{T} Travel Postcard #7: Tibetan Prayer Wheels


Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. Also sometimes depicted are Dakinis, Protectors and very often the 8 auspicious symbols Ashtamangala. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition based on the lineage texts regarding prayer wheels, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers. – Wikipedia.com

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Bharatpur: Birders delight

Small birds, Bharatpur Bird SanctuaryWe left our annual vacation planning too late last year. As November rolled around with no destination in mind, I knew that it would be next to impossible to put together a proper itinerary and get reservations at decent hotels. So we decided to reduce our vacation dates – since no time to plan means you can’t visit multiple cities – and go back to Rajasthan. This time, we chose to visit Bharatpur. Famous for its bird sanctuary, it’s one of the few cities in Rajasthan that we haven’t been to yet.

Most of the hotels were, as I had feared, booked or way out of our budget, so we settled on the Falcon Guesthouse. It had got some rave reviews on TripAdvisor, and even though there were no pictures of the place online, I hoped that at least some of those reviews were genuine.Continue reading

My favorite things

With Diwali, the festival of lights, just around the corner, I’ve been pouring over ideas for unique lighting ideas. And boy, there are so many that made me go Ooooh! Here are a few of my favorites…

I fell head over heels in love with these fairy lights in a cage – found on The Wishing Chair’s pinterest board. Aren’t these totally moody?

fairy lights in a cage

Then there are these fairy lights and butterflies around a mirror. They’d make a girl look tantalizing, don’t you think?

Fairy lights around mirror

And these cool, colorful lanterns strung up along a window could be a decorative item from Diwali through New Year. You could also make it a part of your decor if you can pull it off right!

tea lights strung up

If you’ve got a crafty bone in your body (and by that I mean the DIY kind), you could try making these amazing egg carton flower lights. Aren’t they gorgeous?

egg carton flower lights

Or maybe this glowing jar light…

glowing jar lights

Or how about this DIY bottle full of light? Just change the snowflake with something seasonal, and it could be a talking piece year-round!

DIY bottle lights

Now it’s your turn – which one of these is your favorite?

Take a look at some more of my favorite things…

Mumbai Diaries: Exploring Colaba and Fort

When you think of Mumbai, you think of traffic jams and teeming slums, of roads chock-a-block with people, of sultry humidity and general chaos. You think of Bollywood and industrial tycoons, of the super rich living alongside the poor, of a city that never sleeps. But if you thought that this is all there is to Mumbai, you’d be wrong.


A graceful arched window of a Church in Colaba, Mumbai, India

There’s a softer, gentler side to the city as well – tree-lined roads, mansions and apartment buildings that speak of old money, and a blend of Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco and Indo-Saracenic (a blend of Islamic and Hindu architectural styles) architecture. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Fort and Colaba area in South Mumbai.

Gateway of India, Mumbai, India

Gateway of India, Mumbai, India

We started our exploration of this area from the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel after a hearty brunch at Le Pain Quotiden. Built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, the Gateway of India is a fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Many elements of the arch and the design of the windows are derived from Islamic architecture, while the pillars are reminiscent of Hindu temple design. We were lucky to find the area relatively less crowded, which gave us a lot of time to take pictures and generally explore the place.


The iconic Taj Hotel at Mumbai, adjacent to the Gateway of India

From there, we started walking along the lane behind the Taj, with our necks craned upwards looking for interesting window and architectural details. The road is tree-lined and quiet, the buildings are old and regal, and for a while, you can almost forget that you’re in Mumbai – it could be any old European city.


An old, elegant window perched above a busy, bustling street in Mumbai

We traversed a path through Colaba, Colaba Causeway and Fort that day, with no real fixed agenda. We were just a couple of walkers, roaming around the area and exclaiming over the architecture. Why we were in architecture overdrive is still a bit of a mystery to me, but that day all we had eyes for were windows and doorways and turrets and spires. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of those old, elegant buildings with the bustling metropolis that had grown around it – but the memories I took away were of an older, more genteel Mumbai than I remembered from my stay there 10 years ago.


