Thursday, 7 July 2016

योग शिबीर काश्मीरमधले

"निव्वळ योग शिकायला काश्मीरपर्यंत जायची गरज आहे का?" असा प्रश्न माझ्या बायकोने विचारला होता जेंव्हा मी तिला माझा योग शिबीराला जायचा मानस सांगितला होता तेंव्हा. योगासन, प्राणायाम आणि त्याचे तत्वज्ञान शिकवणाऱ्या बऱ्याच संस्था आणि व्यक्ती भारतभर विविध ठिकाणी पसरलेल्या असताना एखाद्या विशिष्ट गोष्टीचा अट्टहास कशाला असा प्रश्न साहजिक पडू शकतो.

कन्याकुमारीच्या विवेकानंद केंद्राला भेट दिल्यानंतर आणि त्यांच्या योग विषयातील कार्यक्रमाबद्दल जाणून घेतल्यानंतर मला असं वाटू लागलं की मी जे शोधतोय ते मला कदाचित येथे मिळू शकेल. एक हिंदू विचाराची संस्था असली तरी मला विवेकानंद केंद्राची संशोधनकेंद्री कार्यपध्दती योग्य वाटली होती. योग म्हणजे निव्वळ आसन व प्राणायाम करणे व आरोग्य चांगले राखणे नसून आपल्या नेहमीच्या जीवनाशी योगाचा मेळ कसा साधायचा, त्याचे तत्वज्ञान काय आहे हे सगळे जाणून घेणे मला महत्वाचे वाटत होते. मग विचार केला सरळ त्यांच्या एखाद्या शिबीरात दाखल होऊन एकदा अनुभव तरी घेऊन पहावा. मला सोयिस्कर कालावधी काश्मीरच्या शिबीराचाच दिसत होता त्यामुळे सरळ त्यासाठी नोंदणी करून टाकली आणि वेळ आल्यावर तिथे गेलो.

शिबीर ज्या ठिकाणी घेण्यात आले ती जागा म्हणजे श्री रामकृष्ण महासम्मेलन आश्रम अनंतनाग जिल्ह्यातील अच्छाबल या गावात आहे. आश्रमाच्या जागेला नागदंडी असे म्हटले जाते. काश्मीरी भाषेत नाग म्हणजे झरा आणि नावाप्रमाणे येथेही एक स्वच्छ पाण्याचा खळाळता झरा आहे. स्वामी अशोकानंद नावाच्या रामकृष्ण परमहंसांच्या विचारपरंपरेतील एका संन्याश्याने ह्या ठिकाणी तपसाधना केली. त्यांनी व त्यांच्या भक्तगणांनी हा आश्रम बांधला. स्वामीजींच्या पश्चात ह्या आश्रमाचे व्यवस्थापन विवेकानंद केंद्रातर्फे करण्यात येते. आश्रमाची एक स्थानिक व्यवस्थापन समितीही असून त्याचे सदस्य प्रामुख्याने अनंतनाग भागातून विस्थापीत झालेले काश्मीरी पंडीत आहेत. स्वामी अशोकानंदांच्या काळात ह्या हिंदू मंडळींचा आश्रमाशी संपर्क असे. तिथल्या दहा दिवसांच्या वास्तव्यादरम्यान देशाच्या विविध भागात स्थायिक झालेले परंतु स्वामीजींच्या आठवणीमुळे परत एकदा आश्रमाला भेट देणारे बरेच काश्मिरी पंडीत लोक भेटले.
 
सभागृह

स्वामी अशोकानंद समाधी मंदीर

योग शिबीराची सुरूवात २० जुनला झाली आणि बरोबर १० दिवसांनी २९ जुनला त्याचा समारोप झाला. दररोज सकाळी साडेपाच वाजल्यापासून सुरू होणारे शिबीरातील विविध उपक्रम रात्री साडेनऊ वाजता संपत असत. शिबीर आयोजकांचीच नव्हे तर शिबीरार्थींचीही वेळ पाळण्याबाबतची व कार्यक्रम सहभागातील शिस्त वाखाणण्यासारखी होती. थोडी कुरकुर काही जणांनी त्याबद्दल केली तरी बहुतांशी सर्वांनी आखून दिलेले नियम बऱ्याच अंशी पाळले. हे सर्व काटेकोरपणे पाळणाऱ्यांमध्ये जसे सत्तरी ओलांडलेले लोक होते तसेच नवतरूणही होते हे विशेष. श्लोक पठण, योगासन व प्राणायाम अभ्यास, श्रमसंस्कार, गीतेतील कर्मयोगाचे विश्लेषण, योग तत्वज्ञान व अन्य विषयांवरील व्याख्याने, गटचर्चा, सायंकालीन भजने इतकेच नव्हे तर मनोरंजनपर खेळही होते. इतका भरगच्च कार्यक्रम असल्यामुळे एक मात्र झाले की वैयक्तिक असा मोकळा वेळ फारच कमी मिळाला. अर्थात तो शिबीर संपल्यानंतर मिळणारच असल्याने मला व्यक्तिशः त्याचे फारसे दुःख झाले नव्हते.
 
