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Grey, Sepia and Solitude

I have an inexplicable fascination for sepia- for the old  and worn out , faded photographs, for stories that permeate into the grain of discoloured paper. As the SUV halted outside the gate of the antiquated stone fort on a bright summer afternoon  I glanced up and knew- this was my sepia moment in the mountains.  A kaleidoscope of colour all around – crisp ,bright blue skies with fluffy white clouds the reminder of rain the previous afternoon, a landscape dotted with  enchanting shades of hazy purple –blue jacaranda flowers on the banks of the Banganga , crystal clear waters gurgling across smooth grey and white rock, vibrant green pine and deodar on the  hill side , the mighty snow clad Dhauladhar peaks in the distance and   the  steely grey solidity of a  stone fort that overlooked the colour and the buzz all around with a stately demeanour –after all it  had withstood generations of conquerors and the ravage of time.

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The sun was harsh and afternoons in hill stations are not meant for trudging up slopes of cobbled stone and breathing in stories of antiquity. But the minute I stepped out of the SUV and stood outside the Kangra fort gate, I knew this was my moment of complete bliss. Above me the fort stood damaged by the earthquake in 1905, invaders and time yet holding its own blissfully aware of the epithet attached to it-“whoever conquers the fort will rule the hills”.

Pariah kites flew in lazy abandon encircling the fort, surveying the ruins that lay below. Splotches of colour here and there dotting the quiet imposing sedate grey – an information board here, a newly planted bougenvellia bush in rampant bloom there.

I stood there atop the fort, trying to catch my breath post the climb and trying to take in the mystique of the structure timeless and eternal. Grey-brown stone columns standing tall , the remains of a temple,  carvings on the wall, ghostly silhouette of a peepal tree that knew more stories than the historical narrative could retell. It stood there wise and majestic its leaves gently whispering in the breeze casting patterns on the stones.

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Forts and ruins have their own stories ones that I prefer to breathe in on my own, with no guide or informer.  The Kangra Fort is not just one of the oldest forts packed with history , mythology and stories. Standing there looking through the ramparts nearly swallowing a heartbeat and soaking in the history  I was mesmerised nearly willing time to stand still ,not wanting to go back to buzz and rush of the city and work back home. The fort overlooks the confluence of the Banganga and the Majhi rivers and the windows present a visual delight of the rivers and the valley carved through. I have a penchant for clinging to old stories and each of the walls , corners and doors seemed to have a repertoire of endless stories of mystic and lore imprinted on them.

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Silence permeated the broken bits of architecture yet the stone walls wove their magic over me. Perhaps it was the solitude, the exhilaration of having explored something so mesmerising all by myself. Perhaps it was the dull thought in my head that maybe some of my ancestors walked these cobbled stones before me. The fort held a quiet, un-settling ,elusive  quality that I could not put my finger on.

 

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Maybe some magic still lives in these walls.

