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Gangasagar: My tryst with spirituality and faith

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Continued from the story, ‘Gangasagar: Waves of faith and in search of moksha’

Evening descended on the Sagar Island as the mela ground was swept by the sea of humanity. I could see from the two-storey building’s (where we had put up) balcony busloads of devotees arriving at the mela ground. Although weighed down by exhaustion, I saw sparkle in their eyes as they alighted from the vehicles. The sight of an old woman clutching tightly the hand of her son and tottering her way to the mela ground symbolised the pilgrims’ unshakeable faith and spiritual aspiration.

John Bunyan’s spiritual classic The Pilgrims’ Progress came to my mind. Well, the journey there was from the City of Destruction (representing Earth) to the Celestial City (representing Heaven).

Brilliantly illuminated Kapil Muni temple

Meanwhile, the public address system kept announcing the names of the missing persons, asking the concerned families to contact the organiser. The mela ground was brilliantly lit up. I went downstairs trying to mingle with the crowd to feel the pulse of the pilgrims. “I’ve come from Allahabad with my septuagenarian mother to take a holy dip,” said Bipin Varma, a banker. “I’ve no complaints about the arrangements made by the district administration. They’ve done an incredible job.”

I woke up at 5.30am the next day (January 15) and got ready for the holy dip. By the time I reached there, lakhs of devotees and seers had already taken their bath at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal, braving the cold. “I just had my holy dip for which I had been waiting for years,” said a young woman from Ujjain, MP. “My parents also took their bath to wash away all sins and set them free from the cycle of birth and death.”

“I’ve been coming here for the past 10 years and will come next year also,” said an old Naga sadhu from Jammu.

Idol of Kapil Muni

Crowds gather in front of the temple

I finally took my holy dip at that brahma moment and proceeded to Kapil Muni’s temple to offer puja. Construction of the present-day Kapil Muni Temple was completed in 1973 with the state government’s aid after a number of temples had been destroyed by natural calamities.

More than 50 million pilgrims reportedly visited the mela this year.

There is a saying “Shob teertha baar aar, Gangasagar ekbar” (You can visit another pilgrimages several times, but you can come to Gangasagar only once). As I left the mela ground, I thought I was fortunate to take the holy dip during that auspicious moment.

Mela over, but my memories of Gangasagar and the pilgrims’ journey will remain forever—a journey symbolising spiritual aspiration, profound faith and deep devotion.

 A peek into history

 The myth of Gangasagar is all about the tryst between the circle of life and death and the allure of Moksha. And the heart of this devotional destiny is the iconic Kapil Muni temple.

‘Sagar Raja’, the ancestor of Lord Ram and ruler of the Ikshvaku dynasty, decided to perform the Ashwamedha Yagya as directed by Sage Aurva. It was believed that performing 100 Ashwamedha Yagyas would help one gain dominion over the entire earth. Lord Indra (the King of God according to Hindu mythology), the only one to complete the 100 Ashwamedha Yagya, feared that he would lose his ascendancy to a mortal, and hid the sacrificial horse near Kapil Muni’s hermitage.

Irate Sagar Raja sent his 60,000 sons (Sagar Putras) to find out the missing horse. The Sagar Putras decimated everything on their path and reached the Sage’s ashram. Upon discovering the horse, the Sagar Putras mistook the Sage for the thief and started hurling abuse at the meditating sage. The commotion hindered the Sage’s meditation. Enraged, Kapi Muni opened his eyes and turned the 60,000 Sagar Putras into ashes, condemning their souls to hell.

Years later, Angshuman, Sagar Raja’s descendant, discovered the horse still standing at Kapil Muni’s ashram. He performed austerities to please the Sage. Content with Angshuman’s effort, the sage gave his permission to retrieve the horse and learned that the souls of his ancestors could only be freed after performing Shraddhas with the holy water of the Ganges. Raja Angshuman and his son Dilip couldn’t complete the Shraddhas because Agastya Muni had drunk all the water from the ocean due to a severe drought.