शिबीरातील सहभागी एक दिवसाच्या सहली दरम्यान
माझा स्वभाव बराचसा नास्तिक वळणाचा आहे. साधारणतः देवपूजा, भजने, मंत्रपठण अश्या गोष्टींपासून चार हात दूरच रहायचा प्रयत्न करत असलो तरी ह्या शिबीराची एकूण रचना आस्तिकतेची होती हे स्वीकारले होते. आपण तिथे शिकायला गेलो आहोत आणि पाण्यात पडल्याशिवाय पोहायला शिकता येत नाही ह्या बाबी मनात पक्क्या असल्यामुळे शिबीराच्या सर्वच्या सर्व कार्यक्रमांमध्ये पूर्णतः सहभागी होण्याचा प्रयत्न केला. गीतेतील कर्मयोगाची आणि आदि शंकराचार्यांनी लिहीलेल्या निर्वाणषटकाची जवळून ओळख होणे हा मला त्यापासून झालेला सर्वात मोठा फायदा. शाळेतील माझ्या आवडत्या संस्कृत भाषेच्या पुन्हा एकदा थोडंफार जवळ जाता येणं हा एक अजून आनंदाचा विषय होता. एकंदरीत हिंदू तत्वज्ञान मुळातच फार गोल गोल फिरत राहतं त्यामुळे त्याच्यावरच्या व्याख्यानांदरम्यान मात्र मला कधीच झोप आवरता आली नाही.

योगासन आणि प्राणायाम ह्या गोष्टींविषयींची माहिती आणि प्रसार भारतात जवळजवळ सर्वच ठिकाणी होत आहे. परंतु हा एक अनुभवाचा भाग आहे आणि त्यामागे असलेले शास्त्रशुध्द तंत्र पाळले जाण्याच्या नावाने मात्र बऱ्याच ठिकाणी बोंब असते. विवेकानंद केंद्राची भगिनी संस्था असलेल्या स्वामी विवेकानंद योग अनुसंधान संस्थेने या विषयावर बरेच सखोल काम केले आहे. त्यामुळे तेथे प्रमाणीकृत झालेले तंत्रच शिबीरात वापरले जाते. मर्यादीत शिबीरार्थी संख्येमुळे शक्य झालेले वैयक्तिक लक्ष आणि तंत्रशुध्दतेवर दिलेला भर ह्यामुळे योगासने शिकण्यामध्ये फार अडचणी जाणवल्या नाहीत. मी पुर्वीपासून योगासने नियमीत करत नसल्यामुळे व शरीराला एका विशिष्ट स्थितीची अतिसवय झाल्यामुळे शिबीराच्या सुरूवातीला कंबरेत मागच्या बाजूला वाकणे, बराच वेळासाठी खाली बसणे अश्य़ा गोष्टी करण्यामध्ये खूप त्रास झाला. परंतु जसजशी योगासने करत गेलो तसतशी दहा दिवसांत बरीच सुधारणा झाली. योगासन शिक्षक कल्पना दिदी ह्यांनी योगासनांमधले बरेच बारकावे व्यवस्थित समजावून सांगितले. आता परतल्यानंतर योगासने व प्राणायाम नियमीत करण्याचा संकल्प अत्यावश्यक आहे.
 
एक शिबीरार्थी अनुलोम विलोम करताना
शिबीरातील जेवण कमी तिखट, कांदा रहित व पूर्णतः शाकाहारी असले तरी बेचव मात्र नव्हते. जेवण बनवणारे आचारी जम्मू विभागातील असल्यामुळे त्यांच्या डोगरी खाद्यशैलीचे अनेक पदार्थ जेवणात होते. स्थानिक डोगरी जेवणामध्ये भात भरपूर खातात आणि चपात्या फारश्या केल्या जात नाहीत. आलेल्या आचाऱ्यांना त्या विशेष जमतही नव्हत्या त्यामुळे आमच्या जेवणात भातावरच जोर होता. राजमा, कडम की साग (नवलकोलच्या पानांची भाजी), अंबल (भोपळ्याची आंबट गोड रस्सा भाजी), दुध घातलेली पनीरची रस्साभाजी असे अनेक नावीन्यपूर्ण पदार्थ चाखायला मिळाले. काही संध्याकाळी कहवाचा, खास काश्मिरी चहाचा आस्वाद घ्यायला मिळाला. पुण्याहून आलेल्या विवेकानंद केंद्राच्या प्रेमळ स्वभावाच्या कार्यकर्त्या रजनीताई ह्यांनी त्यांना पोहे आणि उपमा कसा बनवायचा ते शिकवून त्यांच्याकडून करूनही घेतले.

