What goes into the making of your cup of TEA? by Sandeep Silas

What goes into the making of your cup of TEA?

Tea, the cup of multipurpose uses! From political, spiritual discussions to head ache relief, tea is sometimes had just like that, as a tradition of family getting together or public socializing.

Have you ever wondered what time, labour, machine work, packaging that goes into getting you the cup of tea? Or as we once enacted the play, “Tup of Twee !”

 

Bringing you an insight that is worth a watch!

Tea Garden in the Himalayas!

Plucking the tea !

Withering of tea leaves !

Rolling

Drying Process

Sieving

Segregating

Finally, the golden cup of tea!

George Orwell’s eleven “golden” rules for the ultimate tea experience, is a delight for the person who loves his/her cup of tea!

(Quote): “When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.” (Unquote)

Reading the tea leaves

Reading the tea leaves has been not only a favourite pastime but, an indulgence of the tea table! I bring to you some pieces from Literature in English those celebrate the tea !

The Portrait of a Lady: “Under certain circumstances,” declares Henry James at the opening of The Portrait of a Lady, “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

The Mad hatter’s tea party (1865): “By the middle of the 19th century, the ceremony of tea had become so central to Victorian society that a short-lived periodical called The Anti-Teapot Review parodied so-called “Teapotism”. Lewis Carroll took aim at tea-table tittle-tattle with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter. “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

The Importance of Being Earnest (1894): “Wilde is at his most brilliant when taking the customs of the upper middle classes and subverting them: Algernon’s usurpation of the female tea-table in the opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest is not just a consummate performance, it’s also a crucial indicator of his decadent aestheticism (something which many critics of the time saw as effeminate). After Algy scoffs all the cucumber sandwiches prepared for Aunt Augusta in the opening scene, the second act revolves completely around a tea scene: Cecily and Gwendolen both assert their engagement to a man named “Ernest”, during which tea descends into an elaborate war of excessive politeness (“Destestable girl! But I require tea!”, muses Gwendolen). At the end of the act, after Algy and Jack have been caught in their masquerades and are left to stew, Algy drowns his sorrows: “I haven’t quite finished my tea yet! And there is still one muffin left.”

The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock (1915):”Prufrock may have measured out his life in coffee spoons, but the crisis of TS Eliot’s groundbreaking poem is actually all about tea: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” Of course, as the paralysed Prufrock finds, tea still leaves plenty of time to bottle it – “Time for you and time for me,/ And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ And for a hundred visions and revisions/ Before the taking of toast and tea.” Needless to say he can’t summon the courage and consoles himself afterwards with the doubt that “After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,/ Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,/ Would it have been worth while …”

And so, let’s have a cup of tea!

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ARKI: The Hidden Gem of Himachal by Sandeep Silas

Many stories are hidden within the layers of Time. What was once a kingdom, is now a fable; what was once a palace, is now ruins; what was once royalty, is now common; what was once a royal emblem, is now part of history.

Such is the story of the once powerful, once feared, once law, once hailed and once bowed down too! Everything fades away in time. Whether it is mighty possessions, unimaginable wealth, human feelings, or awe, or attachments, all, give way to the mighty layer of Time that settles all, as just another page of historical heritage, sung or unsung.

I had heard about this Arki Fort-palace, once the capital of Baghal Kingdom, now in present day Himachal Pradesh. Two hours drive from Shimla about 52 km Arki represents a bygone era. The road is the one going to Bilaspur-Mandi and at Shalaghat one has to take off to the State Highway for the residual portion of the journey. Hills looked dry in the December winter and village hamlets were warped in their humdrum existence. In far off places, nothing new happens. Seasons come and go and people brace again for the next. You grow as much, you sell as much, you make money as much as it suffices for livelihood. Tourists come and go. Some return, some never.

Baghal Kingdom dates back to 1640 AD when it was founded by the Parmars of Rajput clan. The story goes that Rana Ajai Dev, eldest son of Raja Amar Dev of Dhara, Malwa,  undertook a pilgrimmage in AD and on way back from Badrinath Shrine established his own principality of Baghal in Sairi Valley. In 1643 AD Rana Sabha Chand built his capital at Arki, where it has remained till date. The formidable Gurkhas captured the territory in the early 19th Century and Rana Jagat Singh had to live in exile at Nalagarh. Here, comes the Alliance with the British of the local ruling clan, with whose assistance they drove out the Gurkhas and took control of their Kingdom. The British conferred the title of Raja upon Rana Kishan Chand and the State ranked 8th among the Punjab Hill States in order of precedence. Baghal State possessed 311 sq km of territory and sway over 413 villages. In 1893 AD it was allowed to maintain an infantry of 150 and 1 Gun.