An old colonial building that now houses a cool junk jewelery store – Aquamarine. Mumbai, India

Of course, being girls, our trip couldn’t be complete without some shopping now, could it? There’s no better place to pick up cheap nick-knacks than at Colaba Causeway (in that area, at least). You’ll find some excellent junk jewellery, footwear and leather goods at prices that will delight your pocket. If you are on the look out for something more exclusive, make your way to Aquamarine at Colaba, which stocks some really cool (though pricey) junk jewellery.

An experiment in community living – Auroville


The visitor centre at Auroville

Located 10 kilometers out of Pondicherry down a narrow, tree lined lane punctuated on both sides with cafes and shops is Auroville, an experimental township founded by The Mother (Sri Aurobindo’s disciple) in the late 1960s. Her vision was to offer Aurovillans an experience of community living. Anchored by the Maitri Mandir (the soul of Auroville), a golden golf ball shaped structure, the community is currently home to about 50,000 people from 16 countries.


Cross-section of the inside of Maitri Mandir, visitor centre, Auroville

“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.”

When you reach Auroville, your first port of call would be the visitor center, where you can read about its history and charter and watch a short movie on its philosophy and on the establishment of the Maitri Mandir. There is also a bookstore selling titles by The Mother and on Auroville.


On the way to Maitri Mandir. Want to see what the old lady looks like? Click on the image

Visitors are allowed to see the Maitri Mandir from a viewing point some distance away from the main temple. The walk to the Mandir is beautiful and peaceful, along a narrow tree shaded walking path. If you want to go in to temple, you will have to take an appointment after you have seen the Mandir. The Maitri Mandir isn’t a temple in the traditional sense, there is no religion followed and you aren’t supposed to pray. It is for

“those who want to learn to concentrate…No fixed meditations, none of all that, but they should stay there in silence, in silence and concentration. A place for trying to find one’s consciousness.

The Mandir “wants to be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection.” but I didn’t get that from its shape – a golden golf ball in the center of 12 petals. Ah well!


The Maitri Mandir, viewing point, Auroville

After we had seen the Mandir, we rode around through the township, though the best way to really understand what Auroville is all about is to stay there. Since that wasn’t happening on this trip, we thought we’d gather information and be touristy. 😀

Auroville is famous for its arts and crafts, incense, and organic foods. There are three boutiques in the complex, which sell a variety of products, ranging from silks, knits, and leather to pottery, metal work, and wood craft, to incense, aromatherapy products, massage oil, shampoos and lotions. All of these goods are hand made using traditional techniques that do not harm the environment.


An audio-video installation on sustainable energy, Auroville

When at Auroville, you should definitely have a meal at the café, which serves up organic food with raw materials that are either grown at Auroville or procured from nearby places, with a strong focus on sustainability. I had an absolutely fantastic fried fish and a yummy lemon cake. The thought of those dishes can still make my mouth water! We also picked up a plum cake from there, and it was one of the best plum cake’s I’ve ever eaten!

On our way back, we stopped at a cute open air cafe for a cup of refreshing lemon tea…then drove on back to our hotel…and spent the rest of the evening at the beach! Bliss…

(text in italics is from Auroville’s website)

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France
Pondicherry – sights and sounds
Worshiping on the beach – Mahabalipuram

Pondicherry – sights and sounds

As our flight started its descent into Chennai, I looked out the window and was mesmerized by the green and blue expanse I saw below me. Delhi seen out the plane window does have a surprisingly vast green cover, but the concrete jungle has very firmly gained the upper hand. From the air, Chennai looks gorgeous, with luscious greens and shimmering blues, and houses that seem to be sprinkled around sparingly.


Sunset on our drive to Pondicherry

The three hour drive into Pondicherry is very pretty, passing as we do along verdant green fields interspersed with still, blue backwaters. Through the tinted windows of the taxi, the sky took on a dramatic blue hue, and I wore down the battery on my iPhone, shooting multiple photographs of the setting sun.

