The Rock Buddhas of Ladakh: Part 2

11th September

The day started early as we were driving back from Kargil to Leh and were scheduled to stop in between to see the Lamayuru Monastery and the Moon landscape / Moonscape.

We were in high spirits, admiring the shape, textures and lovely pastel colours of the mountains. Shades of brown, gold and at times purple all around us.

The shades of cold desert mountains
The shades of cold desert mountains
The colour of mountains : Details
The colour of mountains: Details

We must have been on the road for an hour or so when we spotted a shepherd with his flock of sheep in high mountains. Sensing a photo opportunity, all of us made Iqbal Bhai stop the car and jumped out.

The sheep on steep mountains
The sheep on steep mountains
Its a tough job
It’s a tough job

Happy with the results, we got back into the car. We had to cross two high passes on this road to reach Leh. The first one was familiar, Namik La, which we had crossed two days back to reach Kargil; and the second was Fotu La (Also called as Fatu La)

Fotu La is slightly higher pass than Namik La at 13479 feet. Towards the east of Fotu La, at a distance of about 15 km, is Lamayaru and located on the pass is the Prasar Bharti television relay station serving Lamayuru.

At the Fotu La pass At the Fotu La pass

Fotu La : The 10 mm view
Fotu La: The 10 mm view

It was a smooth descent from the Fotu La towards the Lamayuru Monastery but, we had the time, and Himanshu decided to show us the curvaceous road above the Moonscape before reaching the monastery.

Unfortunately, the road above the Monastery was being worked upon and was closed for traffic, but we still managed to have some fun. Identified and collected the lavender plant which was in abundance here, and photographed some more wildflowers.

Wild flowers on the hills
Wild Lavender flowers on the hills
Wild flowers on the hills
Wildflowers on the hills
wild flowers
More wildflowers

We also got a magnificent view of the Moonscape from this place. The serrated and ridged mountains near Lamayuru look like a typical lunar landscape, hence the name.

Road through the Moonscape
A road through the Moonscape
Moonscape Details
Moonscape Details

Next stop was the Lamayuru Monastery. Lamayuru monastery is a place which has many legends associated with it. It is one of the oldest and the largest in Ladakh. Out of the five gigantic temples, only one has survived. One can still see some old remnants of the monastery.

Lamayaru Monastery
Lamayuru Monastery
Lamayuru Monastery: Passage to the other side
Lamayuru Monastery: Passage to the other side
Lamayaru -remnants of old monastery
Lamayuru -remnants of the old monastery
Prayer wheels
The Prayer wheels

As we entered the monastery, I encountered a beautiful old woman dressed in local attire.

The old woman at Lamayaru Monastery
The old woman at Lamayuru Monastery

When I reached her, she smiled and initiated the conversation, told me her name and asked mine. I requested her to introduce herself again to get it on the video. On second thoughts, instead of breaking into English, as it has become a habit, I should have spoken in Hindi as the locals know Hindi reasonably well.

As I followed her, I spotted three more friendly old women, who taught me how to use the prayer wheel.  However, as we were moving ahead, they asked for Bakshish. I gathered that this was their livelihood.

Learning to use prayer wheel
Learning to use the prayer wheel

These old women sit in a particular corner, quietly praying and whenever a tourist comes, they talk and educate the tourist, post for photographs and videos. In return, all they expect is some bakshish so that they can survive. I learnt later that they have been doing this for many years.

Lamayaru Monastery : The famous four
Lamayuru Monastery: The famous four
Lamayaru town
The Lamayuru town

We also visited the other portions of the monastery which houses the school and hostel for the monks, although we could not stay there longer as it was getting late and the place was shutting down for lunch.

We too were hungry, and the best place to eat near Lamayaru is a restaurant right next to the monastery. The restaurant also serves eggs and Tuna (and beer). We opted for Thukpa, momos, omelette, fried rice and some lemon tea. The food was so good that I ended up overeating and all I wanted to do was sleep. I had full intentions to take a nap in the car when Trishu exclaimed that his phone is catching network and has 4g and that was the end of our plans to nap – each of us requested a hotspot from him and were busy uploading pictures to Instagram.

After Lamayuru, we drove through a long straight road amongst the mountains.  Trishu wanted to shoot videos and pictures of the road which I later learnt is a fascination for him. He has captured the visuals very well on this phone.

While he was shooting the road, I was fascinated with the unabashed blueness of the sky and wanted to capture that.

The deepest of blue skies
The deepest of blue skies

After a day’s drive, we arrived at Leh in the evening and realised that the hotel had a limited internet connection. I tried to talk to mom, but the network was bad, and could only send her some pictures from the trip.

The evening was booked for a stroll in the Leh market. I picked up two woollen caps and some essentials for the journey ahead.

Leh Market
Leh Market
A trinket shop at the Leh market
A trinket shop at the Leh market

Tarique and I indulged in eating soft and succulent lamb kababs from a kabab stall on the roadside of the main market after which we all proceeded towards the German Bakery.  Since we were to dine at the Hotel restaurant, we did not eat much but decided to pick up croissants, doughnuts, apple strudel and some more delicacies the next morning before departing for the Nubra Valley.

Lamb Seekh Kebabs
Lamb Seekh Kebabs

12th September

Since we woke up early and were ready for the next leg of the journey, Tarique decided to go up to the terrace of the hotel and click some pictures of the mountains, Leh fort and Castle, while I decided to enjoy some quiet time in the hotel garden.

Tea in the garden
Tea in the hotel garden
snow covered mountains as seen from our hotel in Leh
snow covered mountains as seen from our hotel in Leh
Leh Monastery
Leh Monastery
Leh Palace
Leh Palace

As decided, we picked up the stuff from the German bakery before departing. Today was the 5th day of our 9-day visit to Ladakh. I was kind of disappointed that the holidays will soon end, and that I would have liked to spend more time at each of the places we visited. First stop was the hill of the Leh Monastery and palace. The monastery was not as big as some others but had a charm and the inherent peace. From here we could also see a part of the charming little town of Leh.

Birds eye view of Leh
Birdseye view of Leh town.

We were very excited to cross the Khardung La. Khardung is the name of a village and La means a pass in Tibetan.

Himanshu showed us the direction of the pass from the monastery, and we quickly jumped in the vehicle and were driven around by Iqbal Bhai on the curvaceous roads leading to the Khardung La. Iqbal Bhai was looking quite dapper today, he had worn a new shirt that was gifted to him by Himanshu. We teased him a bit – after all, he was going home to his wife today. Iqbal Bhai lives in the town of Hundar in the Nubra Valley where we were scheduled to halt for the next two days.

Khardung La is a pass on the Ladakh range and is in the North of Leh. It is a gateway to the Shyok and Nubra Valleys, and the Siachen Glacier lies partway up the Nubra Valley. The Khardung pass was opened to the motor traffic in 1988. The pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier.

While the current road was built in the 20th century, this route was once a part of the old silk route that borders on the Karakoram range of mountains.

Our first halt was the South Pullu where we had to stop to show our permits. Pullu in Ladakhi means a place where travellers rest. So this was the southern end of Khardung La where travellers rested, at times overnight, before crossing the mountain pass.

While the formalities were being done, we got down of our vehicle, wore another layer of clothes as it was getting colder at this altitude, and as usual, clicked a few pictures and took some selfies.

South Pulu

South PulluAnd here are the selfies 🙂

Selfie at South Pulu
Selfie at South Pullu
Captured taking a selfie with Himanshu
Captured taking a selfie with Himanshu a little ahead of South Pullu.

A few km ahead of South Pullu we stopped for a mini break; it had started to snow. We spotted a raptor overhead and heard a marmot call.  Took some photographs of the winding road that got us here, and saw part of the glacier, which has shrunk to less than half its original size in the recent years.

Khardungla glacier that was
Khardungla glacier that was

A few of Radhika’s “how much longer to reach” and we were at the top of the mountain at Khardung La. At 17982 feet from the sea level to be precise.

I did not experience any altitude sickness whatsoever, but my lungs were choked from breathing the polluted air from the numerous trucks, bikes and cars that were on the road. I was told, that the air pollution is due to the use of kerosene mixed with diesel (as kerosene stops diesel from freezing) and is proving detrimental to the fragile environ of the mountains and therefore soon there would be a limitation on the number of vehicles that can ply on this road.

Motorcyclists at Khardung La
Motorcyclists at Khardung La

We did have our fun here though, did the normal touristy stuff and started our descent only to realise that the road ahead has been blocked for traffic by the Border Road Organisation (BRO) for some construction work. Someone took out a packet of Kurkure to pass the time.

Customary Khardung La photo
Customary Khardung La photo
Khardung La - top of the world
Khardung La – top of the world
Playing with snow
Playing with snow

After the traffic cleared up, we moved ahead but stopped once more by the side of the road for a view of the mountains from the other side. This side of Khardung La had more snow, and there was a soft drizzle of snow all around. This was my first real snowfall, and I felt an uncontrollable urge to record it, so I managed to make a small video clip before being urged to climb back in the car.

And then it started snowing
And then it started snowing

Our next stop was North Pullu to show the papers to the officials. We had decided to stop at the Bangli Dhaba for tea and delicacies from German Bakery.  Radhika and I discovered that he was making Maggi.

Mountains and Maggi go together, and for a complete experience, one must have a plateful of steaming hot Maggi on the (not so cold now) mountain tops. The Shop owner was generous and sprinkled more Haldi, Mirchi and masala on our Maggi- which none of us could eat, so I went in the kitchen and made my version of masala Maggi with tomato sauce. I struck a conversation with the owner and learnt he was from Bengal and operated this Dhaba in the summer months for the tourists. On his recommendation, we also snacked on a plate of mok moks (momos) while the Maggi cooked.

Bangli dhaba at North Pulu
Bangli dhaba at North Pullu

The extra layer of clothes and woollen that we had put on at South Pullu came off, and we climbed back in the car to continue our journey towards the Nubra Valley only to stop a km or so later to photograph some Marmots. We did not know we will see a lot of them in our journey ahead so a decent photo was must especially when the opportunity had presented itself.

Marmot
A Marmot

After climbing down Khardung La, we climbed back up the Shyok valley and drove by the side of Shyok river. The Shyok river is known for its floods, and the name Shyok or Dariya e Shyok is named as “river of death”. Sheo means death in a Turkic dialect. As we climbed, we saw the floodplains of the river and stopped at a place to have a good look.

