking. 

That concluded my short visit to Varanasi – wonderful city to experience; a city where you will surely reflect on life; one of the few places where you get to see so many funerals happening at one spot. The city is supposed to be good for sweets and snacks as well but I didn’t have the opportunity to try any of the local food. 

Return journey

The New Delhi airport is classy unlike the airport I had used on my trip heading to Varanasi. This one looks like the Singapore airport - not yet having all the amenities but the carpet floors and infrastructure is very similar.

What happened in my return flight will likely sound cliche but it did happen. There was this father with his two young sons sitting behind me who got into a minor argument with the air hostess. The air hostess said, “You should have told me earlier.” And the father said, “That’s what my son tried to tell you before but you didn’t even listen to him.” 

It was finally resolved but all through the journey you would hear the other son exclaiming about something. From their conversation I learnt that they had travelled to Singapore and Malaysia; and perhaps they were settled in one of those two countries as well. When you hear someone who has been outside India get excited over things during the flight you kind of find it surprising. If it’s a first time travel it is understandable but this seemed to be over the top; and the boy would have been around 16 years – so not too small either like a child. 

When we stepped off the flight, I felt bad for the thoughts that I had earlier. The boy was being carried down the steps by two flight attendants and gently placed on a wheelchair. The boy was paralysed below his hip. Inspite of the odds, the boys had just been enjoying the flight with enthusiasm and his dad was patiently answering every question he had. 

As I observed the cheerful boy's face I wondered, 'What’s wrong in enjoying every moment to the fullest extent? What’s wrong even if it is something we’ve experienced before?'

(My ebooks available here:

Saturday, October 17, 2015

India travelogue 13 - The temple tour

I returned to the Deer park and spent some time in the hall where the golden Buddha was seated. Four monks arrived and sat facing the Buddha. They started chanting something and I couldn't get the words. Before I started, folks said it would take an hour to cover Sarnath and that's what the auto driver estimated and that's what the tour guide said it will take. But I had already spent 2 hours here! And if I had more time, I would have actually sat down in the hall and penned my thoughts and also observed the monks. 

When I stepped outside the hall, my auto driver saw me.
"Babuji, saw everything?"
"Yes. I was just coming back."
"I was wondering what happened. So long. I thought you disappeared. That's why I came searching."
I laughed and got into the auto. I was glad that I did make it to Sarnath; for those who aren't interested in religion or philosophy this place would be boring. But if you are into either then there will be something here that you might enjoy - surely at least the peaceful Buddha!

Nearby was a Japanese temple where the driver stopped and told me to take a look; this was outside the package of 7 temples that he promised to show me. The temple was a single building in distinct oriental style; inside the hall was a wooden Buddha lying down on his side. And there was an inscription that read ‘Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’ - it means ‘Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’. The Lotus Sutra is a scripture in Buddhism. No crowd here; just the person who takes care of the place.

We then went to the 7 temples within the city. Some are special and I shall just mention about them.

KalBhairava - a temple for the fierce form of Shiva; the same one for whom there was a statue in the museum killing a demon. Apparently the God Brahma had ego and Shiva created this form to deal with that. You feel surprised reading about Gods showing anger and ego - all related to desire.

I walked into the street leading to the temple and wondered where to leave my slippers; there was one instance back home where I lost an old pair of shoes when I left it outside the temple and since then I’ve always been skeptical about leaving footwear unguarded. Having no choice, I left it outside the temple entrance near a pile of slippers. 

This temple is an extremely small temple with a central section where we have Bhairava; there is a corridor that runs around the central section where you will see swamis sitting with a lot of things like holy black strings, pictures, bells hanging from the ceiling etc. Everything inside the temple was painted orange in colour (pillars and walls). There’s a lot of sound inside and a lot of crowd packed in the small room. It is quite a sight; I had barely walked a few yards and I was drenched in sweat. So many people!

Sankat Mochan - there were plenty of monkeys on either side of the carpet that leads us to the temple. Adult monkeys and baby monkeys running around; some even stepping on the carpet. One was playing with a yoyo and two were eating nuts. Some kids were scared and clung to their parents as they entered the temple! This temple is for Hanuman; quite apt having so many monkeys around. Inside the temple is a large sweet shop; speciality seemed to be laddus. Pretty much everyone was buying a small sweet box and then waiting for the pooja to start. Some were sitting and reading from a booklet; I noticed many similar booklets stacked in racks. On closer look I learnt that they were a part of the epic Ramayana. Many people also wrote the name 'Ram' in Hindi on top of a metal grill that already had many 'Ram's.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

India travelogue 12 - The enlightenment

The museum welcomes you with Ashoka's lion, an explanation about the number 32 (the number of spokes and its link to Buddhism), the significance of the 4 animals on the pillar (horse, elephant, bull and lion) etc.