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How I was Leh’d -Part 1

(This is a story of  a group of young officers just out of the academy post training and their adventures in Leh. The post was made some years back on another blog and it is being reposted here)
I’ve been waiting for some one else to do this post. Technically speaking Rjmpb ( given his credentials as group leader) or A ( given his credentials as hard core musketeer) ought to have narrated this story . But Rjmpb is smarting under the rude shock of his first , newly launched blog having gone un-noticed, un-sung, un-commented on, un- complimented and practically un(in) -visible. So I doubt he’s going to comply .
Which leaves me- the other valiant survivor of the Nubra valley mishap to tell the tale. Before I launch into the details of the entire escapade let me brief you on some of the vital protagonists of this particular story. You can of course find a “brief -note”( sigh: sarkari lingo, it enters your system and then destroys whatever else you ever learnt in life) here. But then since I believe that this little piece is a little ‘coloured’, I’d like to make my own introductions.
The group that went to Leh comprised 12 able bodied ( alright- given Ron’s and Abhishek’s legs and Gokul’s intestines we’ll make that 9 and a quarter able bodied) , mentally resilient( error- again we need to subtract Rjmpb from the list of mentally fit given his unfortunate mental afflictions) and adventure hungry ( again subtract Gokul-the”guide” and yours truly-“the paranoid” from the list) administrators and their spouses.
Fresh out of the second phase of training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, this motley group had weathered all odds to be on this trip. Adventure, a desire to connect with nature, a desire to stay away from the cadre and extended leave were just some of the reasons why we were all on the trip. Leh was a delight. None of us had been here before and the knowledge that coming back would not be possible too soon meant that we were taking in all the mountains had to offer.
Two days at Leh and I had quite a list of accomplishments to my credit. I had not developed Acute Mountain Syndrome as expected by my paranoid mother, I had survived Khardungla and managed to breathe at an altitude of 15,000 feet , sung at Diskit without engineering a seismic shock, nearly murdered Rjmpb twice ( for the record once at Khardungla and another time at the Panamik sulphur springs), tasted freshly plucked leh berry, dragged the entire group to an open air restaurant in the night in the freezing cold( and survived the consequent onslaught), watched my systolic and diastolic pressure oscillate across various new heights, chased after bactrian camels , eaten copious amounts of Maggi and driven the entire ( well- almost) cantonment at Leh nuts with my demand for a sim card ( regular BSNL sim cards do not work in Leh and the army is kind to its own.)
All in all I was scaling new heights ( metaphorically and literally) and the general spirit of adventure got into me with an added vigour while at the sulphur springs at Panamik . Normally I am the kind who treads very carefully and the entire exercise of waiting for the much talked about AMS to hit me at Leh had catapulted my Blood pressure to astronomical levels. So I am not sure how I agreed to ride that bike. Maybe it had something to do with the sight of my normally quiet roomie riding with aplomb, or maybe it was the fact that the other ladies were being a little more adventurous than me. Maybe it was the mountains. Maybe it was a heady cocktail of the rarefied atmosphere, the smell of sulphur at Panamik, , the sight and smell of double humped Bactrian camels the evening before at Hunder. Maybe it was Rjmpb’s assinine actions with my bag at Panamik.Whatever mental and olfactory cause it was- I agreed to pillion ride on the pulsar ( rented in Leh and driven all across Khardungla to Nubra and Panamik) with the hard core musketeer- A
Now that I survived and have lived to tell the tale I can be all objective about the decision. All said and done on the face of it, pillion riding is a simple art form…all it requires is a little bit of balance and an ability to mount and dismount from a bike. When one looks at the surging populace and the general sale of motor bikes in India, one is faced with the bare fact that riding or pillion riding a bike is a rather simple act and hundreds of people across the world do it every minute.
But then this was not an ordinary person who had agreed to pillion ride. This was me. And as all those who know me will vouch- I am Murphy’s favourite child. And where I am- Murphy must follow. Of course, shielded in the Greater Himalayas amidst the smell of sulphur and bactrian camel I did feel I had left all family ( Murphy included ) at lower altitude and less rarefied air.
A of course was blissfully unaware of my family history at that time. Considering he had driven the bike through the highest pass in the world , Khardungla, a short ride on a straight road could not have been simpler. A’s spirit of adventure was infectious. I had watched him ride across Khardungla on a bike , drive the SUV over some of the roughest terrain, sit on the window of a moving SUV and click snaps, surmount asthma and Deputy Directors of the academy with equal ease. The man was a born conqueror. I would be safe on the bike with him. Besides, we were being escorted by two SUVs which had the other members of the group driving along. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Except that it did.
We finished an insipid , inedible ,uninteresting breakfast of what was supposed to be noodles and chai and I volunteered to get on the bike. Here again I would like to notify the readers that when it comes to objects that move I generally prefer the four wheeler closed variety. I have inherent reservations regarding those with two wheels which one sits ‘across’ rather than ‘in’. The fear is not an outcome of a mere difference of preposition used but the entire process of how the two different vehicles move is ….a little ….scary. But then I guess when in Leh, I was out to vanquish all my fears……. And so it all began……
A struggled with the helmet and jerked it down in place on my head. I jerked up the zipper of my jacket and I was ready to ride. Passers by may have mistaken me as the creature ISRO was sending to the moon on the Chandrayaan, but A’s enthusiasm and my new found zeal forced me to discard any misgivings or doubts I may have regarding my shape and general look. With the earnestness of one on a mission ,I mounted the throbbing machine. After a brief confused tumble, I remounted, this time landing where I was meant to- on the seat. A methodically informed me where to fix my legs and behind and I dutifully obliged thinking that I had been made to sit on bikes.
My beloved roomie patted me on the back before getting into the SUV. Her last words to me were,”You’ll be fine. Enjoy the ride.”
A stepped on the accelerator and the roar of the bike grew louder. He turned back almost knocking my helmet off with his and asked if I was ready to ride. Hardly recognising the affirmative squeal that emerged from my throat I nodded a yes. The over sized helmet wobbled on my head and the bike surged ahead. After a short discussion with A regarding the positioning of my hands and another discussion to ensure that the helmets quit crashing into each other I allowed myself to take in the landscape around.