The Shyok river originates from the Rimo glacier, which is one of the tongues of the Siachen Glacier The Shyok ultimately flows its waters into the Indus river.

The colour of the water was muddy in September, but we were told that it turns to turquoise in the winter months and is a sight to behold.

Flood plains of Shyok
Floodplains of Shyok and the Nubra valley.

A little ahead the Shyok river meets the Nubra or Siachen river to form a large valley that separates the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges.  Along with the river, we too left the Ladakh range and entered the Nubra Valley.

As we approached the Diskit town Monastery, our next stop, we saw a huge golden coloured 33-meter symbol of peace, a Maitreya Buddha facing towards (We were told) Pakistan. The construction of this statue was started in April 2006, and it was consecrated by His Highness the Dalai Lama on the 25th of July 2010. The statue was built to spread the message of world peace and specifically for the prevention of any further war with Pakistan.

Ladakh region has always borne the brunt of wars. And peace is, therefore, everyone’s mantra, and rightly so.

The huge Buddha statue Facing Westwards towards Pakistan
The huge Golden Buddha statue Facing Westwards towards Pakistan
Diskit The Golden Buddha
Diskit The Golden Buddha

We were kind of hungry by now. While Himanshu and Sanjeev decided not to eat, the four of us dug into platefuls of noodles and fried rice at a cafe near the Diskit Monastery.  As had become my habit, I asked the girl on the counter if they had an internet connection, and she readily gave me the wifi password. Next few minutes, as we ate, were spent on uploading the Khardung La photographs to our Instagram accounts.

The Diskit Monastery or Diskit Gompa, founded in the 14th century,  is the oldest and the largest monastery in the Nubra Valley. Built on a hill just above the floodplains of the Shyok river, at the end of the approach road, it is a striking structure and is visible from even a large distance.

The Nubra valley is at a lower elevation than the Ladakh range, it has a mild climate and has lush vegetation. It is therefore called the Orchard of Ladakh. The valley was a part of the caravan route between Tibet and China. The double-humped Bactrian Camel would travel the route and the ones left behind due to illness, or other reasons have flourished here.

Diskit Monastery
Diskit Monastery

I was a bit tired after climbing the steep stairs and decided to rest in the verandah of the monastery when two kittens spotted me and were all over me.

The curious kitten
One of the curious kitten

One of them even demanded that I scratched him and patted my hands whenever I stopped scratching him. I love cats, and I guess they love to reciprocate my affections as well.

Happy with the interaction, I joined the others to visit the temples at the monastery. One interesting part of history the protector room of Diskit monastery has is the mortal remains of the hand and skull of a Mongolian warrior. The remains are shrivelled and real. Legend has it that the monastery is believed to be the place where an evil anti-Buddhist Mongol demon once lived and was killed near the monastery grounds but is said to have been resurrected several times, and the hand and head are of this evil demon.

Mongol Warrior
Mongol Warrior

One more thing that I noticed is that the heads of several statues in the protector room (of all the monasteries we visited)  are covered.

We spent a considerable amount of time here and clicked several pictures.

Door handles
Door handles
Diskit Monastery - details of the door
Diskit Monastery – details of the door
Mask on the door
Mask at the Entrance

As we came out of the monastery, we noticed a very deep well. It was more of a freshwater spring, the path to which, was rickety and dangerous. It is said that the monks regularly used to go down this dangerous path (some monks still do) to get fresh water for the monastery. I could not go further than this point.

Diskit : Deep well with rickety stairs
Diskit: Deep well with rickety stairs

Although the monasteries preserve the tradition, modern facilities and technology have reached here too. We saw a few monks using the latest cars and smartphones.

By this time the sun was about to set, and we decided to call it a day and proceed to Hunder which was about 15 km drive. It took us about 30 minutes to reach out campsite at the Desert Oasis camp. While some of us had lemon tea, Sanjeev and Himanshu had also picked up some beer and breezer and the day ended with Gup shup over drinks and pakodas. Post dinner we retired to our camps looking forward to an exciting morning the next day.

Desert Oasis Camp Hunder

In the quiet of the night, we could hear a gurgling sound of water and slept peacefully to the sound of spring flowing somewhere behind our tents.

The Rock Buddhas of Ladakh Part 1

Ladakh. The name originates from “La-dvags” meaning the land of high passes. Ladakh connected India with Tibet, China and other central Asian countries via the “silk road” the parts of which still exist. I had so far seen only pictures of this amazing place and was always curious about this enigmatic place tucked away in faraway mountains.

When Himanshu announced the tour to Ladakh in June- July, aptly named, “Buddha Rocks tour” I was very disappointed that I won’t be able to visit this amazing place which was in my bucket list for very long.

Tarique insisted that I go, and I insisted that he come along, so a phone call and a while later, Himanshu suggested we all go there in early September. The weather would be good and the inflow of tourists will be far less than the peak summer months. Plans finalised, we booked the tickets and looked forward to the trip of a lifetime.

By last week August, I was checking the temperatures at various places that we were to visit, and I started making a list of clothes,  woollen and medicines accordingly. I am a listophile and I get pretty listless without my lists 😀

On 7th September we were to leave for Delhi and our flight to Leh was on the 8th. Delhi is a place I love to go to because a lot of my dear friends from IIMC are in NCR and it makes me immensely happy to meet them.

The flight landed on time and we landed at Shilpa’s door. There was so much to talk, and so little time. Reema met us in the evening and we spent the time chatting and catching up with each other over dinner.

With Shilpa and Reema
With Shilpa and Reema

8th September 2018: Leh and Alchi

We arrived at the Delhi airport to catch a flight to Leh. Himanshu and Sanjeev joined us and we discovered that the Leh airport is temporarily shut due to bad weather at Leh. The weather, however, improved quickly and our flight departed on time. Despite having window seats, the snow-capped peaks of mighty Himalayas eluded us – they were engulfed in a thick blanket of clouds. However, as we approached Leh, the sky cleared up and the Leh town on the banks of a serpentine Indus river, and its tiny landing strip became visible.

Aerial view of Leh town
Aerial view of Leh town

Trishu and Radhika had taken an earlier flight and were waiting for us with Iqbal Bhai at the Leh airport when we landed. Iqbal Bhai was our go-to person for everything throughout the duration of the tour. A superb guide, he has the knowledge of flora, fauna, history and culture of Ladakh and being with him made for a very enriching experience. During our 8 day stay, Iqbal Bhai drove us around through the length and breadth of  Ladakh covering a distance of approximately 1200 km.

Leh is at an altitude of 3500 meters (11480 feet). For anyone travelling from the mainland, this altitude can mean a lot of trouble. To tackle the altitude sickness, I and Tarique both had started taking Diamox twice a day as soon as we arrived in Delhi. So except for a bit of light-headedness that lasted about 10 minutes, we did not face any issues. I, however, had to stop taking my diabetes medicine (Janumet- which has metformin) when I took Diamox as it was messing with my digestive system.

One of the first sights, as we hit the road, was that of the Chorten. These striking, stupa-like structures are built mostly near villages and monasteries, and they symbolise the Buddha, and the five elements of nature – Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and space. Most Chorten also have a Mane Wall along with them, this is a wall built by the followers and believers, and it is made of numerous etched stones kept in rows. It is mostly the six syllable prayer of peace and harmony,  Om Mane Padme Hum that is etched on each of the stones that line the Mane wall.

ChortansChortens

A Mani Wall- details
A Mane Wall- details

We drove to Alchi directly from the airport. Alchi is at a lower altitude of 3100 meters or approximately 10,000 feet and travelling to Alchi from Leh helped us cope with the altitude better. Enroute we stopped to see the Indus river. Sindhu, as it is called in Hindustani, gives our country its name. The confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers was a sight to behold.

The Indus Zanskar Confluence near the Leh town
The Indus Zanskar Confluence near the Leh town

Looking forward to an exciting vacation, we jumped back in the cars only to get down a bit later as Iqbal Bhai spotted a herd of Urials. Urials (Ovis orientalis), or Shapo are wild sheep of Ladakh region and are found in Western Central Asia. It was the start of mating season for them and the male of the species were putting up an amazing display.

Urials
Urials

We arrived at Alchi a little after lunchtime, we had already eaten a sumptuous meal of momos and Thukpa en route, we reached our destination. After checking in at the Zimskhang holiday home,  at Alchi, we were ready to explore the small monastery town.

Zimskhang holiday home, Alchi
Zimskhang holiday home, Alchi

Alchi is a historical place and has one of the oldest  Buddhist monasteries. It is actually a Chos-‘khor, a place where monks are taught the ways of Buddhism. The Alchi Gompa comes under the Gelugpa order from Likir which looks after the monks and the upkeep of the monastery.

The Alchi Gompa is often called as Ajanta of Ladakh, because of the fine artmanship display on its walls. The paintings on the walls are regarded as one of the oldest and most extensive in the entire region.

The mud sculptures in the monastery are also unique to the region.  It is said that the Alchi Gompa is was built between 958 and 1055 AD by the great Guru Rinchen Zangpo who translated the Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetian The artistic and spiritual details of both Buddhism and the Hindu kings of that time in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are reflected in the wall paintings in the monastery. These are some of the oldest surviving paintings in Ladakh. The complex also has huge statues of the Buddha and elaborate wood carvings and artwork comparable to the baroque style.

One of the striking features of this monastery is the fact that it is not on a hill like other monasteries of the region, but is on a flat land, next to the river Indus.

ASI has declared this a protected monument and photography inside the monastery is not allowed.

A visit to this monastery is incomplete without first stopping for a cup of tea and some butter cookies at the German bakery opposite the monastery complex and a look at the trinket shops that line the path to the monastery.

A trinket shop near Alchi Gompa
A trinket shop near the Alchi Gompa

It was soon dark and all of us decided to take a pre-dinner walk. It would have been impossible to do all this on the first day of arrival had we stayed back at Leh. However, coming to a lower altitude place, not only gave us a chance to utilize the day but also helped us cope better with altitude change. The dinner was sumptuous and all of us ended up overeating. We eagerly went to our rooms and hit the sack.

9th September: Domkhar – Mulbekh and Kargil

While the others slept, I and Tarique, being early risers, decided to take a walk alongside the Indus river before we departed for Kargil.

The view was breathtaking, the sunrise was spectacular with the reflection of the deep blue sky of in the river. We also saw some snow on the mountain tops of Alchi, and on being told about it, Himanshu mentioned that he had never seen snow near Alchi so early in the season.