Gods and emotions

There were two galleries I liked - one with exhibits from temples in the past and the other with Buddha related exhibits/carvings. The other galleries had things like items used during those years by people etc. - not my interest and I skimmed through them quickly. The gallery on Gods focussed on Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. Interesting point mentioned was that though Brahma is considered the creator of the world there are very few temples in India for Brahma! Shiva in his different forms was there - the one like Bhairava was an impressive structure (Bhairava chopped one head of Brahma in anger and that's why Brahma has 4 instead of 5 heads). There was a huge unfinished structure of Shiva with 10 hands killing a demon; in one of his hands he held a bowl below because he didn't want any drop of the demon's blood to touch the Earth (else another demon would arise).

When I read about Shiva in anger I was reminded of the money incident in the temple; our Gods are also portrayed to show emotions like anger. There was one statute about Kama - the god of love who is present in the breeze. That was something new to me; he was destroyed by Shiva and later allowed to take the form of breeze.

In each gallery there was a silent staff observing the crowd - just like you had in museums around the world. The gallery on Buddha had a statue of Buddha preaching at Sarnath. I couldn't sit and admire the statue because of two foreign tourists who were listening to their Indian guide narrating a story.

What is the truth?

I overhead his story - it was the story of Gautama Buddha from his childhood onwards. I knew the story - born a prince, pampered by dad, protected by dad, married and had a kid, went on a tour of the city, witnesses what life really is outside the palace, leaves home in search of the truth, finds friends who were in a similar quest, goes to teachers in the hope of learning but ultimately left on his own, gives up worldly desires in the quest for truth, becomes famished and weak, offered food by a lady who saw him, accepts it, friends believe he has given up his quest and abandon him. At this point I was curious as to what the guide would say because this was the stage of enlightenment; Buddha had found the truth. What was the truth?

And the guide said, "That is when the Buddha found enlightenment. He was sitting under a Banyan tree; you know Banyan tree - all the branches hanging down."
"Yes yes," the ladies echoed in unison.
"He found the truth.”
That sounded a bit of an anti-climax!
He continued, “He lived both extremes - with plenty of riches and then with nothing; he experienced both states and realised that the ideal path lies in the middle. The path of the middle."

And then he continued with the rest of the story as we know it; his friends come back; his father himself listens to the enlightened Buddha and then the story goes till his death. The part about Mara (desire) wasn't mentioned. Neither were the mudras (significance of hand gestures). I finally left the hall and in the neighbouring gallery saw a group of about 10 Chinese tourists. And guess what - they had an Indian guide who was talking fluent Chinese; he was even able to answer some question that they asked in Chinese - wow; quite impressive.

I then headed outdoors to the massive Stupa - it was part of an excavated area under the Archaeological Society of India. There were spots marked were there used to be temples and monasteries. They no longer existed but the Stupa was there. It was impressive - wonder how they built this massive structure back then. Again very well maintained place; and again some couples were romancing under the shade of trees. There were a few monks who came in their traditional dark brown robes to the site - this must be a special place for them; to come to the place where the Buddha once lived. I guessed that these monks were probably from the Tibetan temple nearby.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

India Travelogue 11 - non-vegetarian?

I headed back to my room and let the cool water pass over my feet; ah, it was relaxing after getting burnt by the hot ground. The folks in the trust advised me to take a package for Rs.700 that would cover Sarnath and 6 temples in Varanasi rather than doing a trip to Sarnath alone which would anyway be just as expensive.

Still like non-veg food?

Sarnath which was about 10kms away. Autos use shortcuts which are very bumpy and in some cases the main roads are also just as bad. You will get tossed up and down frequently so unless your back is in good shape don't do an auto travel. The driver flew through side streets; and when you least expect it, he would take a sharp turn into a lane that you would think can’t accommodate a two-wheeler! He sure was a professional because at no point in the journey did the vehicle touch any other object on the road. There was plenty of honking that was jarring to the ear.

Along the way there was only one meat shop that I saw; they had a stack of cages with helpless chicken imprisoned. I think that is one sight which would make a person give up enjoying non-veg food; the small birds, aware or unaware of their fate, were cackling; it was only a matter of time before they would be slaughtered. Uh, you feel sad for them when you think of whom they are going to get slaughtered for.

There were no skyscrapers to be seen in Varanasi; most buildings were only 3 floors high. The heat was blazing; it was 2pm. As the auto flew, hot gusts of wind hit my face. It burns your skin. Even my auto driver was wearing a towel covering his head and a part of his face. As he went over the bumps I wondered if he cared about his auto; there were so many stones of varying sizes that I would be worried about getting my vehicle punctured as well as damaging suspension. He didn't seem to care; he was racing along at top speed. Even though we were bumping, I dozed off!