A generation later, King Bhagirath undertook the task of freeing the condemned souls and prayed to Lord Brahma, the creator, to free his ancestors’ souls. He asked him to pray to Lord Vishnu to allow the holy Ganga to ascend on earth. Upon agreeing, he cautioned that the sheer force of the Ganges would wipe out the entire creation if it went unchecked and asked him to pray to Lord Shiva. Shiva agreed to bear the entire force of Ganga on his matted hair. In the meandering labyrinth of Shiva’s hair, Ganga lost her brute force and descended on the earth, gently caressing all existence. Bhagirath was finally able to perform the last rites of his ancestors, liberating the souls from the fires of Patal Lok.

With passing years, the myths turned into legends, legends into stories, and stories into beliefs. The river Ganga was also given the name Bhagirathi, after Raja Bhagirath, and the sea got its name ‘Sagar’ after Sagar Raja and the island, Sagardwip.


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Gangasagar: Waves of faith and in search of moksha

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It’s a tale of unfathomable faith and fervor. Of unshakeable belief and conviction. Of unwavering determination and single-minded devotion. Of a journey in search of moksha.

Welcome to Gangasagar mela.

As I begin to pen down my experience about this year’s mela, the second biggest congregation of Hindu pilgrims after Kumbh Mela, I am absolutely clueless how to gauge the devotees’ intense passion and profound devotion that drives them on this arduous journey.

During the four-and-half hour car ride from Kolkata we traveled past the countryside of Diamond Harbour, Karonjali, Kultoli and Kulpi. We reached Harwood Point under Kakdwip subdivision of district 24 Parganas around 2.30pm. Well, I knew about the millions of pilgrims visiting Gangasagar mela every year, but for the first time I witnessed the mind-boggling spectacle from close quarters.

Countless devotees were waiting for the ferry to cross the river Muri Ganga, a distributary of the river Hooghly. They came from all over India and abroad. Their tired bodies belied their inexplicable faith and religious fervor. Their burnt-out faces still spoke of their unflagging resilience and undying spirit. They were ready to undergo any amount of pain and ordeal. They’ve just ‘one aim, one business and one desire’: a holy dip at the brahma moment at the Gangasagar followed by puja at Kapil Muni’s ashram.

Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s timeless song, ‘Pother klanti bhule snehobhora kole tobo Ma go bolo kobe shitol hobo/Koto dur aar koto dur bolo Ma’ crossed my mind.

It is believed that it is on the day of Makar Sankranti the river flowed into the sea at the ashram of Kapil Muni. Hence a dip in the Gangasagar on this day absolves one of all sins and prevents re-birth.

There were announcements on public address system directing the pilgrims for the jetty meant for them. With the midday sun hiding behind the clouds, the devotees had some sort of relief. We boarded the ferry which took about 20 minutes to reach Kochuberia, the other side of the river.

Government staff and civic volunteers left no stone unturned to extend help for the pilgrims. At Kochuberia, we had tea from a roadside shop near the jetty. Our car soon arrived to take us to the mela premises, 32km from Kochuberia. The journey along the newly-built spic-and-span road was a sheer delight. Hundreds of government and private buses were carrying devotees to the mela ground. I saw festoons and posters on the way carrying divine messages of the mela.

The earliest reference of this fair can be found in an instruction issued by Governor General Lord Wellesley in 1803 when he banned the ritual of drowning the first-born child in the sea. In 1837, a newspaper mentioned an extract that said the temple was around 1,400 years old while the deity was installed by Guru Ramanand in 1437 AD.

After about 45 minutes when we reached the mela ground, it was 4pm. We were taken to Sagar Coastal Police station for lunch. After the lunch was over, we were taken to a two-storey building about 2km away for the night stay.

(To be continued)

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A pilgrimage to Banaras: The end is never the end

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Continued from the story, ‘Banaras: In search of faith, fervor and spirituality’

It is said that a trip to the endlessly fascinating Banaras must begin with a visit to Kaal Bhairav (a fearsome manifestation of Shiva) temple. My first destination was, therefore, Kaal Bhairav Temple.

