Benares and Ayodhya: The Two Faces of Hinduism

They rank among Hinduism’s oldest and holiest towns.

Ayodhya on the banks of river Sarayu

and Benares on the banks of the river Ganga

are also revered by Budhists and Jains.

Islamic invasion brought suffering and ruin to both these towns.

But the power of faith is immense.

Today, Hinduism is alive and thriving in both the cities but the contrast is striking.

There is a major security presence in both the places. To enter the Ram Janmabhoomi site at Ayodhya, one needs to go through 4 layers of security checks. The police and armed guards can be spotted everywhere along the narrow gullys of Benares.

Yet there is peace and positivity in the chaos of Benares. The Gyanvapi mosque stands adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, a stark reminder of Islamic invasions but there is no negativity or resentment.

The demolition of homes to build the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor has revealed the presence of several ancient temples.

Ancient temples along the proposed Kashi Vishwanath Corridor

It is interesting to think that people built their homes around these temples to prevent them from being destroyed by invaders. A young man told us that people continued to do pooja in these temples that were part of their homes.

Walking along the streets of Benares one can see any number of home with living temples.Despite the history, Hindus and Muslims live together in Benares. Some of the most respected weavers of the famed Benarasi sari are Muslims.

Similarly the area around the temple and mosque is flooded with Hindu pilgrims but in the shops around, the traders belong to both communities.

The town which gave Indian classical music Pandit Ravishankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan has music schools owned by both communities.

Religion is everywhere in Benares.The Hindus can be seen in their dhotis, men wearing tikas and women sindoor. Among the Muslims men wear their cap and often sport a beard, while the women can be seen in Burqas.

The difference even in appearances is obvious but equally evident is coexistance based on mutual respect.Both contribute to the social fabric of the town and add to its positivity.Benares in welcoming and it is not just Indians but has visitors from all over the world.

The resurgence of Hinduism is evident in Ayodhya as well. The ‘Ram ki Paidi’ area near the river is under renovation and a daily Aarti of Sarayu river has been introduced.But Ayodhya’s focus seems to be on reinforcing it’s identity as Lord Ram’s Janmabhoomi or birthplace.

The town is full of ‘Sadhus’ dedicated to the cause of building the Ram Temple at the Janmabhoomi site.

Ram Janmabhoomi is beleived to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. King Vikramadithya of Ujjain is said to have built a temple for Lord Rama at the his birthplace, Ram Janmabhoomi.

This temple is said to have been destroyed by the Moghuls and the Babri Masjid was built on the same site.

For a brief period in the 1700’s, at the Ram Janmabhoomi site, both Hindus and Muslims offered prayers there.

First it was the British and later Indian politicians across party lines who stoked the fire leading to communal tensions in the town over the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.

Finally in 1992, Hindus activists tore down the Babri Masjid.

The issue is now in courts and a final judgement awaited.

But for the people of Ayodhya, the temple is a very emotional issue.Ayodhya has several temples and many of them have this message posted on the walls, ‘Dear Lord, I have not forgotten you! “A local tour guide and sevak at various temples, this young man in his early twenties is among the several local boys whose mission in life is to see the temple built. He is in awe of a seer who has mobilised Hindus to keep alive the demand for the Ram temple and also motivated them to plan and arrange for the its construction.

This seer has been on a diet of only fruits and milk for over 20 years and plans to maintain this diet till the temple is completed. He has also done a lot for the people of Ayodhya and even feeds over 5000 poor everyday.

There is a work shop dedicated to the temple and nearly 80% of the temple is said to be ready.‘Every stone is numbered and we just need to assemble it all”, said the locals.

Local people are eagerly awaiting the day they will get the courts order to build the temple. Perhaps their livelihood also depends on the construction of the temple.

The power of faith is indeed amazing.

But the faith is Ayodhya is a victim of anger and resentment. We were shown the 3 spots where Hindu Kar Sevaks were fired at in the events around the demolition of Babri Masjid.

The temple workshop also has the portrait of two brothers.

These young men from Odisha were the first to climb to the dome of the mosque in 1992. Both brothers according to the local guide had been ‘martyred’. 

It was schocking to hear the guide and later the seer’s ( the one who has been mobilising people to keep the temple issue alive) disciple say that there was ‘no Muslim or Mosque in Ayodhya’.

Despite us insisting that Hinduism is about tolerance and acceptance, young people there disagreed and felt that Hindus needed to get more assertive and aggressive.

The social fabric of Ayodhya has been torn apart by mutual suspicion and fear among people following different religions.

Hinduism here lacked the positivity and did not seem very welcoming.

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Ladakh: A Trek and A Week of Discovery

Every trek is an opportunity to introspect, reassess priorities, simplify life and grow as a person. This year our group of 8 women decided to take a week’s break from the real world to go to Ladakh and do the Indus Valley Trek.This time we also chose not to pitch tents but to stay with local families and experience the life and culture of rural Ladakh.

Our adventure began much before reached Ladakh.

We booked our tickets and within a week the Government of India revoked Article 370. Ladakh became India’s newest Union Territory. While our tour organiser told us that Ladakh was in a celebratory mood, we were concerned and did not want to say or do anything that could jinx our trek.

We started from Bangalore on the night of 4th September. We flew to New Delhi and from there to Leh.

We had what we thought was a safe gap of 3.5 hours between the two flights. But Murphy’s Law was in action! Our flight took off over 30 minutes late. Once we landed, we had to wait for almost 20 minutes to get off the flight. We then endured what we felt was the longest bus ride from the flight to the airport. And yes! Our bags were the last to come.

Moreover, we had to crossover to another terminal about 300 metres away. We reached the terminal with just about an hour for our flight to take off.We requested other passengers, cut through queues and managed to check in. There was a huge queue for the security and once again we had to request other travellers to allow us to go first. 5 of us completed our security check and started walking towards the departure gate. We were tempted to stop for coffee but were warned by an airport staff that our gate was a long walk.Thankfully we did not stop. It was an unexpectedly long walk and we got there just before the bus was scheduled to leave. We requested them to wait for our 3 friends. The rather irritated airline staff said they would not wait for more than 5 minutes. It was a tense 5 minutes as our friends were not responding to our calls. Finally we saw them running towards the gate, shoes in one hand, jacket in another, hair falling loose.. .they were a sight! But they made it and we had a good laugh over the experience.