The city of Sarnath

When I woke up I struggled to read the boards on shops - their address said Sarnath. Soon the auto halted under the shade of a tree. "Babuji, this is Sarnath. Go around and see what you want."
Before I could step out, one local guy came to me and said he will show me around the place. "Only Rs.50 sir. It will take one hour. I can give you detailed explanation for what you see."
"No, I don't need it."
"Without explanation you will simply see but not know what they are. I will tell importance of everything and history."
"No. Thanks."
He pestered me a lot. "Rs.40 also is ok Sir."

After declining politely 10 times he finally backed off. First stop was the Deer park. Quotes by Buddha were written on boards. The park was well maintained. Trees in plenty, grass trimmed and place was clean. And there were a few couples enjoying their time - either the guy or the girl would be lying on the other person’s lap.


The first building in the park was a hall. It had a golden Buddha on one end. On the walls there were paintings of the life of Buddha; everything inside was beautiful - Buddha's birth, his leaving home, his famished state in the forest when a lady offered him food, his victory over Mara (desire) and his death. I've told this many times before - whenever you see the statue of Buddha in a quiet room, you kind of feel calm and relaxed. You feel like wanting to sit there in calmness beside the huge statue. Same was the case in Thailand, same the case in Canada and same the case in Sarnath. Sarnath is special in Buddhism because after Buddha’s enlightenment this was the first place where he delivered a lecture.

Next stop was the Archaeological museum; Rs.5 for the entrance ticket. Bags underwent an x-ray screening before you could drop them in the free locker facility. I had jumped into the museum at the right time; the museum was fully air conditioned and helped me beat the heat. Very well maintained again. And quite a good museum - well-kept exhibits and even some information about each of them. They had a few digital systems like ATM machines where you could read about each section of the gallery.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

India Travelogue 10 - Wear footwear!

Sunday morning (Day 2) I was clear with objectives - I would plan for the day after completing the main ceremony for which I had come to Varanasi. Before that my cousin who was here on her wedding anniversary took me down for an aarti that happened everyday within our building itself. There was a small Siva's temple inside - not exactly inside but kind of attached to the building we stayed in. And guess who joined the priest after a while; one of the junior priests from yesterday night! Seemed like most of them had their food from the same place as us and they also performed the pooja here. He didn’t ask anyone for money over here.

Around 9:30am, I was told that I could go to see the priest. One of the boys working in the trust led the way. I didn’t wear slippers since anyway for the ceremony I won't be wearing it and we would be traveling to the place by a rickshaw or auto. I dressed in a t-shirt and dhoti; I didn’t have a belt and hoped that the dhoti would stay.

We took an auto that dashed through side lanes and took us to a Ghat. The network of lanes is quite amazing. We walked a few metres and then my companion said, "Looks like iyer is not here. He has gone home."
It was 10am and the Ghat was kind of deserted. We walked through narrow streets and I got a friendly pat by a couple of cows who were flipping their tails. Finally reached his home. There was already one pooja in process and mine was the next. About 45 minutes was what it took; some words to be repeated, some sentences to be said and some pindams we made for my ancestors. Today was amavasya (full moon day) and that is considered very auspicious. In Varanasi, when they do this ceremony they do it recollecting 3 generations of ancestors on the mother’s and father’s side and even consider close friends or teachers who have passed away; the ritual is performed to cover all of them as well as anyone who passed away but didn't have a successor; in which case no one would have performed the ritual for them and so my doing it would cover for them as well. I guess it was all about closure and reflection.

"Do you usually do this on the Ganga?"
"Yes. We can even do it on a boat in the Ganga. But in this heat no one can sit there."
After the function was over, he told me to immerse the contents of the plate in the Ganga excluding the dharba (special grass) which had to be cleaned and returned with the plate. It was about 11pm when a boy known to the priest led me to the Ganga. As I went barefoot, I knew why everyone wore slippers. The ground was too hot when the Sun was out. As we neared the Ganga, my foot was burning. There was hardly any shade on the way where I could get respite. Even on the Ghat there was no shade in sight; just concrete steps which were scorching hot. I was ready to plunge my feet into the Ganga. Fortunately on the river bank, because of the boats there were areas which were in the shade of the boats and those were very soothing. After emptying the contents in the river we went back up the stairs.
"There's the electric furnace," he showed me the building. He also said that it is only one of the two Ghats were bodies can be burnt.

I desperately made use of any shaded areas, I put my foot in places where there was water since it felt cool and at one point I wondered about whether cow dung would be cool or hot on the ground! Fortunately I didn't have to experiment since the guy got me a rickshaw soon.
"Rs.20 you can give him when you get down."

The rickshaw driver was a very old man with thick circular black glasses. He was extremely lean and dark. I felt sorry for him; at this age he was manually toiling. I had shade but he was under the mid day sun. Was he doing so for earning a living or was he doing so because he was bored at home? I paid him a little extra though he never asked for anything extra.

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Sunday, August 02, 2015

India travelogue 9 - Priests & desire?