I reached the gates and the gatekeeper asked for my visiting card and then went inside the palace premises to seek permission. I had been under the assumption that a Heritage Hotel ran from the palace, but was rudely face to face with a dilapidated structure much under the category of ruins. The erstwhile Durbar Hall and a later building were in a state of preservation but under lock. Where were the famous frescoes that I had come looking for?

Someone greeted me and I found a young handsome man in early thirties come with a girl child in his arms. He introduced himself as Rahul Dev Singh, the youngest scion of the family. His daughter Padmaja Kumari said a shy hello to me. I learned she goes to Play School in Shimla. Rahul was most intrigued by my coming all the way from Shimla just to see the frescoes. I told him that I am a student of History and am most interested in palaces and forts, even though they might present a ruined face. We made off to a great conversation right in the midst of the erstwhile palace with monkeys trying to announce dominion. I asked him about the frescoes and he showed me the arches of the Durbar Hall, which had wall paintings and frescoes, done by artists of that era. I could use a good camera and take photographs he said.  The architecture definitely had Mughal and Rajasthani influence but the art was most outstandingly of the “Pahari School”.

We spoke of current day politics, my service in the bureaucracy, my writings, his lineage, his grandfather who used to hold his Durbar right there in a Hall, the wars his family had fought, the Gurkha occupation of their kingdom, the regaining of it with the help of the British, the ranking of the State amongst the Punjab States, my sons and their field of education, and many other things. I told him of my bloodline from mother’s side going up to a Kingdom of North Bengal. He also told me that they were originally from Malwa. It never seemed that I had met him for the first time and there existed some connection of the past. He told me how his grandfather encouraged the family ladies to cut their hair, learn dance and have a modern lifestyle. Now, he felt he had become a modern traditionalist and also like the common people believe in common superstitions. We laughed as I admitted that I too never cross a path if I see a black cat run across ahead of me. I wait for someone else to do it. We laughed as we have no justification for all this, but still irrationally we keep doing it. Sometimes the commonness of living overtakes us as much as we would consider ourselves to have a royal lifestyle.

Suddenly, he thought he might be holding me back from my exploration so politely took leave, “So, when you finish you will take your leave?”

“Yes”, and many thanks Rahul. If you come to Delhi please come home.”

He disappeared with his lovely daughter inside the palace living portion and I was left to face the ruins in solitude.

The Durbar Hall arches had beautiful frescoes of Goa Port, War Scene, Dagshai, a Cathedral which reminded me of The Vatican, an Indian Fort, Ayodhya, an European port, the port of Daman, warship anchoring at Thalaserry port, etc. The arches had been painted both sides. We get a feeling that the artists had a good impression of Indian and European ports, albeit they did not miss out on the Indian fort and garden. The war scene fresco had been done in very fine lines and showed arrows flying both sides in such detail.

The administrative block to the right of Durbar Hall was overgrown with shrubs and the steps led down to the horse and elephant housing area.

Right in the midst stood a Peepal Tree, magnificent and a witness to all that glory that was once there. Below, it a small temple with a tiny Shivlinga had been built, perhaps by the Home Guards who loved there for a long time.

The view up, to the palace was a telling one, as it took the glance from ruins to a living palace structure. Time, can change many things, but not everything. Far ahead the valley opens to face many mountains placed in a row.

How strange it must feel to face a truth every sight that here was one’s own kingdom and palace and now a different reality. The reality of a peoples’ democracy and a system of choosing a leader through public ballot. I, for one, could go mad with such strange truths, had I to live with them every day of my life.

Rahul’s elder brother Harvashvardhan, is trying to restore the palace premises by way of opening up a Heritage Hotel, which is a great way to preserve and conserve a slice of history for posterity. The grandeur of the days must be re-created and visitors experience how life was lived then and how that memory is preserved now.

The things of the past do shape our future and should be allowed to sweeten our present days.

 

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Chimes of La Gruyeres by Sandeep Silas

India Outbound

Nov-Dec 2014

Chimes of La Gruyeres

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Enchanted Life of Castles by Sandeep Silas

India Outbound

July-August 2014

Enchanted life of Castles

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Vallrobe Caves- The underground magic by Sandeep Silas

India Outbound

May-June 2014

Vallrobe Caves

 

 

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Mukteshwar- Virgin Song by Sandeep Silas

Where Nature weaves magic in the air; where the Himalayan peaks shine resplendent; where faith lives through a hole in the rocks; where you can walk listening to bird calls and breathe the freshness of mountain breeze; where Jim Corbett made his home; where the breeze sings a virgin song; this is Mukteshwar.

Nestled in the Uttarakhand hills of Nainital District this small town lives still untouched by the influences of the plains. Though barely 350 km from Delhi, it transports a visitor into a unique stillness that is unparalleled and allows peace to blossom in heart. Some hotels look at valleys, some at snow peaks, some get a temple view, some just a forest, so stay wherever because you can walk wherever in this place easily discovering different facets of Nature.