The hotel owner, Mayukh Jaiswal, helped me get an auto to reach the temple which was 2.7km away from where I was staying. On my way, I saw the streets crammed with pedestrians, hand-pulled rickshaws autos, totos, while harried cops were trying in vain to bring some semblance of order to the streets. Well, if you really want to feel the pulse of this temple town, you’ve to walk through its numerous lanes and alleys.

Kaal Bhairav, the ‘Black terror’ is widely known as the kotwal, the ‘police chief’ of Kashi and the place where this temple is located is known as Kotwalpuri. The temple opens at 5am and closes at 1.30pm and again remains open from 4.30pm to 9.30pm. ‘Kaal’ means both Death and Fate, in addition to meaning Black. He has also assumed the duties of the God of Death in Kashi.

It took about 20 minutes to reach the temple. The entrance is extremely narrow and painfully congested. I waited for about half an hour, braved the crowd and finally saw the silver face of Kaal Bhairava, garlanded with flowers, visible through the doorway of the inner sanctum. The rest of Bhairav’s image—said to be pot-bellied, seated upon a dog, holding a trident—is hidden behind a cloth drapery.

“Bhairava is the hero who overcame the worst of sins and who conquered the grotesque, ever-present skull of death. In his pilgrimage to Kashi, Bhairava achieves that for which all pilgrims hope: freedom from sins and from the fear of death,” says Diana E. Leck in her book, Banaras: City of Light. I came out of the temple and ambled my way to the place where the auto driver was waiting for me.

It is said that in Kashi, Vishwanatha is the King, Annapurna is the Queen and Kaal Bhairava is the Governor.

A priest performs puja at Dashaswamedh Ghat

Destination: Kashi Vishwanath Temple (1.4km from Kaal Bhairava temple)

After a 10-minute drive, I had to get down from the auto about 400m from the Vishwanath Temple’s Gate 4 as no vehicles are allowed beyond that point. I made my way through thousands of devotees walking towards the gate and had to stand in the queue. After almost two hours, I finally reached the gorbhogriho. Well, a visitor gets only a few seconds’ time to see the jyotirlinga, one of the 12 jyotirlingas in India. The temple has a central dome and two spires called shikharas. The other that rises over the Vishveshvara linga was plated with gold by King Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1839.

The present structure, which is popularly known as the Golden Temple because of the gold used in the plating of its spires and domes, is believed to have been built in 1780 by Ahalya Bai of the Holkar dynasty. It had been demolished by several Muslim rulers; Mohammad of Ghor was the first one to destroy the temple in 1198.

As I finished my darshana of Lord Shiva, hailed as Vishwanath or the Lord of the Universe, and came out I realized pilgrimage to this tirtha has been an important unifying force, not only for sects and religions, but for the wider Hindu perception of what constitutes the land of India.

Destination: Ma Annapurna Mandir

Located adjacent to the Vishwanath Temple, the darshana of Vishwanatha always accompanies the darshana of Annapurna. The name ‘Annapurna’ means “She of Plenteous Food”. She is the one who fills her devotees with food. The image of Annapurna within the sanctum is a new one, established and consecrated in January 1977. Devotees are offered free meal at this temple from 10am to 5pm every day.

Ganga Mahal Ghat

Destination: Dashaswamedh Ghat

My idea about Dashaswamedh Ghat, just 550m from Annapurna Temple, was formed by Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito (1956), in which Ray portrayed the ghat with minute details with pilgrims offering pujas, priests performing rituals of chanting and bell-ringing through a haze of incense. It’s at this ghat we see a frail and weak Harihar falling down while climbing up the steep stairs. The famous death-scene of Harihar crossed my mind: As Harihar’s soul departs his body, a huge flock of pigeons takes flight, accompanied by the falling notes of a flute playing a melody based on raga Jog.

Dashashwamedh Ghat was earlier known as Rudrasaras in Indian scriptures. Lord Brahma performed “ten ashvamedha” sacrifices, the requisites for which was supplied by King Divodasa, at Rudrasaras and installed two Shivlings. The place was later renamed Dashashwamedh Ghat. 