The adventure and the fun had begun!

The flight to Leh was beautiful. Exactly a month after Ladakh got Union Territory status, we landed there.

No words or picture can truly capture the surreal beauty of the world highest desert region. Leh is at an altitude of 3500 metres and it is common to feel the impact of altitude sickness if one flies in there. All of us felt that our breathing was laboured and we were extremely conscious of our breath. We were surprised to find oxygen cylinders for sale at the airport. 2 of our group members picked up these cylinders ‘just to be safe’.

We were greeted by our tour guide Urgyan and driven Stenzin who were to stay with us for our entire trip.

The airport was just a 10 minute drive from our homestay. Post tea and breakfast, we were asked to relax and get some sleep. We were also told to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated all the time. We were also asked not to have a bath that day. The first 2 days were meant for acclamatization and in our case it was extremely important as we had to start trekking from day 3.

Leh town was pretty. Most homes and hotels had a similar façade. They were all set on large plots of land. After 2-3 hours of rest, we set out to the Leh market for lunch. Some of us went to the ‘Tibetan Kitchen’ for traditional food while others went to the famous German Bakery.

Post lunch we explored the Leh market. It was amazing too see the range of Tibetan handicrafts and jewellery. We were particularly fascinated by the roadside shops selling dry fruits and Yak Cheese. We then saw a fruit seller offering fresh apricots. The fruit was delicious and over the next week I ate ridiculous amounts of the fresh fruit.

That evening we went to the ‘Hall of Fame’ and the war Memorial. The Hall of Fame is a beautifully curated museum that showcases the social, cultural and military history of the Ladakh region. There is a huge military presence in the Ladakh region and the war memorial is a tribute to our soldiers as well as poignant reminder of the 1700+ soldiers who have been martyred here. We also saw a sound and light show focussing on key battles of the Kargil war. Most members of our group had closely followed the war 20 years ago and we were in tears as we learnt details about the valiant struggles of our soldiers. After the show, some of our group members walked up to our soldiers and thanked them for their selfless service. They were gracious and told us, “ hamara to kaam hai! “( it is our work).

The next day we visited the Hemis and Thiskey monasteries. On the way we got the first glimpse of the Indus ( known in Sanskrit as Sindhu) river. This river finds a mention in the Rig Veda. Personally it was a strangely moving to see the river that gave both my country and my faith their name. Persians referred to us as ‘Hindus’ or people of the land who lived beyond the Sindhu river.

After spending some time at the river, we went to the Hemis monastery, the regions richest monastery. Our guide told us that this monastery was untouched by invading armies as it was hidden between mountains. The monastery which is close to a 1000 years old was serene and beautiful. We were also surprised to find large wooden pillar and carvings similar to those found in southern India in the monastery.

Thiskey monastery with beautiful Maitreya Buddha was also lovely and offered breathtaking views of the Ladakhi landscape. We also saw some monks preparing the ‘Mandala’, an elaborate pattern using various natural colours. Our guide told us that the ‘Mandala’ depicted the impermanence of life. The monks could take upto 2 weeks to complete the Mandala but it would be washed away on the completion of a particular prayer ritual. Similarly human beings are always expected to do our best. But even our best creations are washed away with time.

Our next visit was to Khardungla Pass. We were thrilled to be going to the world’s highest motorable road. The Ladakh Ultramarathon was held that morning and we saw several runners along the way. We also spotted a herd of Yak grazing along the way. Finally we got to Khardungla Pass. Again the instructions given were: No talking unnecessarily, no walking fast and not more than 20 minutes at the top. It was freezing there. We posed for the customary photos and walked around a bit. Khardungla was a rather disorienting experience. Almost al of us felt light headed. There were moments of absolute clarity interspersed with moment of total disorientation.

Post Khardungla, we felt there was plenty of oxygen in the air in Leh. I suppose we were now acclamatized!

That evening we met our trek guide Sonam. He told us that day 3 of the trek was the most challenging one. He said he would see how we all do on day 1 and then let us know whether we would be able to do day 3.

As we were staying in villages we had a support vehicle to carry our luggage. Also we were told that there were points where the trek route met the road. So if any of us was tired, we could opt to take the vehicle.We were all excited and looked forward to starting the trek the next morning.

The next morning, post breakfast we drove to Likir, the starting point of our trek. It was a pleasant 2 hour drive.

The roads in Ladakh were surprisingly good and travel from one place to another was not difficult despite the terrain. Urgyan, our guide is also a musician. He carried his guitar and kept us entertained during these drives. For the trek Sonam was our main guide. Urgyan also trekked with us but it was his first trek as well.

At about 10.30 we started the trek from Likir. The next 4 days would be spent in remote areas of rural Ladakh amidst apricot farms and gurgling steams. It was also unlikely that we would have mobile connectivity for this period.

As we started our trek, we came across the first cluster or ‘mane’ or prayer stones, a common sight in the region. Our guides told us that it was a local custom to walk around these in clockwise direction. This was something we religiously followed for the rest of the trek.

After about 2 hours of trekking we crossed the first pass of our trek Pheobe La at an altitude of about 3600 metres. It was a long walk to dry desolate and dusty mountains. Looking at the terrain our respect for the army grew even more. “ How did they even manage to feel fight in this terrain? ” we wondered.

We stopped for lunch by a beautiful stream. The landscape had changed and it was suddenly lush green. After an interesting lunch of plain chappatis and boiled potato with salt, we headed towards the Charatse La pass at about 3500 metres. Once again the trail was dry and dusty. At some places we even felt that the place looked a bit like the rugged Aravalli mountains in Rajasthan.