Since we reached our hotel in the evening, and were pretty tired after a full day’s travel, we decided to freshen up and head to the beach – a mere 2 minute walk from our hotel. Pondicherry has a rocky beach, so instead of digging ourselves into sand we sat ourselves down on the rocks and watched the waves crash in – this was our evening ritual for the duration of our stay in Pondy. The Bay of Bengal is pretty rough and choppy, and the waves generally come in strong…but the soothing sound of the surf, the mesmerizing pull of the waves, the cool sea breeze, and the feel of sea spray on my face felt like pure bliss…I could spend hours just perched there on a rock, watching the world pass me by…lost in my own thoughts…


A man at the beach, watching the world go by

There are so many ways in which this trip was different from the rest of our annual holidays. Since we’ve spent a lot of time in Rajasthan, an element of familiarity had crept in to our vacations. This trip down south was like a breath of fresh air – everything was different, right from our mode of transport (flight vs drive) to the people, architecture, landscape, and language.

The French side of Pondy has shaded streets, some of which are still cobbled, beautiful large colonial houses, a lot of boutiques and hotels, and it is fun to walk around to take in the architecture and poke around in the stores. While walking around, you’re also apt to notice a lot of statues dotted around the city. A famous one that you’ll not miss is a statue of Gandhi with four old temple columns around the image, located at one end of the beach. There are some beautiful statues in the oddest of places, like one of an angel on the rooftop of a house!


A statue shot through the open gates of a house

Since we had limited time, we hired a bike and went to the Aurobindo Ashram, which is in the French part of the city. Photography isn’t allowed inside, unfortunately, as they have a beautiful cactus garden, with some amazingly tall cactus plants. The Ashram houses the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and is adorned with fresh flowers everyday. Devotees come in and offer up prayers and letters of thanks, which are collected in a little letter box near the Samadhi. They have a small bookstore where you can literature on Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. They have also preserved the drawing room where Aurobindo and The Mother used to rest, complete with Persian carpets, sofas and bookshelves.


The elephant outside the Ganesh temple blessing a devotee

In the next lane is the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Dedicated to Lord Ganesh, there are 40 different forms of the deity painted on the temple walls. The golden and silver chariots at the temple that are used during specific ceremonies or for particular prayers were made from devotee donations. The main attraction of the temple is the elephant outside – once prayers are offered at the temple, devotees feed the elephant and seek its blessing. Parents make their small children sit on its back (with the mahout) for a few moments to seek its blessings. It’s quite a sight, as the elephant takes the food offered to it and blesses the devotees with its trunk!

One stark difference I noticed here was the relative lack of beggars outside the temple complex. Around most temples you will almost always be hounded by beggars, but here, there were just one or two people asking for alms, and no one got after us.

The museum at Pondy is also supposed to be really good, but it was closed while we were there, so we were unable to visit it.

If all the sight seeing gets you tired, hop onto your bike (or into a rickshaw) and go over to Hot Breads for a cup of hot coffee and croissants. Their choco Danish is excellent, and was my staple breakfast while we were in Pondy.


Sun and sand at Pondicherry

And if you really want to dig your toes into some sand, you’ll have to drive down toward Auroville – there are two sandy beaches there – The Auro Beach and Serenity Beach. You can take surfing classes or hire a surfboard and catch the waves at the Auro Beach if you’re so inclined. I’m not sure which beach we made it to, but our strip of the sand was almost deserted. The husband and I had a blast, standing ankle deep in the water, clicking pictures, soaking up the sun, digging for shells…Unfortunately, we discovered the sandy beach on our last day, else I’m sure we would have spent much more time there. Next time, I guess!

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France
An experiment in community living – Auroville
Worshiping on the beach – Mahabalipuram

Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France

While planning our annual holiday this year, I was very sure of one thing – I didn’t want to go to Rajasthan yet again! Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the state! But that doesn’t mean I go there every year, right?

This year, I could almost hear the call of a cool sea breeze…of palms swaying in the wind…of lazing on the beach and unwinding…But Goa around Christmas/New Year is jam-packed with tourists, so we decided to head further south, to Pondicherry (popularly referred to as Pondy).