शिबीर संपायच्या आदल्या दिवशी परीक्षा घेतली. कडक शिस्तीच्या शिबीर प्रमुख मंगलाताई ओक ह्या माझ्या सख्ख्या मामेबहिणीच्या सासूबाई असल्या तरी पेपर कठीण होता आणि परीक्षेला सामोरे जाण्यात काही हयगय नव्हती. अर्थात परीक्षा ही स्वतःलाच तपासून पाहण्यासाठी होती त्यामुळे लेखी पेपरात पास झालो तरी आपण किती पाण्यात आहोत ते मात्र चांगलेच समजले. 
परीक्षेची वेळ
 एकंदरीत शिबीराबद्दलचे माझे मत अतिशय चांगले असले तरीही विवेकानंद केंद्राच्या कार्यपध्दतीत एक प्रकारचा स्वमताचा अतिआग्रह जाणवला. त्यामुळे अन्य विचारपध्दती व कार्यशैली ह्याबाबतची स्वीकारार्ह्यताही फारच कमी आहे असे वाटले. अर्थात ज्यांना त्या संघटनेचे कार्य करायचे आहे त्यांच्य़ासाठी हा मुद्दा महत्वाचा ठरेल. मला तेथे भेटलेल्या सर्वच कार्यकर्त्यांच्या त्यांच्या कामाबद्दल असलेल्या निष्ठेचा खूप आदर वाटला. जयपूरहून आलेले दिनेश आणि सुरेश हे दोघे विद्यार्थी दशेतील तरूणही ज्या आत्मविश्वासाने व पूर्ण जीव लावून शिबीराचे काम करत होते ते पाहून त्यांचे कौतुक करावे तितके थोडेच होते.

शिबीराच्या शेवटच्या दिवशी केलेल्या समारोपाच्या कार्यक्रमात तेथील स्थानिक राजकीय नेत्यांना पहायला व ऐकायला मिळणे हा एक वेगळाच अनुभव होता. काश्मीरमधील राज्यसभेचे खासदार जनाब नझीर अहमद लावे ह्यांचे भाषण विशेष लक्षात राहीले. त्यांचा स्वामी विवेकानंद व त्यांच्या विचारांचा अभ्यास, त्यांचे मुलींच्या शिक्षणासाठीचे प्रयत्न, स्थानिक काश्मीरी जनतेमध्ये भारतीय लोकशाहीबद्दल विश्वास रूजवण्यासाठी ते करत असलेले काम व त्यासाठी अतिरेकी प्रवृत्तींकडून त्यांना सहन करावा लागणारा विरोध हे सर्व मी प्रथमच ऐकत होतो. अश्या व्यक्तींच्या कामाची ओळख खरे तर पूर्ण देशभरात होणे गरजेचे आहे.
 
समारोपाच्या कार्यक्रमात अनुभव कथन करताना
शिबीर संपवून परतीच्या प्रवासाला लागलो तरी मधून मधून मन्त्र, भजनं आणि विवेकानंद केंद्राची प्रार्थना इ गुणगुणत होतो. इतके दिवस सतत त्याच गोष्टींचे उच्चारण केल्याचा परिणाम होता. वाईट नव्हता. योग ह्या विषयात फार मोठे काही ज्ञान मिळवले नसले तरी त्या विषयात आपल्याला अधिक रस आहे हे निश्चित समजले होते. श्री. श्रीरामजी आगाशे ह्यांचे ज्ञानयोग ह्या विषयातले अभ्यासपूर्ण व्याख्यान ७५ टक्क्यापेक्षा अधिक भाग डोक्यावरून गेले होते पण जे काही समजले त्यावरून त्याबद्दल अधिक वाचायला, माहिती मिळवायला पाहीजे इतके नक्की कळले होते. ह्या वर्षी वाचायची म्हणून मी काही पुस्तकांची यादी केली होती त्यामध्ये बरीच भर पाडून मी तिथून परतलो.