On the banks of the river Indus at Alchi
On the banks of the river Indus at Alchi . Some snow is visible on the distant peak.

Post breakfast we departed for Kargil. The route was planned via the Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary.

Enroute we stopped to buy fresh fruits and almonds. And saw that absolutely fresh Apples and Apricots were sold by the roadside.

Apple trees on the roadside
Apple trees by the roadside

For many centuries traders, travellers, hunters and pilgrims have crossed Ladakh and have left their mark on the rocks of the region in the form of Petroglyphs. These pre-historic art forms are found all across the region, and one such site we visited was on a private property on the banks of  Indus in the sleepy little village called Domkhar.

The rock art of Domkhar is on black rocks and is assumed to be 2000-4000 year old. These petroglyphs depict various images of animals, hunting scenes, figurines, calligraphy and symbols.

Petroglyphs of Domkhar
Petroglyphs of Domkhar

It was a fantastic locale for a photo shoot, and when one travels with like-minded people who are also photographers, an opportunity like this can never be missed.

Radhika
Radhika
Trishu
Trishu
Iqbal Bhai
Iqbal Bhai
Himanshu
Himanshu
Sanjeev
Sanjeev
Tarique and I
Tarique and I

People of Domkhar grow apricots, apples and numerous vegetables. This is also known as the Apricot region and the apricots here were extremely juicy and sweet.

We were invited to the home of the owner of the private land where the Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary stands and were treated to some snacks and delicious tea.

The guest room at Domkhar
The guest room at Domkhar rock art sanctuary
Dried Apricots served to us
Dried Apricots served to us
Almonds and other snacks
Almonds and other snacks
Kitchen help at Domkhar
The Kitchen help at Domkhar who served us tea and snacks.

After a satisfying and gratifying break at Domkhar, we continued our journey on the Batalik Road along the Indus river. Batalik is the last Indian town and the river Indus enters Pakistan from here.

Enroute we passed some Aryan Villages (Hanuthang and Baima). It is believed that the settlers of these villages are of pure Aryan race. These people are indeed different. They have distinct features. Tall with green eyes, high cheekbones, fair skin, they claim to be the pure bloodline of the Aryans and settlers from the army of Alexander. Their attire is also different from the traditional Ladakhi attire and women sport fresh flowers in their headgear. Pity I could not take photographs of villages or the people there.

As we travelled I noticed the river getting wider and Himanshu told us that in 2017, a huge landslide left the road to Batalik unusable as it caused the water levels of Indus to rise very high, submerging a bridge and washing away the road leading to Batalik.  The landslide destroyed several homes as Indus grew to dangerous levels. Since then a new road has been constructed at a higher altitude but the portions of the old submerged road can still be seen underwater. One can still see the river dangerously undercutting parts of the mountains posing danger to the road and nearby villages in the future.

The submerged bridge
An almost submerged bridge and
The submerged road
The submerged road

We left the Batalik road and took the Khangral-Sanjak road some 33 km short of the Batalik town and entered a small gorge (Chiktan Valley) that had a freshwater stream as a tributary of Indus. We had lunch on the streamside and continued our journey toward the ruins of the historical Chiktan Fort(or Chiktan Khar). Very sketchy details are available about this fort but it is said that the Fort is a 16th Century fort that was built by Balti craftsmen. Tahtah Khan, the Prince of Baltistan had run away after surviving a failed attempt to kill him. Legend has it that he took shelter in Chiktan and mesmerised by the beauty of the region decided to stay back. He constructed a palace here in the 8th century.

In the 16th century, some Balti Craftsmen built the now famous Chiktan fort as the royal residence of the rulers of the region.  With glorious mountains as a backdrop, the fort was built with stone and mud and is said to have marvellous woodwork by the architect Shinkhen Chandan. The castle used timber to support the ceiling and had a revolving wooden room which used the power of winds to rotate the structure. It also is said that this fort was one of the masterpieces of Ladakh and Tibetian Architecture and was a symbol of unity, strength, brotherhood and community for the people of the region.

The castle was attacked several times but was not abandoned until the late 19th century. But now neglect and forces of nature have completely destroyed the woodwork and the castle is in advance stages of decay.  Although this captivating fort is completely withered and is in utter ruins, with no signs remaining of the famous woodwork, the regal aura still remains.

Chiktan Fort details
The ruins of Chiktan Fort
A long shot of Chiktan Fort
A long shot of Chiktan Fort

After taking a few photos of the fort from a nearby hill, we continued our travel and joined the National Highway NH1 at Khangral. NH 1 (Previously NH 1A) On NH 1, the Leh-Kargil main highway, we climbed up to 12300 feet to go through the Namik La pass – our first from this road trip. (The spelling of Namik is written incorrectly at several places as Namki.)

Namik - the Namik La is named after this pillar shaped rock
The rock at Namik La- the pass is named after this pillar-shaped rock

A glorious view of the mountains greeted us as the sun started setting. The Namik La is named so because of the mountain on which this pass is, looks like a pillar (which is Namik in the local Ladakhi language).

Another hour on the road and we reached Mulbekh to see the four-hand Buddha. This 28 feet Buddha statue, the tallest one in Ladakh, is also one of the most popular ones. Perhaps because of it being on the National Highway that connects Srinagar to Leh (Via Kargil).

While the statue stood on the roadside for a long time, a small monastery has now come up which completely encloses the statue. As per the information available there, it is said that the Buddha was carved here in the 1st century BC during the Kushan period. However, the studies point out that the carving is from the 7th Century.  This Buddha statue has a stupa lodged in the hair which a common attribute found in the Maitreya Buddha.

In Ladakhi, the Maitreya Buddha is called Chamba. The Mulbekh buddha we saw had four hands; the lower left arm holds a water pot, or a kamandal, a constant in Indian and Kashmiri Buddhist iconography; the upper left arm has a flower; and the upper right arm, a rosary. Since it is believed that the Maitreya Buddha will be born in a Brahmin family, he also has a sacred thread across his chest. He is adorned with a pearl necklace, bangles and a belt. Also, on both sides of his legs, at the bottom, rows of devotees are carved, facing up to the Buddha.

As per a prophecy, the Maitreya, or Chamba or the Future Buddha is a bodhisattva who will appear on this earth in the future, he will achieve complete enlightenment and teach pure dharma. As per the scriptures, Maitreya will be a successor to the present Gautama Buddha. This prophecy refers to the arrival of Maitreya to a time in future when the dharma would be forgotten by most in this terrestrial world.

The Buddha of Mulbekh
The Maitreya Buddha of Mulbekh
The Buddha of Mulbekh - details of the carvings
The Buddha of Mulbekh – details of the carvings

We arrived at the Kargil Tourist Camp, on the edge of Kargil town just in time to see a glorious sunset in the mountains.

Kargil Tourist Camps- Tents
Kargil Tourist Camps- Tents
Kargil Tourist Camps- Tents from inside
Kargil Tourist Camps- Tents from inside

While Sanjeev and Tarique busied themselves trying to take a time-lapse of sunset, I sipped the lemon tea and clicked some pictures. We took a quick dinner and retired early to capture the early rays of sun on the mountains.

Kargil Sunset
Kargil Sunset

10th September: Kartse Khar, Nun Kun Peaks, LOC and Apati

First rays of sun hitting the mountain tops
First rays of sun hitting the mountain tops

The sun rose in all its glory and the day started getting much warmer. We started early as there was much to do. After a long-ish drive, we stopped just before   Sanku for the view of Suru Valley where we saw several thorny shrubs of Seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) full with berries. Seabuckthorn grows wild in this region and some of us tasted the berry, which has a peculiar taste. The Seabuckthorn berry juice was marketed under the brand name of Leh berry,  and is said to have health benefits. We were not too inclined to taste the juice. Although on second thoughts, I think, I should have tried it at least.

A Sea Buckthorn shrub full of berries
A Seabuckthorn shrub full of berries

The Suru ValleyThe Suru Valley

While we were enjoying the view of the valley, several Himalayan Agama (Paralaudakia himalayana) was seen sunning on the rocks.

A pair of Himalayan Rock Agama
A pair of Himalayan Agama

Rest of the drive was along the river Suru. The Suru river originates near Penzila, the gateway to Zanskar.

A bit later we crossed the Suru river and took the dirt road as we wanted to visit the village of Kartse Khar known for it’s giant Buddha carving. We parked our car in the outskirts of the village and started on foot along the small stream.  After walking for about 800 meters, we encountered a huge Buddha carved in the early 7th century on the rock beside the stream. The statue is about 21 feet high. This is also the future Buddha or Maitreya Buddha. However, what differentiates this one from others is the crown and the body structure. The carving is very detailed, the crown has a triple sharp pointed diadem. Pearl bands hang beneath the crown. Two flying Gandharvas flank the head of the Buddha.  A drape comes down from the crown and is twisted on the shoulders and arms. According to some experts, this style is derived from Pativ, a Persian emblem of the royalty adopted by the Kashmiri Buddhists. The lower garment of the Kartse Khar buddha resembles a dhoti.

The Buddha at Kartse Khar
The Buddha at Kartse Khar

We took several photographs and while Himanshu and Sanjeev were shooting some videos, I chatted with the local women who were in the process of washing, drying and storing the grains for winter. Usually, the women are shy and refuse to be photographed, but I managed to click this beautiful girl-woman as she was less reserved than the others and readily posed.

A pretty woman of Kartse Khar village
A pretty woman of Kartse Khar village

The morning was getting warmer, it was still just about 11 am so Himanshu decided to take a chance to drive about 15 km to the village Diasma on the Kargil-Zanskar road (also called as Kargil – Padum road) and show us the Nun-Kun peaks from the banks of Suru river. At 23000+ feet the Nun-Kun peaks are the highest peaks in the Ladakh range.

However, by the time we reached the banks of the Suru river, it was almost noon and the peaks were engulfed in the clouds and were barely visible. We did manage to get a few glimpses of the impressive peaks though.

Nun in the local language means white, and Kun means black. Nun is usually covered with snow and appears completely white whereas Kun does show the rock underneath and appears black

Nun Kun
Nun- Kun Peaks -Upper part of Kun, the black mountain is visible in this picture
Nun Kun
While the lower portion can be seen in this one.

We were a bit disappointed because the view was not clear and the peaks were hidden beneath the clouds, but the view of the valley, the river, the passing clouds and the beautiful surroundings made us forget the disappointment.  Trishu had by now learnt how to time-lapse pictures and was busy with Himanshu and Sanjeev taking photos, while Tarique, and I made ourselves busy by taking pictures of the beautiful surroundings and ourselves. I somehow don’t remember what Radhika was doing. Perpahs she was quietly standing there and watching us all go crazy.