Sea views from the rooftop of the hotel

Ruled by the French until 1954, a canal splits this oval-shaped city into two – the French side (Ville Blanche) and the Indian side (Ville Noire). The Indian side of the city is like any other small town in the country – sleepy, dusty, and congested. Move into the French side, though, and you are greeted with cobbled, shady roads and sprawling houses, many of which overlook the beach.

We left Delhi on a cold, grey Christmas morning, and arrived in warm and sunny Chennai – the closest airport to Pondy – in the afternoon. A 3-hour picturesque drive later, our holiday had finally begun!

The hotel we had chosen was on Rue Dumas in the French quarter, just one lane behind the beach. So though our room looked out onto the quiet, shady street, we had a lovely sea view from the rooftop cafeteria. A 2 minute walk took us to Goubert Salai, the seaside promenade, which during the peak season is almost always crowded with locals and tourists walking along the pavement or sitting on the rocks watching the waves crash in. During off-peak periods, I suspect the rocky beach, the strip of white sand and the pavement would be quite deserted, giving it the look of a sleepy French sea-side village.


Rue Dumas, Pondicherry

There isn’t much to do at Pondy, so you’ll never feel rushed or hurried. We spent all our evenings at the beach, sitting on the rocks, people and wave watching. We hired a bike and rode to Auroville one day, on another we took a day trip to Mamalapuram (Mahabalipuram), and on the third we visited the Aurobindo Ashram and the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple (a Ganesh temple), which was in existence even before the French settled in Pondicherry (i.e. before 1666), and then rode over to one of the other (sandy) beaches around Pondy.

We found it a bit hard to find a good place to eat in Pondy, though. The popular names, such as Le Club and La Teresse, were disappointing to say the least. Le Club was over-priced, and their food was barely passable; the food at La Teresse was insipid. So, I chucked the travel guide aside and asked around for good places to eat.

Hotel du Park has excellent continental food (their Fisherman’s basket and grilled fish are excellent, as is the fresh fruit with ice cream and the divine chocolate cake) or try Le Rendezvous (it looked and smelled excellent, though we didn’t eat there as they had a 1 hour waiting for dinner!). I also heard good things about Don Giovanni, a pizzeria on the rooftop of Hotel Corbelli. If you want to sample some South Indian non-vegetarian fare, you can’t go wrong with Apichi – their prawn fry and lappam is like manna from heaven! For pure vegetarian South Indian food, you can try Surguru (opposite Hotel du Park) – I quite liked their dosas. Oh, and for a nice breakfast spread, you can head to Hot Breads (loved their Choco Danish!)

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – sights and sounds
An experiment in community living – Auroville
Worshipingon the beach – Mahabalipuram

Looking back 2010: journeys

Prayer bells, main monastery, McLeod Ganj

For someone who loves to travel, this year has not been too great. I’ve taken only two trips this year (boo!), with one to come in the last week of December (yay!).

So from the two trips I took in 2010, here are the 5 things I enjoyed the most:

McLeod Ganj, May/June 2010

  1. This was the first time the husband and I traveled with friends; we generally travel alone. It was a different experience – we quite enjoyed ourselves.
  2. Carpe Diem, Jogiwara Road – excellent food, a must visit at McLeod Ganj
  3. Norbulingka Institute, Sidhpur – located about 7 odd kms from McLeod Ganj, it’s an excellent place to stay, even if just for a night. If you don’t want to stay far from McLeod Ganj, do visit the institute – they have a lovely monastery, a beautiful doll museum and artisans at work.
  4. The Monastery, McLeod Ganj – courses are held here when the Dalai Lama is in residence. The thangka paintings and statues are magnificent.
  5. Shopping – avoid the shops along the Monastery – they’re overpriced and rude. Explore the many tiny shops along the three main roads in McLeod Ganj, you’ll be sure to find plenty of treasures!

Read more on my visit to McLeod Ganj.

Jaipur, November 2010

The Bazaar, Jaipur

Johari Bazaar, Jaipur

1. All girls trip – no husband, no men – fun!

2. Silver shopping! We went to Johri Bazaar and explored the many silver shops there. Found one that had awesome, unique  stuff – went back to him thrice!