माझ्या ओळखीचे एक ऑस्ट्रेलियन जोडपे मी ज्याकाळात काश्मीरमध्ये योग शिबीरात होतो त्या काळात पाकिस्तानच्या ताब्यातील काश्मीरमध्ये फिरायला गेले होते. जेंव्हा मला त्यांच्या ह्या प्रवासाच्या नियोजनाबद्दल समजले तेंव्हा मी त्यांना गंमतीने म्हणालो होतो की मी त्यावेळेला कुठेतरी तु्म्ही असलेल्या डोंगराच्याच पलिकडे ध्यान लावून बसलेलो असेन. त्यातील पत्नी सौ. मार नॉक्स लगेच मलाही गंमतीने म्हणाली होती की मग तुझ्या शुभलहरी आमच्यासाठी डोंगरापल्याड पाठव. हे सगळे खरोखर शक्य आहे किंवा नाही ह्याची अनुभूती मला नाही पण योगाद्वारे वैयक्तिक आणि सामाजिक मनःशांतीचे काम निश्चित होऊ शकेल ह्या बद्दल ठाम विश्वास मात्र निर्माण झाला आहे.

Kashmir Once Again- III

My plan for this visit to Kashmir was fixed some 4 months back when I booked my train tickets. The only disadvantage of planning and telling people about it so much in advance is that they tend to forget. I had to remind people repeatedly when it came to any engagement of my time during this tour period. This is Indian habit I think, where people do not plan so much in advance. It also reflects in the way people behave during the times of pilgrimage to deities. Spontaneous decisions, rushing for the trains, going along wherever crowd takes you and all such things in life sound like they are highly spirited actions but certainly these are not my cup of tea. I used to hate those aspects of my previous jobs wherein I followed such ways without much of choice. The down side of such advanced planning is that I have always ended up travelling alone or not having any travel buddies. While I was proud to know that I was the first one to register for the Yoga camp, nobody had agreed to join me as I insisted on so much on very early planning.

I wanted to experience Kashmir railway. When I had visited Kashmir in 2012, I had seen the train tracks being laid down and had fixed in my mind then that I would be travelling by train whenever I would visit this place again. After going through the information and the schedules, my plan was finalised. I wanted to go upto Baramula, the northernmost station on the Indian Railways. Reaching there also meant touching a place which is infamous for being on the frontier where near its mountains Indian military closely guarded the territory from potential aggression from Pakistan. Northern Kashmir being closer to the Pak occupied territories is also very much volatile. I came to know later on that the just the day before I traveled there, Sopore a major town on the railway route had seen clashes between terrorists and the central reserve police forces.

My last day of the trip started early. I had not been able to sleep with lot of excitement in the mind. The Yoga Camp had ended and all the participants were going to go in different directions. Kalpanadidi and Hardikbhai, a couple who are life time workers at Vivekananda Kendra decided to join me for the Railway journey by deciding at the last moment. Though not initially planned, it was a good company to be with for the next 12 hours as we travelled together all the way upto Udhampur.

Our journey started from the Anantnag station. Currently the trains in Kashmir ply between Banihal and go upto Baramula while passing through major stations of Anantnag, Srinagar, Budgam and Sopore. The morning time train coming from Banihal was already full with daily commuters travelling to Srinagar. There was no place to sit but we were anyway happy standing at the large space that was available at the start of gangway while getting full view of the outside from the open window. Local people in the train were looking at us admiringly especially after seeing Kalpana didi with her prominent bindi and uncovered head. Many people curiously asked us where we had come from and where we were going to. We were a novelty getting in at a place like Anantnag.
The train had started running taking with it all sorts of people, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus; Students and beaureaucrats; migrant labourers and businessmen all alike. It started off from the southern part of the Kashmir valley which had rich landscape with abundant water flowing through the green paddy fields. Habitations were loose agglomerates of large houses having some fruit trees and kitchen garden plots around them. One young man standing besides us started to give us information about crops, plants, villages that we were seeing on the way. He turned out to be recent college pass out with a Geography major. He beamingly told us about his recent selection in the Income Tax Department. He along with many others got down at Srinagar station.
Expanses of rice paddies, apple orchards and poplar plantations
The new crowd which had gotten in or continued further was all serious faced. It also reflected in the landscape as it started to become drier. The rice paddies were giving way to apple orchards. Houses were becoming smaller in size and the habitations more compact. We passed one army camp along the way. Huge sized tri colour flag was fluttering fully up in the air with all of its grandeur. It was one proud unforgettable moment. It signified the great job Indian armed forces and the police have been doing in face of such adversity. We reached our final station on the route, Baramula.
In the fifteen minutes for which the train was going to stop at the station before it started its journey back to Banihal, we got the return journey tickets. I clicked some pictures around at this scenic station which has a backdrop of a distant snow capped mountain. Those pictures also included my first silly attempt of taking a selfie, in spite of having had a number of smart phones in the last few years. I went outside the station to see if some food was available but there were no food stalls but only one general shop which was also closed most probably due to the Ramadan.
Sopore town

