Posts Tagged ‘India’

India on a cycle

I wanted to see the country,

by travelling through it on a motorcycle- Around India in 180 days was the plan.

gradually, the mode of transport changed to a bicycle,

and finally- the journey began- from New Delhi.

I did not know where I would reach, if at all.

This is the story of how it happened.

Cycle Yatra …
Before climbing a mighty mountain,
When one looks it from the foot,
The ‘lesser mortal’ wonders,
Can I? Should I? Would I?
And then, the first steps are taken,
Full of insecurity, self- doubt and may I confess- Fear?
‘HE’ smiles assuringly, and he smiles back,
This is how the journey begins …

‘When you start travelling across India, you realise how Big your country is,’ said a learned man,
I added, ‘on a cycle, this realisation comes sooner, even before you start.’
It was 18th November, 2012, no special day according to the calendar.
The alarm rang, as it was supposed to, at 5 am.
I woke up, as I was supposed to,
But this was when I could decide whether to stay or leave.
Hesitantly, I left.
No flag offs, no Historical monument to begin from,
This journey started from a friend’s home,
And I pedalled on day 1, matching my pace with the music from the headphones,
Towards my destination for the day- Pilani- 160 kilometers away.
Delhi is a big city,
and it was noon by the time I left this city,
and entered Haryana- through the town of Bahadurgarh.
this was going slow,
I was already tired,
and the journey had just begun.
I got lost on a highway that led to a signboard saying-
‘Sorry for the inconvenience, work stopped due to litigation.’
I was not taking any pictures,
I was not stopping to meet anyone,
I did not visit any of the schools or colleges that came my way,
The priority today was to reach Pilani.
By the time I reached Jhajjar, it was 3 pm.
I had come 70 kilometres. I was to cover 80 more kilometres which was not possible today.
‘Isn’t it too ambitious to reach Pilani on the first day?’ A friend had told me.
‘I’ve cycled 80 kilometres in hilly terrain, so it won’t be difficult,’ I had replied.
But cycling alone, is a different story altogether.
And once you have fixed your destination,
You count every kilometre, and kilometres pass slowly while you are cycling.
I went to the bus stand,
And looked for a bus for Pilani.
On my very first day, I was taking a short cut.
The bus went till Charkhi Dadri- about 40 kilometres enroute.
And on the roof of the bus, both of us- me and my ride were resting after a day’s work.
The roof was soon full, and I was upfront with Haryanvi hospitality- hostility.
As the 40 kilometres passed,
I was with a regained vigour that it was not impossible to cover the remaining journey today,
And I pedalled towards Pilani.
Where did I have food- I can’t recall.
Did I have food?
As it was 5 pm, a car stopped ahead of me,
And I was asked ‘hello ji. kya Plan hai?’
This was the first person to ask me what I was upto.
And I conveyed this to him- Mr Ashok, a College Lecturer.
A short way ahead, was his village,
And warm milk awaited me as I reached there.
He was ‘on the same wavelength’,
And provided the much needed ‘boost’ to me.
As I moved ahead, I saw road-sign,
Showing that a temple that I had ‘much heard of’,
Was nearby.
When would I come to this place again? I thought,
And turned the cycle in the direction shown,
Reaching there, I was told that the annual ‘fair’ of the temple was on the next day,
And I met the trustees, who I happened to know from my stay in Maharashtra,
And thus on the first day, I was treated well.
My stay was taken care of, my hunger was taken care of, and I slept a sound sleep.
He smiled assuringly, and I smiled back.

Day 2 Getting up early is a routine now, and though there is a festival today at the temple, I would be leaving soon. The destination today is Pilani, and I aim to reach there by lunch time. It is around 60 kilometres, and I start at 8 am, pedalling faster than the previous day. Yes, today another ‘uncle’ stops me to ask what I am doing, and I am offered a glass of ‘lassi’. The pedalling continues, and without much ‘happenings’, I reach Pilani, where my friend awaits me. I would not be cycling the whole day today, like the first day, and thus, get some rest. The evening is spent exploring Pilani- the educational town. I am staying in the BITS Campus, and an evening stroll around the campus is rewarding, specially the visit to a Saraswati Temple in the campus. The values which were in the mind of the founding fathers of this institution are still existing, and thus, this is among the few campuses in India where the students become not just engineers but all rounders.

Day 3– A reporter is informed about my presence in town, and comes early morning for an interview. When he realises that there is no defined ‘purpose’ of this journey, he gets clueless, thinking, what he would be writing. I tell him, ‘I do not wish to appear in the paper. This is a personal journey.’ And after a brief meeting, I leave for my destination- Jhunjhunu- my home town. The road today is a village road, and I pass through the daily morning routine of villages- children going to schools, looking at me, farmers moving towards fields, the school bell ringing. Cycling on village roads is a nice experience, its just that there aren’t many village roads that can substitute the Highway routes, for a particular destination, and later in my journey, I took many detours looking for village roads, but ended up no-where, or on the sandy tracks created by passing camel carts, where I dragged my cycle, wishing that the road was nearby.
Reaching Jhunjhunu- my hometown on a cycle, was different, yet the same. I stopped at an Ex- IAS officer’s home, to give him the good news of my beginning the journey, and he was visibly happy.
Known people stopped me, and guessed that I had cycled all the way, and were thinking- this guy is ruining himself. At home, food awaited me, and at last, I was happy to be here. Normally, this kind of journey starts from home, and proceeds to a destination. I was lucky to have home on my way, so that I could rest for a few days, and that too at the start of my journey. This did give a moral support.

Days Passed, and a friend joined me now. SO, after a few days, both of us now started from Jhunjhunu, heading towards Salasar- a famous temple dedicated to the Hindu God Hanuman.

Why we chose Salasar is an interesting story. When I left from Delhi, people on the way asked if I was going to Salasar, as many people undertake such cycle journeys, to religious places. When I did not want to explain, I said ‘yes’ and thus, I has said ‘yes’ to many such people on the way. Now, if I did not go to salasar, that would have been not keeping my word, and thus, the destination was chosen as Salasar. What after that- none of us knew.

Yatra Day 4: the journey has to begin again,
and one has to leave home for the same.
Thus, on another winter morning,
the journey began again.
The difference now was that we were two of us,
and that gave a morale boost, for sure.
This was my home district,
and I had acquaintances in many villages on the way,
so even before we reached the tenth milestone,
I took a right turn into a village,
and told Om, my mate, companion, friend- to come along.
We went to a relative’s house,
an elder in the family, who was happy to see us.
it was still early morning,
and after a glass full of milk, and some conversation,
we went ahead.
Then, there came a diversion for a famous temple 7 kilometres inroad.
A beautiful village road it was, I still recall.
And thus, 15 kms were added to our journey.
The ’tilak’ that I applied to my cycle here, is still present after about a month of travelling,
and I know we have been blessed.
Cycling on country roads is a pleasure,
and on highways, a hazard.
I have always been looking for country roads throughout the ‘yatra’,
and have been fairly lucky.
Our lunch was fixed beforehand,
at my mother’s friend living enroute.
And what a lunch it was!
A beautiful home in the countryside,
and two of us were fed with love that is reserved for one’s own children,
so this is how our experience was going on,
in the home- district.
‘What would happen elsewhere?’ Did this thought cross my mind?
I don’t think so; was probably living in the moment.
Soon after, we reached Mandawa,
the town, once obscure, is now a well known destination in the foreign tourist’s itinerary.
We were not tourists of course,
we were travellers,
but more about this later.
so, after entering Mandawa,
we looked out for the ‘famous’ havelis or palatial buildings,
and were guided to ‘mandawa Haveli’
We entered the premises,
a beautiful, well maintained ‘heritage’ haveli, now a ‘hotel’.
We were expected to pay cover charges, but that was not something we could accept,
and our cycles were the ‘ticket’ to enter any such premises.
The manager welcomed us in,
and a guide accompanied us around.
Beautifully maintained, neat, affordable and elegant- this is how I would define Mandawa Haveli to anyone who would be interested to stay there.
The next stop was a ‘manihari’ or bangle maker’s shop,
she was making Lac bangles,
and two of us sat there,
lazily, looking at her, ordering a fresh pair of small bangles to be made.
I tried to learn the craft, but one has to try it by oneself,
and the old lady might have felt ‘competitive’ had I asked her to let me try my hand,
so I just quietly watched.
A pair was made, and bought.
The next stop was Mandawa Castle.
The previous ‘monument’ was a haveli,
but this one was a ‘Castle’.
Thus the cover charges here were Rs 250, as compared to Rs 70 before,
but what remained static was our ‘cycle yatra’ status,
and thus,
another guide here showed us around the beautiful palace.
Again, well maintained, palatial, with all modern amenities, but heavier on pocket-
this was Mandawa Castle.
One may splurge here if one Can.
The guide who showed us around was an elderly local,
and the castle gave employment to many,
now, Mandawa, and other towns of Shekhawati- the region where this town is located in, are well known tourist destinations,
and I had never been to these places which were in my backyard all these years,
this happens, I guess.
We bid a goodbye to Mandawa soon,
and were looking for a shorter route towards Salasar,
the route existed, but nobody knew of it,
and thus, we used the highway,
a local guy told us after we had covered a fair distance,
that the route existed,
and we had missed it,
and showed us another way to join it;
another village road,
which ended into a dirt track,
and dirt track in Rajasthan turn into sandy tracks,
where we were dragging our cycles,
hoping that the road be visible soon;
what a contradiction-
when on the highway, one resents it,
when away from it, one misses it,
but through my journey I’ve realised,
one should stick to metalled roads,
not the highways,
but at least those that have ‘tar’ on them.
We finally reach a proper road,
and ride over it, along the setting sun.
It was Moharram that day,
and we cross a few processions with rhythmic drum beaters and chest thumpers,
acrobats and fire handlers,
and one funny incidence that happens involves us crossing a circle with a live fire performer, to the amusement of kids who make way for us,
finally out of the crowd, we reach a village,
and look for a Primary Health Centre,
basically, to find a doctor who can accommodate us.
Doctors are a rare species in village Health Centres,
and we were told that we would not see one here as well,
but the purpose of the ‘visit’ to PHC was solved,
as there was a place where travellers like us could spend a night,
as far as food was concerned,
a person managing a sweet shop got food prepared for two of us on our request,
and declined to accept the payment for the same.
This is India.
Thus, passed another day.
Thus, passed another night.

Day- count forgotten

A day during the cycle journey,
begins with-
laziness- of having to cycle another 60-70 kilometres,
of getting up early on a December morning,
of taking a bath with cold water.
uncertainty- of not knowing where I am headed to,
where lunch awaits me,
and where would I spend the night.
fear- goes away.
I don’t fear getting run over by a speeding car,
being mowed down by a truck
or anything of that sort.

the day begins with-
excitement- of reaching a new place,
of a new day where HE shows that there is no limit of His benevolence,
of meeting interesting people,
and being surprised.
Bliss- of watching the rising sun,
and memories of bidding it goodbye when it sets, to rise elsewhere,
of being one with nature,
riding with the wind, or against it,
the bliss of being alive.

each day begins with a goodbye,
to the kind host,
who came in our life when we entered his home,
who fed our hungry stomach,
his shelter rested our tired body-
who powered our journey-
and with whom-
we would continue to stay-
as a memory.

This day began too-
when we-
Me and my friend Om-
left the dharamshala after the cold water bath by me.
I have no aversion to cold water- as seen here-

In Indus

But Om had no intention of touching the cold water.
Om was new to cycling,
or to resume cycling, I must say,
as cycles have been the childhood buddies of most of us,
and Om loved cycling.
Though he became tired- butt naturally-
But we never remained less ambitious.
Thats the advantage when you are two- you dream bigger.

it was November 26th of 2012.
we moved towards the temple town of Salasar,
around 40 kilometres,
and stoped enroute on a dhaba.
I charged my battery by having hot milk with biscuits,
while Om charged his own by bathing in the warm tube well water.
The ride to salasar was easy-
Lakshmangarh- the next major town enroute was about 13 kms,
and with some effort, from our tired muscles,
we reached there before noon.
Since the town’s name has a ‘garh’ at the end of it,
it was expected to have a fort,
and it did have one.
This one is a private fort,
sold to a merchant by the original owners;
it has thick walls,
and provides a bird’s eye view of the whole town.
One may visit the fort, no harm.
The inside courtyard gives some beautiful photographs.
There is a temple inside, of Lord Hanuman,
the priest is not a teetotaller.