After Charatese La pass, the trail was downhill towards Yamthang village. Around 4 pm we caught the first glimpse of Yamthang. Yamthang was a typical Ladakh village nestled between the vast mountains. I realised that villages in Ladakh are similar to oasis in the desert regions. These villages are usually fed by natural springs or glacial rivers. Agriculture was the main occupation of the villagers.

The village home in Yamthang was simple but pretty. We were amazed to see crockery and chinaware beautiful stacked in the home. 8 of us shared a room with the most amazing view of the mountains. That night we enjoyed a traditional Ladakh meal with Ting mo, a kind of steamed roti. It was a happy evening as our guide told us that we all were trekking very well and had even surpassed his expectations. That day we had walked nearly 15 kms.

The next morning we bid farewell to our wonderful hosts and started for Hemis Shupkachen. Today was supposed to be an easy trek.

We walked through the beautiful Yamthang village. and then the arid mountains. It was a steady uphill walk. We rested several times and had endless sips of water.

We also met some biker groups from Indonesia who were extremely happy to see an all Indian, all woman group trekking in Ladakh. After 5 hours of walking we reached the stunning beautiful village of Hemis Shupkachen. It was my idea of paradise. After a quick lunch, 2 of us decided to go and explore the village.

The owner if the homestay told us to take a walk through the lush fields and also go and see the Juniper trees. The leaves of these trees are extremely fragrant. But these were of great significance to the locals and we were asked not to pluck the leaves of the tree.

It was a beautiful walk. We met many locals who guided us.

We passed by these stupas We came across this beautiful meadow where a horse was grazing. We walked across this to reach the other side of the village. Here we met a young boy working in the fields. We asked him where we could see the Juniper trees. He took us to the trees and even clicked our picture. He then asked us if we had seen the movie “Walking With The Wind”. We had heard about this movie but were unsure. He told us that he was Sonam Wangyal, the protagonist of that movie. We were amazed. He also introduced us to his mother. They even invited us home for tea.

After some time walking around the village, we headed back to our homestay. On the way back we noticed that several farm labourers returning after their days work. They told us that they were from Bihar and had come here to work during the harvest season. Our guides told us that irrigation systems and water management had improved tremendously in Ladakh. A lot of land was under cultivation and most villagers were doing well. This was very heartening to know.

We were also told that medical facilities in Ladakh were quite good. There was an ambulance for every 5-10 villages and would ply them to the nearest hospital, usually less than an hour away.

It was also good to see that these little villages had Government schools.

The evening in Hemis Shupkachen was spent making the local delicacy momos under the strict supervision of our super efficient homestay owner.That evening we also learnt that our driver Stenzin was among those hired by the Indian Army to work as a porter carrying good to Siachen during winters.

It suddenly occurred to us that Tenzin was perhaps smiling all the time because he found our struggles on these mountains amusing. He was embarrassed and told us that we were doing a great job. But now we were certainly in awe of our mild mannered driver who was one of the heroes who helped the Indian Army survive in the world’s highest battlefield.

Day 3! We braced ourselves for the toughest day of the trek. We had already covered about 25 kms in 2 days. The first 2 hours of the trek was relatively simple.We reached a small pass and found the vehicle waiting there. 2 members of our group decided to take the road route. The rest of us took the trekking path. We could see the route all along to the top at Mabtek La.

Sonam turned out to be a wonderful guide. The initial portion of the trek was a steep downhill climb. We moved on to the next mountain. At that point he insisted that the group walk together. It was decided that we would all take 100 steps and then take a break. Next we took 80 steps and rested. As the terrain got steeper the number of steps reduced. Finally we were resting after every 20 steps. We did this consistently for about 1 hour and reached the top. It was a thrilling moment. 3 of us along with our guides and driver decided to explore some higher regions around Mabtek La. The view was beautiful. The 3 of us were extremely satisfied and even somewhat sentimental for having decided to do this trek.An extensive photo session and then we headed down.

The rest of the group, tired of waiting had decided to trek down to Temisgam village. We also joined them. It was a long trek down. We finally reached Temisgam, a pretty village but not comparable to Hemis Shupkachen. We stayed in a beautiful modern homestay. The home had several apricot and apple trees. We purchased home grown and processed dry apricots from the family.

That evening we spent a long time talking and playing games. The family members also joined us. It had been a long, tiring but extremely satisfyingly day.

The last day’s trek was to Khaltse. It was a sunny day and a long walk. We would  also cross the last pass of out trek, the Bongnongchan La pass.

Our guide Sonam told us that this would be a regular road trek as the trekking route had now been converted into a proper road. The 21 km stretch we walked on was extremely dusty. Sonam and Urgyan told us that roads were being laid on several trek routes. They seemed concerned if development was in some ways ruining Ladakh.

The development debate raged on throughout our trek. We all hoped that the Union Government would focus on sustainable development and ensure that local culture and the environment would stay preserved.

Our guides Urgyan and Sonam were young men in their early 20’s. They were obviously very proud of Ladakh and wanted a future there. But yet they had their fears.

Ladakh’s tourist season lasted just 4 months. They wished they could have a permanent job.

We asked them what they did in winter. They said most people did nothing. Some families moved to warmer places like Jammu or Delhi in the winters.

Sonam told us that his family belonged to a nomadic tribe and were based in a village 150 kms from Leh. Every winter they came down to warmer areas with their livestock.

Interestingly Sonam is involved with a community programme and works with school children during the non-tourist season. He said that they even conducted classes for children in tents.

Both the young men believed that tourism had huge potential. They just hoped that the Government would involve local in all the plans pertaining to the industry.

We finally reached the Sringar-Leh highway along the Indus river. We had completed 60 kms in 4 days. We then drove to the ‘moon land’ Lamayuru. The terrain near Lamayuru is believed to resemble the landscape on the moon and hence the name.