The Great Himalayan range towered on either side of the straight road that led to Diskit. Their peaks poked into a bright blue sky peppered with wispy clouds. Along the road a few brambly bushes stood out from the sand. The cold wind blew into face and I felt my hands grow cold. Sunshine poured down on us as we raced across the landscape of the cold desert. Grey and blue shadows danced on the mountains creating hues of unimaginable colours. I began to thank myself for having ventured onto this trip and more importantly the ride. Ahead of us the white innova carrying my roomie and other friends along the road sprinted into the horizon powered by the sound of Himmessh Resshamiya crooning from the dashboard. The hood of my jacket fluttered in the wind flapping against the helmet . This was heavenly. The red Scorpio with the remaining team followed us in close pursuit with the driver and the occupants waving occasionally . Not a soul was visible along the road for miles. This truly was a cold , desolate desert.
A narrated tales of his adventures while bike riding across Tamil Nadu and I chatted occasionally taking care to avoid the helmets from crashing . While cruising along , A generally asked me if I wanted a leisurely slow paced ride or a stomach crunching wild ride. Being the terrified one that I am, I asked him to start slow and then push up the bar. Random thoughts about biking and Leh crossed my mind….the whole atmosphere was exhilarating. I began to think that two wheeled objects weren’t so bad after all. Maybe I could ride across Khardungla this way. Maybe all the way to Leh….heck maybe all the way home.

Suddenly as if tired of the slow , languid cruising that the bike was on, the Scorpio driver stepped up his vehicle and drove ahead of us. In response, A retorted by loudly telling me, ” sit back for now you shall have the ride of your life.

Famous last words…..actually second last words, because as he concluded the sentence with a hastily muttered , “Oh s*@%t!”. The bike wobbled a bit and A leaned across full and peered at the road over the handlebars. Suddenly left without support and completely clueless about what had caused this little halt I waited jerking my hands into my jacket pockets not knowing if I ought to inhale or sit still. The second stretched into nothingness as A refused to rise from the position he was in….continuing to lean across the handle bars muttering some cuss words that I pretended not to hear. I waited for the bike to restart so I could continue on the ride of my life.
From his doubled over state I heard A mutter…. “we have a flat!”
I stared at the red dot racing into the horizon as it grew fainter and the Scorpio vanished into the distance……( to be continued)

How I was Leh’d -Part 2

(this is a two part post of a trip made years ago( in 2008 to be precise) ;and narrated on another forum;but the story needs to be retold hence the blog post again

A dragged the wobbly pulsar to the side of the road while I surveyed the surroundings. We were in the middle of the long deserted road that led to Nubra and eventually on to Khardungla and the Leh valley beyond. The eyes searched the horizon for a sign of human or yak life…but there was none. I flipped out my phone and examined it, pressed a couple of keys in the hope of finding the desired response. But no luck- this was one place where no network followed.In the meantime A was examining his bike from all sides, crouching near it. From his position on the road he valiantly announced that we would have to stay put there until someone came to rescue us. The admission was terrifying. What if the rest of the group didn’t notice our absence until they reached Leh which would be late in the evening ? What if no one came along? What if it was not possible for the group to come back when they noticed we were missing? What if they did not notice at all……

It was around 12 in the afternoon. A rough calculation led me to believe that they would reach Khardungla in about 2 hours. At that time if they waited, it might be late evening by the time they got back. The thought was disconcerting. Would I ever reach Leh?

A was calm…and very reassuring. He’d get me back, he said I was not to worry. That was easier said than done. Adventures like this were necessary , he added. And to validate his point, he pulled out his Nikon and began clicking the mountains in the distance. So we could tell the tale. If we survived to tell the tale I thought to myself.

“How much money do you have on you?” , A asked cheerfully from his place crouched on the road.

I glared at him , not too happy to report that I had none. I had left my bag in the Scorpio. A didn’t seem too troubled as he fished for his wallet. After much fidgeting and examining he reported that he had Rs 102. Princely sum in these parts! But then A being A and never fazed in circumstances had a solution. He yanked out a gold chain around his neck from inside his tee shirt and ran an index finger over it proudly displaying it to me. He had this. And he had a watch which he dangled in front of me. Did I have a watch and a gold chain. i clutched my darling watch and gold chain in dismay . Would it come to that now?