A view of Kashi-Vishwanath Temple corridor from the river Ganga

While Manikornika Ghat is said to be the oldest ghat in Banaras, visitors’ footfalls are maximum at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and it is the most popular ghat attracting huge crowd of bathers at dawn. It is also the bustling hub of the pilgrim business along the riverfront. Rows of pilgrim-priests sit on their low wooden chaukis under bamboo-umbrellas, eager to minister to the priestly needs of the pilgrims.

There are two adjacent ghats that today bear the name Dashaswamedha. The main road leading from Godowlia crossing to the river forks to either side of the Dshaswamedh market, one of the largest markets of this temple town. The two forks reach the river a short distance apart and turn into long stairways broadening out as the steps descend into the river.

Glittering evening Ganga aarti being performed at Dashawamedh Ghat

Ganga aarti: A visual treat

Ganga Aarti performed every evening at this ghat has unique vibes and energies. Huge crowds start assembling even from 4pm to get a closer view of the event. The aarti starts from 6pm and continues until 7pm.

The aarti is always performed facing the river Ganga. Sporting silk saffron and white robes, seven young men conduct the ceremony. The aarti is accompanied by different songs sung while praising the Ganga. The ritual includes many oil lamps like snake hood lamp which are waved in a synced motion. Conch shells are also blown during the ceremony. Yak tail fans and peacock feather fans are waved during the ceremony. 

As the crowds melted away following the aarti, Ganga Seva Nidhi workers get down to work to clear the staircases where chairs were placed for visitors. The Ganga aarti is a shining beacon of spirituality and devotion.

Even though I wrapped up my tour of Banaras, I felt like the pilgrim described in the Padma Purana: “Making a pilgrimage there in Banaras every day for a whole year, still she did not reach all the sacred places. For in Banaras there is a sacred place at every step.”


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Banaras: In search of faith, fervor and spirituality

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Call it ‘City of Light’, ‘City of Temples,’ ‘City of Ghats’, ‘Galiyo ka Shohor’ or what you will. Banaras evokes a sense of chaos, confusion, sublime feelings or intense devotion for the millions of pilgrims and seekers who have been coming here for over 2500 years.

Intending to capture the soul of the city, I boarded Bibhuti Express from Howrah station which reached Varanasi right on time. As I stepped on the station platform in the morning, cold December winds sent shivers down my spine.

One of the oldest cities of the world, Banaras is as old as Jerusalem, Athens, Peking and Mecca. Talking about its antiquity, a mid-nineteenth-century missionary Rev. M.A. Sherring wrote: “Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added luster to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory.”

Mark Twain says, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

The city, also known as Kashi, is said to be the city of ‘Shiva’, founded at the dawn of civilization. “It has survived and flourished through the changing fortunes of the centuries because it is significant to the Hindus,” says Diana L. Eck in her book, Banaras: City of Light

My destination: Cozy Inn on Luxe Road, half a km from Dashashvamedh Ghat.

During my journey from the rail station to the hotel, I saw streets noisy with jangling of rickshaw bells, narrow lanes surging with life, buildings crumbling and sagging in the balconies and cows moving in a leisurely fashion. Well, this is Banaras on the surface. But, deep within there’s a reflection of elaborate and ancient ritual tradition of Hinduism. It is a tradition that has imagined God in a thousand ways. It is a religious tradition that understands life and death as an integrated whole. For non-Hindus, it is very difficult to see the same city as Hindus perceive it.

The hotel owner, Mayukh Jaiswal, warmly greeted and ushered us into the hotel. We’re amazed by the ethnic décor of the building’s interior: simple, elegant and austere. Served with a cup of tea immediately on arrival, I was ready to begin my journey through the holy city to discover its myriad facets.

(To be continued)









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In front of bison at Betla

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The day dawned. We got out of bed at 5.30am for the safari at the Betla National Park, located in the Chotanagpur plateau of the Latehar district in Jharkhand. It was cold with temperature hovering around 14 degrees Celsius. The Park’s entrance gate was very near to Banvihar (a Jharkhand Tourism property) where we had checked in the previous day. Warmth of the guy at the ticket (Rs 1,200) counter touched us. We’re given a Commander jeep and a young and energetic driver. Going on a safari with an expert guide makes the experience mind-blowing and we’re fortunate enough to get a knowledgeable guide.