Peace and serenity on the banks of Suru River.
Peace and serenity on the banks of Suru River.

By the time we finished taking photographs, we all were really hungry and we still had one stop to make before lunch.

On the Kargil -Padum road, just a few kilometres before Sanku the Suru river takes an impressive turn. Here in the field by the side of road In the village of Skimertse, on a private property is a 13-14 century carving of Buddha that is unlike any other in the entire region. Etched in low relief, it is a representation of the feminine looking Avalokitesvara, flanked by Apsaras on either side. These are more stylised carvings and have elements that are not seen elsewhere. There is a depiction of a warhorse,  some disciples, stupa, and an undecipherable script. The Avalokiteshvara has six arms but what they are holding is unclear, although it seems that one of the left arms holds a water pot. There is a stupa etched at the bottom of the slab, but that looks relatively recent as it has not weathered to the extent that the rest of the rock-relief has.

The Stone is lying next to the road, in someone’s field and it seems it got uncovered as a result of a rock fall. It is under no protection and perhaps very few know about it.

Buddha etched on a rock at Skimertse
Buddha etched on a rock at Skimertse
Buddha etched on a rock at Skimertse
Buddha etched on a rock at Skimertse – Details

Next hurried stop was lunch at a roadside cafe and then we proceeded towards the village of Hundurmaan for the LOC view.

Every Indian is proud of the bravery of our armed forces, and the effort they take us to protect our country’s borders. It made our hearts soar when we saw the tri-colour fluttering in the winds at the LOC on the banks of Drass river, just before the village of Hundermaan.

It is also normal I guess, for any Indian to be curious as to how Pakistan looks. Although the terrain is same, the people similar and we originate from the same roots, or maybe it is the fact that we share the same legacy, a साँझी विरासत that makes us so curious. The dargah on the Pakistan side, the remnants of a village that was and the river bank that divides the two countries is what we could see there.

Photography at this point was not allowed, so we took some shots of the surroundings and continued our travails.

Near the LOC at HundurMaan
Near the LOC at HundurMaan – the mountains seen at a distance are in Pakistan

Next stop was Apati Buddha, approximately 15 km from Kargil, in the sleepy little village of Apati in the Sot Valley on the Kargil Batalik road.

This rock-carved Buddha is perhaps the oldest in Ladakh as it is said to be carved at the turn of the 6th Century, approximately the same time when Bamian Buddhas were carved. To reach the Apati Buddha, we carried our already tired bodies through the paved stairs of the traditional and sleepy village of Apati.

It is often said that to find the Buddha, you must take efforts, so we did and climbed innumerable flights of stairs and walked through the stone paved alleys of the village to reach this unexplored carving of Maitreya Buddha.  The oldest of the bas-relief buddhas in Ladakh, this 16-foot tall statue is the least known of all.

Carved in limestone, the Buddha statue has a triple sharp pointed diadem, the body structure is masculine and very impressive. It seems there were colours and stones used, but one can only see the remnants of these now.

The 6th Century Apati Buddha
The 6th Century Apati Buddha
Apati Buddha - a perspective of size
Apati Buddha – a perspective of size

The villages located in the Sot Valley are solely dependent on the snow melts and there is no regular source of water here. Sot in the local language means death, pointing to the lack of water sources in the region. Interestingly, the local people here have a saying about Apati, that when three villages are destroyed by floods, then one Apati is settled. The people, especially children of the village were curious and friendly. some accompanied us right till the Buddha statue and stayed with us till we departed.

Children at a village near Apati
Children at a village near Apati

A long day for us ended at sunset and we drove back to the Kargil Tourist Camp for a quick bath and dinner.

This was an account of three days out of our 8 day adventure at Ladakh. More to come soon.

 

Brij Bano Kanhaiyalal kapoor ka ek inshaiyaa

ये इंशाईया  मैंने उर्दू रसमुलख़त में पढ़ा था और मुझे लगा की इसका देवनागरी में लिप्यंतरण (transliteration)  करूँ तो यह ज़्यादा लोगों तक पहुँच सकेगा। उर्दू में इसे यहाँ पढ़ सका जा सकता है 

ब्रिज बानो : कन्हैयालाल कपूर

यह ब्रिज बानो की दास्तान है। ब्रिज बानो कौन है? आज कल कहाँ है? उस के इस अजीब-ओ-ग़रीब नाम की वजह क्या है?
ये तमाम सवालात जिस आसानी से किए जा सकते हैं शायद उन के जवाब उतनी आसानी से ना दिए जा सकें। ताहम कोशिश करूँगा की आप को ब्रिज बानो से रोशनास कराऊँ।

ब्रिज बानो एक ख़ूबसूरत औरत है जो पाकिस्तान से मेरे साथ हिंदुस्तान आयी है। क्या मैं उसे अगवा कर के लाया हूँ?
नहीं साहब, मैं तो इतना शरीफ़ हूँ की ख़ूबसूरत औरत तो क्या, बदसूरत पनवाडन को भी अगवा करना गुनाह-ए-अज़ीम समझता हूँ
क्या इसे मुझ से मोहब्बत है?
ये ज़रा टेढ़ा सवाल है…
अगर आप ये पूछेते की क्या मुझे इस से मोहब्बत है? तो मैं यक़ीनन इस का जवाब इसबात, यानी, हाँ, में देता।
वो आजकल कहाँ है?
वो मेरे घर में रह रही है
उसे ब्रिज बानो क्यों कहते हैं?
यह सवाल मुझ से कई अशख़ास ने किया है, आप पहले शख़्स नहीं हैं।
बहरकैफ़ वजह बयान किए देता हूँ

इसे ब्रिज बानो का नाम इस लिए दिया गया है कि इस की माँ हिन्दू और बाप मुसलमान था। आपको यक़ीन नहीं आता? बेहतर तो यही है की आप मुझ पर ऐतबार करें वरना मुझे एक ऐसे शख़्स की संदपेशी करनी पड़ेगी जो बा-रेश बुज़ुर्ग हैं और जिन्हें इस औरत की पैदाइश के सब हालात मालूम हैं और जिन्हें मेरी तरह इस औरत से……आप ने ग़लत समझा, ये लोगों से इश्क़ नहीं करती, लोग इस से इश्क़ करने पर मजबूर हो जाते हैं।

दरअसल इस औरत की ज़बान में कुछ ऐसी मोमनी कशिश है कि जो शख़्स भी इस की बातों को सुनता है, दिल-ओ-जान से इस का गरवीदा हो जाता है।

आप मेरी ही मिसाल ले लीजिए – मेरी उम्र तीस बरस की थी जब मैंने इसे पहली बार एक मजलिस में बात करते हुए सुना – और मुझे फ़ौरन इश्क़ हो गया।
तीस बरस की उम्र – हमारे मुल्क में जहाँ इंसानों की औसत उम्र सिर्फ़ छब्बीस साल है, इश्क़ करने के लिए निहायत ही ग़ैर-मौजूँ है। लेकिन में मजबूर था और मुझ पर ही क्या मुनहसिर है – लखनऊ में एक शख़्स रतन नाथ सरशार हुआ करते थे। वो इस औरत की ज़बान के चटकारे पर ऐसा मर मिटे की सारी उम्र इस का नामक उन की ज़बान के बोसे लेता रहा। कहते हैं, उस शख़्स ने इस औरत की शान में एक रुबाई कही थी जिस का हर मिसरा पाँच सौ सफ़हात पर मुशतमिल था।

हाँ तो यह औरत पाकिस्तान से मेरे सेहरा आयी है, लेकिन चाँद दिनों से उदास सी रहती है। वजह यह की कुछ लोग पिछले दिनों से इस से नफ़रत करने लगे हैं। ना सिर्फ़ इस से, बल्कि मुझ से भी।
कल ही का ज़िक्र है, एक लम्बी चोटी वाले पंडित जी जो मेरे हमसाया हैं, मुझ से कहने लगे – “लाल जी, क्या मज़ाक़ है? आप के घर में एक ऐसी औरत रहती है जिस का बाप मुसलमान था!”
और मेरे कई लम्बे बालों वाले दोस्त भी मुझ से बार बार कह चुके हैं “ आप ख़वामखाह इसे साथ ले आए। क्या ही अच्छा होता अगर आप सरहद पर करने से पहले इसे सतलज की लहरों की नज़र कर देते”
मैं जब ऐसी बातें सुनता हूँ तो मुझे सख़्त रंज होता है। लेकिन ब्रिज बानो के दिल पर जो गुज़रती है वो बयान से बाहर है। बेचारी हर रोज़ जली-कटी सुन सुन कर तंग आ गयी है।

आज दोपहर के वक़्त जब वो डेओढ़ी पे बैठी हुई कुछ सोच रही थी तो मैंने उस से कहा:
“ब्रिज बानो, मेरा ख़याल है की तुम पाकिस्तान चली जाओ। यहाँ के लोग तुम्हें रहने नहीं देंगे”
“लेकिन क्यों?” ब्रिज बानो ने चमक कर कहा “ मेरा क़ुसूर?”
“तुम्हारा क़ुसूर यह है की तुम्हारा बाप मुसलमान था”
“लेकिन मेरी माँ हिन्दू थी!”
“वल्दियत के मामले में माँ को कोई नहीं पूछता”
“यह अजीब मंतक है!”
“जहाँ जज़्बात ही सब कुछ हूँ वहाँ मंतक की दाल नहीं गलती”