The senior priest who had been advising us earlier told my friend that the priests performing this special function (abhishekam) will say that this is worth Rs.1000 or 2000; he told to give only Rs.100 per person at the most. Ah, money again!
We stayed and watched; crowds thronged behind us to watch the ceremony. It was late in the night, about 9:30pm was my guess and still crowded.

The very young priests (who were probably just 18 or 20) assisting the seniors in the function were having some fun of their own while chanting. They tried to outdo one another’s voice and style; and this brought a smile on the faces of the senior priests - some internal competition I guess. There was a cot that was brought in during the function; it was taken inside the shrine from our side and for that we had to stand. As soon as the cot went in, the crowd tried to push us aside to take our positions but we resisted. I didn't know why in temples people felt that standing one feet closer would make a difference; if they had been polite I wouldn’t have cared - but when someone tries to rough you up to gain advantage, you will surely resist.

At the end of the function, the priest came with a lamp. We did the usual process and at that time the priest put a garland on my friend. I was behind him and caught the eye of the senior priest who gestured me to get out from the place. I slipped away and returned to our original place. On the way, one of the temple guys came with a bowl of sweets. He put some in my hand and then asked for money. I smiled and walked away. Money again; ah!

I was certain that since my friend hadn't returned, he was caught for money by the abhishekam priests. He joined me a few minutes later and the look on his face confirmed my suspicion.
The senior priest gave us another sweet and sacred ash and asked, "Are you happy? Are you content fully?"
"Good." And he gave us all a garland each and waited.
These awkward moments of silence means just one thing - money! Oh boy... when we left the temple one of the younger priests stopped us. For what else but hoping for money! Oh boy...

How much money is enough?

The first time when we were mobbed by the priests for money, I felt angry. But now as I left the temple I was laughing. I was happy that I didn't give in to every priest who asked for money but my laughter wasn't because of that victory.
My friend commented, "This is the first time I'm seeing priests asking for so much money. Minimum 100!"
"I have never seen anyone demand money inside a temple. They never force you like this."
"It's there in some places but not like this. No matter how much money we give they will not be happy.”

And that was the reason for my laughter. You have these priests who are living in a spiritual place; who have probably read more holy scriptures than many of us, who would have had teachers explain the scriptures to them, who recite and chant verses from the scriptures everyday.
I'm not saying it's wrong for them to ask for money but the manner of doing it; trying to force you into giving; it made it seem like they were desperate for the money. And what is money but yet another worldly desire; a desire like any other that will never be satisfied no matter how much you get. A desire that if you keep chasing you will probably lose yourself in the process; the scriptures talk about crossing the barrier of desire. Some say that the devil is nothing but desire - even in other religions it is said so. And isn't it an irony; when you see the very people who would be very knowledgeable in all this, craving for money? These people breathing majority of their life in a holy place were finding it hard; how much harder for others then? An insatiable fire.

We saw at least 4 teams of police cops on our way out; they were all stationed for the temple. We landed somewhere on the other side of the street; Hindi again helping us find the route out and the route back home. The roads were empty at this hour; it must have been around 10pm. We were the only ones barefoot on the main road.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

India travelogue 8 - Temples, money & anger

After some criss-crossing inside the temple, we reached the area of the priests. Again we showed the pass and they took a count. About 5 priests were sitting together chit chatting on a bench. Beside them on the right was a small lingam of Shiva and the cow Nandi. People made some offerings there, prayed and moved along. Beside that was a small room inside which was the idol of a God; not everyone gets to enter the room but since we had a pass we could. I now knew the significance of the pass.
I pretty much followed by friend; he was a young priest in a temple in Tamil Nadu and he seemed to know what had to be done where.

Within the temple there were many small shrines. There were a few cops concentrated around one enclosure doing crowd control (that appeared to be the main place in this temple). They were shouting, "Move, move. If you take so much time do you expect others to wait the whole night?”

When we stepped out of the first shrine, we saw a priest carrying some large object in his hand - it seemed to be made of stainless steel with a lengthy handle on the centre surrounded by four small open vessels on the base. He came close to my friend; when we peered inside the container we saw a lamp and some vibhuti (sacred ash). It also had a couple of Rs.10 notes near the lamp. By default when you have a lamp in the hands of a priest in a temple, you put your hands together near the flame and keep it on your eyes - like taking blessings. We did the same. And my friend took a Rs.10 note and placed it inside.

Blessing for money!