We bought some fruits (which have incidentally become expensive these days),
and moved to meet the Lord,
one crosses the national highway, and moves on the district road leading to Salasar,
this road is well maintained, and I was impressed,
but the Toll Plaza at some distance took away all the good impression that I gathered.
This too, was a toll road,
and thankfully, cycles aren’t expected to pay,
we stopped enroute on a farmhouse owned by the priests of the temple,
a glass of chach with 2 kilos of farm fresh amla was the reward.
soon, we entered Salasar, a bit tired.
This is the most revered hanuman temple in the country, as per my knowledge,
and the town is like any other temple town,
full of dharamshalas made by people from various places,
hailing from different communities.
India came together here-
yet, stayed apart.
Anyways, we had Darshan,
asked for His blessings.
and after spending about an hour or more there, we proceeded ahead.
‘Where now’ was the question, as the next destination was not known.
there are two main routes to reach Salasar-
one that we took to enter- from Lakshmangarh side,
and the other of our exit- leading to Sujangarh.
as cycling again on the same route is no fun.
so, we moved towards Sujangarh- 40 kilometres away.
we were very sure of not reaching Sujangarh the same day.
The question of where we would be spending the night became eminent with every passing minute,
and we could not find a functioning Primary Health Centre in the area.
Now, it was getting darker,
and I had told Om-
you find a place for us to stay.
Only one person should be in command.
And today, I thought it would be difficult to find a place.
So, as the sun was setting,
our ‘quest for rest’ began to gather pace.
we were initially guided to a ‘baraat ghar’-
where we found nothing but a room occupied by two goats,
and their poop.
we came out.
we were a bit depressed,
and without much hope,
we entered the village called Lodsar.
moved around a bit,
told our story and waited for someone to offer shelter.
At last-
we asked for the sarpanch’s house, and were guided to it.
And we ended up spending one of the most memorable night in the journey-
I’ll tell you how.
An old lady at the sarpanch’s house opened the gate,
and we told her we were looking for a place to stay.
she welcomed us and gave us the best room of her house.
Later, during conversation,
we came to know that her daughter in law was the sarpanch,
and her son was the ‘sarpanch pati’ or the real person who called the shots.
This panchayat was winning many state level and national awards,
and was judged the best panchayat.
and we had ended up at the house of its sarpanch.
The sarpanch pati was away with her wife to collect another award,
and we were given company by his younger brother,
and the kids of the family.
Our talk continued for long,
and the kids were happy.
We were informed about some ongoing IT projects in the village,
and treated with sumptuous meals.
Thus, passed another day,
by His grace.

Lodsar on-wards-

Early morning,
5 o clock,
we wake up-
before the cry of cock.
I mend the punctured tube till the milk is warmed,
it’s a big exercise that the kids eagerly watch-
ready to help,
bringing whatever I ask for,
be it a panner or a tub of water.
The tube is repaired and the milk is hot.
time to move on baby-
this message I got,
from Om who is eager to begin,
a new day before the sun starts his own.
we move on as the day breaks in,
to reach Sujangarh- the nearest town.
for breakfast.
Sujangarh appears at 8 30,
its presence being declared by a gateway that welcomes us.
Alas! there is no ‘garh’ or fort in this ‘Sujangarh’.
I wonder if we would find Sujan- or good people as well.
Towns are difficult stops in our journey,
and this one was still a small one,
but no less difficult.
people are busy in their chores,
as we move on anonymously-
after a quick breakfast, and visit to a ‘Tirupati’ styled Balaji Temple.
The next stop is Tal Chappar sanctuary-
the home of Black Buck.
I put myself on full throttle,
and pass the potholed road with great speeds.
The town of Chappar is not far,
around 14 kilometres,
and suddenly,
the cycle gives a thud and stops.
The aluminium rim could not tolerate my manoeuvres,
and its spokes came off,
distorting the rear tyre,
stopping me rudely.
It was the cycle’s turn to take revenge now-
I was mishandling her for a long while.
A kind biker stopped,
and I sat behind him with my cycle held in the arms.
The distance of 8 kilometres to Chappar made my arms ache-
a punishment probably.
Geared cycles aren’t repaired everywhere.
Not in Chappar.
But the guy at the shop was enterprising,
and began his study of the cycle.
It took 2 hours for him to do the needful,
The rear tyre is a difficult thing to handle in a geared cycle,
and changing its spoke needs a particular tool to open the flywheel,
without which it is indeed herculean.
The wheel was fitted the wrong way initially,
to be re-opened and re-fitted.
It was a work of lot of patience,
and this guy was a patient himself-
of a gastric disorder-
on which I advised him.
Finally after a couple of hours,
the bike was ready to be ridden,
and we moved to Tal-Chappar Blackbuck Sanctuary.
We were permitted to take our cycles inside,
and this was a very small sanctuary.
One could cycle its total perimeter in half an hour- that small.
we cycled as the blackbuck saw us with suspicion- or indifference- or amazement-
depending on the personality of the black buck-
but few of them started fleeting on our arrival,
and the rest followed.
And then , hundreds of blackbucks ran away from wherever we went,
and the wildlife officer came shouting at us- in his jeep-
telling us that we had driven the bucks away from the tiny sanctuary.
the bucks returned as we retreated.
and we took a leisurely rest at one of the small ponds in the sanctuary-
looking at the bird-life.
This is a tiny sanctuary, and blackbucks move out of it-
on the roads,
in the fields.
Unharmed, unthreatened.
The villagers here must not be happy with these deer foraging on all their crops.
But these bucks are beautiful indeed-
the male turns black from brown as it grows,
and looks beautiful with its curved antlers.
Tal Chappar is a good place to visit,
specially because there is so much to see in a small space.
The bird-life here is diverse,
and the sanctuary has guest-rooms maintained by the forest department.
There are direct trains from Delhi- to nearby Chappar station.
Delhi Sujangarh Salasar express is the one that I know of.

From Chappar, we had no idea of where we were headed to,
and we were tired by the ordeal.
Thus, we decided to take a train to Jodhpur,
and continue the journey from there.
From uncertainty- we were moving to security-
the journey to Chappar station in the night was uneventful-
and as we were moving,
the Blackbucks had left the sanctuary and were freely grazing in the fields.
Enjoying the crop of gwar, or pulses or whatever came their way.
The station was quiet, its silence broken by the arriving train-
and we boarded the general compartment-
with our cycles-
that were not allowed-
but there was no provision of booking luggage at this tiny station-
and we chugged towards Jodhpur on that chilly night.
after getting down at Banar raiway station- the station just before Jodhpur cantt,
we cycled to Om’s uncle’s home,
late in the chilly night,
to catch up a few hours of sleep before another day began.
This particular day was not too good-
and Om gave a reason for the same-
in the morning-
the sarpanch pati had arrived early morning-
and was the first person who we saw.
he was not very happy that two unknown people were resting in his house,
and verified our credentials,
which was understandable.
So according to Om-
the first face that you see in the morning decides how your day would pass,
and thus passed another day,
by His grace.

I would confess that riding the cycle everyday is a tough task,
and had I to do it by compulsion,
or as a part of some job-
I would not have done it.
But this was because of free will,
that I was able to continue pedalling.
This day, in Jodhpur,
we took Om’s uncle’s mobike,
for a tour of the city.
Jodhpur is a famous tourist place and we had many spots to cover-
Places which were visited include-
Ummed Bhawan Palace, Mehrangarh, Jaswant Thada and the local Kachori shops.
A lot has been said and shown about the city in books and images,
and I would not add to it.
The moments that I recall now include-
the folk song played on Ravanhatta- a string instrument- accompanied by vocals by a manganiyar singer,
the singer sang as his wife looked on,
and his voice reverberated through the majestic walls of Mehrangarh- captivating the listeners from across the globe.
The many eagles flying over the fort- giving it their name- Mehran (eagle) garh (fort).
The temple where a stampede killed hundreds- a few years ago,
the vintage cars lined up at Ummed palace,
the quiet evening spent at Kaylana Lake- an ideal place to see the sunset,
the view from the top of Mehrangarh-
and the filth of the main city seen just below-
the blue painted houses,
seen so many times before in images-
do not appear spectacular- but ordinary.
The evening was spent catching up with another friend,
and thus passed another day-
in leisure, and pleasure.
We were to leave towards Jaisalmer the next day.
Every day starts with a new uncertainty,
this one was no different.
We planned to take a train to Ramdevra,
and cycle thereafter.
Jaisalmer to Jodhpur is a long road-
and later I realised that we were there around the same time when this Cycle tour-

the Desert Run- a 500 km Jodhpur- Jaisalmer- Jodhpur cycle journey was happening for the first time.

loading a cycle in train officially is difficult.
specially when your destination or origin is a small town.
Thus, we took them with us in the general compartment,
making up our mind to handle the situation as at comes.
Nothing much happened,
and listening to the constant chit-chat of strangers- old men and housewives-
we reached Ramdevra.
The language of this part of Rajasthan is more sweet and less harsh-
and people can go on talking.

Ramdevra is a temple town-
with the shrine of Baba Ramdev situated here.
People from across the region,
as well as other states come here-
many of them on foot,
and some by continuously prostrating themselves on the ground.
Frankly-
the shrine has a lot of commercialization-
the people of this town have little regard for anything but money.
Those who visit here though come with faith,
and one sees them coming from far off places,
carrying the flag of Baba Ramdev,
singing praises for him,
and worshipping him at his shrine.

By now, due to some unforeseen reasons,
it was decided that both of us were leaving for Delhi.
The journey was to pause but not end.
This was made sure as we called a friend to arrange for a place to keep our cycles in Pokhran,
15 kilometres from Ramdevra.
The ride to Pokhran was leisurely,
my bike was tired too.
we visited the fort of Pokhran-
a place with its own charm-
definitely not as majestic as its counterparts in Jodhpur or Jaisalmer,
but having its own share in the history.
The sun went down and we left our cycles at a doctor’s house.
The journey till now had been beautiful,
and there had been no particular obstacles or eventualities,
this gave us the courage to continue our journey-
and with that intention-
we waited to board the train to Delhi.
Thus, passed another day,
by His grace, and according to His wish.

omething was amiss.
The journey was to begin again soon,
and we had another friend- Mayank joining us.
After a week,
and after buying a road bike for Mayank,
we were in the general compartment of Delhi – Bikaner Express.
General compartment travelling has stayed with me-
thats all one can do if one plans at the last moment,
and yes, this plan to leave for Bikaner also came up suddenly-
we took the cycle with us,
and the Railway Protection Force guy came immediately.
We told him that the luggage could not be booked due to lack of time- which was true.
we were told that the cycle could not be accommodated in spite of reaching more than an hour before.
Cycles and cyclists aren’t an encouraged lot in this country.
The RPF guy was not to listen.
Then I used my options.
My uncle is a very senior officer in the RPF,
and I dropped his name.
The constable asked me the names of his wife, and children,
which I told,
along with sharing his contact number.
The constable has worked under my uncle,
and was delighted to have his number,
and the cycle- it was not to be disturbed till we reached Bikaner early morning.

I regret dropping names, using influence, but the constable was too adamant and rude,
and would have taken the cycle out in another minute had I not done what I did.