We also visited the beautiful Lamayuru monastery and headed towards Alchi.The road from Lamayuru to Achi was beautiful.Alchi is one if the oldest monasteries in the region. It is believed to have been sanctioned by a Hindu king and built by local Kashmiri artisans (at that time the local Kashmiris were predominantly Hindu). I was taken aback to see the doorway to the main temple at the Alchi monastery. It was near identical to the doorway of my ancestral home in interior Tamil Nadu. The ‘Indian’ identity suddenly made sense. For thousands of years Indians have travelled, shared knowledge and skills to create what we recognize as Indianness.

The Indus river flowed right behind the monastery. We spent the night at Leh .The next morning we had a relaxed breakfast and went to see the ‘Sindu Sangam’, the point where the river Indus meets the river Zanskar.

We wanted to take a dip at the sangam, but were taken aback when Urgyan spontaneous response to that was ‘marna hai kya?’ Tenzin our tour organiser also told us that the water was likely to be very cold. He said that the glacier that feed the zanskar river was just 80kms away and hence the water would be extremely cold. Good sense prevailed and we gave up the idea. The sangam is a beautiful place. We spent over an hour there just looking at the waters.

We then stopped at the Nimoo market to savour the famous samosas at Puran Hotel. We were told that 2500-3000 samosas were sold every day at this tiny joint.

We also visited the Bagso palace and headed to the Leh market.

We placed an order for customised tshirts. After lunch at the German bakery we split into smaller groups and exored the marketplace.

2 of us went to the old part of leh city also called LAMO. We stopped by a quaint restaurant to have apricot juice.

We then picked up some Tanka paintings and headed back to our rooms.

That evening Tensing had a small felicitation for our group as we were guests to Ladakh. We also chatted with him for a while. A Tibetan by birth, he told us that Tibet was of great statregic importance and the glaciers that fed some of the biggest rivers were located there. It was an interesting conversation and like the rest of the trip a learning for us.

The next morning we took the flight back to Delhi.This time we landed on time. The transfer from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 took us 40 minutes.

Delhi, we felt, wanted to keep us in a state of excitement. Following an exhausting check in and security check process we were ready to head back home. A wonderful trek and an experience that has given us many beautiful memories.

2 Nations…1 Land : A Visit To Kutch

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After much thought we zeroed in on the Great Rann Of Kutch and reached there on a full moon night last week. We chose to visit a less explored part of the area called ‘Ekal Ka Rann’ to experience the sunset and full moon on the white desert. To our pleasant surprise the vacation was not just about the Rann but also its people, traditions, cuisine, rural life and understanding the notion of borders.

Our first 2 days were spent a little village called Chobari, about 5 hours from Ahmedabad. The area was the epicentre of the massive earthquake that rocked Bhuj in 2001.

We stayed at the ‘Meriya Nature Resort’, a village homestay run by Ramjibhai Meriya, a journalist, photographer, conservationist and a virtual encyclopaedia on the Kutch region. His home was next to a lovely lake.IMG_1410 (2) A wide range of birds including migratory birds could be spotted near the lake and the farmland around Ramjibhai’s home.

The Ekal Ka Rann , named after the Ekal Mata temple at the edge of the white desert was about 15 kilometers from his home. We reached the Rann at about 5.30 and walked some distance. The place was simply amazing. We watched in awe as the desert seemed to change colours with the setting sun.IMG_1432 Soon it was dark we soaked in the vastness of space. Later we saw the moon rise and the white surface glisten in the moonlight. No words can describe the serene beauty of a full moon night on the Rann.

The best way to learn about a place and its culture is to interact with local people. We were lucky to be staying in a village homestay.IMG_1417 (2) Ramjibhai’s brother in law who was also present there told us about how the family had been affected during partition with some members having stayed behind in Pakistan. Later some of them, he told us came to India and even gained Indian citizenship. He also told us about how he had heard tales of people riding on horses across the Rann from Chobari to Rahim Ka Bazar which now lies in Pakistan to get their provisions.

“This land belonged to all of us, it became 2 nations at the time of partition!” he told us. As we continued to explore the region, we realised that Pakistan was never far away.

The next day we drove about a 100 kms to visit Dholavira, the largest Metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization. The better known cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa lie in today’s Pakistan. Dholavira was first established about 5000 years and we were told that the place was destroyed and re-established 7 times over a period of 2000 years. The last settlement dates to about 1500 BC.IMG_1553

Dholavira was once an island. Today the sea bed has risen and the island is surrounded by the Rann. The 7 km drive along what is called the Rann of Kutch lake is beautiful. road to rann

The excavation site of Dholavira is interesting and the water management systems are extremely impressive. We also drove to the fossil park at Dholavira.

While the fossil park was disappointing, the view of the Rann from the park was amazing.

And Pakistan lies just 40kms across the Rann.

Dholavira is a remote village and even today there are no restaurants or places to stay. Ramjibhai arranged lunch for us with a villager who was also our guide. Having grown up in Dholavira, our guide Ravjibhai was familiar with the place and knew all the details about the archaeological site. He told us that barely 10% of the site had been excavated and studied. When we asked him why excavations had stopped, he smiled and said, “ jab zindon ke liye paise nahi hai toh murdon ke liye kahan se ayegi!”

He also took us to his home for a simple and delicious Kutchi lunch. We then visited Ramobhai a leather craftsman who lived a few homes away. He sat in a dark corner working on a beautiful leather handbag.leather dholavira The wallets and bags made by him were beautiful. He took pride in his work and it was nice to know that he got orders on a regular basis from big cities.

While talking to Ramjibhai we learnt that Chobari along with Khavda was a major centre for production the milk sweet “mavo”. His son son brought some Mavo for us from the village. It was delicious. The next morning, on our way to Hodka we stopped at Bheembhai Patel’s Mavo making centre to pick up 2 kilos of freshly made Mavo.

On the advice of Ramjibhai we also stopped at Dhamadka, the original centre for Ajrak Block printing.