The priest started saying something in Hindi but I couldn’t hear him. My friend had a blank face. He took another Rs.10 note but the priest still kept saying something. I moved closer. "What is this? Ten rupees only for the blessings. Be gracious. Put hundred or two hundred at least. What is this ten rupees,” the priest said in Hindi.
I translated to my friend and when the priest heard me say 100 he repeated, "Yes, 100." But my friend didn't have 100; he asked me and I gave it to the priest. The priest blessed us. So far so good.
The pass got us an entry to the main shrine as well; over here you have Siva's lingam. No time given to pause inside; you just keep walking along. When we came out we were mobbed by 4 more priests; each of them having a similar stainless steel container in hand with the same contents. Wow; and they had now cornered my friend. I was also caught but fortunately found a gap through which I could escape this mob. My friend kept refusing while they kept giving their lecture in Hindi; he of course didn't know Hindi. When he agreed to put Rs.10, they refused; they didn't even let him put his hand in the container. Minimum was a Rs.100 note. We didn't know if this was the convention or what; it certainly didn't seem like practice with the way they mobbed him. He told me in Tamil to put my wallet inside; I did so and moved away from the mob. Finally he escaped as well. I wasn't keen on listening to the lecture they were giving about making whole hearted monetary offerings. Sometimes it is good not to understand what others are saying!

When we escaped and came to the area where the 5 priests were chatting, one of the seniors called my friend and advised him, "You don't need to give them anything. They are local priests."
At least now I knew the convention! They told us to sit nearby and said they'll call us when the main event starts. I was angry; I had never seen folks within a temple force people to give money - they seemed to be taking advantage of the fact that people didn't know whether to give or not; people would fear not giving because they wouldn't want to be cursed by these people in a temple; what if the curse became true?

I observed the priests with the stainless steel containers - when the local public came they weren't mobbing them. They waited but didn't force for a payment.

We were called to the main place when the main event was about to start; it was the abhishekam. That's the process in which the idol of the God is bathed with different things and then decorated. Common things used are water, yogurt, milk ghee etc. Before the ceremony started, one of the staff put cleaning powder on the floor near the entrance to the shrine where we were seated on a bench.
"First we will clean the area and then you can sit down," he said in Hindi.
My friend didn't understand but he did see the gesture of the staff pointing down; before I could interpret for him, he got up from the bench to sit on the floor. The staff shouted, "Are you mad or what? Wait."
I interpreted for my friend. Sometimes it is good to understand others!

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

India travelogue 7 - The precious pass

I had heard that people stand in queue for hours to enter the temple. As I walked for more than 5 minutes along the long stretch, I still didn't sight any queue and I didn't spot the actual entrance to the temple either! With the pressure from shopkeepers increasing I turned back; the tactic they use is to get you to leave your stuff with them for free (that's what they say) but they will force you to buy something from them (maybe a darshan plate or a garland of flowers as offering in the temple etc.)

I was back in my lodging place at 8:15pm and the manager asked me, "Do you want to go for the darshan?"
"Yes. But I got late in the Ganga aarti."
"Here is the pass. Eat quickly and go; 4 others will follow you; all of you can use the pass."
The pass had our community name on it and on the backside mentioned 4 + 1; the pass was valid for 5 people; 1 was me and 4 others from another room.
I had no clue what access the pass would give me; but there was no time for questions as I dumped all my stuff in my room, emptied my pockets except for my wallet (that was a mistake - should have dumped the wallet as well), ate idli and upma quickly in the mess and then ran with the other 3 folks. The 4th member didn't come since he was very old. The other 3 were in different age groups; 1 in his late 20s or early 30s; one in in his 40s and the other in 50s. The youngest one was my companion; he said he knew the way to the temple. He suddenly started running and told us all to run. "They've gone out already. We have to catch them. No need of slippers.”
I had no clue who we had to catch; I thought it was only the 4 of us. Did he mean it was late for the darshan and we'd miss it?

Barefoot walking is soothing on the feet; and since there were no glass pieces on the ground I felt fine running barefoot. You had to dodge the dung and watery mess on the ground but otherwise there was no problem. Maybe that was one reason why I didn't see anyone barefoot; if you did have even the slightest of cuts on your foot, you could easily get the wound infected. Maybe… but I was to discover more about this later.

"Come here. This is shortcut," he said and took a side street. Varanasi is famous for the network of narrow side streets; you keep thinking it will be a dead end but lo behold you will hit a main road somewhere! This shortcut probably saved us 2 minutes.
"There they are," he shouted.
"Oh there. Where?" I asked because all I could see were numerous heads and nothing distinct. I simply followed him. We ran like we were possessed - the last such run I did was in New York where I was the one possessed and another friend was following me; my role had reversed here.
"They're almost in the entrance. Run."

Finally I discovered that he was trying to merge with another group that came from our trust a few minutes earlier; they consisted of a group of people going one behind another carrying some items on their shoulders - items for decoration in the temple, somethings for the Gods and some Aluminium box; we stayed behind the Aluminium box. We could finally just walk; we went down the same narrow congested alley I had gone by 30 minutes earlier. But this time no one stopped me - I didn't have slippers and no watch. And as the entourage passed by, people shopping stood to the side and let us pass like VIPs! Even shopkeepers kept looking at us though they would have seen this sight daily. The elderly men in our group of 4 caught up with us.
"Do you have the pass?"
I checked again. "Yes." What an anti-climax it would have been if I had lost it in the running!