Anyways, why were we going to Bikaner?
Because one goes via Bikaner to Ramdevra and Pokaran,
and the night train to Bikaner runs almost empty.
The full day was spent visiting places around the town-
The Deshnok temple, the city.
I met my father’s teacher,
and went to her house.
Though in her seventies,
she cooked makke ki roti and sarson ka saag-
a delicacy best suited for the winters- for me and my friends.
I saw three tall standing neem trees- to be told that they were planted by my father.
The evening was spent at the Junagarh Fort,
and Basant Vihar Palace was the venue for our dinner.
Basant Vihar- a property of the Bikaji bhujia family is a nice restaurant,
with an excellent ambience and good food,
and surprisingly, very reasonably priced.
Mayan’s friend Saurabh was our host in Bikaner,
and his family was happy to see us.
Freedom like the one we were having came dearly to guys of our age-
being busy in the race of life.
We were just lucky.
Next morning, we took a bus to Ramdevra,
and the cycle got loaded on the roof.
The bus journey took us throuogh the drier parts of Rajasthan,
which were turning less dry by continuous flow of the Indira Gandhi Canal.
Ramdevra was four hours away,
and the distance reduced as time passed.
After having another visit to the shrine of Baba Ramdev in his town,
we moved towards Pokaran-
Mayank on his cycle,
we by shared jeep,
and reached soon.
We expected to cycle the whole night-
as it was a full moon night and this is a beautiful highway to cycle on a full moon December night.
Cycling helps you beat the cold,
and your inner heat keeps you warm while the outside weather cools you down.
The plan was in its discussion phase,
and first we had to collect our cycles,
which were resting at the doctor’s house.
On reaching the Doctor,
we were a bit intrigued by the cold reception,
and I was later told that a major theft had taken place in their house a few days after we left our cycles.
And on such instances one regrets trusting strangers.
After exchanging greetings,
we proceeded.
It was time for sunset,
and the moon to rise,
and take over the charge from the sun-
the moon was in its full glory-
but the reality of driving on the desolate highway dawned on us as we continued pedalling.
We started feeling cold,
and realised that this was not simple.
Villages were very very far apart-
and once we leave one village-
the next one would come after some kilometres of cycling.
The villages were not on the roadside,
but in the interiors.
Also, if it got late,
everyone would have slept and we would have to be on our own in the middle of nowhere.
It was not scary-
and we were three of us.
We stopped on the roadside,
to have some warm milk/ tea,
and I had eggs- Mayank and Om were vegetarians.
A guy there appeared smart, and educated,
and the conversation began.
We told about ourselves,
and he told where were we going to stay.
Om said- ‘If people ask that question, we tell them we would stay with them.’
His name was Ali Mehar,
and on hearing this,
he gladly took us to his home.
We were accompanied by a group of children,
who took our cycles from us and we walked along the ‘kutchha’ dirt track to the village.
The main village was situated about a kilometre inside,
and named- Chacha.
This was again to be a memorable night,
with a nice family.
It was only in India that one could expect hospitality by strangers,
in the middle of nowhere-
without any expectation.
I have tried to keep this flame alive-
by doing my bit for people who I come across,
and repay this debt.

The Night at Chacha village, and beyond-
We walked into the house of Ali Mehar,
a large house in a desert village.
His father welcomed us as we settled down.
It was a large house,
with a water ‘tanka’ or underground tank outside,
full of rain water.
The groundwater here is too saline to be drinkable,
and people have developed traditional rainwater harvesting methods.
A courtyard separated the outer room from the inner ones,
where the womenfolk lived and worked.
Ali Mehar’s father- who we called Chacha,
was a man of wisdom.
He emphasised that there was religious solidarity in their village,
and shared some instances of his life, and childhood.
We reminded him of a ‘fakir’ who came to their house when he was a child,
and then returned again after many years.
He had a large family-
spanning three generations,
and there were many children around.
Ali Mehar was much more aware about the outside world,
even international events,
than is expected from a guy in this remoteness.
Now, he has joined as a youth wing leader of a Political Party.

The dinner consisted of Bajre-ki roti,
with curry and buttermilk,
alongwith a request for opium- common in these areas,
but was politely declined by us.
It was a cool full moon night,
and nights in the middle of desert are different-
one can feel the emptiness and openness,
but we were a bit tired to feel anything,
and sleep came early as we hit the charpoys.
This day began in Bikaner and ended in a village few kilometres away from Pokaran-
The next day,
we had to move towards Jaisalmer-
still 110 kilometres away.
It was going to be a long ride,
and we planned to wake up early.
Thus, passed another day,
by His grace.

Early morning waking up in December,
and keeping the date with cold water-
is possible only during a journey,
as the day that begins,
brings with it excitement, and not boredom,
and the same happened as we left Chacha village to continue cycling on the National Highway 15,
towards Jaisalmer.
On our right was the huge Pokaran firing range,
spread across hundreds of square kilometres.
This is India’s largest firing range,
and regular exercises are carried out in the empty desert.
Many dirt tracks led into the range,
and we had no business to follow them.
Our way was the Highway,
and we cycled ahead.
After a while,
we saw a board mentioning the way towards Bhadariya.

Here onwards, I would like to share a similar visit by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam,
who happened to discover this place before me,
and writes about it in his book.

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=OlHsrAob0yMC&lpg=PR18&ots=ht9Pij-AJH&dq=bhadariya%20library&pg=PR18#v=onepage&q=bhadariya%20library&f=true

Bhadariya Mata temple is an old devi temple near the Pokaran firing range,
and because it is an old temple,
more land was not acquired on this side of the range.
A learned man- who later became known as Bhadariya Maharaj-
came here.-
He brought reform to the villages and established a large ‘goshala’ for the old, deserted cows.
But what is more surprising is the large library-
among the largest in the country-
established in this remote desert village.
The place is worth a visit.

Maharaj is no more physically,
but the institution still runs.
It was lunch time,
and we had a hearty meal with lots of ‘chaach’ (buttermilk)
I lost my mobile,
to find it again.

Places like these have a huge resource- Land-
thousands of acres in this case.
and often, the administration becomes subdued to the local influence that such institutions have.
The good or bad derived out of the institution depends on person at the helm of the affairs,
Bhadariya Maharaj was a genuine person,
hope his followers maintain the legacy.

Jaisalmer was 77 kilometres from here,
and it was noon already.
so, with a full stomach,
made overfull by the many glasses of buttermilk,
we went towards our cycles,
and the first pedal was difficult.
As the inertia was broken,
we moved towards our destination- Jaisalmer-
racing with the sun.
NH 15 is a desolate highway-
a good tarmac where cars maintain an average speed of above 100 kmph.
We were cycling on that road,
steadily.
The beauty of that was that we saw things which were too subtle to notice,
the area had lot of wildlife,
and chinkara were seen.
A local couple was stranded because of motorcycle breakdown,
and our cycle toolkit was of little use to them.
The race with the mighty sun could not be won,
and we saw it getting out of sight,
taking its light with it.
It grew darker and colder,
and at a point where we could not cycle any further,
we stopped at a dhaba.
In the desert,
spending a night was again a question.
It had been a long distance and Jaisalmer was still 17 kilometres away.
We had no lights,
not even reflectors,
and cycling was thus not safe.
Leaving those worries aside,
on the ‘dhaba’ we bought a litre of milk,
got it boiled,
and shared it among ourselves,
with glucose biscuits.
I had the liberty to eat eggs as well,
which I relished.

Om’s friend was posted in Jaisalmer,
at a solar power plant,
and he came with his driver to meet us.
We were thinking of staying at the dhaba,
and talked about it to those sitting there,
who offered us blankets.
Our friend, meanwhile arrived.
He suggested that we leave to cycles and collect them the next day-
which we declined.
why waste fuel?
so, with our path illuminated by the headlights of the car,
and after gathering some energy by the hot milk,
we pedalled again,
to Jaisalmer- the Goden City.
It was a physically tiring,
but somehow mentally relaxing.
each turn of pedal felt more like- ‘yeah’
the added advantage was that our luggage- which weighed down us a lot-
was in the car,
and thus our speed increased.

after 14 kilometres, and 30 minutes,
we entered the city-
to feel redeemed.
The last 3 kilometres in the city were cakewalk,
and soon,
we were at the hotel which our friend had booked for us.
so,
for the first time during our journey-
we were to stay in a hotel-
that too because our host himself was put up in a hotel by his company.
After a quick warm water bath-
it was time for dinner-
and in this desert town,
we had the specialities that desert had to offer-
ker-sangri ki sabji etc.
after returning to our bed,
sleep came easily,
and thus passed another day-

by His grace.

Jaisalmer-
Before exploring the town,
we decided to pay a visit to Tanot-
a temple near the Indo- Pak border,
a place which was shelled repeatedly during the 1971 war but was not damaged,
a temple dedicated to Tanot Rai Mata-
the kuldevi- or family deity of Bhati Rajputs,
now she is also the deity of BSF- the Border Security force,
which manages the temple.
We were to cover half of the distance by car,
with our bikes loaded in a camper.
A small detour was taken to visit the solar plant that our friend was posted at.
This area is hub of renewable energy-
windspeed is high, due to the uninterrupted terrain,
sun shines bright, with few cloudy days,
and land is available in plenty.
Also, natural gas has been discovered,
and the fortunes of people here,
who own hundreds of acres of land per family-
have changed in a short span.

We passed many huge windmills,
and upcoming solar plants,
and took the detour to see how a solar plant comes up-
courtesy our friend.
After spending some time there,
we had to move on-
our destination awaited us,
and we did not yet know-
that though we had to cycle just 50 kilometres-
they were going to be the toughest ones of our journey.

Ramgarh is a town that lies almost halfway betweeen Jaisalmer and Tanot,
and is the last place where one can gather provisions.
It has a huge TV tower-
very high,
probably to cover the other side of the border as well.
TV towers are high in remote districts-
to have a greater reach.
I found the same in Kutch as well.

Just beyond Ramgarh-
we crossed a large canal-
its water flow was equal to that of an average sized river-
this was the Indira Gandhi canal-
bringing water from Satluj and Beas to the Thar Desert-
converting it into a green land-
even marshy at times.
The sight of water was beautiful,
and we moved on.
Now,
we realised why windmills were successful in this area-
we faced strong winds resisting us-
pushing us back with every pedal,
negating all the effort that we were putting.
We sat down to get some energy from the fruits that we had,
and expected the winds to slow down.
Mayank- one of my friend and companion- had got severe pain in the thighs,
and was not in the condition to cycle.
Army trucks crossed us frequently,
and we waived them for a lift.
After many trucks passed by,
no one stopped,
and we cycled.
the road here is very typical.
For around a kilometre,
we climbed up a dune,
and then, the slope enabled us to ride down at a high speed,
racing on a long stretch of empty road.
from the top of a high dune-
one could see kilometres of road ahead.
The wind resisted our efforts,
and this continuous up and down on the slopes was becoming tiring.
We came across an officer who was having his evening walk-
and Om talked to him-
to realise that he had heard about the officer before-
because he was once posted near the village from where the officer belonged.
Shortly, an army truck too stopped and
mayank boarded it with his cycle.
The trucks were passing us and we saw their contents.
Some were full of fresh fruits, eggs,
and we felt hungrier.
It was during this journey that I could experience the basics of life-
Hunger, sleep, thirst, heat and cold.
Tanot was still 10 kilometres away,
and the sun had set.
at dusk, we reached endless dunes-
without any vegetation-
the golden sand dunes, and on our right- was a village in the desert-
Ranau.
A sight that I can still not forget-
a typical- remote- village in the desert-
where water was still a very scarce commodity-
where no canal reached,
and all the people lived in huts-
those thick walled ones,
which could withstand the extremes of heat and cold.
One moves back in time in such places-
and very few of these exist.
The menfolk was away- earning money,
and the women were too shy to talk.
So, the cherubs- children of the desert answered our questions in their language-
half of which we could understand despite hailing from Rajasthan ourselves.
Ranau was beautiful in its own way,
and after spending sometime climbing the sand dunes,
we moved on.
Seven kilometres before Tanot-
there was another temple maintained by the BSF-
where we stopped by the sound of the temple bells-
it was time for the evening aarti.
In pitch darkness,
without getting much idea of the road ahead,
we continued to move,
and each passing milestone brought some relief and a sense of accomplishment.
The winds had probably changed direction and were not confronting us anymore,
but the dunes were still to be scaled and descended.
And on the top of the last dune-
we could see the lights of tanot Temple,
and hear the sound of its bells.
The descent to the last kilometre was steep and quickly,
we zoomed into Tanot temple,
Om and ahead of me,
in tears,
on having reached this remoteness.
The long evening aarti by men in uniform was a spectacle,
but we were absorbed in our own thoughts.
After a while,
on gathering sense,
we looked around the place.
One road led to the border-
10 kilometres ahead,
but one needed prior permission to visit the border.
outside the temple,
the history of the place was written,
and many unexploded Pakistani shells were displayed-
which had fallen in the temple premises.
The temple was unharmed,
and thereafter- BSF took over its responsibility,
continuing the worship here.
I washed my face in this December night,
and tasted the super saline water.
nearby, an RO plant had potable water,
We were hungry,
and three of us had puri- sabji at the local army canteen.
The accommodation here was free of cost-
and after parking our cycles,
we befriended two guys from Gujarat who had come to tanot mata –
as she was the family deity of one of them.