By the time we reached; my friend, a bachelor boy from Delhi, his two cousins and I, it was time for dinner. Searching a hotel was not difficult, it just fell on way. A new construction by an NRI, now settled in Delhi, alone most of the time in Mukteshwar, offered clean rooms and good linen but did not open his room heaters, perhaps because of the concession he offered us, the only people that night in his hotel.

We lit up a bonfire and talked and sang and drank.

The stars were beautiful as ever, twinkling into nursery rhymes, creating the magic tirelessly every night. The Moon, as it rose looked a little too nearer and reddish brown in its ascent. How much love must the stars give to the Earth? How much indulgence must the Moon show to humans? Existentialist questions, those never get to raise their tiny heads amidst the negativity of city life always rise up to the fore and clamour for answers. One of our friends was too involved in stoking the fire. He wanted to see the flames rise high in the cold.

The night was cold, it being January. Dawn was heavenly and the soft rays of the Sun touched everything and made it look like bathed in liquid gold.

Thereafter, I led the group to the former home of Jim Corbett.

He started as a railway Inspector of Permanent Way; went on to become a shooter of maneater tigers and ended up as a wildlife conservationist. What a trajectory his bullet like life took. The view from his bungalow; now a Tourist Rest House, is magnificent. The eye meets a king size view of Himalayan peaks which dwarf all human effort and ambition before them. From end to the other are the peaks of Nanda Kot, Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli etc. What more can a man want after this! Days and nights; season after season one can sit here and ponder on Life, God and Truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A mountain pathway to the right as we exit this place took us to the cliff where surprisingly sharp rocks jut out into the sky. As usual many lovers have etched their names with designs of heart and arrow on the rocks. Some singles just left their impressions alone.

People climb up the inclining and obliging rock surface, sit and pose for a photograph while barren women engage in a daring display of faith.

There is a round hole in a rock, big enough to take in a human body across. People say that if a barren woman goes across the Chauli ki Jali on Shivratri, she is blessed with a child! Faith makes one do impossible things!

The restaurant down below gave some wise quotes and a half-cooked omelette, which we gulped down sans criticism as we were hungry by then.

One can take long forest walks in the forests at Mukteswar. One can trek from Peora to Mukteshwar or Peora to Almora as well as Binsar to Artola.    If you are a camping type, this is the ideal place for you to experience the camp life, do stargazing and light bonfires.

I like going to villages and talking to the real people who brave the inclement weather and make a living out of very little. There I met Gopuli Devi. When I asked for her husband, she said he is not there. I requested her to tell him on phone that there is a visitor to meet him. “He will not be able to come”, she said. “Why?” I asked. “Because, he is gone to a place from where no one comes back”,  she answered. By then I understood, that he was no more.

I apologized profusely and spoke to her about life with her children; her broken parapet, and the Plum orchard that sustains her family. She told me that someone had poisoned her husband and he died an untimely death. So, jealousy and conceited violence also dwells within an outwardly peaceful looking village society. I was taken aback and hurt as I saw her three children and her lone efforts to keep the family hearth going.

I came back with mixed emotions of man-eaters and conservationists, still lurking around in the shadows of Mukteshwar!

(Text & photographs by Sandeep Silas)

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Khajuraho…erotic art or spiritual quest? by Sandeep Silas

The very concept of erotic art sculpted on temple walls can raise eyebrows. Not so in Khajuraho!

I left Jhansi, 176 km from Khajuraho, photographing the wildflowers enroute and the River Ken. The road could have been better considering we connect a World Heritage Site, but still had its surprises of cattle being milked by villagers, children playing in front of their homes, fresh vegetables being sold by the road, and life caught up in the effort of living.

These temples were built by the Chandela dynasty between 950 AD to 1050 AD and have survived the ravages of weather and time to still tickle the senses of visitors. Originally 85 in a 20 km area, they stand only 25 in 6 kms today. Alberuni, the traveler historian calls it as a “city of gods”. Normally, one visualizes a temple as a place of worship of a deity. Now, whether the deity is human or the mind of a human thinks a deity to be part of his personal life is a question of debate?

Mark Cartwright, traveler and author writes about the architectural highlights of Khajuraho- “Most of the temples at Khajuraho were built using sandstone but four also used granite in their construction. In the latter group is the Chaunsat Yogini (64 tantric goddesses), built c. 875-900 CE, which has 64 shrine rooms arranged around a rectangular courtyard. Next in the site’s development came the Lalguan Mahadeva, Brahma, and Matangesvara temples which are all quite plain in design and decoration compared to the later temples.