We reached a point where I could see people waiting in a queue - this was the queue to enter the temple; at the entrance were two security guards checking people. We bypassed this group and went further ahead to another entrance. The Aluminium box bearer was let through but we were stopped by a rough North Indian policeman.
"What?" he asked with an angry questioning look on his face.
"Pass. Pass. We have pass," my new friend announced.
"What pass?" he asked again with the same grumpy look.
I gave the pass in his hand. He took a close look at it trying to identify if this were a forgery. We turned it around and showed the handwritten number of 4 + 1.
"5 people. Pass for 5."

My friend just kept walking ahead saying those words. I had one had on the pass and followed him. The policeman let go of the pass and soon there was a crowd converging behind us that the policeman had to handle.

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Friday, July 03, 2015

India travelogue 6 - 24/7 temple!

I had to rush back since I didn't want to miss the Ganga aarti (ceremony performed on the river Ganga); on the way I saw a group of guys huddled in a circle on the floor. Was it cards? I wasn't sure. I also saw some of the bearded guys now smoking something inside a thick cigar - was it just a cigar with nicotine or something else? I don't know but I could think of one friend of mine who would have known exactly what it was.
People were sitting everywhere to watch the aarti. Some with camera stands, some recording on their mobiles, some half asleep in the evening breeze. At least over here the breeze felt a bit cool; but then it was late in the evening and the sun had retreated.

The ceremony was happening in the neighbouring Ghat as well - another 6 priests were doing the same thing that was happening in the main Ghat but only difference seemed to be that there was a time lag. First there were a couple of songs, then the lighting of the lamps accompanied by background songs and then the actual aarti song (the tune in all aarti songs is the same but the lyrics are different; here the lyrics were about mother Ganga; I couldn't follow the lyrics entirely but enjoyed the tune) and then closure. The lamps used were large lamps and it is quite a sight to see the sequence of steps. I was surprised that the sound from one Ghat wasn't really audible in the neighbouring Ghat; that's why they could do it side by side. The ceremony didn't happen at the river bank; it happened midway at the Ghat. The boatmen lined up their boats with passengers to face the aarti. So there were people in front on the same level, in front down below, on the sides and behind the priests while they performed. There were plain clothe policemen walking around with security scanning devices - one of them waved his machine at my bag. There was one man who was like the conductor of an orchestra; he encouraged the crowd to clap along to the tune of the songs; he walked across the crowd and prodded them along. He also ensured that no one neared the area of the priests.

The time was 8pm; I was supposed to be back at 7:15pm because in the place I stayed they said that at 7:15 I could get a special pass to attend a function happening in a temple nearby. While walking back I saw signage with directions to that temple - it was a small signboard near a narrow opening to a side street. Out of curiosity I thought of checking out the temple before returning to my room - anyway it was really late for me to get the pass; someone else must have already gone with it by now. 

The narrow road was really not a road - it was like a footpath that was flooded with shops on either side. The width was barely the width of a rickshaw. You'd think no vehicles would ply in here but no - we had a few bikes buzzing through this lane as well. It was a winding trail that kept going on and on. The shops weren’t empty either; every shop seemed to have some customer or the other.

Some shopkeepers on the way stopped me saying, "Leave your things here. They are not allowed in the temple." And I politely replied that I wasn't going to enter the temple. You are not allowed to wear slippers (like all other temples), not allowed to take mobiles inside and I was told that not even a pen is allowed here! Seems a little extreme but such was the level of security- everyone agreed that it was better that they had such restrictions; why take a chance since Varanasi as a whole was a sensitive area and places of worship more so - this type of security screening wasn't there in all temples but this one is considered very special. They have darshans (ceremonies in the temple) even at 11pm and 3am; it's kind of like a 24/7 temple. 

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

India travelogue 5 - What's life?

I was cautious - first time in a new place where you don't know about the local practices you ought to be careful; I had read stories of foreigners getting in trouble when they were simply taking snaps. I observed and walked; felt a little eerie as I went further to the left because people were very few.

I noticed two fires burning near the Ganga river bank - it looked like a funeral but it didn't seem clear because I didn't see any family around. There were only a group of young guys chatting, moving things around, walking up and down the Ghat etc. 

A little further up the steps of this Ghat, there were huge piles of wooden logs cut in fixed lengths. There were a couple of guys carrying few of these pieces from the stockpile to near the fires where they arranged them neatly. 

Ceremony at the Ghat

While this was happening there were a couple of other scenes that caught my attention. I heard huge drumbeats coming from somewhere beyond the Ghat. The sounds became louder with every minute and I saw three stretchers being carried by people to the river bank. These were wooden stretchers which were wrapped in the centre in ornate colourful cloth. Were those bodies? Or was this some other ceremony?