Scenic view from Baramula station

Baramula station entrance from outside
After the train started I sat on the other side of coach and started absorbing the views from there. The initial excitement was over and even the natural beauty had also started to feel monotonous. I fell asleep. The remaining part of the journey was spent chatting with Kalpana didi and Hardik bhai and munching on some small packets of nuts and dates that were bought from one moving vendor.
We got down at Banihal and took a shared taxi to Udhampur. While Kalpana and Hardik remained at the station waiting for catching the train to Shimla, their base station, I got into the train that took me to Delhi. At Delhi after passing some time at Humayun's tomb along with my backpack, I started off to Ratnagiri in Rajdhani Express. This time I took care not to get fed heavily on the food that Rajdhani Express offers continuously. Compared to my journey from Ratnagiri to Kashmir, the return journey had lesser crowd, lesser stress, lesser pain, lesser eventfulness and lesser excitement. In plain words it was mundane.

If somebody asks me about advice on doing solo unchartered travel in lesser explored areas of Kashmir, I have following points to say,
1.       Yes it is possible. You can do it. Do not fear. Remain open and move ahead with faith in basic human goodness of people.
2.       The area is disputed. As a traveller and explorer, respect that people can have basic freedom to have their own separatist views. Do not argue with people and boast about your own nationalistic views.
3.       The local culture is conservative Muslim one so behave yourself accordingly. You can be very much inquisitive about their customs and traditions but criticism of it will surely get you into trouble.
That brings to the end of my series of blogposts covering my tour to Kashmir.

"But  you had gone there for a Yoga camp. Did you do it or just roamed around." A friend of mine has asked after reading the first two posts. "Wait my friend. The fourth one is coming up shortly."

(Written on 6 July 2016)

Sachin Patwardhan

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Kashmir Once Again- II



I reached Anantnag station by 7.25 pm on 19 June 2016 and it still had day light out there. The sun must have been somewhere near the horizon. It reminded me that I am up in the north and day length here is more than what we have in Maharashtra during summer. In stark contrast to the hot weather in the hills of Jammu it was quite cool here in Kashmir at this peak summer time. The station had very few people getting down. Most of them were migrant labourers who seemed to have quite settled in Kashmir for a while. As the rest of the people walked out of the station, I was the only one out there at the exit searching for some means of transportation to take me to my destination Nagdandi, which was about 15 km from the station. To my luck there were two autorikshaws kept parked near the station. I asked one young man and he immediately agreed to take me. When I agreed to the first price he had quoted, he started to hesitate and was about to start some haggling. As he saw the other autorikshaw driver approaching he pulled my hand and took me to his autorikshaw and explained his brother sitting in the vehicle the approximate location I wanted to go to.

My prepaid mobile SIM card did not work and the driver of the autorikshaw did not know the exact place where I was going for the first time. It had become dark now. When I had started my journey two and half days ago from my home, my initial sense of adventure had come from the fact that Kashmir is a hotbed for anti-India terrorist activities. I, a Hindu guy, was travelling alone here in this part of Kashmir, which is off the regular tourist circuit. Hindus were systematically driven out in this Muslim dominated land a few years ago as Kashmiri separatism and Islamic Extremism joined to form a lethal mixture. I felt strange at that particular moment however as I found myself going with the flow without any sense of fear. The young, straight nosed, fair skinned and clean shaven Kashmiri guy driving the autorikshaw was quite friendly and at the same time very polite. In spite of Ramadan, our autorikshaw traversed through the empty roads since the people in the area had called for a bandh (strike) in the memory of a militant killed some 20 years ago. The driver kept on sharing bits and pieces of information here and there. His autorikshaw was made extra comfortable and decorated. I used his phone to contact the people at the Ashram and get the proper directions to reach there. Finally I reached the place. Everybody at the Ashram was waiting for me and were worried for me since they had not heard from me till the time I had reached nearby.

I had gone for a Yoga camp organised by Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari at a place called Sri Ramakrishna Mahasammelan Ashram. This is a place where Swami Ashokananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahansa meditated and attained a samadhi. The camp had a tight schedule that kept us busy throughout the day and participants were not allowed to go out during the camp period. On one day we were given a surprise and were taken around to some few places of tourist interest nearby. These places are not on a regular tourist circuit anymore though they once were in the 1970s. 