This had been a memorable day,
and the physical exertion was negated by the feeling of having reached there.
In winters, there is still a long time after sun-set when one stays awake-
and our time was spent talking.
We were in no mood to cycle back to Jaisalmer,
and it was decided that we would take the early morning 6 am bus to Jaisalmer.
Sleep did not elude us,
though the ground felt hard beneath us,
and thus, passed another day.
we were in Her shrine,
by Her grace.
5 am,
a cold December morning,
the sun would not appear for the next couple of hours-
as we were near the western border of the country.
The alarm wakes us up,
to begin another day.
There is some predictability today,
because there is only one way out for here-
towards Jaisalmer.
The bus was waiting and we approached the driver with our cycles.
we were to put them on the roof,
and I climbed up.
There used to be arguments on who would be putting up the cycles on the roof,
and I was considered less efficient.
With our cycles fastenend up,
and refreshed by a cup of tea,
we moved towards Jaisalmer.
The bus was going beyond till Jodhpur-
another 250 kilometres from Jaisalmer,
and would return back the same day,
thus, it left early.
we saw the landscape pass,
at a much faster pace now, than previously.
and within two hours, we were on Jaisalmer bus stand.
It was still early for our friend in Jaisalmer,
and three of us- Me, Om and mayank went to explore the famed Jaisalmer Fort-
or Sonar Kella (the famous Satyajit Ray movie in bangla)
this is a living fort,
rising majestically in this sandy landscape,
its sandstone changing colours from golden yellow of the lion in the day,
to honey like when illuminated in the night.
it was built in 12th century,
and more than 5000 people still stay within its walls.
the fort is a heritage site in danger.
Earlier, local methods of rainwater harvesting, and nearby Gadisar lake provided water in the time of need.
They were frugal with this precious resource,
but now, people have piped water connection and have left the initial habits of using little water.
the foundations of this fort are getting effected because of overuse of water,
as it fails to find its way out and damages the foundation.

The fort is beautiful, and lively,
its narrow lanes lead to beautiful jain temples,
where people come not just to see the wonderfully carved gateways and pillars,
but to actually worship,
The Jain temple also has a library which has ancient manuscripts;
it is a place of pilgrimage for the followers-
many of them monks and nuns who walk hundreds of miles from place to place-
all their lives.
In front of them,
our journey was nothing,
and our purpose too trivial.
enroute, I had seen groups of Jaina nuns,
dressed in white,
young, and having left the material world,
moving from one place of pilgrimage to another,
in a group of four,
walking continuously-
quietly.

we visited the beautiful fort proper-
converted in a museum.
The carved windows have been shown in many movies,
but seeing them in reality brought both astonishment and praise.
Golden sandstone, available locally has been used to build the fort,
and blends well with the landscape.
It is indeed hard to imagine this fort-
rising from the desert-
in any other colour but that of gold.

narrow lanes became too clumsy for us to continue cycling,
and after locking them,
we climbed the stairs to reach a fort top cafe,
and enjoyed the view of the town over coffee.
What better way to spend a December morning?

Moving out,
we skipped the patwa ki haveli,
and moved to our friend’s hotel for lunch.

There were places around Jaisalmer which could be visited,
and all of us-
Me, Om, Mayank and our host, with his driver,
drove towards Sam sand dunes.

Today we were having a ‘luxurious’ day-
the early morning bus ride,
the touristy visit to the fort,
and now-
this car ride to Sam and beyond.
Our first stop was Lodruwa-
a village that has beautiful Jain temples.
designs like this were never seen by us.
Uniquely made arches, carved in the golden sandstone of the desert.
The different statues of Bhagwan Mahavir were divine- indeed.
Places like Lodruwa are a pleasant surprise-
you find them serendipitously, and they amaze you on being discovered.
here onwards, we bypassed the abandoned village of Kuldhara-
where the Paliwal Bhahmins had abandoned their village overnight to escape the wrath of the ruler of Jaisalmer.

The next destination was the Desert National Park-
the search for the most endangered Indian bird-
The Great Indian Bustard.

Only a few of these large birds survive today,
latest estimate puts them to around 256 individuals,
most of them in a tiny grassy landscape called the Sudashri enclave of DNP (Desert national park)
This is actually a wildlife sanctuary,
and why it came to be known as a National park is a story of wrong transpaltion.
It was originally- Rashtriya Maru Udyaaan-
to be translated as National Desert park-
The Hindi name is still Rashtriya maru Udyaan,
but in English,
it started being called a national park,
inspite of not being one.

We reached Sudashri enclave,
and started looking for the Godawan- the Great Indian Bustard (GIB),
as if this shy bird was waiting for us to show itself.
Sightings are common only in summer months,
when the male makes a nest under a shady tree.
These are the last few remaining birds,
critically endangered,
and are unlikely to survive for a long time.

This bird has even been hunted,
and its habitat has shrunken a lot.
today, the last remaining individuals survive,
in a few enclaves of grassland- like sudashri.
Unable to see anything,
we retreated,
and caught a chinkara leaping away on seeing us.
The destination now was the famed sand dunes of Sam.

We were again chasing the sun-
expecting to catch it before it left us.
The chase today was on a car,
and our competitors were local camels,
which were also being goaded by their riders to reach Sam and cater to the tourists.
We managed to win the race this time,
and caught the beautiful sunset on the dunes.
SAM- the dunes here are definitely worth the time and money that one spends to reach here.
Devoid of any foliage,
the fine sands here are a delightful sight.
We were from the desert ourselves,
but could not resist taking the camel ride.
Riding the ship of the desert in these dunes awakened the child in us,
and small things like racing with another camel,
and getting fearful of the camel when it descended down the dunes came naturally.
after the short ride,
four of us spent some quiet moments alone.
It was dark now,
and the cool sand was inviting-
I could have slept there-
contemplating.
on the other side of the road,
at a distance,
there were performances of local music and dance for the tourists.
since it was late in the night-
the dunes were left to us,
and no one else.
every passing minute made the driver more restless,
as he had to return to his family-
a family man has his own strings attached,
pulling him.
So,
we got together-
arousing everyone from their respective slumber/ contemplation,
and moved towards the car,
to start the uneventful journey towards Jaisalmer.

back in town,
two of us- me and Om-
went to Shri Karan Singh,
DFO, incharge of Desert National Park- known through a mutual contact- courtesy Om,
to stay at his place for the night.
He lived a simple life,
and was happy to see us.
We introduced ourselves and talked for a while.
He was happy to see us,
and we were happy by his informality and simplicity.
he talked less.
In the cold December night,
in Jaisalmer,
we hit the bed- different everytime,
and thus passed another day,
by His grace.

Beyond Jaisalmer- towards Barmer:
We departed early,
and Karan Singhji told us to wait at Akal Wood Fossil Park,
15 kilometres on the Barmer highway,
for him to come there and show us around.

Me and Om waited for Mayank to join us,
his thighs were better now,
after the rest from cycling that we had the day before.
15 kilometres passed in less than an hour,
and we saw the gates of Akal Wood Fossil Park on our right.
we slowed down the cycles and knocked the gates,
authoritatively. 😉
‘Karan Singhji has sent us, please open the gates’- one of us told the guard.
few visitors came here,
and during our stay for the next couple of hours, we say none.
Meanwhile,
Karan Singhji arrived,
and in his jeep,
we took a tour of the park.
It is surrounded by a boundary wall,
inside which-
many wood fossils are preserved in-situ.
‘looks like wood, feels like stone’
in a wood fossil, the structure is remarkably preserved as silica replaces the cellulose.
slowly, over a period od time,
in very few cases,
the wood does not get decomposed, but fossilizes.
the entire logs that we could see,
some of them many metres long-
were all essentially stone-
that had taken the shape of wood-
replacing its content- but maintaining its exact structure.
there were few watering holes for the birds and wildlife,
and footprints of a chinkara were testimony that these were being used.
the guard there brought a bag filled with fossils to display.
we laid them on a white sheet of plastic,
and this was for the first time that I was touching, and feeling fossils,
trying to decipher their origin,
hypothesising if a pointed fossil was a tooth or a bone,
and a round object was an egg or a seed.
Thus, I was so novice that I did not even know if a particular object belonged to the animal or plant kingdom.
Anyways, Karan Singhji had brought lunch for us,
and three of us had a sumptuous meal.
he told us whatever he knew about the wood fossils,
and we added our tit-bits.
he had arranged our night stay at Fatehgarh,
around 40 kilometres away,
and soon, we departed after saying our goodbyes.
Akal Fossil park was another surprise discovery-
none of us knew it existed,
neither did we depart to come here-
but we were brought here.

From Akal,
we moved towards Fatehgarh.

A question came to us-
many times.
What were we doing exactly.
We were not on a mission.
We were not sent by any NGO/ Company.
We had no particular motive.
What were we doing?

We were just travelling.

I was asked many times-
‘what is your mission?’

the answer varied depending on the person who was asking.
and for those who I came particularly close to-
the answer was- there is no mission.
We were not bringing any change to the society,
in an obvious way.
We did influence those who met us,
we left a memory-
a fresh breath of life-
some difference from the routine.
The ‘yatra’ for us was a part of life that exists always in the background-
as ‘those days’.
It firmed my belief- that people are good,
helpful to those in need,
no matter what their individual circumstances are.
We went to the villages of India,
stayed there,
as finding a place to stay in the city-
without paying for it, is impossible.
Not that we could not afford an accommodation where we went,
but that was not what we were looking for.
Those people who welcomed us in their homes-
without knowing us,
without expecting anything,
and shared their lives with us,
are now etched in our memory.
had it not been this yatra, I would have not met them,
not seen this country in its raw form,
and not enjoyed ‘His’ grace.
we escaped from the routine of life-
to live each day,
being surprised every moment.
They ask me to concentrate,
they want me to get focussed.
I find myself scattered,
Akin to the gentle breeze,
that carries fragrance of the full bloom, directionless, and seemingly aimless,
I spread happiness everywhere.
Yet, they ask me to focus.
and focus into a gale,
still concentrate further,
turning into a hurricane.
I wish to move directionless,
like the gentle rivulet formed after a rain,
changing directions, and loosing myself in the soil,
while giving life.
they want me to focus,
into what?
a flash flood or a tsunami?
They say-
focus is not that bad.
the lens focuses sunlight to create fire,
a LASER is focused par-excellence.
I wonder-
though focused par-excellence,
it still derives fame from its ability to destroy,
like the focused sunlight which heats and burns.
No denial that one needs to focus,
for not even an eye-lid could blink without movement of all muscle fibers in a single direction.
focus on a collective goal can accomplish the super-human, the herculean.
In that focused world,
Oh benevolent,
bless me with randomness,
carry me with the flow,
pull me in all directions,
for,
this world does not lack in those who are focused,
but in those who consciously and knowingly de-focus, and dissipate.
Even nature shows us at times how to diffuse,
to scatter, to dissolve.
Not that focusing is a bane,
and being directionless a God-sent boon to the select few,
but, even the opposite of this is not true.
So, in this focused world Oh Lord,
send me with an excess of randomness,
Ready I am,
to risk being termed directionless,
if that makes them introspect on their own directions,
but all this is not a self-less service by me,
because Oh Lord, my creator,
I know that many of the important discoveries in my times,
were done not in a focused state of mind,
but by an act of serendipity.

The ‘why’ of this journey drove us into contemplation,

and even arguments among ourselves.

But coming back to the National Highway to Barmer-
the destination of the day was Fatehgarh.
Enroute, we entered High wind territory again,
with giant windmills making a ‘zoon zoon zoon’ sound as their blades turned.
The wind was making our journey difficult as well,
confronting us not from the front,
but pushing us side ways.
After a while, we asked for the office of Suzlon energy,
hoping to find some energetic food over there,
and to know more about wind-power.