Believed to have been first practised by people of the Indus Valley Civilization, the traditional method of block printingsample ajrakh printing blocks using natural dyes is still prevalent in parts of Kutch and Sindh in Pakistan. Several centuries ago the Khatri family settled in Dhamadka and was involved in traditional ajrakh block printing. We were told by Dr.Ismail Khatri, now a resident of Ajrakhpur,DrKhatri and man striving to keep the ajrakh tradition alive that a river near Dhamadka dried up in the late 1980’s. Families began to depend on borewells. Also with increasing competition from mill made cloth, many traditional practitioners of ajrakh printing went elsewhere for work. The earthquake in 2001 destroyed Dhamadka. Many of the surviving families chose to leave the village and restablish themselves in Ajrakhpur near Bhuj. The family of Sulaiman Khatri sulaiman khatri chose to stay behind at Dhamadka. These elderly men are extremely proud to have kept this ancient art alive. They emphasised that even today no chemicals are used in the process of ajrak printing. We visited both Dhamadka and Ajrakhpur.

After some shopping we reached Hodka situated in the Banni Grasslands for lunch. Hodka was just 20kms from the popular ‘Tent City’ on the Rann. Sham-e-sarhad the resort we stayed in was managed by the Hodka village Panchayat.The employees were all locals and every one of them was proud of the quality of service they provided.

Following a lazy afternoon we went to the Hodka village to meet the leather artisans there.

Community living in these villages seemed very different from what we see in cities. Every compound had a cluster of homes. These were occupied either by members of a family or people or practising a specific profession. The cluster we went to had leather artisans. We picked up some hand crafter leather wallets from them. The children of these artisans were extremely talented and young girls made beautiful bead jewellery. Their enthusiasm was amazing and we got some pretty jewellery made by these girls. “You are so young. How did you learn to make this?”, I asked a young girl. She shrugged it off saying, “ Hum to hamesha se banathe hain!”

The following morning we drove to Kalo Dungar. On the way we stopped at ‘Siyaram Sweets’ at Khavda for some more authentic Mavo!

Kalo Dungar was more crowded and touristy. The view of the white Rann was nice but we felt that it paled in comparison with the view from the Dholavira fossil park. Driving back from Kalo Dungar, we decided to test whether the hill was actually ‘magnetic’ as the locals claimed.IMG_1706 We were shocked to note that our vehicle moved at a constant speed of about 40 km/hr even when the engine was switched off. The vehicle even climbed a steep portion at a speed of 20 km/hr. All of us were thrilled to experience that.

Our next destination was the India Bridge. Civilians are not allowed beyond India bridge because of the area’s proximity to the border with Pakistan. We had the army’s permit to drive on the road to the border. Locals advised us that it may be unwise to drive upto the border in an Innova as the road conditions could be bad. However at the BSF checkpost we were told that we could drive about 15 kilometres upto the ‘Martyrs Memorial’ and return.

All of us were thrilled to drive into the restricted zone. We stopped at the Martyrs Memorial built in memory of soldiers who died fighting at the Rann during the 1971 war with Pakistan. We also visited a BSF camp there. We had carried some sweets for our soldiers. The chief there came to meet us and spent some time talking to all of us. We also had tea with them. For us, it was an opportunity to meet people of the Indian army and just say, ‘thank you!”

We had to leave behind our phones and cameras at the India Bridge check post. So all we have is beautiful memories of this part of our trip.

It was also our final glimpse at the white Rann. For the first time we got to see some deer running along the Rann.20181226_130028

The next day we decided to spend some time seeing Bhuj. On reaching we found that most tourist destinations were closed as it was a Thursday. We then decided to drive to Koteshwar and Narayan Sarovar.

It was a 3 hour drive to Koteshwar, the western most temple in India. Beyond this lies the disputed waters of the Sir Creek. On a clear night in Koteshwar, we were told that the lights of Karachi city could be seen. Though it was still day, my sons and I looked around for a while and were convinced we could see Karachi!IMG_1778

Legend has it that the Shivlinga at Koteshwar was gifted to Ravana, the Lord of Lanka by Lord Shiva himself. Huein Tsang the Chinese traveller also mentions the temple in his writings.

The nearby Narayan Sarovar, a spot as significant as the Man Sarovar was disappointing. It was completely dry.

While Koteshwar was a beautiful the long drive did make it tiring.

That night we drove back to Bhuj at stayed at an artisan and crafts village called ‘Khamir’.khamir Here we learnt some more about forgotten crafts and traditions that the organisation is trying to revive or keep alive. We met weavers of Kharad, practitioners of different types Kutchi embroidery. We also learnt about ‘Kala Cotton’ an organic cotton that is not water intensive.

It was time to head home. From Khamir we drove back to Ahmadabad for our return flight. Our driver who was also visiting Kutch for the first time was also very happy with places we had been to. Meeting the BSF personel had been the highlight for him. Finally he insisted we have dinner at a restaurant run by people from ‘his’ part of Gujarat, Porbandar. He told us that there was a lot to see in his part of the state and we told him that we would plan a trip there in the near future.

A Tough Life! But a Beautiful One

“But they have everything they need!” said my son as I described life in Janglik village to him.He is right. Life is certainly not easy for people living in the remote mountainous areas but they have work, food, clean air, clean water and a close knit community.

Janglik, a small village where around a 100 families live is about 150 kms from Shimla. It was the starting point for my trek to Chandernahan lakes. It is one of those rare villages in modern India that remains untouched by the wave of development in the name of modernisation.

The beautiful drive from Shimla to Janglik along the Pabbar river took us almost 8 hours and was exciting to say the least.

Along the way there were apple orchards and our group of trekkers stopped by to savour the freshly plucked fruit.

We were told that the bridge connecting to Janglik was broken and that we would have to walk the last 2 kms. We asked the driver when the bridge broke and he said, “kuch teen saal pehle.” We were amused but had no idea what was in store for us.

The broken bridge was a sight!

Our group crossed the river and were then asked to just follow the trail to the village. Carrying our 10 kg backpacks we struggled to negotiate the steep climb to Janglik. It took us close to an hour to reach the village and to me it felt like the longest 2 kms ever.“I don’t believe we paid to do this!” I told a friend on reaching the village.