The majority of temples at Khajuraho were constructed between 950 and 1050 CE and are either Hindu (Saiva or Vaisnava) or Jain. The most famous is the Kandariya Mahadeo built in the early 11th century CE and dedicated to Shiva. The more or less contemporary Laksmana temple was built in 954 CE by King Dhanga (r. 950-999 CE) to celebrate independence from the Gurjara-Pratihara rulers and has a similar layout and exterior to the Kandariya Mahadeo. So too does the Visvanatha temple (c. 1002 CE) which was designed by Sutradhara Chhichchha. Both temples have shrines at each corner of their terrace platforms. The Laksmana was dedicated to Vishnu and its terrace is of particular note as it carries a narrative frieze running around all four sides: Elephants, warriors, hunters, and musicians form a procession watched by a ruler and his female attendants.

Other notable temples at the site include the single-towered Chaturbhuja and Vamana, the squat Matulunga, and the rectangular, more austere Parshvanatha Jain temple with its unique shrine added to the rear of the building (c. 950-970 CE). Probably the latest temple at Khajuraho is the Duladeo which was built on a star-plan.” ( https://www.ancient.eu/Khajuraho/)

The eroticism of Khajuraho overshadows the rest of the hidden meanings of art. Sex, was not a bad word in those days as we see it being celebrated openly, encouraged and glorified on temple walls. Many meanings have been ascribed to the “why” of this art. One says, the Kings needed more men as soldiers so encouraged copulation, another looks into the hidden spirituality achieved through the meditative human sexual union.

But, all these fail to explain the man to animal and the unnatural forms of sex depicted on Khajuraho walls.

Whatever it is, the fact is that Khajuraho excites a visitor at any age and allows the person freedom of thought and expression. You come home satisfied you have seen art at a physical plane; you come back pondering you have seen the hidden spirituality within art; both equally satisfying feelings.

Lady looking at her mirror image |Amorous couple

The stunning and fabulous sculptures led the temple complex to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site monument. Whatever exists is maintained very well by the Archaeological Survey of India. The temples are categorized into three groups: Eastern, Western and Southern.

 

 

Lakshmi Sharath mentions some stories trying to explain the raison d’être of building these erotic temples- “The moon always evokes romance and it is little wonder then that the descendants of the celestial moon god would build monuments that stand for love. The story goes that a beautiful woman called Hemavathy was bathing in the dark under moonlight, when she was seduced by the moon himself. She ran into the forests for refuge and raised her son, Chandravarman alone. The moon however promised her that their son would one day rule over a kingdom. True to his word, Chandravarman grew up to establish the Chandela dynasty. It is believed that he was influenced by his mother’s story and so he built temples with sculptures depicting human passions and probably, the futility of the same.

In case you are not fascinated with the story behind the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, here is another belief that says the carvings of mithunas are symbols of “good luck” along with several sculptures that showcase mythical creatures. Another interpretation says they served as a form of sex education, by rekindling passions in the ascetic minds of people, who were probably influenced by Buddhism.

It is a depiction of the Hindu philosophy of Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Perhaps you can attain nirvana, once you are done with all your wordly pleasures.”(https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/)

There is so much to see in Khajuraho and remember wondering about the apsaras, the nymphs engaged in activities like looking at the mirror; pulling out a thorn from the foot; fondling their breasts; tickling the private parts of their partners; holding a child; undressing; dancing; painting; or just being beauteous by themselves. There are warriors; horse & camel riders; there are the drummers going ahead of an army; there are mythical animals and attendants. In between the human endeavour the Gods and Goddesses are there too, placed under arched enclosures, as if blessing the whole exercise of recreation and human evolution. Here, the natural and the unnatural merge in the human consciousness that is governed by the law of love and nothing else.

 

The law of love                                                                                                                          Mirror, mirror

I came when the sun was brightest and by the time I finished my art appreciation the sky was overcast. I started hurrying to the far end of the temples to catch the last of the bright rays falling on statues before they were eaten up by the black clouds threatening rain. The mood of the sky changed suddenly as that of a human and it burst open sending rain-showers upon the beautiful damsels who live and dance on the walls of Khajuraho temples.

Dusk fell upon the warriors, lovers and damsels who are in an immortal frieze at Khajuraho. The cover of darkness was perhaps an encouragement to them to leave their stone forms and assume a human life in the night, before the next day’s dawn!

Khajuraho is too complex to be understood by the ordinary senses. One has to delve deep into the mysteries of art & sculpture, and see with the discerning eye what all is hidden beneath the visible!

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A Toy To the Adult by Sandeep Silas

The Kalka-Shimla Railway

Like smoke wafting lazily from a candle, blown by a kiss of the wind, chugs the Kalka-Shimla train.  The mist, held by the hills and the pines, lowers itself in a welcome to the traveller.  Its freshness brings alive the sensations hitherto forgotten and buried under the pace of life.