It was a detour of two kilometres on the dirt track,
and we risked tube punctures,
in this ‘Prosopis juliflora’ (keekar, vilayati babool) territory.
on reaching the office, we told our story,
and were welcomed in.
This was a local office of Suzlon energy,
and managed the windpower from the huge windmills in the surrounding.
Some of these were 2.4 megawatt capacity each,
which is impressive.
He told, happily- ‘the wind speed today is good,
generation is high’
We smiled back, though sad, as we were the victims, not the beneficiaries.
He told- ‘this mill is owned by Aishwarya, and that by Sachin’
‘Each turn of the blade generated power worth Rs 6.’
I looked around to see the mission and vision statement of the company.
The control room gave information on how each of the mill was performaing,
and if there was any technical malfunction.
After tea,
or butter milk, or both- I can’t recall,
it was time to move ahead and face the wind.
But before,
we were told that a mill was dismantled due to breakdown,
and we went up close to see it.

Then we came to know about its HUGE size.
on ground,
each of the blades was around 60 metres long.
One can walk upright inside the socket where the blade joins its hub.
Thus, amazed,
we moved ahead,
to join the road again.
Riding a cycle on a highway is not easy,
and it is only on empty highways like this one,
that we were able to crawl-
when compared to the speeding motorised modes of transport.
A caracass of dead female possibly pregnant neelgai was seen,
making me sad.
We had lost contact with each other,
and I did not know whether I was ahead of Om or behind,
as I had visited a Primary Health Centre enroute,
only to meet the doctor posted there.

I continued to cycle,
late in the evening,
reached Fateh Garh-
meeting Om at near the Fort.
we decided to visit the SDM,
and Mayank was going to meet us there.
The SDM was young,
and had little to do in this remote town.
He was preparing for Civil services,
and there we found common ground.
Later, a few months after our visit,
He got selected in the famous TV show- Kaun Banega Crorepati,
but I don’t know how far he went.
After some conversation,
we left for our host,
who was working with the forest department.
He stayed alone,
and was recruited in the department by legendary Fateh Singh Rathore- the Tiger man.
He had also worked in Desert National Park,
and told us stories of some VIP visits,
thus it was turning out to be a nice evening,
as each of us took turns to bath with the warm water,
and the remaining heard the stories.
Dinner was at a local dhaba-
the only one in Fateh Garh.
The night grew darker,
and we hit our respective beds.
thus passed another day,
on a different bed,
by His grace.

The next morning, we got up around 6 am,
Fateh Garh has its fort which lies in ruins,
its bastion walls crumbling.
Cycling around it,
we reached the highway.
The destination was Barmer,
where Om had a friend.
We cycled,
cruising at good speeds.
The wind somehow favoured us,
and by afternoon we had covered a distance of 50 kms.
Enroute, we passed a Community health centre at Shiv town,
and the doctor there happened to be from my hometown.
The population in this area was too sparse,
and long stretches passed before we came to a village.
Even towns were not too large,
with a few odd shops,
and few places to eat.
I don’t remember if we had lunch or not,
but we had covered 64 kilometres by 4 pm,
and stopped at the Primary Health Centre at a place called Bhadkha.
A young doctor was treating patients in the evening OPD,
and I stood patiently as he was listening to his patients.
When I told him about myself,
he was happy and surprised,
and asked us to bring our cycles to his quarters.
I called Om and Mayank,
and three of us went to the adjacent Doctor’s quarters,
where our host- Dr Narendra, lived with another doctor, who was away.
He arrived soon after his OPD,
and we talked.
I am a doctor,
and he was happy to see us.
Om is an engineer from BITS Pilani,
Mayank an MBA from IMT.
Thus, big names of the alma-mater make people wonder what makes us do such things.
Doctor asked us to stay with him,
and there was still some daylight left.
Yet, he felt so friendly,
that we called it a day.
Leisurely activities- including shaving, laundry etc followed,
and by the evening, the party was set.
He had ordered lots of liquor,
despite our insistent request that all of us were teetotallers,
and would not drink.
To me, his offer was an order,
yet I tried to persuade him.
Finally, with a dinner of lots of fruit, and a sumptuous meal,
with tea as the drink for three of us,
we hit the bed.
Meanwhile, we came to know that we had a friend posted in nearby Mangala Processing terminal-
A crude oil processing centre under Cairn energy,
and decided to pay a visit.

The next few hours were going to be memorable-
not necessarily for a good reason.

We were glad to find a friend in the middle of this desert,
and took the dirt track towards Mangla Processing Terminal.
Barmer region is rich in oil,
20% of India’s crude oil is extracted here,
and all of it is sent to Salaya in Gujarat,
and refined by Reliance and Essar.
Barmer crude is very waxy, with high sulphur content,
and needs to be processed and heated before pumping through the pipeline-
this is what is done at Mangla Processing Terminal (MPT)
We crossed a sandy dirt track- with intermittent patches of road,
in the direction on MPT, guided by the locals.
school children on their way to school met us,
and Om and Mayank stopped at a school to spend some time with them.
I moved ahead and stopped at another school,
to interact with the principal and teachers,
and know what cairn was doing as a part of its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities.
The headmaster was receptive,
and the conversation fruitful.
Moving ahead, we interacted with a local working at the plant- in maintenance-
who had his own story on how he had reached a good position in Cairn,
by working hard and climbing his was up from basic literacy,
and earning a decent salary now.
But we were to meet our friend,
who was not attending the phone now.
Finally, after managing to ride through the difficult sandy patches,
we reached the staff residences of Cairn Employee,
and sent for our friend,
who was a senior engineer here.
He was woken up,
and came down.
A brief conversation followed,
and he told that visitors were not allowed in Cairn.
after a short while,
we said our goodbyes,
and he retired to his room.

In that afternoon,
we were now stranded in the middle of nowhere.
There was no sense of coming this for if we did not see the processing terminal.
Also, the road behind was bad,
and our day would have been wasted had we returned from here.
meanwhile, me and Om had a discussion on the better nature of doctors versus engineers,
proved by the stupidity and lack of basic etiquette by this mutual friend of ours.
He could have told that the entry was not allowed,
and spared us the effort of coming there.
Also, he did not care on how we were going to get out from there.
He was an engineer, that too someone who was known to us.
And on the previous day,
we had been treated so well by a doctor,
this prompted me to declare that doctors were better Humans,
though in light sense.
Om took it to heart,
and then used his contacts to get an entry in Mangla.
He had been an officer in Indian Oil,
and knew someone who had worked in Mangla on a senior post.
Finally, after some calls, we were given the permission,
for which Om had put a lot of effort- I must confess.
Triumphantly, we reached the back gate,
to be told that visitors could enter only from the front gate.
The next hour was very troubling.
We had to take a detour, and move along the perimetre of the plant,
on a very sandy track where even wide tires sunk.
Our cycles could not negotiate the path,
and had to be dragged.
The path had thorns of Prosopis,
and it was a difficult patch.
Somehow, we reached the front gate,
and entered the plant after a thorough verification and security check.
Cairn was very particular about safety.
Our cycle journey was our liscence,
because of which the permission was granted.
On entering,
safety jackets and shoes were issued to us,
and a demonstration was shown about safety,
telling us what Not to do.
On entering the premisis,
which had all amenities in the middle of the desert,
we met a senior official,
who admired our will to cycle,
and said that he would also try to use the cycle.
The staff stayed at Barmer town,
around 30 kilometres away,
and it was getting dark.
So, we were permitted to have a quick look at the terminal.
A chemical engineer accompanied us in a battery operated vehicle,
and the colours of evening provided a perfect orange backdrop for a photograph of the plant,
but- photography was prohibited and I could capture the scene only in my eyes.
We were told that a few days ago, even the district collector’s guests were not permitted to visit the plant,
and we felt happy hearing this.
The problem was that it was already dark when we came out,
and found our cycle pump missing.
someone had stolen it,
but we had to move on.
Barmer was more than 30 kilometres from here,
and it was already dark by the time we started pedalling.
having no other option,
we moved on.
30 kilometres on cycle is not a small distance,
and we were already tired by dragging our cycles in the sand.
The road now was good,
starting at Mangla terminal,
leading to the highway.
we joined the jodhpur- Barmer Highway near Kawas- a town which was flooded a few years ago by heavy rains.
Effects of climate change- floods in the desert.
riding on the Highway was difficult now,
due to the traffic.
Somehow, we reached a town called Uttarlai,
which has an underground air force base.
It was time for dinner,
and we had our meal at a ‘dhaba’.
This was among the few times that we paid for our dinner.
Moving ahead,
we cycled into Barmer,
and Om’s friend was waiting there for us.
He was a veterinary doctor,
and we updated him about our journey till now.
He had accommodated us with his friend,
and bid us goodbye,
to meet the next day.

Om was fed up by the journey.
It was a good experience for him,
but he was not getting the point of tiring oneself by this yatra,
and nothing substantial was being achieved.
Thus, we advised him to take the return train from Barmer to Delhi.
Meanwhile, we retired to bed,
not knowing what would happen the next day.
It was not a good day today,
but finally,
we had roof over our head,
and our stomachs were full,
and thus passed another day,
by his grace.

Barmer is called the Thar city,
it was a small town till oil was discovered here,
and then, everything changed.
Property rates increased by leaps and bounds,
and home rents sky rocketed,
as the employees of Cairn needed accommodation.
A refinery has been announced for the town now,
and it would turn this twon into a bustling city.
Narmada waters have reached nearby sanchore town,
and will reach Barmer soon,
when the canal is extended.
this is a place that has a promising future.
We bid Om a farewell after having breakfast at his friend’s house.
Minor repairs were carried out on the cycle,
and we moved on,
towards Sanchore.

We were moving towards Gujarat,
after having spent many days in Rajasthan.
There were two of us now- Me and Mayank.
The question of where we were going any why came to us as well,
but we continued.
Sanchore- the next town was 132 kilometres.
This day was probably the most uneventful during the journey,
and there was no town for a long distance.
Where did we have our lunch?
It was at a roadside dhaba,
where truck drivers stop for their meals.
This meal was devoid of any hospitality and love-
of requests and cajoles to eat more.
Were we passing through an ebb?
We had our good moments as well,
when a truck driver sitting with us for lunch,
who had been a national player,
told us how much he admired our effort.
Also, we got reflecting stickers from a motor service station,
to stick on the bikes and be visible in the night,
thus avoiding getting knocked down.
we needed a real push to continue pedaling.
Anyways, coming back to the road,
we had started cycling around noon this day,
and managed to cover 50 kilometres by dusk,
when we got a call from Om’s friend’s friend,
who told that our night stay was arranged 10 kilometre ahead of where we were,
in a village called – ‘surte ki beri’
Om was away from us,
but yet was worried regarding our well being.
We were told that a person would receive us and take us to his farm,
where we could stay.
The last few kilometres were covered after dusk.
This was all desert territory,
few people, very saline water, and just trucks on the road.
Our host came to receive us,
and we moved to his house.

They were four brothers,
staying together in the village,
Om’s friend’s friend was a business man,
and one of these brothers worked for him.
We were happy to be here,
and talked a lot,
specially Mayank was conversing more.
They came up with the issues they face,
and their views.
The food helped us to overcome the blandness of the day,
and outside, the sky was full of stars.
It was a clear winter sky.
December is a cold month in the desert,
and we got inside,
in the comfort of the quilt,
to retreat into slumber,
and thus passed another day,
by His grace.