The Ladakhi sun rays grew warmer and suddenly I began to regret having the monstrous jacket on me. A recalled having spotted a house in the distance in the direction we had come from.This seemed like the best admission ever. A dragged the bike this time to trudge back and I hopefully followed, clutching on to two jackets and two helmets( the sun got to A as well), praying that the inhabitants would be kind enough to drive us at least to Nubra.

Surrounded by a brambly bush that had been chopped at one corner to make way for a gate, the house looked rather deserted. But the more encouraging thing was that there was what looked like a pick up truck parked in the compound. A girl emerged from within and A tried to politely explain to her the cause of our appearance. If she was surprised by the arrival of these two helmet clad specimens , she didn’t show it. Her father was busy, he was having lunch and thereafter he would take a nap.If we wanted to wait , he would speak with us post his nap.

A valuable lesson learnt. When in Ladhak, never interfere with a Ladhakhi’s nap!

We trudged out of the house and looked valiantly at the road which didn’t seem to be too promising. A few more glares at the phone and anguish at the network suppliers followed. A was busy with the camera. I was busy wondering how my systolic-diastolic levels were fluctuating.

Suddenly in the distance we saw or rather heard the sound of a vehicle chugging along. And as if in answer to my prayers , there appeared an Olive green gypsy.It had a certain pre-historic feel and look to it, but then who was going to be particular. A and I peered into the gypsy hoping that the friendly army officer and his team would drive us back to safety .At least to Khardungla.Two anguished voices tried to explain to the bewildered officer the cause of our misery. But then , not all prayers are answered at one go. The friendly officer was from the BSF and not the army. They were going in the opposite direction, not towards Khardungla but towards Panamik. But we could hop in at the back and take a lift up to the nearest village to get a mechanic who’d come back with us to fix the bike. Seemed like a long winded solution…but then who had choices.

We hurried to the rear of the gypsy and A shoved two jackets, two helmets, his camera and me( in that order) into the gypsy and clambered in himself. Interestingly there were 4 men at the back already with sleeping bags , weapons and luggage. I felt something poke at me from various sides.But then again….this thing had a driver, an engine, fuel and better still it moved. So what if we were moving in the opposite direction. The long wait in the middle of no where taught me not to complain.

A little over 20 minutes later after having been poked and having had my feet and elbows crushed and several apologies hurled my way we reached the nearest village of Sumur. We were at the market square, which was a small intersection of roads surrounded by 5 shops including one restaurant and a tumble down bus stop. The only sign of human life was at the bus stop where a man lay across in the sun catching up on his afternoon nap.Naps are rather important in the place.

There had to be a place which would fix flat tyres here. At least, someone at some time must have possessed a motor bike which would have had a tyre which needed fixing. We were optimistic, but the optimism was just a front. The cheerful BSF officer sped away after we thanked him for the ride.

A went to try and wake the lone occupant of the bus stop up and got a grumpy glare in return. Another attempt at explaining our predicament began. Almost out of no where a group of persons appeared. Good, this was good. Human beings meant help. We would soon have a ride back . We weren’t in such a spot after all.

Except that adventures don’t get over quite so soon. The crowd proudly informed us that the lone puncture fixing shop was 30 kms away. And , yes, it was the only one in the area.Otherwise we would just have to head back to Leh.

I must state here that A’s optimism never gave in. So what if the shop was 30 kms away. He would go back 15 odd kms, bring the motorbike and then take it to get fixed and drive back to Leh. What was there to it? All he needed was a pick up truck to ferry the bike 45 kms. And what was more, he would pay. Any amount that was demanded. The numbers 102 danced across my eyes as they do in Tom and Jerry animation series. Inadvertently , I found my right palm clutching the watch on my left wrist and holding it tight. Did A even know what he was announcing in his Tamil accented, broken Hindi?

The crowd , all of which had been dragged out of their afternoon siesta did not sound quite impressed. There was no pick up truck available. For a fleeting moment I thought A had finally conceded defeat. But then again, an officer of the Administrative Service, fresh out of the LBS Academy and en route to Chattisgarh, never gives in. And A pulled out his trump card. Was there a govt office in the vicinity, he enquired boldly.

Yes, apparently there was and a series of heads bobbed and nodded in unison. The Tehsildar’s office was a stone throw away.

Never have words regarding the revenue administration been as encouraging for me as in that moment. Those who have walked the portals of the LBS Academy will agree that when in doubt, no one like the Tehsildar. The one stop solution for all problems from land revenue to domestic issues. The tehsildar is an amazing creation. He has been programmed over generations to be the point man in any crisis big , small not withstanding. Finally, a solution was in sight. We were in luck.