Martand Mandir is a temple which has still remained in function and Kashmiri Hindu population still comes to the place on its pilgrimage. A river called Chaka emerges at this place and joins further with the Lider river coming from Pahalgam. I lingered a bit near the temple offices and pilgrimage centre. One priest came forward and asked my whereabouts. He asked me what caste I belonged to and whether I was a Brahmin. It might have been out of his curiosity but it also brings one to the social reality of Hinduism where the premise of caste system has remained strong even at a place like Kashmir in spite of going through dangers of Islamic extremism and forced eviction of Hindus. 
Martand Temple, Mattan
Our next stop was at Sun Temple. The temple constructed during the 7th century is now in complete ruins and destruction of sculptures by the iconoclasts is very much visible. Still it seems they have not been able to finish their job. Many of the sculptures are now kept at the museum in Srinagar. We had visited this museum during our family trip back in 2012 and I would highly recommend a visit to the place to the people who are interested in the history of Kashmir and who want to go beyond the gardens and mountains.
Ruins of Sun Temple

A Sculpure in the temple
Kokernag botanical garden is one beautiful place developed around a stream that joins many others to form Bringhi river. The icy water coming from the mountain tops, giant Chinar trees and nearness to the green covered hills makes it one peaceful place for relaxation. From Kokernag, we were taken through some beautiful interior hill roads to Verinag. This is a place where Jhelam river originates. The clear blue water collected in a small reservoir is one majestic site. I had visited this place during my last trip to Kashmir with our family. Then in 2012, we were the only non Kashmiri Hindu tourists and we had become a sort of attraction for the local crowd. This time however there already were some tourists from outside of Kashmir and nobody seemed to be bothered about our presence there. 
Bringhi River that passes through Kokernag Botanical Garden

Large Roses at Kokernag

Scenic roads

A valley view

Verinag, Origin of Jhelam river
The word Nag in Kashmiri language means a spring. There are many town with the word Nag in their names. These have developed near those springs. The word Anantnag beautifully means Innumerable springs. The springs in Kashmir are particularly interesting as many of the springs emit huge quantities of water from inside of the grounds and it literally gushes out in the form of streams. These streams have become lifeline of the rural areas in Kashmir as they not only provide drinking water but also provide local species of fish. The water emanating from these springs have been channelized to rice paddies and in spite of low rainfall during the summer, Kashmir can cultivate rice with flood irrigation. 

Achabal is a place for Mughal style garden. This place is 8 km from Anantnag town. This place was sort of similar to Shalimar garden in Srinagar though very small compared to it. The whole atmosphere at this garden was that of a local hangout place rather than a tourist attraction however. I saw some local kids abruptly starting throwing stones towards an old demented man. I tried to talk with the kids and told them to stop their act but in vain. I said to them that they should play some games instead of throwing stones to the man. The kids answered me that this was their game. I felt strongly then that something really needs to be done for these kids who were passing their time aimlessly but we knew at that juncture of time we could not much and ended up discussing about what could be their family and social conditions that would have made them engage in such acts. We got back to our base in Ashram after this visit and prepared ourselves mentally for the exhaustive Yoga camp routine that was going to resume again the next day.
Achabal Garden

When you dont know the language and the script, even a mundane signboard would look beautiful. ;-) Near Achabal Garden.
There is more to be shared about this Kashmir visit but wait for my next blog post.
(Written on 6 July 2016)
Sachin Patwardhan