In December,
one gets around 12 hours of day-light,
including dawn and dusk.
we spent around 6 hours cycling,
and the remaining time in rest or meeting people.
This day began with the daily ablutions,
to be performed in the open.
majority of the time,
we did not find a sanitary latrine at the place of our stay,
and acceptability for the same is less in India.
specially in the villages,
having a toilet is an exception,
than a norm.
This day was no different.
After some breakfast,
we moved on,
and crossed the town of Dhorimanna soon.
I called one of my juniors from college,
who belonged to this area,
and his best friend was located in Sanchore- the town which was on our route.
His home became our destination for the day.
It was at a distance of 80 kilometres from where we had started,
and God willing,
we expected to reach there by evening.
This was National highway No. 15,
and we had been riding it for 400 kilometres now-
starting at Ramdevra, moving to Jaisalmer, and now towards Sanchore in Jalore district.
We had taken some detours-
first at Bhadariya, to visit the Bhadariya Temple and library,
then to Tanot near the Pakistan Border,
and the difficult detour to Mangla Crude Oil Processing Terminal before Barmer.
But we had to return to the Highway to continue our journey.
We were to continue following this highway for some time,
as it would usher us into Gujarat.
As we entered Jalore district, leaving behind Barmer,
the road worsened.
Jalore is a backward district,
despite being wetter than its counterparts in the desert.
Yet, it lacks education.
It has the least literacy rate in Rajasthan,
and female education is uncommon.
Though we were on a national Highway-
its condition worsened as we entered Jalore district,
but not knowing how long the road condition would persist,
we continued to pedal.
Shortly, we crossed the Narmada canal,
which brought the elixir of life to the desert.
narmada water is fresh and clean,
even upto Bharuch,
after which it joins the sea.
Thus, me and Mayank washed ourselves in the clear water,
which had covered a long distance to reach there.
A few kilometres ahead,
came a sight that I was glad to see.
A bridge, and a river.
‘She’ was Luni-
I had only heard about her-
the river of Rajasthan-
which lost herself in its sands.
I was expecting a tiny nullah,
but was surprised to see a green river bed,
with pools of stagnant water.
It was a vibrant ecosystem,
with lots of migratory birds,
and plenty of food for them.
Tall grass grew in the river bed,
and later on satellite imagery-
I saw that this was the widest and wettest point in the Luni River course,
as just before it,
it was joined by a tributary,
and a dam just ahead of this point prevented the water from flowing ahead.
There was no flowing water at all,
just some pools of it,
but they were not lost in the desert sand.
This is the satellite imagery.

After having seen her to my full satisfaction,
I moved ahead towards Sanchore.
Bad road, and an uneventful ride,
with increased traffic as we had left areas of low population density.
By evening, we were at Sanchore,
reaching our host’s house, guided by his brother.
This was a Bishnoi family,
and we were staying with Bishnois for the first time.
It consisted of two brothers, one of them married,
and parents.
My junior was a good friend of the elder brother,
and the younger one became a good friend of ours.
Bishnois have 29 rules laid down by their teacher- Guru Jambheshwar,
many of which are concerned with protecting the environment and wildlife.
Thus, even neelgai freely graze in fields of Bishnois,
sometimes damaging the crops.
The house was situated outside sanchore,
in a rural setting.
We had a bath,
and conversed with the family.
Uncle was a teacher,
and knew the importance of education.
Their daughter-in-law was a graduate,
an achievement in that society.
All of us talked for a long time.
The younger brother was a delightful company-
sometimes making more sense than any of us.
Food of course is delicious in such settings,
and I realised that I had grown fond of Bajra-
a coarse grain-
which helped after the tiring cycle ride.
I relished having it With lots of ghee and curd or milk,
Everyone got up before 5 am in this house,
and we told them to wake us up as well.
5 am in December is too early,
but we consented to be a part of the morning walk the next day with uncle and our friend.

Sleep came easily as we hit the bed,
and thus passed another day,
by his grace.

5 am,
the next day,
we wake up and leave for the morning walk.
Its cold and dark outside,
but the energy derived from inside after moving some distance keeps us warm.
Soon after returning,
and some breakfast,
we leave towards Pathmeda-
a short detour from our journey-
to a large cow-shelter or goshala.
Pathmeda is called a ‘go-teerth’ or cow-pilgrimage destination.
The cow is revered here,
and thousands of them are taken care of here.
It is a unique place,
where not just old cows,
but those with diseased limbs,
blind ones and those with tumors or large boils are taken care.
The cows belong to Indian breeds- mainly Konkrej, Sanchori and Nagori.
Their milk is much better than that of the Foreign breeds,
but the yield from Indian varieties is low.
The place is well managed,
and it takes an hour to take a round of the premises.
There is a temple,
and the Maharaj who started this initiative is still here to guide its progress.
There is a separate goshala for the bulls as wel,
a few kilometres away.
We saw the veterinary Operation Theatre, and special X ray machines.
These people were taking their work seriously, it seemed.
WE talked to a person in the administration,
who told us about the history of the place.
They have several go-shalas under them in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Pathmeda now happens to be the headquarter,
though there are even larger go-shalas under its fold.
Maharaj has his personal cow- called Surbhi, which is worshipped and taken special care of.
We saw her too.

From here, we moved on towards the Milk processing factory,
reaching there by 11 am.
the milk was procured from the go-shala and nearby villages.
Ghee from here was in great demand,
and it was the real Desi ghee- from Desi cows,
having its natural yellow colour.
Aftr extracting ghee,
the remaining milk was mixed with some milk powder- to form re-constituted milk.
There were separate rooms where sweets including ras-gullas and pedas were being made,
and we bought some of them.
we moved on from here towards National Highway 15,
and stopped briefly at the school where our host was posted as a teacher.
The principal and other teachers were happy to see us,
and we moved on after some chit chat.

After so man days,
we were going to cross into another state.
A large board welcomed us into Gujarat,
and another one thanked us for having come to Rajasthan.
The securit checkpost was on both sides,
but our cycles zoomed ahead.
I stopped at some distance to bid farewell to Rajasthan,
and capture some images,
and we were excited on looking at the smooth roads of Gujarat.
Our speed increased and we reached a village quickly.
There was a Primary Health Centre and I went in looking for the doctor.
There was none.
The staff nurse knew nothing but Gujarati,
and after a vain attempt of trying to converse with her, I returned.
Soon, the road too turned worse than what I had left in Rajasthan.
It seems that just the initial 3 kilometre stretch of road was in a good condition.
We moved ahead, as it got dark,
and passed what looked like a temple.
With hope, we entered it, and met the caretaker.
the place was under construction,
and we could not be accommodated.
Also, though Rajasthan was just a few kilometres away,
the attitude of people here was very different.
Probably we did not meet the real ‘locals’.
After a short distance, we stopped at a dhaba,
for dinner.
We were in no mood to travel ahead,
and there was no expectation of finding a better place.
So, under the open sky,
in our sleeping bags,
both of us slept at the Dhaba after locking our cycles together.
This was our first night in Gujarat during this journey,
and the first impression was not a good one.
Things would change with time,
and with that hope, we slept there on that December night.
Thus, passed another day,
and we reached Gujarat,
By his grace.

The next day was our first full day in Gujarat,
and there was no option but to cycle ahead.
We were not sure of where we were going,
and that becomes a challenge when roads divide.
If we were to move southwards into Maharashtra, we were supposed to move Eastwards.
If our destination was the kathiawar peninsula. we were to continue straight,
but if we were to visit Kutch,
the road to going westwards was to be taken.
This decision was postponed as of now- as we could safely proceed till Tharad- the next town.

At Tharad, I purchased a Gujarat Road Atlas.
I could not get one in Hindi or English,
and had to buy the Gujarati one-
guessing names of the places by common sense,
and asking people to read the maps for me where I faltered.
From here, I intended to go towards Kutch, and Mayank towards Kathiawar.
We could still go on together for some distance and decide later.

Together, we cycled on one of the worst roads of Gujarat-
though it was a National highway in the map,
it is a damaged road strewn with stones from the size of gritty sand to pebbles and boulders.
It was a desolate territory,
near the border,
and with few places where we could stop for some refreshment.
Gujarat was testing us,
and nothing ‘good’ had happened till now.
We did not even have prior contacts here,
and making new ones was appearing difficult.
Still somehow, we continued.
Even finding water was becoming difficult,
and we found a water pot placed by BSF men near their camp.
Having quenched our thirst,
we went inside the camp to meet its occupants,
and were greeted by two men, on duty.
they asked us to rest for a while,
till our mobiles got charged,
and we complied.
Another large BSF camp was located at a short distance,
and border was less than 20 kilometres from where we were cycling.
Continuing on the empty road,
by dusk, we reached a Primary health centre in a village called Zazam.
Doctors are never available on PHCs in Gujarat.
Expecting one here would have been a folly,
but we found the compounder who was the whole and sole here.
He dispensed medicines, filled registers, managed salaries, and medical stocks.
There were few quarters behind the PHC where the staff nurse, and some school teachers lived.
The compounder was our only hope as a host today,
and before we asked him,
he offered us to stay with him.
Before he could change his mind,
we brought our luggage and moved with him to his quarter.
we talked a lot while cooking food,
all of us joined in,
and the meal was ready.
He was happy to see us,
and our praise added to his happiness.
He told that the people in Gujarat are rich,
they don’t mind taking the patient to the city,
and thus, no doctor stayed at the PHC.
It could even be the other way round-
because no doctor stayed at the PHC,
patients went to the city,
and not everyone was rich to afford a vehicle in emergency.
Anyways, he had been kind to host us,
and was at least staying here in this remoteness.
He told us about a large solar plant in Charanka.
This is what wikipedia says about the site-

The largest site within the Gujarat Solar Park is being built on a 2,000-hectare (4,900-acre) plot of land near Charanka village in Patan district, northern Gujarat. This hosts about 19 different projects by different developers. On 19 April 2012, a total of 214 megawatts (287,000 hp) had been commissioned.[43] It also became the world’s second largest photovoltaic power station. When fully built out, the Charanka Solar Park will host 500 MW of solar power systems using state-of-the-art thin film technology, and should be finished by the end of 2014.[3] The investment cost for the Charanka solar park amounts to some US$280 million.[3] Construction began on December 3, 2010.

Otherwise, reaching Charanka is a difficult task,
but we had come very near just by chance,
and thus, planned to visit the park next day.
We collected some medecines to dispense to those in need,
and with a full stomach,
hit the bed.
It had been a hectic day,
specially the long ride on the bad road.
Thus, sleep came early,
and thus passed another day,
by His grace.

Charanka was around 20 kilometres away,
and after some photographs with our host,
we continued our journey,
to reach to Solar Park.
I was imbibing some Gujarati words,
mixing them with Rajasthani and Marathi vocabulary that I already had with me.
This is the location of the road from Zazam to Charanka Solar park,
with only one village- by the name Fangli, on the route.
This is a very dry territory,
and lies just south of the Rann.
The land of solar park was waste land,
and the disadvantage-
of intense heat, no rain has been a boon-
maiking it a good location for the Solar Park.
Though it was December-
we still felt warm in the day.
I could not imagine coming here during summers.

We entered through the large gates of the Solar park,
and were impressed by what we could see.
there were few people to tell us where to go,
and nobody to stop us.
So, we headed straight to the office,
and introduced ourselves to the engineer/ manager-
who was just a few years older than us.
He told us about the park-
how it was established in a record time,
and the Solar Policy of India and Gujarat government.
Those completing the work in record time were paid 9 Rs per unit for the electricity,
while those taking more time a much lesser amount.
The government provided the land, and transmission facilities,
and the companies established their plants.
There were incentives in green energy,
as Renewable energy certificates can be traded.
It is mandatory to have at least 5% electricity generation from renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass),
and states failing to do so have to buy such certificates from states producing surplus renewable energy.
Gujarat is the leading state in renewable energy,
and Charanka Solar Park is currently the largest Solar plant of the country.
Here, multinational companies, as well as people who had come together-
formed their own solar power company,
and established many 5 MW plants on plots of land in the park.
The capacity at that time was 225 MW,
to be increased to 500 MW.
This whole plant could be managed and run by a few men,
many of them unskilled ones needed for cleaning the solar plates to remove the dust.
Thus, once established, the running cost of a solar plant was very low.
we were taken on a jeep tour of the plant,
and there is a watch tower,
six stories high,
from where the whole plant can be seen.
There is a 2.4 MW wind mill as well,
and it was locked,
else we could have got a chance to get inside.
local rainwater harvesting structures were constructed,
because this area was very dry,
and in 2012, the same year,
there had been a severe drought in this area.
After lunch,
we thanked our friend for his hospitality.
The stay in Gujarat was turning better,
and we moved on.
I had told Mayank about my intention of going towards Kutch,
and after a short distance,
I was told of a dirt track that led into the Rann.
Mayank was to move towards Kathiawar,
and we parted ways,
to meet after a few days,
in Ahmedabad.