We walked to the place indicated.This was supposed to be the tehsil . A year after training in Rajasthan, I had imagined all tehsils to look quite the same. Crowded, paan stained, dusty, smelly and with a score of people rushing around. This however , was a wee bit different. For one it took us a while to find it. The place had a fence and we couldn’t find an entrance. Then a little child came along and pointed to us a slight gap in the fence where a wooden plank had been removed. Tehsil? A looked at me enquiringly.

Then in a fit of bravery he advised me to wait outside with the jackets and helmets while he would go in and find out.

Armed with the stuff I waited ever so conscious of the stares I got from the house opposite and the dryness settling in my mouth. There was more movement in the village now. Apparently, nap time was over. Every now and then a girl would bob up to me and cry out ” julley” . Maybe she thought I was from outer space. At least with the motley collection of jackets and helmets strung from my arms, I didn’t quite feel very earth-like myself.

A did not return and panic began to creep into my head. Bravely, I decided to squeeze in through the gap in the fence. Thus armed with helmet and camera I walked along the back of the building wondering if any place anywhere had a tehsil that looked like this. Maybe this was an abandoned tehsil. To put rest to my doubts suddenly two familiar sounds were heard. The former, A in his Tamil accented Hindi trying hard to explain the scenario ( an exercise he had near perfected by now) and the latter the tapping of a typewriter. This was indeed the tehsil office. After a slight round around the building I discovered that there was a door that led into what seemed to be a room full of files. Yes, this was the tehsil office. Praise the lord we were safe.

A was sitting on a wobbly looking chair in front of a glass topped table waving is hands frantically as he spoke. On the other side of the table on a high , swivel chair that looked like it had stopped swivelling some decades back. A bright orange towel shone from behind the head that was nodding as frantically as A spoke. On the table on a little triangular bit of brown wood were bright white letters that spelt ‘TEHSILDAR’.

Behind the nodding head confirmed the identity. A stopped as he saw me enter and waved his hands in my direction ‘Madam D, IAS , Rajasthan cadre”

Tehsildar Noddy head turned to look at me…nearly opened his mouth and then shut it again before any words could emerge. I strode in trying to live up to the general dramatic royale image that the “IAS, Rajasthan cadre” built. But then again, I had two helmets swinging from either arm, a white jacket nearly slipping out of my right hand and a black jacket thrown across the shoulder ,its arm length nearly tripping my toes. Increasingly conscious of the hair on my face and the sweat drops dripping from my forhead I tried to shove my hand onto my head and nearly succeeded in knocking one helmet into A’s Nikon camera which hung around my neck.

Regaining composure and trying very hard to look like Ms D , IAS ,Rajasthan cadre I nodded politely at Tehsildar Noddy. A carried on with his explanation. Could we please have a pick up truck to get the bike to the bike fixing shop? Tehsildar Noddy looked like he would burst. I wondered if it was a consequence of the image Madam IAS was presenting. But the nodding got furious as the tehsildar explained that he did not think he could arrange that. A and I stared at him disbelievingly, a Tehsildar saying that he “could not arrange”. Almost sounded like an oxymoron!

A tried to reason in another way. Could we have the Tehsildar’s vehicle instead. More vigrous nodding followed and the Tehsildar reported that he did not have a driver. A’s hand waves got more vigrous and I almost felt him choke as he asked if he could take the vehicle and drive it up himself.

A deep sigh emerged from the Tehsildar,his vehicle had not moved for the past 8 months. It lay behind the tehsil incase Sahib wanted to take a look.Alright, enough was enough. It was time to step up the heat here. I spoke up. Could we please call the district collector? He would send help. The nodding head turned to look at me. The phone had stopped working the last time it snowed. Which was last winter. It had not been fixed since.

A and I looked at each other. A looked like he was finally going to concede defeat.

We were doomed. We had a motor bike parked somewhere along the road to Khardungla, friends driving up in scorpios somewhere along the road to Khardungla and here we were alone ,hungry , confused , dazed with a Noddy Tehsildar and no phone.

For a moment I thought A would give up. But he started again. Could anything that moved be arranged. This time the determination in his voice was apparent.And generations of Tehsildars across the country recognise that tone of determination.Sumur was not that different after all. Tehsildar pressed a bell the lay on the table. A man at the second table stood up. A few words in the local dialect were exchanged.