The village is so cut off that we, so used to our urban comforts wondered how the villagers managed to go about their daily lives. What do they do for a living; how about school and medical facilities and how to they travel anywhere? Were some of the questions that troubled all of us.

It took my clouded urban mind some time to shrug off elitist perspectives and appreciate the stunning simplicity of life in this remote village. The villagers who were our guides for the trek were perhaps not very ‘qualified’ by urban standards but their understanding nature and the world they lived in was inspiring. There was so much for us to learn from them and so little that we could teach them.

Our first interaction was with a young school going kid in Janglik. He led us up the hill to a beautiful village temple.

He told us about his primary school in the village and said that his school team had many champions and that they had even won a trophy at the district level for Kabbadi!He introduced us to some of his friends. Most of the children were shy but curious. They told us about their families, parents working in fields or apple orchands and were quite amused that we had all come so ‘dressed up’ for a simple trek to the lakes. They children told us that they had all been to the lake as it was of religious significance. 

Trekking up and down the mountains carrying heavy loads was evidently a way of life for them.

After breakfast we started on our trek. Through the first part we walked right through the village.

It was amazing to see the villagers at work. There were people tending to this plots of land while some others were plucking apples.

There were shepherds who took their sheep out to graze and there were families where some members were shearing wool

from sheep as others working with the wool.( I later learnt that the wool was used to prepare shawls for use by the locals.)

Walking with me was our cook cum guide, Prem. Prem was great company. He told me that the village was self sufficient. He said that the fresh mountain air kept the villagers healthy and that they had lovely water.

There was a beautiful river flowing by the village and innumerable little streams that flowed through forests and went on to feed the river.

The water from these streams he said were full of medicinal properties. As we walked past a stream, he picked up some fruits that were fallen. He asked me to try the fruit. It was delicious. He told me that eating that fruit would ensure that we do not get tired as we walk. I assume he meant that it was highly nutritious. Soon he stoppd by another plant and picked out the tiny red berry like fruit. He said that eating that fruit would help anyone with stomach infection. As we walked I felt thirsty and stopped to take out my water bottle. He told not to drink water and led me another plant. He asked me to chew on the stem. I made a face but did chew on the stem. It was an odd taste but my thirst vanished. Prem said that the villagers chewed on the stem of that plant to prevent dehydration. I was amazed at his knowledge and understanding of the plants and trees around him.

He pointed out to some more shrubs and plants and said one of them could ease body pain while another was used for injuries and bruises. ‘Yahan toh har cheez ki dawah hai’ he told me. Just listening to him was an experience.

Prem said that over the next few weeks, villagers would remove all the grass and plants from the mountains.

They would store this to feed their cattle and sheep in winter.

He said that it was an activity that the entire village would participate in as they needed to stock food for close to 5 months.

We were also told that the villagers climbed to the higher ranges of the mountains every summer in search of a specific herb that is extensively used in ayurvedic preparations. Just 1 kg of that herb was worth 50000Rs.

Among the guides, the head was a person we called ‘Mushairiji”. On a clear sunny afternoon he ‘smelt’ the air and told us that we may not be able to climb up to Chandernahan lake as it was likely to pour the next day. That night it started raining and for the next 18-20 hours it rained without a break.

We had to spend a day at the ‘Litham’ camp. The evening was very cloudly and we asked Mushairiji if we would be able to head back to Janglik the next day. Once again he looked at the sky, ‘smelt’ the air and said that the next day would be sunny and that we should have no problems trekking back. And yes ! the next day was sunny.We asked him how he was able to gauge the weather conditions so accurately. All he said was, “hawa ki khusbhbu se pata chalta hai!”

Mushairji also happened to be a wonderful singer and that night, our guides the local people sang and danced for us.

They were also wonderful with the animals that lived and worked with them. A mountain dog, a friend of Prem accompanied us through the trek.

He assumed the role of watchdog and was extremely protective.

The mules that carried our tents and food stuff were also treated like babies.

Mushairiji told us that the mules did not like to get their feet wet and would never step out in the rain!

We also met shepherds along the way. Some of them had camped along the mountain with their herd. Some herds had as many as 400 sheep.

We were told that these sheep were very valuable and some of them could fetch as much as 15000Rs.I noticed one sheep limp.

Prem told me that the sheep must have had a fall. He then said that the villagers usually killed these injured sheep for meat.

Some of these shepherds wore a lovely while shawl. It looked coarse but extremely warm and comfortable. When asked if I could buy one in the village, they looked embarrassed. They told me that these shawls were made from the wool got from these sheep. City people like me should buy it from bigger towns. What I did not realise that the barter system worked there. They probably exchanged shawls for some food produce.

I did not persist as by now I was aware of the hospitality of these people, they might have insisted I take what they had.

Rajma was a staple at the camps. We were served rajma for almost every meal.

We learnt from our guides that rajma was one of the most popular crops in the region. Most villagers owned a plot of land and grew rice, wheat, rajma and some vegetables. Those who did not own plots of land usually worked in fields or apple orchards. The barter system was still prevalent and no one in the village went hungry.The life in the village is definitely tough but it is also beautiful. It was wonderful to see the villagers understand, respect and co-exist with nature.

I completely agree with my son’s sentiment. The villagers have everything they need and they value it.

P.S Our trek was 100% zerowaste and the local people made sure that we did not litter on leave anything behind. Back at Janglik I noticed that the only sign of modernisation was perhaps the beginning of the garbage trail.

At Home With Buddy

 

 

 

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It has been a 100 days since Buddy came home.

Personally it has been a huge challenge for me to get over my immense fear of dogs and become a pet parent.

It has indeed been a wonderful journey.

 

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From a timid but playful 6 week old, we have watched him grow into a confident little boy

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20180613_121828In the early days Buddy used to sit under the kitchen cupboards or the sofa. I have often wondered how difficult it must have been for that baby to get used to an alien home. Today he knows it is his home and is all over the place.

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My young boys have been true to their word. They have taken complete responsibility for Buddy. The three of them take turns to walk him, to sleep with him and manage all the work related to Buddy.  In the early days they did everything they could to make Buddy feel at home.

