The straps and locks of our backpacks clicked in. Bleary eyes of our family members looked on. Tight hugs. Kisses to Sasha and Zaara. Appa, once again, driving us to the airport in the early hours of a cold winter morning in Sydney. A warm hug and goodbye to Appa. And just like that, our 2nd year of travel had begun on yet another Emirates flight out to Oman.
Chapter 1: Muscat, Oman
Post the usual stopover in Dubai and some delicious Thai food with Sahil and Ganesh, the wonderful Mr Vivek Pai picked me up from Muscat airport and whisked me away to the now routine house party at their residence. Business as usual ensued over the next 3 days with plenty of pampering from Mrs Pai and her mates who kept us throughly entertained at their nightly house parties.
Chapter 2: Chennai and Bangalore
We ran into some surprisingly good weather in Chennai given that it was the peak of the summer there, and checked in to the Chari household to the usual warm reception by Peanut, Coco and their mother, the mother of all dogs and sentient beings, my cousin – Pavi.
Bags lighter, we made our way next door to say hello to my grands who as ever were delighted to see us. The mutual feeling of longing, unadulterated love, and the sheer purity of affection for each other translated into warm, tight embraces with both thatha and paati. Paati’s eyes, as ever upon greeting us would swell with tears of joy (and later swell with tears again, this time with sadness, upon our departure). I had intended to spend as much time as I could with the two of them on this trip and I was glad that Dee and I were both able to clear our minds and spend undistracted, quality time with them over the next 4 days. I had come to the realisation over the last few months that I was taking their being around forever as granted and as I write this en route to Chennai again, paati rests in a hospital on a ventilator. While fate can be cruel, I am able to take a lot of happiness at having spent our last conscious moments laughing, hugging and as was the joke amongst us grandkids, poking fun at the ‘mountain of creases’ on her forehead. My head feels a little light, my fingers stutter with each letter I key in, I shall meditate and try to focus on giving her as much energy as I can through my thoughts. As the photo below will testify, she’s the most beautiful grandmother I’ve ever seen. And on the inside, she’s always been a gentle, worrying, loving and aware soul. I am counting down the hours to Chennai so I can be with my old man and his old man, the two men who I want to embrace most right now.
Chapter 3: Tonse Pais and weddings
We caught up with the Pais again in Mangalore for Sharanya and Anil’s wedding which was punctuated with all the fanfare you associate with an Indian wedding – dance, music, laugther and the best food there is, served on a banana leaf. There is no feeling better than that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you spend time with your family at a wedding and I absolutely love the Raos, the Pais and the Bhatts. Ajja continues to stay strong year after year and is truly an inspiration, what with him organising a jaw dropping dance sequence at the wedding, performed by kids from the orphanage that he runs.
Post the wedding, I accompanied the Pais to their hometown, Tonse, where they wanted to perform their annual prayer offerings at the Snake Temple. I was quite fascinated by this neat, quiet village set against the backdrop of rice fields and forests of palm trees. During our parent’s generation, the custom for males in South India was to have their village name incorporated as part of their name. Hence Tonse Vivek Pai came into being.
Chapter 4: Dharamshala
After spending 5 quality days with the grands in Bangalore we set off to what has always been a dream destination – Dharamshala. The name alone has a pleasing ring to it and a complex transation from Hindi/Sanskrit to English as behaviours that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and ‘right way of living’ (wikipedia).
Most international tourists take an overnight bus from Delhi if they are coming from the relative north of India, but since we were coming from the distant south, we flew in to the picturesque, on the edge (literally on the cliff’s edge) airport of Kangra. Snow capped mountains, monks draped in serenity and the crisp, cool air of Dharamshala set the tone for what was to be a glorious month in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
Pavi, my cousin from Chennai met up with us to spend the next week in and around Dharamshala. McLeod Ganj was the place the online world had us believe as the ‘place to be’. Unfortunately, given the school holidays and the high season, it ended up being a tainted jewel. I say jewel because I envisage it being an absolute paradise once the tourists leave town with its tiny alleyways, the Dalai Lama temple and small collection of markets. It also happened to be the Dalai’s 80th birthday so people thronged the holy city in large numbers.
Pavi’s friend, Lavi who was also in the area at a Vipasna retreat suggested that Dharamkot, a tiny village above McLeod Ganj was a much nicer place to enjoy the mountains. So off we were on a half hour climb and were instantly and pleasantly surprised at how serene the village of Dharamkot was. For starters, we were away from the blaring honks and emissions of cars of McGanj (thank goodness for the ultra narrow streets in Dharamkot!). In addition, the only other domestic tourists were Indian college students on holiday who only seemed to revel well post midnight.
The village was punctuate with numerous little cafes every 20 metres or so where one could escape the crowds and ponder the might of the Himalayan range in view. There was also a Buddhist Meditation Centre, a Vipasana retreat and a few schools that taught Indian Cooking and Reki. And then there was the trek to the stunning mountain top of Triund. In effect, there was something for everyone to do. I was glad at having gotten out of McLeod Ganj!
Pai and I had an early start (7am) the following day to do the Triund trek which was a 3 hour exercise each way. The route can be slippery on days when it’s rained prior so one has to be careful with their footing. There are a couple of cafes along the way where you can buy water and a few snacks and rest your legs but my suggestion would be to try and get to the top by mid-day at the latest so you can atleast spend a couple of hours taking in the view (and the ‘daal’ (lentil rice) at the top.
Chapter 5: Photomigos
It was up there at Triund that I came up with the ‘Photomigos’ initiative. When you spend time alone in the mountains, there is plenty of time for reflection, contemplation and as you often hear, the sheer might of the sights are you puts it all into perspective. I had decided that whatever little skill I develop or already have must be put to use in a socially ethical manner as well, else what was the point of it all apart from raking in the dough?