The author with cousin at the entrance of the Park

There were no other tourists in the jeep. The gate opened and the jeep made its way into the forest. With the rays of the early-morning sun caressing the trees, we were transported to another world. I could see tree leaves covered with dew drops. “Keep a close look at either side of the road,” said our guide. “If you’re lucky, you may spot bison, leopard or elephant.”

Two years ago, the guide reminisced, a tigress was killed by a group of bison. “Since then tigers at Betla disappeared,” he added. As the jeep moved ahead slowly along the meandering roads, we came across the site where the tigress was killed. “The autopsy showed the tigress was carrying three cubs,” the guide rued, pointing to the site.

“Shhh,” the guide muttered. “Look at the bison.” We could see as many as four bison in the dense forest not far from us. One of them was feeding her baby. “Don’t get off the jeep,” the driver said. “I’ll be in trouble. There are several cameras kept hidden among the branches of the trees.” We snapped photos of the bison from the jeep.

The sun rose as a canopy of gold, bright amid the blue bidding the stars to take their nightly rest.  I was reminded of the lines: “The early morning is the dominion of birds, for they in bright feathered plume, are so very in love with the sunrise.” We’re captivated by the sweet chirp of birds as the jeep moved deep into the forest. Beatles’ Norwegian Wood crossed my mind.

We saw peacocks and a herd of deer frolicking in the forest. “If you visit the park in April or May, you can see leopards here,” the guide said. The safari was just for one hour. “If you’d like to spend more time in the forest, you’ve to come out of the forest and buy another ticket for one more hour,” the driver said.

The safari began at 6am and got over at 7am.

Want to have a real feel of the forest? You may stay at Tree House inside the forest. The booking may be made from DFO office, Daltonganj, now known as Medininagar. Tel: 995552731/6562222454

We bid adieu to bewitching Betla and headed for Ranchi on our way back to Kolkata. The trip was a true broadening of the horizon for me, an education for the mind and a rejuvenation of the soul.


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Bewitching Betla

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Part 2

Jharkhand, famously known as the “Land of Forests” is an ultimate destination for nature lovers and wildlife aficionados.

As the crowd melted away from the sunset view point at Netarhat, Naresh drove us back to a roadside restaurant (Hotel Nagbanshi). “If you bring desi chicken, I can cook for you,” the young man at the restaurant said. “The shop is nearby,” he added. Excited, my cousin Pronab and I hurried to buy the chicken. As we handed over the chicken to the young man, he said: “Your dinner will be ready by 9.30pm.”

We then went to see the Netarhat Residential School, a unique initiative by the Jharkhand government for poor and meritorious students. Established in 1954, the school consistently produces toppers of the Bihar School Examination Board. We couldn’t go inside the campus which is spread over 780 acres.

Pronab and I then returned to the hotel. Around 9.30pm we went back to the restaurant for dinner. The menu was: hot roti, rice, dal and desi chicken. We thanked the young man for the hearty meal. The stillness of the night whispered peace. With the moon shining up in the sky, I was savoring every moment.

The next day morning we woke up very early to see the sunrise at Magnolia Point, the same site where we went to see the sunset. It was 5.40am. Naresh drove us to the viewpoint. The wind was beginning to lift the veil of mist which melted away slowly before the sun. The rising sun cast a rosy hue across the morning sky. Spellbound, we watched the sun slowly rising on the eastern horizon. After soaking in the mesmerizing sight, we returned to the hotel.

Our next destination was Betla National Park located on the Chotanagpur plateau in the Latehar and Palamu district.

We quickly had our breakfast at the restaurant where we had our dinner and bid adieu to Netarhaat around 8.30am. The 94km drive through the luxuriant sal forests was breathtaking. Nature has bestowed all her treasures here. Driving through the enthralling terrains and dense forests, I recalled an anonymous quote: “The view is tree-mendous!”