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Kashmir Once Again- I



This small piece of land on earth called Kashmir has enchanted me. Nestled between two branches of Himalayas this narrow valley bears natural beauty to its extreme. After my trip to this land in 2012, alongwith my family, I visited it again last month. Occasion was to attend a Yoga Camp organised by Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari at a place called Nagdandi which is near Achabal in Anantnag district. This time my travel was all alone and was also a low budget one. That meant the travel was going to be altogether new experience and I was very much looking forward to it. I felt I was in for some rush of adrenalin as I sensed an adventure. My mobile phone was not going to be working in a land which is infamous for terrorist activities. The valleys and hills have reported natural calamities in the last three years after we visited there. Mr. Razdan, administrative officer at the Nagdandi Ashram, had told me in his assuring voice, "You just come over. There is nothing to worry about."
With my bag stuffed with needful things, I started my journey on 17 June 2016 from Ratnagiri to Delhi in a Rajdhani Express. With lot of food being fed relentlessly on these Rajdhani trains, one does feel giddy on the jerking coaches of the fast moving train. Though a longer part of the journey was done in air conditioned compartments, next leg from Delhi onwards was in second class sleeper compartment which crowded with lots of unreserved passengers trying their best to get a place somewhere to lie down or at least rest some of their body parts. That meant, in spite of having a reserved birth to sleep on, I had to share it with limbs of those unreserved passengers here and there.  It was difficult to sleep while I sweated due to intolerable heat that continued into the midnight. Sometime in the night when I got into sleep finally, the train came to a halt and group of people rushed inside and I was suddenly woke up as one woman literally sat on my foot joint without looking here and there. With some arguments she had her way and sat near my leg. Majority of these desperate souls were rushing to Katra with their crying kids to meet their beloved deity Vaishno Devi before the schools reopened by the end of the month after the end of summer vacations.
I had a good sigh of relief with a fresh air breathed in at Jammu Railway Station. At last I had become free from the crowded compartment of that delayed train. I headed to the Jammu bus stand for next leg of my journey. With a hungry stomach and a stressed out body it was quite a comfort to eat those huge parathas by dipping into piping hot spicy potato vegetable. Vaishno Dhabas are doing a great job in this part of the world, I think.
While I was supposed to take a shared taxi for reaching to a place called Khannabal, I found myself seating in a bus heading to a place called Banihal Railway Station. As per my initial plan, travelling by Kashmir Railway was supposed to be during my return journey but I agreed immediately to the proposal of the bus conductor wherein he suggested me that taking the bus plus railway route would be economical plus time saving. With less number of passengers going till the last point, after travel of 60 km upto Udhampur, they abruptly cancelled the travel further. We were put in an another bus that was coming behind ours and had started an hour after. In spite of all that I was enjoying my journey as I kept myself open minded and remained observant. Our bus, full to its capacity, kept running on the winding roads which were cut across the steep hill slopes. The roads were accompanied by the rapidly flowing streams downhill in the valleys. It was highly scenic. People were getting in and out at various stops and junctions. The fair skinned Dogara people of the Jammu hills seemed to have kept themselves very slim and erect with all the climbing up and down those high mountains.
The journey seemed endless however and after a few hours, I started to feel restless. Nobody around was knowing what time we would reach destination. To my questions, everybody was having the same answer, "Yeh pahad ke raste ka kuchh bata nahi sakate. (We cant tell anything about this hill road.)" The bus stopped for a lunch break at Peerah. The place offers beautiful views of the dam constructed on Chenab river. There is a hydropower plant installed at the dam. I went to the driver and asked about reaching destination in time. He also started repeating the same sentences. I got angry and gave him my futile kind of ultimatum. " kuchh bhi karo lekin hamein last train tak pahuncha do. (Do anything but let us catch the last train.)". The young man with his trimmed beard smiled and answered, "you know. I am known to be the roughest driving person on this route and I take seven hours to reach Banihal and still I can't guarantee you anything. But you don't worry. Sit relaxed in the bus."
I tensed. I thought that the whole journey was going to get haywire. After we passed the district town of Ramban, the driver suddenly changed his pace and started driving extremely fast. He started overtaking other vehicles at the blind curves. Almost all the passengers were worried for their lives. The last train from Banihal was scheduled to leave the station at 7.00 pm and we found ourselves reached at the station by 6.47 pm. Everybody rushed in towards the ticket counter. It was a very high frenzy moment I was running upstairs with a large back pack to get in the station. After gettig a ticket I frantically ran to the train and got in one of the compartments. It was another sigh of relief of the day as I sat down on one push back chair of this local train that was going to run through the beautiful Kashmir valley.
Exactly at 7.00 pm, the train started with a slight screech and pushed off. After some time entered into the long dark tunnel and came out after about 15 minutes. Aha! I was on the other side of Pir Panjal Mountains in the valley of Kashmir. High mountains were giving way to low hills covered with alpine forests. Crystal clear water was rushing through the streams. The valley started to become flatter and human presence more distinct. Freshly planted rice paddies, apple orchards, poplar plantations were almost everywhere. Honey bee boxes were kept at some places. Some shepherds were herding their sheep here and there. Women were standing at the crossroads in the villages and were chitchatting. Gigantic Chinar trees dotted the landscapes and their existence with the human settlements made them more beautiful. The air had become cool and the atmosphere so serene in a matter of just few minutes.
It was difficult to believe that I had started my stressful journey two days back and I felt perfectly relaxed in the moment. It was all worth it.
The travel continued further however and so would my story in the next blogpost!
(Written on 5 July 2016)
-          Sachin Patwardhan