Suddenly things began to move. A peon rushed in and rushed out. Two glasses of hot chai arrived( atleast some things are constant across Tehsils) A vehicle had been arranged , the driver was taking a nap but upon summons from the Tehsildar, he would be with us in a while.

A began to brighten up post the tea. Soon the driver had arrived. We sat in the vehicle got in two men from the Tehsil to assist us and headed towards the point where the bike was parked.

Once we arrived there many permutations and combinations were discussed by the men on how the bike was to be loaded into the back. Meanwhile I continued to do a rough calculation of time something I had been doing since 12. How would we ever get back?

A had other problems. He wanted photographs. And in my preoccupied state I had forgotten to click. So would I please get out of my reverie and click. He ordered the men to halt in their exercise while I fumbled for the camera that still hung around my neck.

Around 20 minutes later pictures clicked, bike safely secured, we were ready to take our fourth ride on the road to Sumur.

The driver drove a little ahead in order to turn back. From a slight bend in the road I saw a dot of white coming towards us and a sound I never thought I would be so delighted to hear. It was them. They had returned…to rescue us.

The driver jammed the brakes and suddenly a flurry of voices were heard. Familiar voices and faces that I had missed in the last few hours. From behind the wheel Rjmpb squinted at us. I tumbled out from my seat and felt my roomie S fling herself at me and give me the biggest hug ever. Suddenly it was all alright.

We were all going to Sumur now. Back to the Tehsil with a plank for a gate and Noddy for a Tehsildar. A and Ron would go ahead to get the bike fixed while the rest of us, six of us would stay back at the Tehsil. Finally things were back to normal.

Upon arriving at the Tehsil, Rjmpb went to meet the Tehsildar while the rest of the gang stayed back in the car. Since I was the only one who had spoken with the Tehsildar , I took it upon myself to introduce Rjmpb to the man. A and Ron moved on ahead and we went through the planky fence into the Tehsil

( Side note : Rjmpb while on vacation, tends to forget all issues that deal with hygeine and personal grooming. As a consequence, he had dispensed with the need to use a razor or for that matter a shampoo for the past couple of days.)

Noddy Tehsildar looked up as the two of us walked in. I was this time, free of all encumberances save my cadre mate of course. I announced our arrival with my deepest voice ,”Mr G, IAS, Rajasthan Cadre”

(Side note 2: Rjmpb is referred to as Mr G in company and he happens to be a cadre-mate)

Tehsildar Noddy got up from his swivel chair and moved forward jerking his head vigrously.I took a look at the picture “Mr G, IAS, Rajasthan cadre ” presented. Unshaved, matted hair and jeans that were torn at the knees.

Mr G however was living the IAS bit to the hilt. After the intital introductions were over, he even began to discuss the revenue working of the district. Tehsildar Noddy and his staff answered and more tea was ordered for.

Fifteen minutes later another occupant of the SUV, who got bored of the whole process of sitting outside decided to come in and make acquaintance.

(Side note 3: While at the sulphur springs at Panamik, the group had pushed R down a wet patch, and he was carrying memories and remanants of the sulphur springs and a lot of clay on his track pants.)

R walked in looking very interested in the Tehsil. This time round Rjmpb decided to do the introductions. ” Mr R, IAS , Karnataka cadre”

Tehsildar Noddy stared at R’s tracks and almost stopped with the nodding. Now that some time had elapsed the clay had dried and caked into brown splotches along the length.

We all sat around drinking tea and asking wise questions dealing with adminstration. Tehsildar Noddy looked hard at each one of us answering politely.

In between he would speak up checking” are you ALL in the IAS?”

And grimly we would all reply “Yes”

Two more rounds of tea were ordered , this time with freshly plucked apples. The Tehsildar sipped his tea and stared at R’s tracks. No one from our village ever made it to the IAS. We nodded politely and Rjmpb offered useful advice as well.

A couple of hours later A and Ron came back with a functioning bike. We thanked the Tehsildar and his staff profusely and said good bye to Sumur.

(Side Note 4: The story doesn’t quite end here. On our way back, the SUV had a flat at Khardungla. Yes at the highest motorable point in the world. It was late in the evening , 18000ft high and bitterly cold. But we survived that and lived to tell yet another tale. A brought back a few snaps of the lone motorcycle fixing shop on the other side of Khardungla and I leave you here with a few images)

White Beauty

Last night while driving back from a meeting in Jaipur , I was suddenly reminded of a post that I read somewhere about the cenotaphs near the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. Popularly known as the Jaswant Thada, this is a memorial to the erstwhile Maharajas of Jodhpur. Although exploring places in Rajasthan is an activity best suited to winters, the lure of the place could not hold me back despite the scorching sun and the earlier part of the Sunday was dedicated to discovering this magnificent piece of Rajput architecture.