3. Getting fooled at Johri Bazaar – and finding out and giving it back to the shopkeeper. That was fun! Once we got to know he sold us fake stuff, we went back to his shop, created a scene, made him give us our money back, and made off with the earrings we had bought from him to boot! Served the bastards right, I say! 😉

4. Discovered three excellent places to eat and hang out

  • Flow at Diggi Palace – great ambiance, good food.
  • Clark’s Amer – rooftop bar – great drinks for cheap
  • Anokhi cafe – excellent range of organic tea, coffee, pastries, and sandwiches.

5. Late night talkathons over drinks and snacks.

I haven’t written up a blog post on this trip, but you can read more about Jaipur from an earlier post I wrote on my travel to this wonderful city.

What were your favorite trips this year?

Linking up with Jade:

Exploring the land of the Dalai Lama: 3 days in Dharamsala (part 2)

<— Read part 1 here

View of the town nestled in the hills

The main anchors of the central square of McLeod Ganj are Mcllo Restaurant (totally avoidable – lousy food, so-so ambience) and the oldest shop in the city – Nowrojee and Son, which was founded in 1860. From there, streets radiate in about 5 different directions. We picked a street at random and set out in search of lunch. Of course, along the way we were distracted by a beautiful red and gold monastery and all the shops lining the street. But, before we could do any sight-seeing or shopping, our tummies were crying out for food. We eventually found our way to the Tourist Information office, got directions to Jogiwara Road (where a lot of the amazing eateries are located) and elected to eat at Carpe Diem (I loved the name! Seize the day [or whatever was left of it] was just what we intended to do next!)

McLeod Ganj

Once we had our fill of some excellent grub, we headed out to explore the town — but were distracted before we had taken 10 steps by this really amazing store called Jewels of Asia, and then again by a store selling thankas, and then by yet another store…so yes, as you can guess, we spent the rest of the day exploring the shops in tiny Dharamsala.

Buddha statue at the monastery

We reserved sight-seeing for the next day, and even then, all that we really saw was the main monastery. It was a bit disappointing, as it didn’t look anything like the pictures we saw online. But the statues at the temple were awe-inspiring. The central Buddha image towers over visitors, encrusted with colored stones, with the silence and sanctity that can only come from years of prayer, surrounded by paintings depicting the Buddha lifecycle, Wheel of Life, and various other mandalas. There are also some really beautiful statues of Tara and the Tibetan protector Goddess at the temple that are gorgeous. The Goddess looks serene and calm and yet stern, all at the same time; that, in my opinion, is artistry at its height.

Monks making a mandala

We ended up spending quite a bit of time at the monastery, ‘cause it started raining pretty heavily. While we were there, we saw two monks making a mandala with chalk colors. They were just starting out, but the precision and concentration with which they were making the mandala was like meditation in motion. I spent a lot of time hanging around there clicking pictures, and their concentration just didn’t waver, even when people came over asking them what they were doing — they answered their questions and went on with their task — totally zen. I really wish I could have stayed and watch them complete the mandala, or come again later to see the completed image, but alas! That was not meant to be.

Prayer bells

By the time the weather cleared it was lunch time, so we decided to head over to Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen for lunch (good Italian food, though a bit over-salted; to-die-for chocolate mousse!). Along the way we did some window shopping at the stalls (most of the goods on offer were over-priced and the owners were pretty rude!), though I did pick up a pair of yak bone earrings and some CDs.

Lunch over, we decided it was time to hit the stores! Where there are women, shopping can’t be far behind, eh? Normally, I would have wanted to go do more sight seeing, but since I had already decided that I would return to Dharamsala, this time for longer, I figured it would be OK to choose shopping over sightseeing, especially since this was our last full day in town.

Sign near the monastery

I won’t bore you with details, but by the end of the day, the husbands were hanging around at the main square while the three of us were off stuffing our bags with all our purchases!

Shopping done, feet tired, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was bye-bye McLeod Ganj! We were planning to spend the next day just relaxing at the hotel and exploring the institute.