Another scene unfolding near me was that of a small boy, hardly 8 years old, trying to steer two buffaloes up the Ghat (each Ghat has a series of steps leading to the river bank). He tugged with all his might but the buffaloes wanted to go in the other direction; it was quite a sight - a little boy trying to control something that was so huge and he was trying it bravely without fear that in case the buffaloes charged at him he was a goner. I would have feared holding the rope. The boy wasn't successful; he got help from another man who seemed a veteran in handling them - he tugged and the buffaloes reluctantly changed direction climbing the Ghat.

My open questions were soon clarified. The stretcher was placed on the ground; two men removed the ornate cloth to reveal some mass that was wrapped in a white sheet. Both of them held the mass on extreme ends, lifted it from the wooden stretcher and placed it on the rectangular structure that was created with the log pieces. When they lifted the mass I was sure it was a body; one guy held the head while the other held the legs. Everything was covered but you could make out the shape. This was left in place for a few minutes; would someone from the family light it? All of a sudden another youngster casually lit a log and slipped it under the body. He did the same from the other side as well and soon the flames rose; consuming wood and the body as fuel. Two more bodies were still on the stretcher and two more were burning on the side.

Dust in the end

The words of the manager rung in my mind, "Time doesn't matter here." 
I watched the flames lost in thought. On the steps I saw an Indian guide explaining something to a foreigner. I saw a couple of foreigners sitting near a tea stall smoking beedi; that was quite a sight - soaking in Indian culture was great but I didn't expect to see Europeans smoking a beedi! 

A couple of foreign ladies stopped near me because their guide stopped abruptly. He started explaining to them, "It is considered very holy to die here. People stay in hostels hoping to die here. Hostels are near by. People stay to die in the hostels.” 
Was he promoting the hostels? Fortunately he didn't dwell on that for long. "When someone dies elsewhere it is holy to have their funeral here. Because the person can reach moksha or nirvana or enlightenment. But the body has to be brought within 24 hours or else it has to be done in their own place."
At this Ghat there was also an electric furnace inside a building for burning bodies - electric furnaces were now a common way of cremation. The exterior of the building had a strange black charred look; apt I guess considering what happens inside.

The guide explained the practice of Sati - wife jumping into the fire where the husband's body was cremated. He said it was no longer practiced. It seemed like he memorised the lines or perhaps he had said it so often that his narration sounded like a robot.

Witnessing funerals and deaths makes you ponder over life; even changes your perspective. Here I was seeing 5 lifeless bodies; no matter what they had achieved in this world - be it fame or money or ego victories over others; no matter what, in the end everything is dust. 

Everything seems so petty when you think of the dust - ambition, designations, placements, career growth, increments, number of people reporting to you, rank in college, prettiness, beauty, health, wealth, friends, relatives, anger, love, hatred, lust, desire, addiction, Facebook likes, retweets, comments, girlfriends, boyfriends, bank balance, heat, cold, hard work; everything fades.


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Monday, June 15, 2015

India travelogue 4 - Scenes at the river Ganga

Barefoot anyone?

Even amongst this crowd heading to the river Ganga Ghats, there were two wheelers honking their way; at least no four wheelers attempting to wade through this human traffic! There were plenty of small shops: clothes, tailors, food, sweets, chaat, vegetables, fruits, oily foods, religious items, jeans, betel leaf with paan, grocery etc. Not one big shop I saw. I also observed that there was absolutely no one who walked barefoot - since this felt like an old city I expected to see people barefoot - the reason I would find later. 
Streets were dirty but with so many people you barely noticed what was there on the ground! And even with the dirt and large mass of people, the place was not smelly. 
There were many schoolgirls walking in gangs, many couples, many elderly people and few South Indians. Hadn't yet spotted foreigners amidst this bustling crowd.

I can't say the Ganga was a breathtaking sight; it was a river but since we've grown up hearing stories about the importance of the Ganga from a religious as well as geographical perspective you do pause a moment to admire the river. The Ghats were one beside the other - so if you land in one Ghat you could walk from one to the other without having to go back to the street to access them; they were connected in a sense. There are about 50 steps that lead you from the road to the river bank (that forms a Ghat); and these steps span out horizontally to the other Ghats; not completely connected but you will be able to find a path from the stairs to the next Ghat. Many people simply sat on the steps, gazing at the preparations happening for the Ganga Aarti (puja/ceremony).


Since the aarti would begin at 7pm, I had time to wander across the Ghats; I took the left side. As I went further I saw foreigners; some as a pair, some in groups of 3 or 4, some single with an Indian guide but very rare was the case of a single foreigner. Some hotels (not 5 star ones) were located right next to the Ghat. I had read reviews online that said some of these hotels will cater well to foreigners but wouldn't care much for Indian travellers; cater where the money is! 