To my surprise, none of them shied away from cleaning after Buddy. The youngest one proudly says that it  feels wonderful to be a ‘big brother’!

I now realise that children are extremely sensitive to animals. While they may be careless with toys and other belongings, a pet becomes yet another sibling, one more to the gang!

Diet and travel with the pet were two more areas that were a cause for concern.

Buddy quickly adapted to the households typical “Tambhram” diet and loves his curd rice. We have been conscious to provide him a healthy vegetarian diet but the task is not as difficult as I assumed it would be.

In summer we travelled with Buddy to Wayanad. We fed him an hour or so before the car ride and that made him extremely uncomfortable. For the first two hours he insisted on sitting on my lap and wanted to be hugged. Gradually he grew comfortable and learnt to sleep during long ride. We too learnt that it was not a good idea to feed him before a car drive.

Once again I was surprised and touched to note that he clung to me when he was feeling uncomfortable. I had assumed that he was more comfortable with my husband and kids.

edwayanad2018-947Buddy enjoyed the vacation and we did a short trek with him.

Post vaccination, Buddy has enjoyed playing with the many lovely pets in our commuimg-20180527-wa0065nity.  He goes out to play twice every day and comes home completely exhausted. One of his best friends happens to live next door. The minute our door opens, he rushes to her house.

Toilet training Buddy has been a crazy experience. The first month he peed and pooped all over the house.  This did change once we started taking him for walks. However there are times we are unable to take him out. The boys have trained him to use either the balcony or the toilet. Well Buddy understands the concept. He make it a point to rush to the toilet or balcony, sticks his head out and pees in the hall itself!

Buddy comes with his set of idiosyncrasies and is a bundle of joy. Bringing a pet home is like bringing a baby home. 

 While I realise that dogs mean no harm, I continue to be petrified of them. Hope to overcome this fear someday. However I am completely at home with Buddy.

 

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Buddy was one of the ‘Miracle pups’ rescued by Kam Raghavan nearly 50 hours after his mother was run over by a speeding vehicle. The pups were around 2 weeks old when they lost their mother. Kam fostered them for four weeks before putting them up for adoption.

 

Thank You Kam for bringing Buddy into our world.

 

A Ride to Remember


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A cycling trip with my teenaged son was something I had never envisioned.

I was curious about cycling but not confident. When a friend who conducts cycling tours spoke about a week long trip to Srilanka, I was fascinated.

My 14 year old son, who in recent times, seems to feel that amma and her friends are quite ‘cool’ said he would like to join me. I mentioned this to my friend and on 1st of February , we, 3 moms and our teenaged children left for Colombo.

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3 others joined the following day and we went on to do 200 kms along the west coast of Srilanka from Colombo to Matara.

As a novice cyclist, I expected this trip to be a lifetime experience for me and hopefully the beginning of a new adventure for my teenaged son.

This first morning was a relaxed one. Colombo, to me, looked like any other south Indian city eager to shed its old world charm to embrace rapid urbanisation.

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We drove around Colombo and made the touristy stops at ‘Barefoot’ and ‘Odel’ . On our way back , the 3 moms decided to get off the vehicle and explore the city. The children and a member of our group drove back to the hotel.

We walked down a street close to the National Museum where artists had displayed their paintings. We were amazed by the quality of their work and spent a while there.

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We then got into a tuk-tuk and the enthusiastic driver took us to a shop selling gems mined in Srilanka. The collection of gemstones was nice but as none of us were jewellery enthusiasts we spent more time talking to the sales people there. They were happy to hear us speak in Tamil and one of them, a Srilankan Tamil from Mannar told me ‘we in Srilanka take pride in speaking in Tamil.’

Most signboards in Srilanka feature Sinhala, Tamil and English and locals seemed comfortable in all 3 languages. The sales people were impressed that we were cycling right upto Matara.

We then went ‘tea tasting ‘ at a quaint beachside cafe in Colombo. We were fascinated to see a train track right next to the sea.

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We decided that we must travel by the local train on our last day in Colombo.

That evening we went to pick up our cycles. The ride back to our hotel was exciting. Cycling at night was a new experience for the children and me. We followed our support vehicle efficiently managed by Rizan, our driver, as we navigated the city traffic to cover the distance of 14 kilometres.

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All Set for our First Ride

The next morning 7 of us set out for Wadduwa, a seaside town about 35kms from Colombo. We left early and after 2 stops, the first for coffee and the next for breakfast we reached Wadduwa by 9.30. The two other riders who had landed just that morning started later and met us for lunch at Wadduwa.

Barely 2 kilometres into our ride we had to climb a flyover. For some strange reason I was extremely thrilled to cycle over a flyover.

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After an hour of cycling we saw a group of young cyclist zoom past us. For the first time it occurred to me that we were cycling at a very relaxed pace.

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Most of the ride was on the highway and there were some stretches where we rode past pristine beaches.

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Post lunch, my friend and I headed to the Kalutaria Bodhiya. The Bodhi tree in this temple is believed to have grown a sapling of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura which itself is a sapling from the original Bodhi tree at Gaya.

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The Bodhi Tree at Kalutaria

The police near the temple seemed a little amazed to see two women come to the temple on cycle. He asked us where we were from. We gave him the details but he found it strange that we chose to leave our husbands behind in India to cycle in Srilanka.

Situated next to the beautiful Kalu river, the temple is now flanked by the Colombo – Galle Road on one side and a railway line on the other.

We sat at the temple for a while and then headed to the riverside.

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The ride to the temple and riverside exposed us to another side of Srilanka. There were catcalls, whistles and attempts by young men on the roads to catch our attention. “It is extremely annoying but should we be feeling flattered?” wondered my friend. After all those boys were not much older than my sons.

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The Beach at Wadduwa

The next morning post a sumptuous breakfast we set out for Bentota.

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We decided to stop by the Kalutariya Bodhiya temple again. As mandated by the temple authorities, all the riders wearing shorts had to wear a sarong. We spent some more time inside the beautiful temple.