The landscape was changing,
though the soil was good,
and fertile,
water was scarce.
I moved on towards a village called Vauva,
after passing through many small ones- Datrana, Bakutra, Dhokavda.
I was riding alone after a long time,
and did not know what lay ahead.
I was planning to cross the Rann,
and enter Kutch.
Vouva was the last village before the Rann,
and I asked for the way.
The villagers were reluctant to let me proceed at this time,
but there was still 2 hours of daylight left,
and they told me the way.
For the next two hours,
I lost myself in the sands,
dragging my cycle on one of the dirt track,
to return back everytime,
unable to find my way.
There was no one there who I could ask,
and thus I returned.
Near the village, I was shown the right way again,
and asked to board a tractor which was going on the other side.
The tractor driver got into an arguement with a guy who was accompanying him,
and decided to turn back,
leaving me stranded there.
He had covered a distance of less than a kilometre,
but I decided to continue,
and spend the night at the BSF post, which was 7 kilometres away,
on this side of the Rann.
The sun had set by the time I reached the post,
but there, I was denied permission to stay.
It was against their rules,
and they could not let me stay there,
which was justified.
Thus,
I had no potion,
but to cross the Rann,
which is nothing but a flat land extending into endlessness,
without roads,
and with dirt tracks that end suddenly or bifurcate, or criss cross each other.
I was told that I had to follow the light that came from the distant BSF camp on the other side,
and keep moving.
Thus,
this is how I entered Kutch,
to begin my next leg of the journey-

Kutch- By Cycle.

Indo Pak Talks- Ms Hina Rabbani Khar

MEETING HER counterpart. courtesy NDTV

After a long freeze, there is a thaw in our relations with our beloved sibling, to sort out matters of sibling rivalry, dating back to their birth.

Pictures of Ms Hina Rabbani Khar shaking hands with Shri S M Krishna are all over the digital and print media, and I shouldn’t say this, but a big reason for that is the newly appointed gorgeous lady, who has arrived here as the Pakistani Foreign Minister.

One one side is this naive looking lady, meeting our Foreign minister and leaders of opposition, on the other side is our own lady- Ms Nirupama Rao, meeting her counterpart, Salman Bashir. Both of them (Ms Rao and Mr Bashir) are seasoned bureaucrats, and hold a greater sway in the foreign relations than their respective bosses (my personal opinion)

I got curious about Ms Khar on seeing her photos. Yes, she looks great (This is an understatement) and that fuelled my curiosity. being very blunt, I believe she has been made the foreign minister not merely because of her knowledge or stature, as there might be more deserving people in line. Should I call it a desperate measure on Pakistan’s part to attract funding from  the US during its troubled times, when aid is being slashed and there is little to bargain, now that Osama is dead.

I am not being a chauvinist. And commenting about Ms Khar’s credentials or the lack of it would need a much deeper knowledge about Pakistan’s affairs, than what I currently have, but still, there was no major breakthrough. It is too early to say things at this stage, lets see how it goes ahead. One thing I must confess- Indians, including me, have gone bonkers over her, and we may all start loving Pakistan if she visits often. 🙂 May the best happen to us and our brothers.

But there was something else for which I wrote this. I saw a video, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/india-expresses-concern-about-hina-rabbani-meet-with-hurriyat-122389 , and this changed my perception about Ms Hina Rabbani Khar. She looked impatient and naive before opening her mouth, but when she spoke, everyone else kept quiet. She is confident, intelligent and knows what she speaks, You should listen to her. Our relations with Pakistan should normalise and extend towards cordiality, for a stable region, which will benefit both of us.

Cozying with Advani, who says NO. Just kidding. Courtesy-NDTV

Ms Khar is a young face, and she represents the youth of this sub-continent, who is ambitious, and forgiving. What happened in the past is not our concern, but how we build our future definitely matters. She said, ‘ We are here to create history, and not to be burdened by it.’

Form here, now that the talks have started, we would have to arrive at the point where we discuss the real issues which have plagued us over all these years- Terrorism, Kashmir, Nuclear Weapons, Border Disputes, River Water Sharing- moving via the talks on Trade, Transport, Pipelines, People to People contact and co-operation.

She is glamourous, NDTV

The recent Mumbai attacks have not derailed the talks, which show our commitment towards this issue. The government at Pakistan is relatively stable. Ms Khar and Mr Krishna have a lot of ground to cover, and I wish they do.

Trans Asian Railways

I love trains, all of them. The swanky Shatabdi Express, The Non-Stop Durontos, The Superfasts as well as their neglected cousins – The passenger trains, the metre gauge chug-chugs, the narrow gauge mountain rails, and the obscure trains struggling to stay alive, awaiting conversion or decommissioning. Also, the nostalgic Mountain Railways, Few of them still hauled by steam locomotives.

There are others for local transport. From the Kolkata Trams- Metro- and EMU, to Mumbai locals, and the swanky Delhi Metro, and its older sibling- The parikrama EMU.

For many days, there has been a talk of Trans Asian Rail Link, linking the nations of Asia, from Turkey (which is linked to the European Rail Network) to Iran, and then to the rest of Asia- The Northern Link going to Beijing and Korea, The Central Link connecting Central Asia, And the southern Link going upto Singapore via Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.

This Pan Asian Link will bring about a sea change in many aspects, and is the immediate need, as planning and implementation will take time.

What I feel is being summarised below:

Why Trans Asian Rail Link?

1) Rising oil prices mean that when oil dries up, there will be no immediate fuel for the aircrafts, and the rail connections between countries need to be strong, more importantly for the land locked nations. Though this will take some time, but for an efficient Rail Transport to develop, this much time is required, considering the present condition of Railways in South East Asia.

2) Railways act as an integrating force, bringing people together. China is investing on its Rail Infrastructure in a big way, and will play a leading role in this development. India is in a favourable position at the moment due to its existing Rail Network, and plain terrain in the Northern Plains. The part in the north East has to be developed, which is already a part of our domestic plans, and if linked with neighbouring Myanmar, it will lead to development in the region, reducing its remoteness. Side by side, integration with the Trans Asian Railway will make the north East Our gateway to the ASEAN, leading to development.

3) In the west, we already have a rail link with Pakistan, at Thar and Wagah. Pakistan is linked with Iran, and further, Turkey. Thus, this is the area where the Rail link already exists, and just completing the rail link between India and Myanmar, a functional link can be started very soon, taking the beginners advantage.

4) It will boost Tourism in India, and the whole of Asia, will come on a single tour iternary. Currently, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia- each of them attract more tourists than India. By providing a direct link from Europe to these countries via India, India can act as a stopover for those tourists, and become a popular destination.

The opportunities are immense in this Rail Link, but still, little progress has been made on India’s part. Terrorism can not be justified as an excuse of not taking up this project, as we already have rail links with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Talks are made on the development of North East India, but the true development can only be made by making the region less remote and more accessible, by creating more opportunities and there can be no bigger opportunity than making that region the gateway to India. If we sit and watch, an alternate route will come up in due course vis Central Asia and China, making it the prominent route, entirely bypassing India, or making India a side branch. Are we waiting for this to happen?

Initiative has to be taken. Confidence building measures with Pakistan are being talked of. High level meetings are going on. Our relations with Bangladesh are at their best. Mutual understanding and respect have taken the place of allegations and suspicion. Why not give this a try. All the countries- Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia should come together to start  a trans Asian Railway. There are gauge differences, but they will remain. At those points, trains can be changed, as we do for domestic rails in our own country. What is important is streamlining the visa procedure, and linking the trains according to their timetable.

If an Immediate start has to be made, there is a link from Turkey to Iran, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. A ferry service to Rangoon from Dhaka will not take much time. And again, there is a link from Rangoon to Bangkok and ahead.

Time to Wake up and act.

THE Unique Status Of India

There are many aspects in which are nation is different from others; it is diverse – culturally, economically, linguistically, and all sorts of divisions that can be found in the humanity exist here, with few that are indigenous like the caste system.

But this post does not talk about that. I remember talking to a senior from Sri Lanka. He said, before coming to India, he imagined it to be a different country, a much better version than what he actually saw. Most of it was due to the technological advancement that this country had achieved, its nuclear capability, and the latest shot in the arm (at that time) was India’s mission to the moon. That created a lot of expectation among countries who are developing, and actually see our nation as a role model, which is exemplifying its success, and still being a democracy. Had the commonwealth games been held with out the controversies that accompanied with it, it would have been a big boost to India’s Image.

Coming to the point, India is home to the largest number of Poor in the world, yet, the same India has one of the best missile programmes, a commendable space Institute, proven nuclear deterrence. I ask myself, if we are not able to provide food- the most basic necessity, to our people, then is it justified to spend even a single rupee on the relatively luxurious ambitions of sending a man to space on our own, much of it just for the sake of doing it?

The world today is different from what it used to be during the cold war era, and the position of our country has also changed, and now at least we can claim a permanent berth in the UN security council, which was not the case before. India is a huge country, and the volume of revenue itself can justify money being spent on ambitious projects, while adequately spending on social welfare schemes. I’ll put some points against increased enthusiasm on undertaking ambitious projects, like sending a man to space on our own:

  1. We have a huge share of the downtrodden, our children are still out of schools, our mothers still die during child-birth, while our babies still go un-immunised.
  2. We spend a bare minimum on welfare schemes, our health budget is abysmal, education takes less than 5% of GDP. These sectors have been craving for finance.
  3. Much of the hype is due to the symbolism, but do we actually need one, specially after what happened at the commonwealth games?
  4. What would be the use of starting a vertical program, spending for the research of it, and if it fails, dealing with the failure.

Why can we afford to send a man in space on our own?

  1. Here comes the uniqueness of India. In spite of being a developing country, the sheer size of our economy gives us an advantage, which even developed countries in Europe or Asian tigers lack- We can put funds for research, vis-a-vis concentrating on basic amenities.
  2. The past record of ISRO and organisations like BARC and DRDO has been good, and they are among the few public sponsored research organisations, which are doing good work.
  3. ISRO started its commercial wing- ANTARIX, through which they charge for the satellites they launch for other nations. So, with some inputs now, these organisations can be self-sufficient and also contribute to the exchequer at a later stage, there is just a need of visionary leaders.
  4. This is an area that holds the key to future, where our trained youth can find jobs in their own countries. We have the requisite man-power, harnessing it for our own nation would be an advantage.
  5. It will definitely be a boost to India’s image in the world, for which we undertake many projects in the third world. Since India is seeking a louder say in the world affairs, she has to prove herself, and in the field of Technology, her performance has been lagging.

As far as sending a man to the space is concerned, starting a vertical program for it would not be the best thing to do at the moment; but keeping this target in mind, we can collaborate with Russia, and get an Indian Inducted in their space mission, while collaborating in the technology part. Our relations with Russia have not seen a major breakthrough recently. We cannot ignore that country, as it has been a traditional friend, also, it holds the keys for energy security of the world, and it is a reviving nation. There are other options starting from scratch with another nation like Israel or a European nation, or The IBSA nations. This way, the costs would be shared and we could benefit from each others Technological Expertise.

The possibilities are immense. There is another area of utilising thorium for our reactors, the third stage of our nuclear program. Our satellite program is more or less on the right track. India needs to invest in this field, and concentrate on putting a tab on the parallel economy, to increase our revenue, so that the financial constraints are reduced, and we can be free to pursue our goals.

Three Hours in Delhi- What to do?

Had some work this morning in Delhi, and had to wait for three hours. How could I not go place hopping?

My place was Lajpat nagar, and a quick view at google told me that there were things nearby to visit, and I took an auto, for my first destination- Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah, where lies the safu saint. The dargah has a crowded neighborhood, and as I proceeded to the shrine, I was stopped by many, and coaxed for buying something. The narrow road leads to the shrine, which is visited by many across the country. There was little security, no frisking. As I entered the complex, the first thing to catch my eyes was the grave of Amir Khusro, a famous poet. Then, as there was a big line to enter Khwaja saheb’s grave, I did a round from outside, and sat there. The place was similar to Haji Ali or Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti’s Dargah. Sufis believe in God, as a friend, a lover, and to love any other human is loving ‘him’. The lyrics of Arziyaan- a song from Delhi-6 sum up the philosophy. Quawwals were singing, and after some while, I left, and walked to the world heritage site nearby- Humayun’s Tomb.