If you look down history lane with a telescope, you find the gallant  and  fearsome Grouches of Nepal walking  into  Sikkim  in 1814.   The ruler of Sikkim, helpless, appeals to the East  India company and the Company Bahadur extends security.   At the  close of the war in 1816, under the Nepalese Peace Treaty the  British `mandarins retained a huge tract of land, which also included the ridge on which Shimla was later built.

One  Major Kennedy, built for himself a house at  Shimla  in 1822.   The  Governor General’s were quick to  realise  that  the environs  of Shimla offered them an England in India.   Lord  Amherst  spent the summer in 1827, followed by his  successor  Lord William  Bentick.   However,  the journey  was  not  particularly comfortable for the Gora Sahib.  Ponies, or jampans – sedan chair fitted with curtains, slung on poles borne by bearers, over a  43 mile mountain track made mule of a man.

It  was only for a correspondent, to conceive the idea of  a railway  line, that time waited for, till Nov. 1847.   A  passionate plea in the Delhi Gazette by this gentleman advocated the sketching  of a railway line to Shimla – “We may then see these  cool regions become the permanent seat of a Government, daily  invigorated  by a temperature adapted to refresh a  European  constitution, and keep the mental power in a state of health,  beneficial both  to rulers and the ruled”.  The earliest field surveys  were conducted  between 1884-95.  While the railway surveys  were  on, The  Hindostan and Tibet Road, 58 miles, was opened during  1850-56.

The signing of a contract between Secretary of State and the Delhi Umbala Railway Company in 1898 signalled the beginnings  of the  line.  The journey to a cooler paradise became a reality  in Lord Curzons’ time.

The bosom of the highly erratic Shivalik hills was parted by a 96 km. railway line on Nov. 9th, 1903.  Three years  of  labour by dedicated engineers and labourers in limestone and shale rocks saw through an astounding feat.

The line passes over 864 bridges and  under 102 tunnels.  Two-thirds of the formation is  laid  on sharp curves– sharper than a damsels !

The British chose the narrow gauge dimensions of 2′-6″ as the  hills  tolerated no more than a whisper to rise  the  arduous 1519  m   between the plain and the hill.  The treachery  of  the hill formation was bound by a silver thread, reassuringly.  Lofty stone  bridges,  arched in their effort of holding the  rail,  at times  three-tiered  too, arrest the sight of a  traveller.

The dark tunnels aplenty on the ascent, bring more than an opportunity to a honeymooning couple.  Excited whistles and natural  cries rent the air when you travel.  A curious mix of chill and  warmth permeates the atmosphere.

The  journey from Kalka to Shimla is absolutely out  of  the world.  Immediately on arrival at Kalka one sheds off his inhibitions  like snake-skin.  The toy train provides  a  breath-taking view  of the Kushalya river, the moment it enters the  foothills. The  serpentine splash of mercury  keeps disappearing  and  reappearing  with each bend for some time.  Passage through the  Koti tunnel makes you hunt for a coat and the air jabs you, the moment you hit Jabli, 1240 m above sea-level.

Three  picturesque loops near Taksal, Gumman  and  Dharampur provide  photo-opportunity  to an enthusiast.  But wait, more  is to follow.  The ascent is steady.  The train huffs and puffs  its way across green meadows, capsicum fields, red-roofed chalets and half  timbered houses.  Each coach has chuckle under its  wheels. Through  aged  in  service, it does not sigh, for  it  carries  a pleasant  burden.  About seven coaches form a train, to  accommodate  about 200 passengers per trip.  The extremities of  weather do not dislodge the determination of the 700 horse power B-B type diesel  engines.   They run to the call of  duty  in  temperature ranging  from  0-45  Celsius and in snow which  averages  2  feet during  winters.  What to talk of the annual rainfall of  200-250 cm   received  by  the hills!  The average speed  of  25-30  kmph ensures that “hurry” is removed from the psyche and replaced by a naturalness of demeanour.

If  you want to taste the beauty of nature  in  exclusivity, travel  in the Rail Motor Car.  There are four of them and  three date to 1927, while the last dates to 1930.  A group of 18 can be housed  in  this vintage experience.  You will  be  surprised  to learn  that  the original White & Pope petrol engines  fitted  by Drewery Car Company Ltd., London, were replaced during the second World  War as petrol was scarce.  Americans supplied  the  diesel engines to the car, from General Motors, U.S.A.

Surprises  escape the visage as nature unrolls  its  bounty.  Gurgling  brooks flowing down mountains, passing under the  stone bridges,  present  a pleasing sight.  Clouds of  mist  decide  to tumble down and gingerly touch you, enlivening your senses.   The train  meanders through Kumarhatti, then enters the Barog  tunnel which  is  more than a kilometre long, precisely 1144  mts.  This tunnel  crosses  the Panchmunda ridge, about 900 feet  below  the road. At Barog, it is mealtime, on the morning trip.