Sunday, 2 March 2014

At the Cultural Crossroads 1: Manipur



28 February 2014
One of the pros of working at a donor organisation having outreach all across the country, is that you get to travel to so many new areas that are prove exciting if you are open enough for any experience that comes forth. As I sit at the airport recalling everything about this third most memorable trip of mine till date, I try to analyse why. Beautiful nature in bounty, openly hospitable people, cleanliness, professional services were found to be common all across central parts of Ghana, Kashmir and now Manipur. Extents of these differ from one location to the other, which is why they are unique. I would tell this to anybody who comes to me for an advice, which I know that nobody would, that this combination can make a killer tourism destination.
My real experience of visiting Manipur for this short trip started with flight from Guwahati to Imphal, where the old man who was sitting on the window seat in the row next to me started to give me information in his Manipuri language once the flight crossed over the vast expanse of beautiful fog covered hill tops of Nagaland and started flying low over the hills of Manipur. I understood very little but he must have sensed my excitement and continued incessantly. He was probably talking about the towns that were visible below, flooded paddy fields, floating bed vegetable cultivation in Loktak Lake, barrages on rivers and wide spread of Imphal city. As I clicked the photograph of the shadow of the aeroplane that was cast over the fields below, he started laughing like a child.

Aerial view of floating bed cultivation of vegetables in a lake near Imphal
 Once on the ground, I was in the hands of my host organisation Youth Volunteers Union, sometimes known by its acronym YVU. For two consecutive days it was great to be with this highly motivated social leader and entrepreneur Mr. Tikendrajit Singh, who heads this organisation. His team on the ground is very active. Their social connect in the villages is very strong and their social enterprises of microfinance and the dairy producer company are being run very professionally. He and his team were very good hosts and they took me around the market, fed me local Manipuri food and improved my knowledge abour Manipur.
While these days, tensions between “mainland Indians” and north easterners are rising continuously, it has to be specially mentioned here that during the 1970’s, Tikendrajit’s father had done intensive promotion of Hindi in the area. He had also received President’s award for the best teacher. Unlike most of the other Manipuris, he and his foreign educated son can speak Hindi more fluently than a “mainland Indian” like me. While I visited villages and tried to interact with the villagers through the team of YVU, I started to sense the kind of distrust that is there with the rest of India.
We visited mainly the villages in the plains of Manipur, which are predominantly inhabited by the Meitei people who also form the ethnic majority in the state. Meiteis practice a combination of Vaishnavite Hinduism introduced in the region in about 1700‘s and their ancient local religious belief systems. There have elaborate local festivals and their calendar is similar to the one followed by Bengali Hindus. Meitei villages are formed of small habitations generally situated on some slightly higher elevation than the rest of the area which gets flooded by the rivers and rivulets that bring the water from the hill regions of Manipur. The flooded plains are usually the site for rice paddies with some wetlands in the lower most parts of the region. In spite of the very low annual rainfall, plains of Manipur have very rich traditional agricultural systems developed by these hard working communities of Meiteis.
A typical Meitei homestead has a large number of well developed economic activities. They cultivate vegetables in their kitchen gardens, they rear fish in the small ponds around it and they rear ducks and chicken. Some houses also keep pigs and dairy animals. The paddy and field crops like mustard are grown in the fields. While men work in the fields and production activities, women in addition to helping men in these also do weaving and go out in the market for sale of the produce from their homesteads. Most of the local trade is run by the women whom they locally call Ima. 
A typical Meitei homestead

A Manipuri rural woman
 The rich agricultural biodiversity is also available in the local trade. When I took a round in the vegetable markets of Thoubal and Imphal, these industrious Imas were selling products ranging from dry fish to beans to mushrooms to locally made Laddoos. Of course a meal in the local restaurants run by an Ima is also such a biodiversified and highly palatable experience where you eat slightly sticky local rice with things such as fiery banana stem pith curry, spicy chicken curry added with Vietnamese coriander, boiled local mustard greens, chana dal dashed with some unidentifiable local green leafy vegetable. All of this was at a price of just Rs.60 per meal.
While all this looks good and sounds fine, people are not completely happy about their condition. While I was speaking with them about interesting geographical similarities between Kashmir and Manipur valleys, Mr. Tikendrajit also reminded me that there is also a similarity in terms of having continuous insurgency situations, ethnic conflicts and the overall apathy of the central government and mainland people. Manipur is seeing an unending fight between two hill communities viz, Nagas and Kukis. There is a separatist movement going on in Manipur. There are bandhs declared by some or the other factions and fighting groups every, now and then. Presence of military forces is rampant in almost all the major roads. The city of Imphal just closes down once it becomes dark and it is not at all safe to roam around in the city afterwards. This is getting compounded by racial discriminations of the Manipuris and other people from the North East when they visit other places in India. It is not just the question of people from the mainland calling them “Chinky” but the major unsolved problem of overall integration of that region in the country.