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Lighting Diyas at the Temple

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The Riders in Sarongs

The mornings ride was a fast paced one and we covered the distance of 26kms in just over an hour. As our rooms in Bentota were not ready, we decided to ride a little further.

The sun was out and I found this second ride exhausting. As I struggled to keep pace, 4 of us decided to ride slower at a rate more comfortable for me. Through the ride I complained endlessly to my friend.

At one point we saw a a huge tree completely covered with bats. It was a wonderful sight.

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Bats on the Tree

We went a little further and saw 2 of our group members waiting for us.

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We turned back to return to our resort. On our way back we again stopped by the tree with bats.

We went a little and stopped by the beach to have some refreshing coconut water. The weather cooled down and there was a drizzle. We were happy to ride in the rain. We soon reached the Turtle hatchery and spent some time there with the extremely cute 2 day old turtles.

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2 Day Old Turtle

We then went to our resort for lunch.

I was happy that I completed my first ever 50kms that day. We had done a total of 52 kms that morning.

The lady managing the resort recommended that we go to the beach. “It is a clean beach, not like those in your country!” she told us. We rushed to explain that our country had many beautiful beaches.

Just behind the rooms was a railway track. We had to cross the railway line to go to the beach.

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Post lunch we walked 5 kms along the beautiful Bentota beach looking for the lighthouse. We finally spotted it and got back to the resort for tea.

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Dinner in Bentota was at an Indian ‘Dhaba’ that we had spotted during our morning ride.

The next day was the longest ride of our trip. We expected to cover a distance of about 60kms from Bentota to Galle. We stopped for breakfast at a joint facing the Madu river. The place was extremely scenic.

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Madu River

We then stopped at the Bamiyan Buddha next to the Peraliya Turtle Farm.

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A replica of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Budhas, this was built as a memorial for victims of the Tsunami that struck the land in 2004.

We later passed by the stunningly beautiful Hikkaduwa beach.

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As we rode I also saw that many high rise apartment complexes and 5 Star resorts were under construction along this scenic route.

As we reached Galle, I was shocked to see the crowds in the marketplace. We struggled through the traffic and reached our villa. Post lunch we headed to the Galle fort. We passed by the Galle Cricket stadium.

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The beautifully maintained Galle Fort retains an old world charm. After some time admiring the sea from the fort we decided to walk around the streets.

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It was interesting to see lovely homes tucked between boutique stores and elegant cafes.

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We had dinner in one such café and then we headed back to our room.

The next morning we set out on the last leg of our ride to Matara. We were all happy that our ride until then had been comfortable and incident free. The first 15 kilometres was very comfortable. We stopped for refreshments at a small shop near Unawatana beach.

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View from shop near Unawatana Beach

As we rode further, I heard a sound from my cycle. I had a flat tyre. The 45minutes we struggled with damaged tubes and managed to fix the tyre.

We continued our ride and when we were about 7 kms from Matara, one of the children found the ride getting tough and her knees started to hurt. We had yet another flat tyre. The cycle was loaded into our support vehicle and we rode our villa at Matara.

We had completed 200kms on cycle.

Matara was a quaint seaside town. We went to a lovely beachside hotel called ,The Doctor’s House’ for lunch.

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Post lunch we rested and clicked some pictures.

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Later in the evening some of the ladies headed out for a Musical Nite at a Beachside resort some 10kms from Matara.

The children, another member of our group and me went for an early dinner at a nearby hotel.

The next morning, 1 member set out at 2.45am to ride back to Colombo. This lone rider made it to Colombo in about 10 hours.

The rest of us drove down to Tangalle for surfing lessons.

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We spent 3 hours at the beach learning to ride the waves.

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It was a wonderful experience.

Post surfing we picked up our luggage from Matara to head for Colombo.

That evening we decided to the train ride. We headed to Welwatte station.

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Our plan was to take the train to Moratuwa. We got the tickets and waited at the platform. The train came and we were stunned to see the crowds. We stood shocked. The crowd was comparable to what one sees in trains in Mumbai. We then saw another train heading in the opposite direction towards Colombo Fort. We climbed on to that train. It was a beautiful ride by the sea.

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View of Sunset from the Train

We got off at Colombo fort and walked around the nearby areas. We saw the Lotus tower. The crowded market place was similar to the ones we have in India.

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We headed back to our rooms in a tuk-tuk.

Next morning it was time to leave.

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We got back home excited with lovely memories of cycling, surfing and a great time spent with some beautiful people.

And above all I will forever cherish the wonderful week spent with my teenaged son.

We too Pay Taxes 

Yes our water bodies are a mess! Haphazard  development and disregard  for basic rules has led to this. While we as citizens have played a role in the degradation  of of city, is it only the fault of us citizens  who live in apartment complexes across the city?

Most of us purchased our dream home from a builder who promised us that the all the concerned  ‘titles’ were clear. To be doubly sure we then verified these documents  with legal experts who affirmed this. Most of us then approached banks  to help fund our homes. Loans for our apartments  have been sanctioned by several leading  banks including nationalised ones. 

As a citizen, I expect that the bank would sanction loans only to properties that were ‘clear’. 

Now we are told that our homes are encroaching  upon lakes, Rajkaluves and other protected areas. We are told that the sewage from our communities  is destroying the water  bodies.

My question to the Government is what is your role here? Why did you approve projects that you now say have encroached upon water bodies? Why did you not stop the builder when you knew he was probably violating all norms ?  Why did you allow banks to fund these projects and give loans to buyers likeep us? Why have you been collecting  taxes from us?

Apartments  residents  across Bangalore  have worked to save lakes and set up efficient  waste management systems.  

Apartment Owners are willing  to follow norms and regulations. But the Government  must be reasonable  and offer viable solutions to manage our infrastructure  related  issues.

You asked us to manage our waste inhouse. Now you want us to use all our treated water. Tomorrow  we could  be asked to generate  our own power or build roads leading to our homes. Where will this end?

 We too pay taxes.