 

Through the English firm of “Spencers” which built the restaurant at Barog is no longer there, but the English hospitality continues to live.

From  Barog  to  Kandagthat the train  runs  downhill,  past beautiful  and quaint retreats of Solan and Saloghra.  The  final climb begins at Kandaghat.  Gradually, solemn forests of  deodars and  pines  replace the meadows.  The abundant  green  fills  the soul.   At Shogi, a heartwarming view of the Chail valley  brings numerous  anecdotes associated with a Prince to the fore.  It  is said  that this Punjab Prince, pinched the bottom of  an  English class on the Shimla ridge, and was thence banished from English society at Shimla.  Undeterred, he built for himself a palace  at Chail, a nearby resort.

Past Taradevi, the railways take you under Prospect hill  to Jutogh,  winding  its way like a naughty current of  air  teasing you, tickling you, till it pauses at Summer Hill.

The  prospects of a fullsome holiday brighten up the spirits of each  traveller. Finally,  like the last birth pang it burrows under the  Inverarm Hill, to emerge and deliver a happy child at Shimla.

The  transformation of a traveller from an adult to a  child is  complete.

As little as a train journey brings out the  child in  the  man, to chuckle, laugh and indulge in  childlike  pranks around the invigorating forest paths of Shimla.

 

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Amber Touch by Sandeep Silas

Amber Touch by Sandeep Silas (Borough in the Mist, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.; 2007)

 

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Trailing the Faithline- Gangotri to Gaumukh by Sandeep Silas

Travellers must move on towards the destination, the source of life. There are always halts filled with magic en route, but the journey of the ‘seeker’ makes him plod on and on. While traveling to Gangotri I have taken a night halt at Bhairon Ghati, 9 kms short. Next morn, I leave the Bhairon temple in the care of its tree cluster, the GMVN Tourist Rest House happy in its hollow, and the rigid crags that tower above the place to their permanent positions. They have enacted the role of a protective godfather all through, as if shielding the hamlet from some danger. They have also successfully hidden the pleasures of the journey beyond as if they are a grave finality.

The thought of river Bhagirathi, like a mystical light shining in the distance, led me ahead till Gangotri was reached. Gangotri is a temple town, a holy place for most Indians. It is also the end of pilgrimage for some and the beginning of pilgrimage for others. The height above sea-level is 3140 m and you can feel the sharpness of the wind. Cars and jeeps line the thin metallic road and cops have a tough time organising orderly parking.

The religious significance of the place is immense. It is believed that river Bhagirathi owes its origin to the foot of Lord Vishnu, wherefrom it started flowing first, and was captured by the jatas (hair-locks) of Lord Shiva. That was a tale of heavens above. On earth, King Bhagirath, unable to bear the suffering of his people due to water scarcity worshipped Lord Shiva at Gangotri. His devotion so pleased Lord Shiva that he asked him for a boon. Bhagirath prayed that Ganga be released from Lord Shiva’s hair locks for the benefit of his people. So was granted Ganga to the earth. It is named after Bhagirath as river Bhagirathi from the point of its descent at Gaumukh up to Dev Prayag. At Dev Prayag, the river Alaknanda merges with Bhagirathi and thence onwards it is called Ganga.

An arched gate, gifted by the Border Police to the town, greets the eye. Everyone has to pass through it, the destination being Gangotri, temple, the bathing ghats or the steps leading to the trek route of 18 kilometers to Gaumukh. Gangotri temple is small. It is erected on the sacred stone where as per tradition Bhagirath worshipped Lord Shiva. The building is non-ornamental, rather ordinary in appearance. There are no statues on the exterior and its height is also about 12 feet. E.T. Atkinson wrote of it in the 19th century- “it is quite plain, coloured white with red mouldings, and surmounted with the usual melon-shaped ornament commonly known as Turk’s cap.” The temple is quite the same save that the colour combination is now white walls and silver top.

The serious trekkers take to the steps, which connect the Gangotri ghats and the trek route. Buy a walking stick— you might need three legs on the way ahead. The river Bhagirathi is a pleasant companion all through right up to Gaumukh. Sometimes the mountain rocks to your side echo the forceful holler of rushing waves. Yes the river makes them sing. The snow peaks enveloped forever in a clouded embrace of the Meghdoot (cloud messenger) sit happily above their unsteady glaciers. It is a treat to lift the eyes from a rivulet meeting the river bed; slowly caress first the green cover, then the black, rough and prominent crags; then allow the vision to melt in the snow at upper reaches.

The trekking route is tough, full of uneven stones, even dusty at times. It is a real test for the muscles of the legs. You really get to know more about your own legs than you believed.  Tree trunks have been used to bridge rivulets and one has to balance steps lest the boulders in the water have the last laugh. The trek is a story of ascents and descents. You rise again as the path decides to lift itself from the riverbed. It is good to feel the heights. You tend to pause before every new face of a snow peak, which is revealed to you. The edges of the black crags are to be admired. The eyes can feel their razor thin sharpness and also their blunt prominence.