We drove past a bridge over the river Koel. Pronab and I got off the car to take some photographs of the romantic river. Even though the midday sun was blazing down, our mood was as brilliant as the rays of the sun.

We finally reached Betla around 12pm and checked into Banvihar (a Jharkhand Tourism property) which was very close to the entrance to Betla National Park.  A very spacious ground floor room was given to us. After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we drove to Palamu Fort, 3km from Banvihar. The poor maintenance of the Fort was appalling. After spending about an hour, we returned to the hotel for lunch.

The timing for the National Park safari is from 7am to 9am in the morning and from 2pm to 4pm in the afternoon (entry fees Rs 1,200). We decided to take the morning safari the next day.

(To be continued)

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Captivated by the sights and sounds of Netarhat

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If the world’s too much with you and if you’re looking for peace and tranquility, get your backpack ready and head for Netarhat, a tiny hill station in Latehar district of Jharkhand.

My cousin Pronab broached the idea of going to Netarhat, also referred to as “Queen of Chotanagpur”. The entire plan was cooked up and final decision taken in just less than 24hours on a weekend.

Malda Intercity chugged off from platform no 17 of Howrah station at 12.50pm. Our destination: Ranchi

The second sleeper compartment was not crowded, much to our relief. Possibly, it being Sunday, there weren’t many hawkers in the compartment. The first stop was Kharagpur; the train then stopped at Bishnupur, Bankura, Bokaro, Jhalida and a couple of other stations before finally screeching to a halt at Ranchi at 10pm about 15 minutes early. As we got off the train, we could feel the chill. I quickly zipped up my jacket after I shivered with cool breeze brushing against my bare face. We took the stairs up, ambled out of the station, took a rickshaw and reached Hotel Guru.

We stayed overnight at Ranchi and the next morning we rented a car to travel to Netarhaat about 151km away. We left Ranchi around 8.45am; after traveling about 30 minutes on the NH39, our car left behind the city bedlam. We could see the lush green fields on either side of the road. Nature unfolded her treasure as we feasted our eyes. Wordsworth’s “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” crossed my mind. Lush carpet of pine needles and spongy grass greeted my eyes.

“I’ll let you have a delicious breakfast,” said driver Naresh as he stopped the car at a wayside eatery — Puja Sweets Centre– at a place called Bero. We got off the car, ordered singara, fried litti (a local delicacy) and tea. The litti was simply mind-blowing.

For the next almost three hours we drove through the hilly terrain and savored, to the hilt, the lush green of “pine needles and spongy grass” on the way. Satyajit Ray’s Aronner Din Raatri’s unforgettable scene in which Rabi Ghosh burnt a copy of The Statesman in his inimitable style saying “Sobbhoytar songe sob somporko sesh (We cut off all ties with the civilization)” came to mind.

We finally reached Netarhaat (3,700ft), the highest point in the Chotanagpur plateau, around 1.45pm. Temperature then was around 15 degrees Celsius. The great sweep of the plateau was breathtaking. As we didn’t book any hotel in advance, we had to look for a hotel. We checked in Hotel Prakash, a budget, yet a reasonably good, hotel.

“Please get your lunch fast, sir, we’ve to go to the sunset view point,” Naresh said. “Sunrise and sunset views here are stunning.” By the time we had our shower and finished our lunch, it was well past 4pm. We drove to the Magnolia sunset point (about 5km from our hotel) to witness the spectacular sight. The sky was ablaze with the fire of the setting sun as it was slowly disappearing on the western horizon. We watched in awe as the majestic beauty overwhelmed us.



The mesmerizing view of the blazing sunset remained etched in my mind as darkness descended slowly on the hill town.

For booking Hotel Guru (Ranchi), Call 9334422773

Hotel Prakash (Netarhat), Call Sanjiv: 8986649798/7091129278

For better accommodation

Lake View Resort (Netarhat) Tel 7321991365/9693512065/8809815397

Ravi & Sashi (Netarhat) Tel 9934769927/9431500964)

(To be continued)


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