In many Ghats, the buildings bordering the Ghat had huge wall paintings on them along with the name of the Ghat; unfortunately they weren't maintained else that would have been a beautiful way to depict our culture. As I went further to the left, the crowd kept thinning. In almost all the Ghats you had guys who would take people on boats across the river; simple wooden boats without a motor. In some of these Ghats there were benches on the steps and there were couples enjoying the moment away from prying eyes. Typically when someone says Varanasi, people think of aghoris (guys with long unkempt hair and beard, who use drugs, who don't interact with humanity, who eat flesh, who are in search of liberation or nirvana or enlightenment); did I see any here? Not really; at least no one eating flesh. But there were few elderly men with long beards, wearing a thin robe sitting with some items like rudrakshas, scrolls, some notes and other items scattered all around them. 

There were also small gangs of local guys; and there were few trolley tea shops on the Ghats. In one such shop, there were two kids in shorts dancing to some old Hindi songs playing on a radio; the kids were full of enthusiasm and didn’t care about onlookers - the entire scene felt like a shot from history; the songs were also really old like 'Chumma chumma dhey dhey... chumma chumma dhey dhey chumma...' And I shall not attempt translating that!

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

India travelogue 3 - Fear and boredom

I came to Godowlia Chowk - kind of like a junction area where two important roads intersected. The crowd of pedestrians was heavy here. I was happy to see a police beat station with a couple of cops around. Even amidst such heavy crowds, vehicles still found their way! I kind of got lost for a while trying to locate Sonapura road. My destination was on a side branch that ran parallel to the main road and strangely that road was quiet! You can expect to see plenty of cows and bulls and buffaloes walking along with you - you see it in Chennai also but I felt it was more over here. Dung is there in unexpected places. My destination was a place run by a trust; when I spoke on phone they said I wouldn’t be able to stay there but they were happy now to let me stay in one of their rooms (they have 60 rooms); no AC but the room they gave me was a spacious one with a couple of single beds, attached bathroom, basin, 4 windows and 2 fans. I could have survived in a place one-third that size. I chatted with the treasurer for the place.

I got chided politely by him for not knowing what was my sub caste, sub sub caste and what not; had to call up mom to get those details! "You should learn these things," he said in a friendly manner. You could at this point get into a debate over whether all of that even matters; in the end does any form of classification matter? But surely this wasn't the time for philosophical debate with someone who had just given me accommodation. The manager I guessed was in his late 50s; he had a couple of sons - one doing business and one working in Wipro. He told how 6 years back his son took the parents to Switzerland for a month when he was on an onsite deputation over there. He told about seeing the banks where Indian money was claimed to be, the Alps, the chill weather, not being able to step out even in the daytime for a week, wearing jerkins instead of sweaters, his trip to Italy with north-indian Wipro guys, having to throw his knife that he had for cutting apples before entering the Vatican etc. You could see the joy in his eyes as he narrated his travelogue; happy that his son took him abroad, happy that he had stepped out of India at least once. A few years back he was bored at home after having retired. That’s when he visited Varanasi and liked the place. He joined this trust and has been working here for 3 years. He finds it peaceful; food inside this place was also more South Indian style food and he was content.

We hate work; but we still need it!

In old age, boredom is one issue and fear is another - it is strange that as we grow older we seem to have more and more fear even though you would think that logically it is absurd. As you live out more of your life, you are nearing the inevitable; you have seen a lot of things in life; so why worry now? Shouldn't we be more worried when we are a kid since we don't know if we will live to experience life or whether life will end soon; strange it is but that's just my observation of people around. The treasurer didn't talk about fears but he did seem happy that he had work; he made me wonder why we work - it is so hard to stay idle though we always keep thinking while working 'if only i could just relax at home without working then I would be content.' Unfortunately once we stop working, we feel bored! What a vicious circle! The job he did had a bit of social side to it; he interacted with many people; helped poor people by giving them accommodation in the building etc. He said how people would come all through the day and night at odd hours and someone had to be available to handle that. Social work always helps - you think of others and that helps you forget yourself. 

I had to perform a function tomorrow and was told in Chennai that I should do it after 11am; but the manager for the trust said, "In Varanasi, time doesn't matter. There is nothing like good time and bad time over here. You don't need to bother about time."
But he assured me that he’ll try to fix an appointment for as late in the morning as possible.

At about 5:30pm I started for a walk; I thought of checking out the river Ganga and also catch the aarti (aarti is a puja/ceremony done with lamps). The Dashashwamedh Ghat was only about 10 minutes away; the Ganga is a lengthy river and there are about 80 places in Varanasi where there are steps that take you to the banks of the river - each of these points are a Ghat and they have names for them. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main one. I was surprised with the crowd I saw on the road heading to that Ghat; it was literally packed on both sides and you could see hoards of people as far as you could see. This was like Ranganathan street but more longer than that (that street is a famous one in Chennai). 

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