Shacks en route provide plastic comfort to weary travellers. They offer biscuits, potato chips, simple roti-dal (bread and pulses), paranthas (oil-fried bread), and bottled water. Mattresses to recline on are luxury! There are slogans displayed on banners about the ill effects of plastic and non-biodegradable waste. The glacial river must not be polluted with polythene or plastic wrappers. Thanks to these gentle reminders erected by environmentalists, the route is remarkably free of poly-pack litter. Travellers were seen actually heeding the advice and using dustbins.

Bite into something at Chirbasa, 9 kilometer deep, from the origin of the trek at Gangotri. Have some tea with a dash of salt, it will pep you up. The hamlet of Chirbasa is a cluster of pines rushing from the heights in a straight descent to the riverbed. Shacks are perched on space created between boulders on the ridge. This ridge you cross. Do not halt too long lest the legs refuse to lift again. Bhojbasa, 5 kilometres ahead, has to be reached for a night halt. And of course, sunset must be enjoyed at Bhojbasa before you hit the bed.

The flora along the trek route is different and interesting. Ganga Tulsi, a shrub with a heady scent, used as an accompaniment during Hindu worship, and White Jungle Rose, each flower with only four petals, almost line the route.

Yellow wildflowers too have a word to say! Some concerned environmentalist groups are trying level best to not only generate public awareness but also give a green cover to the Himalayas where it is most needed. So we see plantations of Spruce, Silver Fir, Blue Pine and Himalayan Cedar along the way.  A little ahead of Chirbasa, some educationists nurse a Bhojpatra nursery. This effort at preserving a threatened specie is laudable. The Bhojpatra Utilis has a distinct white bark and round green leaves. Its botanical name is Betula Utilis. The bark of this tree served as paper for recording ancient Hindu religions texts. I peel some. It is actually as thin as finest quality paper. I keep it as a memento, but it is not enough to write a song!

There are no wild animals to sight save herds of mountain goat and deer. We see one. A goat blessed with a pair of curved horns is perhaps the leader of this herd and his posturing on a rock proudly proclaims it. The coat of the goats blends with the rocks. The black mountains have yellowish-brown traces. So does the goatskin. There are no trees on these hard infertile rocks and shrubs are sparse. How beautifully God has provided them protection by making them look like rocks! You are left wondering?

The sun plays hide and seek on a June afternoon. Clouds drift at will. Sometimes you see a snow mountain half-concealed by clouds and half-visible to the eyes. It is like watching a Venus, thinly clad, sensuous in demeanour, and amorous in the eye, whom you would like to only see and not touch!

The Bhagirathi river continues to sing its song as we continue upstream. It is past 4 p.m. in the evening. Our guide warns of falling stones in a patch ahead. A warning signboard and we smell trouble. True enough it rains stones on the route ahead. We do not carry hard hats. I hide behind a huge boulder clutching the hand of my 10-year old son. Stones keep rolling down. They can break bones or even throw a person deep down towards the riverbed by sheer impact. One has to exercise caution. This phenomenon in the evening is due to harsh winds blowing across. The mountains in this patch are loose stones embedded in mud. So the peculiar rain. It is strange coincidence that this is the 13th kilometer from Gangotri, I observe! We run across carefully finding our steps when the fury if the mountain is spent.

The last leg to trek for the day to Bhojbasa is tougher still. A stream has to be crossed sans a log bridge. You have to place your feet in the bed on firm stones so as to save your shoes from getting wet. My son exclaims aloud—“Tough route, tottering wooden bridges, falling stones, icy wind, quite deadly.” Still he makes the 14 km trek in good seven hours.

Alas my desire of watching the sunset at Bhojbasa is not fulfilled. The clouds just whisked away the sun in a swift move! I have to wait yet another day braving the biting wind on the Bhojbasa ridge. There is a GMVN Tourist Rest House, an Ashram and several shacks, which serve as night shelter. You come back in life to just hoping for basics; a toilet is a luxury.

The Bhojbasa valley is panoramic. It is really huge. Gaumukh is seen as a cluster of rocks from this ridge. It is the source of the river Bhagrathi or Ganga, regarded by Indians over the centuries as mystical, spiritual and holy. Three peaks of Mount Bhagirathi tower above Gaumukh. It is an unbelievable sight—one, which you deserve in a lifetime. The three summits, Bhagirathi I, II & III perhaps symbolise the trinity of beauty, truth and peace, which I presumed was exposed earlier to me on the trek. How wonderful!