Located close to the Mehrangarh fort overlooking a lake this quiet memorial built in white marble was built by Maharaja  Sardar Singh in memory of his father Maharaja Jaswant Singh in 1899.Rocky hills surround the mausoleum with its finally carved  walls, chattris and jaalis. Laburnums were in full bloom adding to the already gleaming marble in the early morning summer sunshine. There was a film crew at work on the route to Jaswant Thada. They looked like they were from Korea , they had hired a vintage car for the scene they were filming and the whole “set” appeared to be quite chaotic as we drove in.

In the garden surrounding the main building there was silence broken occasionally by the sound of pigeons flying off the domes and then settling down again. The good thing about going in summer was that we had the entire place to ourselves to take in the stillness, the pristine white walls and the air of mysticism inside.

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Jaswant Thada

There is a brilliant view of the  majestic Mehrangarh fort from the courtyard here and I found myself marvelling at the sheer architectural brilliance of those who executed it in this hot , dusty and rocky terrain. The multilevel garden was green and well maintained even in the hot summer.Soft strains of local folk songs on a sarangi could be heard in the distance. Adding to the mystic feel about the place were the portraits of the maharajas inside.An old man in a turban oblivious to our presence stood sweeping the already clean floor. Incense sticks burnt inside among the portraits as the rays of the sun poured inside from among the jaalis inside the windows.Near a prayer platform on a rope were tied strings of different colours and bangles as well. Local people pray here and the strings are tied when they make a wish waiting for it to come true.

Almost the entire expanse of the city can be seen from here. In the distance the Umaid Bhawan palace seems to rise out of a cloud of dust and the city of Jodhpur sits peacefully being watched by the Mehrangarh Fort.

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The glowing marble gives the place an almost Taj Mahal-ish feel. My toes did get burnt though as you are required to remove your shoes while in this place and marble does get heated up in these months!

Before me the city stretched out and from this vantage point the sheer area of the city seemed to extend for miles into the horizon. Jaswant Thada stood silently, serene and calm , the spirit of the ancestors looking on at the  city they had helped create

Mist and Pines in Landour

Landour has been a favourite get-away for me for years now. Growing up in Dehradun meant that the place was a definite go-to destination when guests were over and then while training for the administrative services at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) Mussoorie I spent many Sundays walking down the  winding paths of Landour. Landour is a familiar place if you are a  Ruskin Bond fan. Personally having grown up on his stories of Deodars and Rhododendrons I have visited the place through his words a million times over.

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Landour is a dreamy world leftover from the British Raj with its quaint cottages and colonial churches cast amidst the whispering pines and gentle mists. A short but steep narrow road leads to Landour from Mussoorie. As you drive away from the hustle and bustle of the Mall Road in Mussoorie into this quiet , serene landscape you feel you have entered a place where time stands still. Landour was built as a cantonment with a hospital where convalescent soldiers were sent to recover in the salubrious climes. It may not be a cantonment any more but the crisp air and lush green surroundings are enough to get tired bones back to health even now!

Walking is an essential activity while in Landour. Do ensure you take a pair of comfortable walking shoes while on a visit. The road that encircles this quiet little town is dotted with wild lilies and tiny daisies. Towering pines reach into the skies with the wind whispering gently through them. This April we were in time to see the early rhododendron blooms . While taking  a walk you come by quaint cottages with names like Parsonage and Cosy Nook . We stopped to admire the hydrangea blooms in vibrant purple and baby pink.

The circuitous road (which is motorable as well) starts with the quiet St Paul’s Church. Framed by tall pines the church was established in the 1840s. The building is an old colonial one with beautiful arches and sun streaming in from stained glass windows. The serene quiet of the church turns into noisy chatter and laughter  of school children in the famous Char Dukan just adjacent to the church. At the Tip Top restaurant you can tuck into pancakes and waffles while getting some trivia about the place from the owner. The place has delicious omelette too.

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From Char Dukan we walked towards Sister’s Bazaar. The old military hospital here has given way to the Defence Ministry’s Institute of Technology Management. We passed an old cemetery ,it’s easy to see why it finds its way into so many of Ruskin Bond’s stories. Sister’s Bazaar is famous for the popular store Prakash’s. Prakash is reputed for their jams and preserves. Local folk-lore has it that Prakash has  supplying peanut butter and jam to generations of the Gandhi family.