वह और भी उदास हो गयी। मैंने भर्राई हुई आवाज़ में कहा “ब्रिज बानो तुम्हें अब यहाँ से अवश्य चले जाना होगा”
एक लम्हे के लिए वो मेरे मुँह की तरफ़ देखती रही जैसे मेरी बात उस की समझ में ना आयी हो फिर कहने लगी
“अवश्य किसी शहर का नाम है क्या?”
“शहर का नाम नहीं, अवश्य हिंदी में ज़रूर को कहते हैं”
वो खिलखिला के हँसने लगी और कहने लगी
“मेरी पर नानी भी ज़रूर को अवश्य कहा करती थीं”
मैंने पूछा “तुम ज़रूर को अवश्य क्यों नहीं कहती?”
ब्रिज बानो ने तंज़-आमेज़ लहजे में कहा
“कहने की कोशिश करती हूँ लेकिन ज़बान लड़खड़ने लगती है”
“बस, इसीलिए तुम्हें हिंदुस्तान छोड़ना पड़ेगा”
यक-लख्त ब्रिज़बानो के चेहरे पर गेज-ओ-ग़ज़ब के आसार पैदा हो गए और उस ने चिल्ला कर कहा
“हिंदुस्तान मेरा घर है! मैं अपना घर छोड़ कर किस तरह जा सकती हूँ?”
“तुम्हारा घर पाकिस्तान है”
“ये बिलकुल ग़लत है! पाकिस्तान मेरी फुतूहात में से है, मेरा असली और क़दीमी वतन हिंदुस्तान है। में दिल्ली के क़रीब एक गाँव में पैदा हुई। बचपना झोपड़ी में और शबाब लाल क़िला दिल्ली में बसर हुआ। मुझे शहंशाह ने मुँह लगाया, और दीवान-ए-आम में मुझे सब से ऊँची मसनद पर बिठाया गया। और जिस वक़्त मेरा सितारा उरूज पर था, कोई बंगाली, गुजराती या सिंधी हसीना मेरा हुस्न, मेरी भड़क और तुनतुने की ताब ना ला सकी।
मैं हिंदुस्तानी हूँ और हिंदुस्तान में ही रहूँगी”
“ये दुरुस्त हैं परंतु……”
“ ये परंतु क्या बाला होती है जी?” ब्रिज बानो ने शरारत से कहा
“परंतु हिंदी में लेकिन को कहते हैं”
“हाँ याद आया, मेरी नानी भी लेकिन को परंतु कहा करती थीं”
“तुम्हें भी अब लेकिन को परंतु कहना होगा”
“मुआफ़ कीजिए, मैं तो लेकिन ही कहूँगी”
“यही तो तुम्हारी ग़लती है, अगर लेकिन को परंतु नहीं कहोगी तो तुम्हें यहाँ समझेगा कौन?

“हर वो शख़्स …….. मसलन”
तभी एक क़ुल्फ़ी बेचने वाला मेरी डेओढ़ी पर ठहर गया और ब्रिज बानो अपना आख़िरी फ़ितरा मुकम्मल किए बैगर खड़ी हो गयी और उसने हाथ के इशारे से क़ुल्फ़ी वाले को बुला लिया”
“क़ुल्फ़ी खाएँगे आप?” उस ने मुझ से पूछा
“क्या ये क़ुल्फ़ी खाने का वक़्त है? मैं तुम से निहायत अहम बातें करना चाहता हूँ – आज तुम्हें फ़ैसला करना होगा की तुम पाकिस्तान जाओगी या नहीं”
“पहले क़ुल्फ़ी खा लीजिए उस के बाद ठंडे दिल से आप के मशवरे पर ग़ौर करेंगे”
और वो क़ुल्फ़ी वाले की तरफ़ मुख़ातिब हो गयी
“कैसी है क़ुल्फ़ी तुम्हारी?, मेरा मतलब है कुछ ठिकाने की है या यूँ ही सी?”
क़ुल्फ़ी वाले ने कनखियों से ब्रिज बानो की तरफ़ देखा और कहा
“अजी क्या पूछती हैं आप! मेरी क़ुल्फ़ी? मेरी क़ुल्फ़ी बेनज़ीर! लाजवाब! शानदार!
ब्रिज बानो के मग़मूम लबों पर मुस्कराहट की लहर दौड़ गयी और उस ने क़ुल्फ़ी खाए बग़ैर ही क़ुल्फ़ी वाले के हाथ पर पाँच रुपए का नोट रख़ा और उसे चले जाने को कहा। क़ुल्फ़ी वाला चला गया

मैंने ब्रिज बानो को बैठने के लिए कहा, लेकिन वो बदस्तूर खड़ी रही और मुस्कुराती रही
“क्या फ़ैसला किया तुम ने? पाकिस्तान जा रही हो ना?
मेरी बात को अनसुनी कर के उस ने एक सिख ड्राइवर की लॉरी की तरफ़ इशारा किया
मैंने जब लॉरी की तरफ़ नज़र दौड़ाई तो उस पर चंद आशआर उर्दू में लिखे नज़र आये जिन में से एक था

दर ओ दीवार पर हसरत से नज़र करते हैं
ख़ुश रहो अहले वतन हम तो सफ़र करते हैं

लॉरी नज़रों से ओझल हो गयी और तभी एक छाबड़ी वाला ज़ोर से चिल्लाता हुआ गली में दाख़िल हुआ। वो चना ज़ोर गरम बेच रहा था

“मेरा चना बना है आला
इस में डाला गरम मसाला
चना लाया मैं बाबू मज़ेदार
चना ज़ोर गरम”

और फिर एक अख़बार फ़रोश गली में आया। उसके हाथों में दस बारह मुख़्तलिफ़ उर्दू रोजनामे और रिसाइल थे।
ब्रिज बानो ने एक उर्दू रोज़नामा ख़रीदा लेकिन ज्यों ही उस की नज़र पहली सुर्खी पर पड़ी, उस का रंग ज़र्द पड़ गया۔ उस में जली हर्फ़ में लिखा था

“ब्रिज बानो अब हिंदुस्तान में नहीं रह सकेगी”

एक लम्हे के लिए गोया उस पर बिजली सी गिरी और वो धम से गिरने ही वाली थी की मैंने बढ़ कर उस का दामन थाम लिया
दो चार मिनट हम दोनो ख़ामोश मुबहवात खड़े रहे और फिर मैंने कहा
“ज़िद ना करो, बानो, तुम्हें पाकिस्तान जाना ही होगा”
वो बिफ़री हुई शेरनी की तरह कड़क कर बोली
“मैं नहीं जाऊँगी! हरगिज़ नहीं जाऊँगी”
“लेकिन हुकूमत ने फ़ैसला कर लिया है की तुम……”
“हुकूमत क़ानून बना सकती है लेकिन आवाम के फ़ितरी रूझनात को नहीं बदल सकती। जब तक हिंदुस्तान में क़ुल्फ़ी वाले, सिख ड्राइवर और चना ज़ोर गरम बेचने वाले मौजूद हैं, हुकूमत मेरा बाल भी बाँका नहीं कर सकती”
“बड़ी ज़िद्दी हो तुम”

ब्रिज बानो वहीं खड़ी मुस्कुराती रही और में क़ुल्फ़ी वाले के अल्फ़ाज़ जेर-ए-लैब दोहरा रहा हूँ
लजावाब! शानदार! बेनज़ीर!


शायद कन्हैयालाल कपूर ने अपने इस इंशाइये में ऐसे ही किसी चना ज़ोर गरम वाले का ज़िक्र किया है। सच है, उर्दू  हिंदुस्तान से कभी अल्हदा नहीं हो सकती

Ek Akela sher

تم آؤ خزاں کی سرد ہواؤں کی طرح
میں زرد پتوں کی طرح تم سے لپٹتی جاؤں
-سواتی ثانی ریشم

तुम आओ खिजाँ की सर्द हवाओं की तरह
मैं ज़र्द पत्तों की तरह तुम से लिपटती जाऊँ
– स्वाति सानी ‘रेशम’

 

Chhattisgarh tour – the story in black and white

 

When we take active vacations together, we tend to push our limits, and we have more fun. We meet and connect with other adventure seekers, and at times make friends for life. Tarique and I have almost always taken active vacations (Yes, a wildlife  safari counts as an active vacation)

It had been long, and a holiday was long overdue. Cycle Safari announced a tour de Chhattisgarh from 26th to 30th January 2018, and even though I was not fit enough to cycle long distances; and Tarique was recovering from an injured knee, we decided to go for it for two reasons.  Chhattisgarh was a place that had been on our list of “to visit” places for very long and this was a fully supported tour, we had a choice of cycling for a part of the distance and travel in the support vehicles. I also decided to take our DSLR along, and it was a wise decision.

Despite not being in a great physical shape I ended up cycling the entire distance of 82 km on the first day but cycling such a distance after almost a year’s gap sprained my left iliotibial band.

Took a day off to rest on day 2 and put my SLR to good use. The rest helped me recover, and I could cycle on day 3 and day 4. On an aside, just before we got on our bikes on day 3, I slipped and fell down injuring both my knees. But that was hardly a deterrent.

What we brought back were tons of beautiful memories and lots of photographs.  After reaching home Tarique and I were browsing and processing the pictures taken during the trip on the iPad when I realised that black and white brought out the mood of the trip much better than colour pictures.

Tarique has written a more detailed journal entry, you can read it here.

So here’s the story of our cycling vacation through the beautiful state of Chhattisgarh in black and white pictures.

Click on the thumbnails of the pictures to view them in higher resolution.

See more photos on my facebook page.

 

Ek sher

ااپنی کلم سے جزباتوں کو کاغز  پر اُکیر دیتی ہوں
میں اکثر اپنی چیکھوں  کو صفحوں  میں ضبط کر لیتی ہوں

– سواتی ثانی “ریشم

अपनी कलम से जज़्बातों को काग़ज़ पर उकेर देती हूँ
मैं अक्सर अपनी चीख़ों को सफ़हों में ज़ब्त कर लेती हूँ

-स्वाति सानी “रेशम”

 

एक ग़ज़ल – ایک غزل

ان لمہوں کو گزرے بھی اب ایک زمانہ بیت گیا
آدھی ادھوری باتیں کر کے چلا وہ میرا میت گیا

ساون کی بھیگی راتوں میں پیڈوں کی ٹھنڈی جھاؤں میں
لفظوں میں باندھا تھا جس کو کہاں وہ میرا گیت گیا

جمنا گنگا کے سنگم کی نیلی پیلی لہروں میں
خط میں میرے گیت تمہارے جیون کا سنگیت گیا

رات کی رانی کے سائے میں پورے چاند کی آدھی راتیں
دنیا سوتی ہم تھے جاگے، پیار ہمارا جیت گیا

کل یہ سوچا کل مل لیں گے، آج یہ سوچا کل دیکھیں گے
تم سے ملنے کی چاہت میں سال یہ سارا بیت گیا

– سواتی ثانی ریشم

एक ग़ज़ल

उन लमहों को गुज़रे भी अब एक ज़माना बीत गया
आधी अधूरी बातें  कर  के चला  वो मेरा मीत गया

सावन की भीगी रातों में, पेड़ों की ठंडी छाओं में
लफ़्ज़ों में बांधा था जिस को कहाँ वो मेरा गीत गया

जमना गंगा के संगम की नीली पीली लहरों में
ख़त में मेरे गीत तुम्हारे जीवन का संगीत गया

रात की रानी के साये में पूरे चाँद की आधी रातें
दुनिया सोती, हम थे जागे प्यार हमारा जीत गया

कल सोचा था कल मिल लेंगे, आज ये सोचा कल देखेंगे
तुमसे मिलने की चाहत में साल ये सारा बीत गया

– स्वाति सानी ‘रेशम’

 

दोस्त (دوست)

 

कोई गर पूछे
की कौन थी वो
तो तुम सिर्फ़ अहिस्ता
से मुस्कुरा देना
कहना कुछ नहीं

ज़रा सी बात है
मिलना था तुमसे
वक़्त बिताना था साथ
कुछ बातें करनी थीं
कुछ ख़ास नहीं

यूँ तो कट जाते हैं
मसरूफ़ियत में दिन
मगर कुछ है जो
अधूरा सा लगता है
क्या तुम्हें भी?