The morning was proclaimed in a loud exclamation. The moon had not left its rightful reign of the night sky and the sun was raising expectations of travellers as it continued in its upward stride. Pure magic was being played all around Bhojbasa Valley by the Great God. Straight above Gaumukh, the cloud curtain was gradually being lifted from over the three Bhagirathi peaks. They were being revealed like sacred verses are spoken to listeners. If you lose them in that pure moment they are gone, sucked in by that force, which transforms the present into the past—the churning wheel of time.

Sure enough an overpowering cloud fall barred the snow peaks from sight in the next few minutes. So were gone two beautiful virginal peaks to our left, one, which was bravely trying to cradle the moon in its last sojourn! The sheer transience of the scene was mesmerising, just like elemental man-woman associations, which charm you as long as they last.

The last 4 kilometers to Gaumukh are tougher. Especially the very last! The trek reduces to nothing but trapeze walk over accumulated boulders. Only faith and will power can take you ahead. Finally Gaumukh, 4000 m above sea-level, is reached. I find a perch on a rock before the cave, the source, and settle down to my thoughts.  As I look at Gaumukh, I feel the sensuousness and abundance of love. That love, which knows no bounds. That love, that gives and gives always and forever.

Gaumukh is a cave surrounded by glacial bottle-green ice. Water, the source and preserver of all life on earth, keeps gushing out in good measure. The spectacle is akin to a mother giving birth to a child. The half-moon cave is the source, the water life at birth. And you son of man, a part of this beautiful creation!

People bathe, pray here. By doing so they believe that they have purged all sins. I feel the icy water and look at the slab of ice bobbling beside the rock I sit upon. I look again at Gaumukh or the cow’s mouth, the name given to the glacier cavern. Next moment, I am in the water, my hands clutching a rock and my lungs holding my breath. I have done it! Yes how many get the opportunity to worship the mother source of a holy river at its hideout deep into the Himalayas. The sun is benevolent. It lights up eyes and many lives. The ice sparkles. Sometimes chunks of ice fall down from the top of the glacier cave to meet the water below. Huge blocks of ice and the current of water play a game with each other. The stream cuts into the blocks and pushes it mid-stream. The block tries hard to stay put on its temporary throne and breaks the current into two. The game continues here in a hitherto unusual unseen mirth of ice and water; both same and yet so different!

Above Gaumukh is Tapovan. All saffron clad barefoot or slipper-sporting sadhus (holy men) are headed for that territory. It is place across the Bhagirathi glacier where Rishis and Munis did penance and meditated. Today there is some alarming news from Tapovan. One traveller slipped and fell some distance below to hurt his head on a rock. He was evacuated on a makeshift stretcher by locals and some foreign trekkers. It will be almost ten hours before he reaches Gangotri, where first-aid is available. Bhojbasa, I think, demands a doctor, a medical unit and telephone connectivity for evacuation by helicopter in dire emergencies.

The Himalayan glaciers have long fascinated the British explorers who arduously mapped and recorded their uniqueness. Colonel Gordon (Roof of the World, 17) writes—“the glaciers of the Western Himalayas are twice as extensive as those of the Alps, and are probably the largest in the world or at all events larger than any others out of the polar regions.” How do you recognise a glacier and the river it has given birth, must be understood. I am tempted to quote Lieutenant R. Strachey on the appearance of a glacier—“It seems to be a vast rounded mass of rocks and ground utterly devoid of any sign of vegetation, standing up out of a grassy valley. From the foot of its nearer extremity the river, even here infordable, rushes in a turbid torrent out of a sort of cave; the top of which is but a few feet above the surface of the water. Behind this, the glacier rises less steeply like a bare gravel hill, to its full height, which is probably 500 feet above the water of the river when it leaves the cave.”

After a tete a tete with Bhagirathi glacier and river source one must return to Bhojbasa or if possible Chirbasa for a night halt. Walking early morn on return is pure satisfaction to the visual and olfactory senses. Start about 6–6.30 a.m.  The clouds are still lazing in the valley. Their effortless glide up the mountains is inspiring. The atmosphere is filled with the fragrance of plants and shrubs, especially Ganga Tulsi. You become part of generous nature. Many prayers come to lips in such circumstance—God make me a mountain stream so that I can quench the thirst of earth, plants, and men; God make me a wildflower, so that I can enliven a jungle path; God make me a birdsong so that I fill the woods with music; God make me a cloud so that I roam anywhere at free will; God make me a mountain summit so that I tower above everything else; God make me the wind so that I can give life to the world; God make me a star in the sky so that I fill the eyes of your children with dreams. Any one of these prayers could be yours. The prayer of humility, of freedom, of power, or dreams; it just depends how you feel. I, for one, would like to end up as a birdsong in a forest!

All good things these days end up in a mix of concrete, machine and artificiality. Should you come here once, you would be happy that for some days you were only a child of benevolent Nature.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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