No matter how many times I visit Landour, it never ceases to enthrall me, the deep woods, the smell of the pines and the quiet whispers of the trees. Sunlight streaming in from amidst the branches, the skies a brilliant blue unlike the grey in the plains. There are stories to be told here , the place sets your creative juices in motion. It isn’t a wonder that the town has been home to Ruskin Bond, his words resonate with the beauty of the place. The  mountains stand tall and beautiful , their colours come alive in the sunshine. Each time I visit , I know they know me and understand….and keep beckoning me to come back.

 

 

 

 

Prayer Flags and Bells

I had never heard of the Mindrolling Monastery despite having spent a sizeable chunk of my childhood in Dehradun (including a few years growing up in Clement Town where the monastery is located) .Almost a typical case of the mind not noticing the more obvious, what is right there in front of you. Having read about it once on the internet in a list of things to do in Dehradun, I was determined to make sure that this brief holiday, I would definitely go see the place.

The night before I read up all I could on the monastery. Somehow, the idea of an idyllic undiscovered (by me ) place had an unknown charm. The monastery I learnt ,was constructed in the year 1965 by the famous Buddhist monk named Khochen Rinpoche. Today the monastery houses the Ngagyur Nyingma College, a deemed centre of learning for the young monks and is considered to be the best when it comes to impart education. The monastery complex is well maintained and consists of a 60 meters large stupa, gardens, hand carved murals and a mammoth sized statue of Buddha.

From Clement Town the route to the monastery was a little confusing as the straight road by the lake was closed for repair. Anyway with the help of some very obliging passers by, including one who finally drove in front on his motorbike to show us the way weaving through a residential colony of Turner Road ( right opposite the house we stayed in for 2 years- but like I said , sometimes we miss the obvious, what is literally right in front ) and driving past the Air Force Service Selection Board office we  arrived through the narrow lane housing momo and thupka offering stores right outside the gates of the Mindrolling Monastery.

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The great stupa is 185 feet tall and 100 square feet in width. It is considered to be the world’s largest stupa and is a magnificent example of Buddhist art and architecture.  The stupa is surrounded by a 2-acre landscaped garden. The  early morning air around the stupa was pleasantly reverberating with the sweet chimes of bells tied across the garden from the stupa. Prayer flags of several colours fluttered in the wind.  On the facade of the stupa, Maitreya, the future Buddha, has been beautifully painted.  Descending the steps is the present Buddha, the Buddha Shakyamuni.  On the several floors inside the stupa are shrine rooms with elaborate murals and paintings of tales of the life of Buddha.

Groups of monks walked about the place going about their activities oblivious to the few tourists looking around. Outside the gate a fortune teller with a parrot caught the fancy of some young monks. The parrot seemed quite thrilled with all the attention and squawked through his cage. Unfortunately, after the first few minutes of looking, the monks walked away and the fortune teller did not get a chance to put his parrot to work and read the fortunes of the onlookers.

Around the statue an old man was busy nurturing and watering the well-tended gardens. Prayer wheels surround the statue . Wrinkled hands found their way on to the wheels pushing them in the direction to make them spin while rosary beads hing from the edge of the fingers that pushed. We reached very early and the tiny shop that sells cold drinks near the statue was closed. A young boy was sweeping around the benches near the shop and scattering grain for a group of sparrows cheeping gleefully as they pecked in the dust.

Rows of mud kullahrs (earthen cups) lay under a tree that held up a banner saying Swadeshi lassi was also available on offer. We opted for the unhealthy aerated drinks asking the boy if he had change for 500 bucks. The boy said they had change for everything…including dollars if we wanted. PicsArt_04-16-03.11.09 Outside the stupa a lady who runs a little collection point for shoes was friendly and warm offering an insight into the paintings. A small chat with her and soon she was narrating the tale of her own escape from Tibet. Buddhist chant soon rent the air over the chimes of the bells creating an air of mysticism .

In a corner lamps flickered inside a glass case , reminder of prayer and hope. The air was serene and peaceful away from the city. Trees of the Rajaji sanctuary stand tall at the boundary of the monastery, quiet and in sync with the rest of the place.

PicsArt_04-16-03.11.49We drove back through the now crowded roads of Dehradun with a promise to come back again, to this little island of peace and serenity in the middle of the noise and chaos.