याद है एक रोज़ जब
बैठ के छत पे
ढेरों बातें की थी
और लफ़्ज़ एक भी
ना फूटा था ज़बां से

उन्ही सब बातों को
फिर दोहराना है
ख़ामोशियों को
नग़मों में बँधना है
तुम मिलने आओगे?

उसी छत पे
जहाँ शाम ढले
दोनो वक़्त
मिला करते हैं
पल भर को

पर तुम आ ना भी सको
तो कोई बात नहीं
आज नहीं तो
कभी और सही
या ना ही सही

मगर, कौन है वो
लोग पूछेंगे ज़रूर तुमसे
तो तुम बस ये कहना
दोस्त है एक
कच्ची पक्की सी

– स्वाति सानी “रेशम”

کوئی گر پوچھے
کہ کون تھی وہ
توتم صرف  آہستہ
سے مسکرا دینا
کہنا کچھ نہیں

زرا سی بات ہے
ملنا تھا تم سے
وقت بتانا تھا ساتھ
کچھ باتیں کرنی تھیں
کچھ خاص نہیں

یوں تہ کٹ جاتے ہیں
مصروفیت میں دن
مگرکچھ ہے جو
ادھورا سا لگتا ہے
کیا تمہیں بھی؟

یاد ہے ایک روز جب
بیٹھ کہ چھت پے
دھیروں باتیں کی تھیں
اور لفظ ایک بھی
نہ پھوٹا تھا زباں سے

ینھیں سب باتوں کو
پھر دہرانا ہے
خاموشوں کو
نغموں میں باندھنا ہے
تم ملنے اوؐ گے؟

اسی چھت پے
جہاں شام ڈھلے
دونوں وقت
ملا کرتے ہیں
پل بھر کو

پر تم ٓ ن بھی سکو
تو کوئی بات نہیں
آج نہیں تو
کبھی اور سہی
یہ نہ ہی سہی

مگر، کون ہے وہ
لوگ پوچھیں گے زرور
تو تم بس یہ کہنا
دوست ہے ایک
کچی پکی سی

– سواتی ثانی ریشم

 

Photo Credits: Foter.com

फिर से

गाँव की एक गली जो नदी की तरफ़ मुड़ती है
वहीं रहता है वो चौराहे पे
ताकता रहता है रहगुज़र
शायद वो आएँ
जो छोड़ कर चल दिए थे एक दिन अचानक
पलट कर देखा तो था घर को मगर
जब चल पड़े थे
बंद कर सारे किवाड़ और खिड़कियाँ
सोचता है वो
शायद आएँ दोबारा
और खोलें फिर से
उन बंद दरवाज़ों और खिड़कियों को
कुछ धूल साफ़ हो
फिर चले ठंडी हवा आँगन से सड़क तक
और सड़क से आँगन तक
कोई सींचे उस एक सूखती टहनी को
जो लाचार सी आँगन के एक कोने में
अधमारी खड़ी है
कोई फिर दीप जलाए तुलसी पर
कोई तो आए
कोई तो आस दिलाए उस बरगद को
जो अटल खड़ा है चौराहे पर
उसी गली में जो नदी तरफ़ मुड़ती है

How I became a Randonneur

Rewind

November, 2015
After years of deliberating, I finally purchased a cycle. It was a Marin San Anselmo and was a good and comfortable bike, perfect for small distances. In any case, I did not plan to cycle beyond 25-30 km. That was till the bike came home. I was looking for training programs and one with the 30 Mile beginner cycling plan appealed to me. Even if I do half the distance, it will work well I thought and saved the pdf to my iPad, and started cycling as advised in the training plan.

My Marin San Anselmo with Tarique's Four Corners.
My Marin San Anselmo with Tarique’s Four Corners.

Soon I was easily doing distances I never imagined I could. On 6th February, 2016, I clocked 53 kms.  The training was complete, goal accomplished but I was just starting. Cycling is addictive, and I wanted to go longer distances.  By now Tarique and Aasim had already become Randonneurs having completed 200 km brevets in December 2015.

May, 2016
Since I was already doing longer distances than originally intended, Tarique gifted me a Surly Long Haul Trucker on our wedding anniversary. The bike was a dream to ride on. Following the convention of surly owners, I named it Dhanno (ref: the movie Sholay). I was clocking longer distances very comfortably now.

Surly LHT aka Dhanno
Surly LHT aka Dhanno

June, 2016
Everyone I know had told me not to attempt my first brevet in the crazy heat of Nagpur. But I had already done an easy  125 km ride on the brevet route in the month of May, when the temperature was touching 46 degrees, and I thought how bad it could be, I ought to give the June Brevet a try.
So I did. And I failed.

Fast Forward to October 2016

All through the monsoons, I kept cycling. My cycling speed improved, so did my technique and stamina. I decided to try and attempt the December 2016 brevet.

Preparations
I began the preparations earnestly. One of the reasons I could not cycle faster was because my muscle mass was very low. To remedy that I increased my protein intake by eating three egg whites along with my breakfast, and also took care that all my allergies were in control. During the training sessions, I pushed myself, did interval training to improve my speed and was now regularly cycling at an average speed of 20kms per hour.

The Brevet day was coming close, I learned how to keep myself hydrated and fed during long rides. One of the reasons tiredness creeps in during and after rides is due to the depletion of water and electrolytes from the body. Replenishing these at the right time is critical for me, along with a measured quantity of food as I am a diabetic and can not risk hypoglycemia.

December 18, 2016. The Brevet

I am one with the force and the force is with me!

A cold winter morning, I was alone as Tarique had already left for his 600km brevet the previous day. He chatted with me when he was at 400 odd km, and I had told him that I am about to leave for the 200 km brevet. I decided to enjoy the ride, and not worry about the result. I was carrying a small camera and was planning to take some pictures along the route.

The route, however, turned out to be quite a drab. We were cycling on the Calcutta-Bombay highway and there wasn’t much scenery on the way to take photos of.  A few of us had planned to cycle the route together, but everyone sped past me, and I was alone most of the route – not an issue – I do enjoy cycling alone, it gives me time to think about so many things. Then the truck traffic started. They sped by in great speed and too close for comfort. I was glad we split and were not riding in a group. An accident is just not worth it.

The dawn broke. I stopped and clicked the sun rise across the highway.

Sunrise on the highway
Sunrise on the highway

The journey to the first checkpoint at 45kms was otherwise uneventful, got rid of my fleece jacket and gloves. I was well in time for a quick snack of Idli, biscuits and a cup of sweet tea. Despite being a diabetic, I make sure to drink tea with sugar while on the road, to give me an instant energy boost.

As I crossed the next village, the children there cheered and waved to me. A few of them shouted “Pick up, pick up”  – perhaps they meant “buck up” I laughed aloud as one of them gave me a high five.

Crossed several small rivers and hit the town of Bhandara. It was mid morning,  and the city traffic was bad. One of the motorcyclists slowed down started cruising with me and asked me a few questions. He wanted to know where I was from and where was I going. Then he asked me as to why am I cycling, and said it’s crazy to cycle around. My reply “because young men like you ride motorbikes” made him speed up, I did not see him again.

The river Wainganga was in sight. The graceful meandering river is very wide and a sight to behold. I have an affinity towards water, and I love the sight of any large water body. I got down from my cycle replenished my electrolytes by drinking 200 ml Enerzal, and took some photographs of the river. Decided to take more pictures on my way back and climbed back on the saddle.

Wainganga River
Wainganga River

Headwinds and crosswinds began somewhere around 9.45 am reducing my speed a bit.

Soon the road was passing through what seemed like a small teak wood forest, another quick break, took some more photographs before I pulled at the food point at 10.58 Am.

The food point was at 95kms and had Khichidi ready for all the riders. Met some fellow riders there, got rid of my remaining woolen clothes and gave to Mr. Aniruddha Kulkarni who was the volunteer at that point, to be carried back home. After a 35 minute break, T K Prashant decided to ride with me and I was back on the saddle towards the selfie and U-turn point at 100 km. Prashant had fallen down while coming was hurt and wanted to give up, I was urging him to cycle on.

While we were taking selfies, Nitesh pulled in. He too was suffering from muscle cramps. Told him to not give up and carry on the remaining 100 km.

I had eaten and was well hydrated so my energy levels were high and the return ride was reasonably fast despite the cross winds. Nope, there is no such thing as tail wind. I was cycling at 22-24 km per hour. Sped past a few riders and stopped over the Wainganga bridge for a few more pictures.

Wainganga River
Wainganga River

After Bhandara town, I noticed Poornima and caught up with her. The third checkpoint was about 12 km away, and she was tired. Urged her to keep up with me and we both reached the third checkpoint at 155 km almost together. Met Mr. Rajiev Narayan there. A quick tea and biscuit break and I was back on my cycle for the home run; Poornima decided to wait and eat something more there. As I crossed over to the other side to be back on the road, I hit my knee with the handle. A shiver ran through me as the pain took over. But I decided to continue. I had time, and even a bit of slow speed would get me to the end point in time.

The next stop was HB town at the edge of the city. As I entered the city, it was chock-a-block. Market day! I cursed the traffic but kept paddling. At HB town I had a glass of refreshing juice and was ready to brave more traffic through the Central Avenue. I had to reach the other end of the city where we had the end point -and my home. It took me one hour to cover this 16 km distance. 12.5 hours to complete the 200km distance, of which 10.5 hours were on the saddle and remaining was the numerous breaks I took.