Humayun was the second Mughal Emperor of India. Under him, the Mughal Rule took strong roots and spread in the Indian Sub-Continent. After being defeated at the battle of Kannauj, by Sher Shah Suri, he took refuge in Iran, and then returned via Herat and Kandhar.

When he died after a fall from his library at Purana Quila, his Begum, or the queen, wished to build a mausoleum in his memory. Akbar became the next Ruler of India, and work was started for a magnificent tomb to be built on the banks of Yamuna, near the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin. The Tomb was built in 8 years and is the first example of Mughal Architecture in India. The complex also has graves of many mughals, most of them unknown. The place has beautiful gardens and is being restored, in collaboration with Aga Khan Trust. It is well maintained but less visited. Here, I was seriously delighted to see how our monuments were being restored, and specially in Delhi, you can still find all the cities that existed, in continuation for past 1800 years. The ruins still adorn the corners, roads and jungles of this city, which is our capital.  Also, I thought about the destruction of standing Buddhist statues in Bamian by Taliban. What a waste of precious history, by fanatics.

Yamuna must’ve been very dear to the Mughals, as they built many cities on its banks. Also, I was pleased to know about the tombs of Mughals.

Babar – Lahore- A simple tomb without a ceiling, with white marble frames.

Humayun- Delhi- Humayun’s Tomb is a world heritage site.

Akbar – Sikandara- Agra- his tomb is also magnificent.

Jahangir- In Lahore, without a ceiling, but impressive.

Shah Jahan- Taj Mahal houses him, alongside his wife.

Aurangzeb- The simplest, in Khuldabad, Aurangabad. Built with 26 rupees that he earned by weaving caps. No ceiling, no walls. An ordinary grave.

The later Mughals are buried in Delhi, many of them in Himayun’s Tomb. The last Mughal- Bahadur Shah Zafar could not die in his homeland, and is buried near his prison in Mandalay, Myanmar.

India has preserved its history well. From pre-historic caves in Bhimbetka, the Harappan sites in Dholavira and kalibangan, various ancient temples, to the palaces and relics, of both Hindu and Muslim rulers, and even the structures made by British- all can be found here, co-existing with the high rises, and the slums- and there is no better place in India than Delhi if a single city has to be chosen.

Amidst all these thoughts, I left the complex, after taking a round around it. In the central sanctum, was the grave of Humayun. There was peace, and when one visits these places, the realization comes, that it does not matter who you are, you are not greater than TIME.

Also, just one more Mughal Tomb to be visited in India- Sikandara, where, I’ll meet Akbar.

Next Stop- National Science Centre- I did not realize but I was very near the Purana Quila, but today, my destination was the National Science Centre, located opposite to the Zoological Garden, in Pragati Maidan Complex.

There were hardly 45 min before I had to be back, but still, I gave it a try, and got entry into the science centre. The attempt to bring science to the common man, especially children, is an honest one, but little has been done to take it forward. Set up during Rajiv Gandhi’s time, this place attracts many children, and their parents, and at times, people like me, but the displays here were the same 20 years back- most of them. Science is an ever changing field, and needs innovations every day. The place has a huge potential, and as it was a Sunday, it was crowded by its patrons.

I took a round, and realized that it was not possible to come out without having a look at the whole place. Very good idea.

I loved this idea, and took a round of the place, and by the time I came down, it was already late, and I rushed to Lajpat Nagar, and then, back to the station to catch a train.

The Aurangabad Trip

We were back after celebrating a friend’s birthday in the hostel past midnight. It is a peculiar time, when there is an urge to do something, go somewhere. Generally this is followed by a bike journey on the roads of Pune, but I am glad that we thought differently, leading to one of the most unexpected trips.

The best trips are planned in 5 minutes at 1 am in a hostel room.

Aurangabad was the place where none of us had been before, and five of us took some money and stepped out at 1:30 for Pune station. There is no train, so we asked for the bus, and then, guided, went to Shivajinagar bus Stand from where the buses for Aurangabad leave. Cutting long story short, we took the last seats of a bad state-transport bus and reached Aurangabad the next morning. Now, in a new city at dawn, we had no idea where to go, but after morning ablutions at the bus stand, we were approached by an auto driver who proposed taking us around the town, visiting the sights worth seeing.

This was to turn out the best decision for the trip. The Auto agreed to charge Rs 400 for 5 of us, and we went to the first place for the day- Bibi Ka Makbara- Called Taj of the Deccan or poor man’s Taj.

This is a tomb built by Prince Azam Shah, son of Emperor Aurangzeb,one of the Mughal Emperors, in the late 17th century as a loving tribute to his mother, Rabia Durrani alias Dilras Banu Begum. Though it does not match the beauty of the Taj Mahal, but the place had a charm of its own, and is a peaceful place to spend some time. The pictures we clicked turned out to be good. I liked the inner part of the tomb, which had carved marble screens, in an octagon pattern.

From here, we proceeded to The Water Mill or Panchakki.

This mill is run from water that reaches here from the mountains through an underground channel, and this mill is situated in a mosque complex, where it was used previously to grind food for the visitors by water moving on its blades. The water comes from hills situated 10 kms from here. The place was very simple.

Now, it was time to move out of the city for nearby places. We headed for the Daulatabad Fort. This fort was the capital of India under Muhammad bin Tughlaq, fondly called as Pagal Baadshah or the Mad King. He shifted the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad/ Deavagiri due to its central location, but when he came here, disturbances in North India compelled him to return back. The Fort is beautiful, among the best in Maharashtra. There are dark pathways, bat infested narrow stairs, through which the top of the fort is reached, which has a nice view. Also, there is a big cannon here, and its metal never gets hot even is scorching heat.

Daulatabad Fort

Later, we went to Aurangzeb’s grave, the simplest grave of any Indian ruler ever built.

The city if Aurangabad derives its name from Aurangzeb, who was a devout Muslim. He wanted that his grave should have no tomb, and should be built within a cost of 26 Rs, that he earned by weaving head caps. Visiting this place brought some regard for the Emperor, who is perceived as the most orthodox Mughal Ruler of India.

The place is called Khuldabad and it also has tombs of famous Muslim saints- Zain ud din and others. The place was calm.

Next, we went to a famous Hanuman Temple, which has a statue of Hanumanji, lying down. There was a group from South India which was chanting Hanuman Chalisa, reading it in English phonetic. Their pronunciation was peculiar, but I was pleased. India is indeed unique.

The cannon as seen from the top of Fort

Later, our friend- the Autowallah, whose name was Khan, took us to a Shiva Temple, and on reaching there, we realised that it was a Jyotirlinga- Ghrushmeshwar. This was again a surprise, as we never imagined that we would come to a Jyotirlinga just by chance.

There was less crowd as compared to other Jyotirlingas, and we took time to say our prayers.

Later, we reached to the most awaited part of the trip, after having some food. The Ellora Caves.

Ajanta are the more famous among these groups of caves, but they are 120 km from Aurangabad. Ellora are nearer- just 23 kms. Reaching there, we could spend the whole day at those caves. These are rock cut caves, where whole hills have been carved to form caves. There are Hindu, Jain and Buddhist caves, co-existing besides each other. Cave no. 16- Kailash, or the Abode of Shiva is the most beautiful cave. One can not describe the feeling that one gets on seeing these caves, which were carved out patiently and beautifully, over many years, in times where there were no tools except the humble chisel. I honestly believe that these are the places which should be declared the real wonders.

The caves are well preserved by Archaeological Survey of India.

By now, the sun was setting and it was time to return. We were dropped to the bus stand and took a bus, which charged just Rs.125 as a return ticket, and to our surprise, on reaching Pune, all of us were left with just 50 Rs in total.

This was an excellent trip, and we could not plan such a day beforehand. Things fell in place automatically, and we just cruised through places, without worrying. The cost per head came to just about Rs 500, including our journey and food.

The Konkan Journey: Pune- Tamhini- Raigad- HariHareshwar and back

It was like any regular evening in the hostel when we decided to visit Mulshi, knowing nothing about the place. Holi was next day. We were four of us, all medical students, and that was the road where we had not been before on a bike. Mulshi was a dam, this I had heard before, so we headed to Chandni Chowk on two bikes, and took the turn to Paud. The road is beautiful, and things looked good as we crossed the Pirangut ghat, the sun was setting and we went ahead, reaching Mulshi after 20 kms. Mulshi Dam is a huge water body, but there was no place which looked good to get into the water. The road moved along the reservoir, where we clicked few photographs, including the full moon. Grossly dissatisfied, I remembered that this way led further to Alibaug, from a previous bus journey. I asked a local who confirmed. Those with me gave a nod, and we went ahead. As we went further, the road condition worsened, and there were many turns where… At one point, there is a narrow road running between steep cliffs on both sides, crossing it was a thrilling experience. The road is generally avoided in the night, as there are incidences of robbery. It is a road less used, and during our journey down the ghat, hardly any vehicles came from the front. This added to our fears. None of us knew where we would find the next petrol pump, and we weren’t prepared. After some distance, we found an armed forces establishment- The Rajmachi Centre, and the guy there directed us further. The road was bad, and we did not know how far Alibaug was. On descending down the ghat, and buying adulterated petrol, we reached a diversion, and took the wrong turn, reaching the road which goes to Mahad, much south than Alibaug. The moon accompanied us throughout, and as we returned to civilisation, there were villages where ‘holi’ fire was being burned. We went down to Mahad, hoping to find a less expensive lodge, but not getting any place to stay, inquired about places where we could visit the next day. We realised that Raigad fort was nearby (30km) and set off for Raigad at night. All the way, there were huge fires being lit for Holi. People said that it was not a good idea to go to the fort at this time. It must be around 1 am by now, and moving at a slow pace, negotiating the slippery gravel and turns, we reached Raigad in 1 hour. There, we could not see a single soul. There was a group of dogs, that barked the whole night, not letting us sleep. We saw a bus stop, and then, slept there, to catch a nap of 2 hours. On waking up, and having breakfast, we waited for the sun-rise, and then, went to trek the fort, reaching up in an hour. There is a ropeway too, for those who cannot walk to the fort. It felt nice to see the morning sun between the hills of Sahyadri. Raigad was once the capital of Shivaji, and this was the place where he was coronated as king. The fort has ruins of the market in those times, a durbar, temples and the final resting place/ tomb of Shivaji. It was a nice experience being there- Accidently.
Coming down was tiring, after the lack of sleep. Now that we came here to see a beach, we proceeded to hari hareshwar.
The roads in Konkan have many characteristics. They are narrow, red soil on both sides, there are many ways to reach a particular place, via different villages, the signs are sometimes misleading, as the same place can be reached by different routes. Ask locals, and confirm. Though if you do not have time constraints, trust your gut feelings and you will discover for your self the best places that nobody can tell you. Bike is the best way to enjoy these roads, but the riskiest too.
After a long ride, going up and down on the ghat roads, we had our first sighting of the sea for the day, and this sea was going to accompany us for a while. On reaching HariHareshwar, we visited the Shiva temple and went to the beach, which was an average beach. After spending some time, getting wet, we inquired about nearby places, and after skipping the srivardhan beach, went straightaway to Dive Agar. The road to Dive Agar passed along the coast, and while coming back, we enjoyed the sun-set. Reaching there, we took our bikes to the beach, and for the first time, rode bikes on a beach, This was truly a great experience, as we took them into the water, and somehow, brought back, later pulling them out of the sands, after the tiring journey. The temple here has a gold idol, which was found in a nearby stream. From there, it dawned on us that we had to return, and the road was dangerous, and now that we knew what lied ahead- the bad road, we asked if there was another way. The alternate way is too long, but people adviced us against going on the Tamhini Ghat section in the night. Still, we decided to go by that route, and drove continuously for 100 kms, then after a 5 minute stop, drove again, and reached Pune by 10 pm. All our friends were searching us the whole day, as Holi is celebrated in Hostels in the most memorable ways. The guy whose bike I took was cursing me, to whom I apologized, but we had a good time.