I hope to help each and everyone of us earth inhabitants to atleast have one professional printed portrait of themselves. At no cost to them. Especially those less privileged as I see it as the tiniest footprint I can leave.
After a bit of research I came across the Canon Selphy 910 travel printer and purchased it on a website in the UAE. Could not contain my excitement in putting it to use! I would love to see more photographers participate in this thought and hopefully one day we can flood the walls of all houses, no matter how big or small with smiles!
Chapter 6: Tushita and more of Himachal Pradesh
During yet another meal at the popular Trek ‘n’ Dine cafe, I struck up a conversation with Mor who was sitting across me on the floor (you can choose to sit on comfortable mattresses or at the tables). At the start of every one of our travels, right at the outset I’ve always met that one person who shakes me up – my beliefs, my outlook and infuses me with indestructible energy that powers me on for the rest of the year. Mor’s been that person on this leg of our travels. Testament being her zillion watt smile lighting up a silent meditation centre with over 95 people for 10 days, but more (no pun intended) on that below.
Dharamshala is popular amongst international and local tourists for the meditation retreats that are open all around the year. Dee and I went to the free daily guided meditation session at Tushita where Eres and Richard were the meditation teachers. I’ve never meditated prior and I saw the monastery’s serene setting inside a forest as the perfect opportunity to learn more about it. Tushita had an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’ course starting the following week for which the waiting list went well beyond 50! Nevertheless, we added our names to the monstrous list as neither Pai or I were too fussed if we missed out as we were more keen on doing the ‘Kashmir Great Lakes’ trek which would be during the same dates as the course.
The staff at Tushita had asked us to come on the day the course was to start with all our belongings to see if we’d get a spot. With nothing to lose, we turned up and seeing the enormous amount of people resigned quickly to having no hopes of getting into the course. Name after name was called out and with a little yelp and a hop, skip students were taken to their respective dormitories or private rooms. Finally it was down to one last position and at this point I stood up, slung my backpack on ready to walk out when the announcer called out “Beepa Pai!”. We exchanged amused looks and I indicated for her to go on. She was hesitant but walked up to the head nun and let her know that she was here with me and hence would have to give up her place as I didn’t make the cut. To our utter surprise, the head nun with a mere shrug over her shoulders said nonchalantly, “Oh you are here with someone? Sure, we can make some space for him too. Now come on, get your stuff.”
6.2 The course
One of the focal points of the course was that it was to be attended in silence. No words for 10 days escaping your lips. I’ve always wondered and at times feared if I would ever be up to such a task and had jitters on the first day when the gong sounded marking the start of the silence after our first dinner. Prior to that, we had 2 hours amongst ourselves where every participant scrambled around the dining room introducing themselves, say their ‘last hellos’.
We were then introduced to our course teacher, Sahar, a dreadlocks flaunting Israeli and Richard from Holland was to guide us through our meditation sessions. Little did I know the impact the next 10 days was to have on me. Sahar’s talks were far from being preachy and the content had most in the room contemplate, reflect and question (yes you could ask questions). I won’t go into too much detail on this post about my observations, learnings, dilemmas as it’s something that deserves a post of its own requiring reflection and practice over a period of time. In addition, each one has a variedly different experience to the person sitting across you so it’s best experienced in first person.
Post the retreat, some of us felt like we need to be alone and others sought company of fellow students. Most of us felt extremely malleable, vulnerable and confronting predicaments that normally would be brushed under the carpet due to the fast paced, distractive nature of our existences. We chose to leave Dharamkot after a day’s rest lest our energy levels sink, and headed to Naggar, a beautiful little town on the outskirts of Manali. The town was famous for housing a famous Russian painter, Nicholas Roerich for almost 30 years and has converted the Roerich family house into a little museum showcasing his works. A great place to unwind, read, walk and practice Yoga. I had never taken to Yoga before but all that changed during the time at Tushita with Mor leading Yoga sessions on the rooftop every morning at 5.30am!
Chapter 7: Bombay
After 6 memorable weeks in the North, it was then time to hit home. Bombay during the monsoons! Alas (or fortunately depending how you look at it) it didn’t rain during our time there which was personally disappointing for me as I was hoping to create some photos depicting the typical sights during monsoon, right from the ‘bhuta’ (roasted corn), to the flurry of umbrellas and rain coats on public transport etc.
Our primary reason for visiting Bombay was to see the first of the next generation amongst our mates – baby Aryan Haware! It was funny and fascinating to see our best mates as parents, juggling parenthood and still being silly around us like we’ve always been around each other.
I also caught up with the one other person I always intend to – Srini (or Vaas as he’s more popularly known today). We’ve been mates for over 15 years and the dynamic between us has never changed. Right from taking the mickey, to incessant ‘Amar-Prem jokes’, the friendship we’ve shared is something that’ll always keep me coming to Bombay annually (because I know he wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else!). Along with Prerna, his partner, we have always been keen on listening to what the other has been up to since we last met and plenty of ideas, arguments, discussion was had.
While this post has been more of a personal diary, I’d definitely recommend the Tushita Buddhist Meditation Centre to anyone who is thirsty for knowledge and has the energy to know more about themselves and their existence around
May-July is the best time to visit the state of Himachal Pradesh whether it is treks, yoga, meditation, cooking or anything else you plan to do. The weather is cool and dry before the monsoons strike late July and once they do you can head up further north to Ladakh or Srinagar Jammu and Kashmir.
Food, Drink & Stay
Around Dharamkot you can find rooms from as cheap as Rs 150 to Rs 1500. An average meal can cost anywhere between Rs 100-150.