Reached the end point amidst cheers of friends and called myself a Randonneur. My Surly LHT was a pleasure to ride and I was not tired at all except for the nagging pain in the knee due to the handle injury. A couple of hours later, Tarique pulled in having completed a distance of 600km.  Pleased with ourselves, we waited for more riders to come in before going out for dinner and retiring for the night.

Tarique finishes 600 km brevet
Tarique finishes 600 km brevet

Jahan gham bhee na hoN aasuN bhee na hoN bas pyar hi pyar pale

Aasim was a few months old and I use to sing to him so that he could sleep. Yes back then, I could sing. He would watch me sing with this toy in his hand, and with the gentle rocking of his swing, he would fall asleep.

This was his favourite song back then.

Aa chal ke tujhe main le ke chaluN ek aise gagan ke tale
jahaN gham bhee na hoN aasuN bhee na hoN bas pyar hi pyar pale.

On his 19th birthday today, my wish for him is that his world be filled with happiness always.

Kabhi dhoop khile, kabhi chhon mile
lambi si dagar na khale
jahan gham bhee na hoon aason bhee na hon
bas pyar hi pyar pale.

Happy 19th, betu.

Mughal-e-Azam the play.

Saturday, 22nd October.

I had specially flown to Bombay to spend the day with Urdu poet Janab Iftekhar Imam Siddiqui. I spent the day talking to him, listening to his kalaam and clicking a few photographs. Meeting his brothers Janab Noaman Siddiqui & Janab Hamid Iqbal Siddiqui, poet, and academician at Dinath building, in the office of Shair, the oldest, still in print Urdu literary magazine.

I was happy with the day’s work and was on my way back to Powai when I got a call from  Gaurav Vaz asking if I was in Mumbai on Sunday. He told me that he was in Mumbai to watch the play Mughal-e-Azam being performed as a dance drama. He suggested I go and watch it as well. I jumped at the opportunity and he graciously arranged for the passes. Thank you so much, Gaurav.

img_0505

Sunday, 23rd October, Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA

While Mughal-e-Azam was originally written as a play, it was made into an epic historical film by K Asif. I grew up loving this epic movie. Even today, I watch it at least once a year – it is that kind of a movie. I know each of the scenes, each dialogue by heart. So while I was excited that it is being performed on stage and directed by none other than  Feroz Abbas Khan Saheb, but I had my reservations. Staging a play based on an epic movie raises huge expectations. The standards were set too high by the movie.

As I entered the theater and took my seat, I noticed Mr. M S Sathyu sitting right next to me. I felt nervous.

The play began with a message from Lata Mangeshkar, She spoke about the movie. As the play started, I heard a collective sigh from the audience. From there on, it was spellbinding.

Every major scene from the movie was there in front of us, being performed live on stage. The grandeur of the movie was replicated with finesse. The movable steps, Mughal era pillars (that were raised and lowered as per the scene demands), the intricate jaali work, screens, front and back CG projections coupled with excellent light design took me to the era of Salim and Anarkali, just as the movie did. In fact, the play in that sense was better than the movie because a movie has the luxury of shooting a scene with selective camera angles and close-ups, which a stage productions does not. It has to be achieved purely by set and light design and performances.

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Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in the movie also set the bar very high for acting. The actors, Nissar Khan as Akbar, Priyanka Barve as Anarkali, Sunil Kumar Paliwal as Salim, did a very good job on stage. What stood out was the actors’ perfect Urdu diction, and that pleased me very much.

Songs play a paramount role in the movie, and what set the stage production apart and made it very enticing, was the flawless live singing by the characters. Priyanka Barve as Anarkali sang the difficult songs, originally sung by none other than Lata Mangeshkar, extremely well, and Ashima Mahajan as Bahar was equally good.

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The dances! Ah, the dances were mesmerizing, they breathed life into the scenes. The emotions of Anarkali was reflected in each step, each bhav of the collective troop of very talented dancers. I was told that the very best were auditioned and chosen from various kathak gharanas. Mayuri Upadhya’s choreography makes this production complete and a pure delight to watch being performed.

As I was watching the play, I remember waiting with bated breath for the song “Jab pyar kiya to darna kya” apart from the song and dance being timeless in itself, it was the depiction of sheesh mahal in the movie that had made big news. My expectations were raised as the play progressed, and my heart raced as the scene drew closer.

Jab pyar kiya to darna kya

Salim is on one side of the stage, and on the other is Akbar and Jodhabai. Anarkali is in the middle with her troop of dancers. The stage is a replica of Sheesh Mahal as it must have been in the Mughal era. There are huge arches with intricate jali and mirror work, and more mirrors hang from the ceiling reflecting the moves of the dancers dressed in long flowing costumes. Anarkali looking stunning in her gorgeous white and red ensemble singing “pyar kiya koi chori nahi ki, chhup chhup aaheN bharna kya”.

As the song progresses, the dancers gain momentum in graceful rhythmic steps they match the lyrics, and dancers emote every emotion that Anarkali is going through.

Parda nahi jab koi khuda se
BandoN se parda karna kya

At this point I was completely overwhelmed.  The sounds of hundreds of ghunghroo, rising to a crescendo, the fast, continuous pirouettes transport me to the era of Salim and Anarkali. It was magical, to say the least.

The other place where choreography wins is a scene where Anarkali gets her last wish of being “Hindustan Ki Malika.” Bahar is singing “Jab raat hai itni matwali to subah ka alam kya hoga Anarkali gives Salim the drugged rose, and Salim is about to faint. The emotions of both Anarkali and Salim depicted through dance were outstanding.

The meticulous attention to details in each scene, right from the start when the Sangtarash begins to narrate the story till the end when Anarkali pardons Akbar for her murder, is what makes this epic drama as timeless as the movie.

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There can not be a better tribute to K Asif, to the playwright Imtiaz Ali Taj and to the movie Mughal-e-Azam than this. Go watch Feroz Abbas Khan’s Mughal-e-Azam on stage; I guarantee you will be richer by the experience. Here is a quick link to take you there: Book My Show

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Photos courtesy: Team Mughal-e-Azam.

Another milestone reached. Aasim leaves for Drexel tonight

For all these years we have been preparing ourselves for this day. The day when Aasim will leave for the US for his undergraduate studies. He has secured an admission in Drexel University, Philadelphia, with a decent scholarship and will be attending the Close School of Entrepreneurship. He is flying to the US directly from Nagpur tonight, thanks to Qatar Airways flight via Doha.

There is excitement, and anxiety but also a reassurance that he will do well for himself. Being in Pune for the last two years has taught him vital lessons in survival though by no means all the life lessons. Those he will learn as he grows and grows up. While a parent can not stop being a parent ever, as parents, a major part of “upbringing a child” for us is over. We now have to take a backseat and just be there for him whenever he wants us. We too are preparing ourselves for this role.

So here’s to the future. Aasim’s and ours. Cheers!

गौरी

गौरी। कुछ ५ साल की थी जब उसकी माँ इलाहबाद की गर्मियों की चपेट में आ गयी और २ दिन में ही इस दुनिया से चली गयीं उम्र इतनी नहीं थी कि सब कुछ समझ पाती, मगर पापा थे, भैया थे, दादी थीं, तीनों बुआ थीं. खयाल रखने वाले काफ़ी लोग थे। ज़िन्दगी इतनी बुरी भी नहीं थी। फिर कुछ सालों बाद उसके पापा की दुसरी शादी हो गयी। पापा नयी मम्मी के साथ रहने लगे और गौरी और उसके भैया इलाहबाद में चाचा चाची के साथ। कुछ दिन सब ठीक रहा, स्कूल भी ठीक ही चल रहा था दोनों भाई बहन छुट्टियों में पापा से भी मिल लेते थे। गौरी छठीं कक्षा में पहुंच गयी। फिर एक दिन अचानक ख़बर आयी  – गौरी मर गयी।
मर गयी? कैसे मर गयी? कुछ भी तो नहीं हुआ था उसे।
पता चला किसी ने ड्रग्स की आदत लगवा दी थी उसे।
ओवर डोज़ ने उसकी जान ले ली।
गौरी मेरी ममेरी बहन थी

The 200 km brevet that I failed to complete

Behind the scenes

Brevet or Randoneering is a long distance cycling event in which the cyclist attempts to complete a distance of 200 km or more, passing through predetermined and timed checkpoints, completing the entire distance in a given time.

I started cycling after a break of 25 years in November and was happy doing small distances. Then Tarique and Aasim participated in their first 200 Brevet in December 2015, while I went along in the support vehicle. It is then that the brevet bug bit me.

With Tarique and Aasim in their 200 km Brevet, December 17, 2015
With Tarique and Aasim in their 200 km Brevet, December 17, 2015

I started training, hoping to do the April night brevet and slowly started gaining miles and saddle time.  On 6th February, I did my first 50 km. Steady progress, I was happy. But I could not continue. I got a nasty viral, during which I traveled, and the viral brought out all my allergies. The Asthma was so severe that I could not cycle without taking several asthalin puffs. The frequent and extended hot flushes during the ride did not help either. I decided to give up on the April event.  Tarique completed his third brevet the 200 km night brevet on 17th April. 

I decided to take charge of my life and met Dr. Rajesh Swarnakar, friend, a fellow cyclist, and most importantly an allergy specialist. He assured me that my allergies can be taken care of and started me on medications.

Things seemed to be working fine; my asthma was in control, and I felt I was ready. Tarique promised to help me train for the June 12th Brevet. With just eight weeks to go, I was cutting it a bit fine,  but I was determined, and we rebooted my training on 19th April.  I struggled a bit, managing hot flushes while on the ride – and there is no escaping them given my age. But then a new issue cropped up. I started getting leg cramps at night. The cramps were so bad; they would wake me up from a deep sleep. Realized that the medicines (for diabetes, high triglycerides, and the new allergy meds) I was taking are known to cause cramps. I continued for a while and then on a whim, I decided to stop Lipicard – the drug I was taking to keep the triglyceride levels in check. Managing hot flushes while on the ride and night cramps were getting too much for me.

A week passed, the cramps reduced. On 14th May, I cycled 100 km on my newly acquired Surly LHT AKA Dhanno .  Happy with the progress and with the new bike, with about three weeks of training left, all I needed was a little bit more speed which I was sure to gain in the coming weeks.

First 100 on Outer Ring Road
First 100 on Outer Ring Road

Till…

One day I woke up and realized I have pain on my right thigh which turned out to be thrombophlebitis. The pain radiated down my leg and left me limping. I cursed my luck and wondered as to how will I train after a week’s break which I was taking to travel to Pune for Aasim’s graduation.

Aasim graduates from MUWCI
Aasim graduates from MUWCI

Thankfully, a week’s rest did me good. The 12th June brevet route was declared, and on 28th May, we decided to attempt a 125 km ride on the same route. This was to be my last long ride before the event, and I did manage to complete it without any problems despite it being very hot. Everyone I know said  I will easily be able to complete the 200 km brevet in time even though I had some doubts about the last sector, the long, lonely, barren stretch of Outer Ring Road.

My Surly LHT AKA Dhanno
My Surly LHT AKA Dhanno

11th June 2016

The weather on 10th June was good. On 11th, there was a cloud cover most of the day, but it was hot and humid post 1 PM. It rained a bit in the night. Doubts started creeping in. Heat and humidity can be a killer in long distance rides, so I prepared myself, deciding to drink a lot of water and keeping the electrolyte balance. Packed some extra stuff on my bike.

Action! The Day of the brevet – 12th June

A cool morning. I checked the weather forecast, and it predicted 43-44 degrees, no chances of precipitation, 75% humidity, UV index of 10 and predicted wind speed (WSW) of 11-14kms per hour. This should have been a warning, but my adrenalin filled mind was rearing to go.

The scenic zilpi ghat enroute Bor Tiger Reserve
The scenic zilpi ghat en route Bor Tiger Reserve

I was ready for the brevet. Tarique, despite being a much faster rider (he averages 26+kms per hour) had decided to ride slow with me. Uncle, Dr. Bhupendra Arya, decided to escort us till the first checkpoint at 39.4km which was Bor, the nearest tiger sanctuary we have.

I cycled through the city and reached the beautiful Zilpi ghat, enjoying the cool and gentle breeze, cycled along watching a hornbill fly past, listening to several cuckoos, spotting Grey Tit, Treepies, a pair of Iora and several other beautiful birds. Despite the climbs, I reached the first check- point in good time. The route was scenic and passed through the buffer area of the tiger reserve.   I thought I spotted a bear amongst the bushes about 200 meters from the road, but I was cycling fast, and it vanished from the sight very quickly. If this were a Bollywood movie, I would be singing a happy tune for sure.

At Selu, the 60 km point, while Tarique stopped to take cold water from an eatery, I took left on the route and got onto the state highway. After a scenic ride the traffic was annoying, but it was ok till one car driver overtook a truck and came on too close to me. The side mirror of his car hit me on my hand and made me get off the road scaring me a bit. Nothing eventful happened throughout the road till we reached the second checkpoint at 83.8km well in time.

“Take a right, go two km left, take a left again and cycle three km till you the national highway, then turn left” were the instructions. We followed them. This was a route through the Wardha MIDC area, and the terrain was mostly flat. So while it was hot and humid, I sailed through it.

The national highway was, as expected, traffic ridden and had a gentle upward gradient. So far so good, I was doing fine, and suddenly the sun hid behind some clouds. I heaved a sigh of relief but noticed the headwinds were beginning. These would turn to crosswinds as I will turn right on the Outer Ring Road, I remember thinking to myself.

Around 100 km mark, Tarique had a couple of punctures, and his cyclo computer died. He opted out of the Brevet and called Aasim who was in our support and backup vehicle.

I decided to continue. I wasn’t very tired, and it seemed doable to me.

The winds were getting stronger but so was my determination. At 114 km I turned left to climb the outer ring road (ORR), as I reached up, a traffic police car stopped me. They were just curious. They offered me water, but it was luke warm, I needed cold water, so I told them I will buy it from a Dhaba on the ORR. The one sitting inside the car wondered loudly as to why would an almost 50 woman (they asked me how old I was) even attempt a physically taxing thing like cycling for 200 km.

As expected the winds were stronger, but they were cross winds so while I wasn’t exactly fast, I felt that I will manage a 40 km distance to reach the third checkpoint at 153 km in time. I decided to stop at the first Dhaba that I came across to buy cold water. The owner of the dhaba gave me a complete account of the riders that had stopped over and ate rice and asked me as to why I did not come with them. As I was finishing the conversation and paying the man, I saw a traffic police car stopping by the road side. They waited till I restarted my ride and then sped off. I did not think much about it.

The sun was burning down my back.  The humidity was killing me, the crosswinds were making it difficult to paddle fast. The Temperature must have been around 43 degrees, but it felt like 46. I experienced a hot flush.  While I have gotten used to hot flushes on rides, this one took me by surprise.  As it passed, I shivered and felt cold. So much that I had to get off the bike and stop for a few seconds. I took a gulp of Coke (whatever the black poison is, its like Amrit for sugar deprived riders like me) and started pedaling again.

The crosswinds were steadily increasing. I remember cursing aloud. The one liter cold water I had bought did not even last me 15 km. I saw another dhaba and stopped for a refill of water and a coke bottle. This time again after about 3-4 minutes, the police car appeared. While I was talking to the serving boy trying to satisfy his curiosity about me and my cycle, the man in the car asked: “Sab theek hai madam?”  I replied in affirmative and realized, the good folks were just keeping a watch over me and taking care that no one troubles the lone crazy woman on cycle on the ORR.

The featureless expanse without even a single tree lining the roads rose the temperature of the outer ring road considerably.  Humidity factor was high and the winds had started taking its toll on me. My speed was reducing on climbs and I was unable to paddle faster on flats.

The Bhandara Road flyover was in sight, and I was happy. I was hoping to gain some speed after this last flyover on the route. But nature had some other plan. The wind intensity increased as I crossed over.

At 140 km, just after crossing the Bhandara Road flyover, I was hit by another hot flush. I stopped to catch my breath and saw the time. It was around 1.30 PM, and I had missed my lunch. I gulped the sandwich I was carrying, drank 200 ml of electrolyte, topped it up with 100 ml coke and a few sips of water and was back on the saddle.

A few kilometers more, I kept telling myself and then I will take a U-turn which was to be the last leg of the brevet. Around Lihigaon,  I saw a rider approaching on the other side of the road and was surprised to see that it was Aniruddha. He is a strong and a fast rider and I had expected him to be off ORR and finishing already.
“Don’t give up,” he shouted from across the road “keep peddling”
I shouted back and asked him “how long for the 3rd check point?”
“10-12 km more” he replied.

I tried to push a bit but my cycle refused to go any faster. The wind, heat, and humidity were fast sapping me. I need to be there in an hour. “I know I can do this”,  is what I was thinking. It was a mind game, I had to stay positive.

I kept going. “Bhaiya Kanhan ka bridge kitni door hai? I asked a passerby. “Bas 4 km” he said. After 4 km… nothing! I had to stop myself from cursing aloud. I was loosing time; my speed was decreasing and there were unexpected gradients. After a couple of kilometers I spotted Didar bhai across the road getting out of the car “I gave up, he said and added, “keep going!”

A bit ahead two more riders across the road. “Bhaiya is waiting for you”, he said. “How much more?” I asked to which he said “bas five more minutes” I cycled for 5 minutes and there was no river or bridge in sight. The five minutes turned to 15 when I finally  spotted a structure that looked like a bridge. I laughed. Aloud. I tried to paddle harder, but I could not. I climbed and got off  the bridge, and had ridden about a kilometer or so when I spotted what seemed like a checkpoint and then looked right to find Tarique coming towards me in the innova.
” You are late” he said.,”we were tracking you on Find my Friend and Aasim kept looking out for you” he added. I did not utter a word. Handed him my cycle and opened the car door.

I quietly sat in the car, took huge gulps of coke, while he took my bike cycled the 600 meters distance that was left to reach the checkpoint. I was late by 6 minutes to report on the third checkpoint.  I was hot, hungry, tired and depleted but I surely wasn’t ready for this. I wanted to complete this brevet, but after missing the third checkpoint it didn’t make sense.

At the checkpoint, I thankfully ate the soft homemade idli made by Bhavana, Jitesh’s Wife. She also took care that I drank some juice and gave me water.

Food, AC in the car and some cold water brought my core temperature down. After waiting for a while we took a U-turn and headed back when Tarique received a call from Pushkar that he wants to give up because of bad leg cramps. We tried to edge him on into continuing but he was just not able to walk due to  the severity of  cramps. With both our cycles inside the car, we had to tie Pushkar’s cycle on the carriage over our Innova, and he sat with Jitesh in his car along with Bhavana and Aasim as the two cars continued the journey towards the endpoint.

I was checking my WhatsApp when I saw a message from Aniruddha saying that he is huddled up with Neel and Rajesh in a small roadside tapri because of bad weather. The crosswinds that I had faced while going towards the third check point had turned into full-fledged headwinds for the returning riders as the sun was setting.

While we were going to meet the trio, we spotted another rider, Dr. Urmila who was with me till Jamtha (about 112 km) and then had lagged behind. She was obviously late and wanted to give up too.

Neel had already left by the time we reached Aniruddha and Rajesh. A cup of chai and some laughter later Anirudha and Rajesh started the arduous journey towards the end point. We expected around six riders who were already heading back to complete the brevet before the end time of 6.30 PM.

We drove down to the end point to find Bharti and Sudarshan waiting for us with ice cold salted nimbu pani. We parked our car and were discussing the vagaries of weather when there were messages of Balraj and a few others quitting. Aniruddha, Neel and Rajesh were the only bravehearts, still on the road battling  the heat, humidity and very strong winds.

Brevets are not races, and in most brevets, most of the participants complete the event. But this one was different, and was aptly named “the burning man brevet” Three out of 16 riders completed the 200 km “it’s hot” brevet. Kudos!

Neel, Rajesh and Aniruddha, the brevet bravehearts
Neel, Rajesh, and Aniruddha, the brevet Bravehearts

You learn most when you play against an opponent who can beat you
– Richard Bach (The messiha’s handbook)

My first try at the long distance cycling challenge failed but not without its rewards, the lessons I learned. The foremost being, I need to work on my cycling speed.  A moving speed of 17km per hour is too less. With the number of stops I had to take, the total speed came below 15.

And as for the experience, like Uncle, Dr. Bhupendra Arya, wrote on my Strava ride”

“Girte hain shasawaar hi maidane jang mein
wo tifl kya gireNge jo ghutno ke bal chaleN”

Picture abhee baki hai

My heart will go on....
My heart will go on….