Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Nice start!

This is the 3rd year in a row where Amruta and I are undertaking our Europe trip in the period of April to September. In 2014 it was for 62 days, in 2015 we upped it to 80 and this time it's a record breaking 89 days!
After the last two trips I had decided that I would write down articles about our experience. However, life is such that when one chapter closes the next one begins and there is no time to write about the past! So this time I have decided to write about our experiences on the go! Also with the start of ChessBase India this blog has been dormant for quite a while. 
So join me and Amruta as we take you on our journey from Mumbai-Nice-Amsterdam-Hamburg-Vienna-Trieste-Venice!
Of course in such a long trip there would be a lot of deviations, spur of the moment decisions and some highly intense games of chess. This is what we love and this is what we live for! :)

The obligatory selfie at the Mumbai airport on 21st of June 2016!

Somehow both of us were extremely hungry at 5.a.m in the morning. Pizza Hut!

Istanbul airport! One of the busiest airports in the world.

You can try as many of these Turkish delicacies as you like!

Amruta's skills of balancing things in life are quite commendable!

This meal from Indian express (Nan, mix veg and Falooda which was more like Rose milk) on the airport was for 34 Liras. They asked us to pay 12 Euros. Instead I went to the currency exchange, got 36 euros and saved two liras!

That's where I used those two remaining Liras! Automatic massage!

Good food is always important when you are on a long trip!

The city of Istanbul as seen from the airport

Our airbnb room in Nice

Nice is a simple city. Very easy to move around and you immediately can figure out how to reach from one place to another, unlike some complicated cities like Paris or Mumbai!

Here's the mediterranean sea!

No sand, only stones!

A nice place to sit and reflect

The best part about Europe are the ice creams!

Time for some chess practice!

A glimpse of the roads of the city

Absolutely nobody on the streets at 9.p.m in the night!

My healthy breakfast!

Specially made for Amruta: Gujrathi Theplas, Indian tea, French biscuits, croissant and toast

The kitchen in the airbnb apartment was well furnished and gave us freedom to cook whatever we wanted to

A huge thanks to our host Monique who came to drop us at the airport early in the morning for our 8.50 a.m. flight to Ajaccio.

On 24th of June we took a 45 minute flight from Nice to Ajaccio for the 3rd Porticcio Open which was going to begin from the 25th of June. Stay tuned for more updates! 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Amazing Kumbh Mela

When Amruta told me the idea of going to the Kumbh Mela in Trimbakeshwar near Nashik from the 23rd to the 25th of September 2015, I thought she was out of her mind – Millions of people coming from all over the country to dip themselves in a small pool of water. We are neither spiritually inclined nor religiously, but one thing we love for sure is an adventure and a new experience. Besides Kumbh Mela is a hub for photographers, and with Amruta weilding her camera, we did not have to think further. The Mela was going on since many days but as 25th was supposed to be the Shahi Snaan (the grand bath), we planned our trip accordingly. 

Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river

The mythology has it that drops of nectar fell from the Kumbh carried by Gods after they had churned the sea. Only four drops fell on the surface of the earth and they have now become the sites for the Kumbh Mela! These four places are Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nashik. (Such a huge earth and the Gods chose only India!) A Kumbh Mela comes back to each of these places after an interval of twelve years. As Nashik is only 165 kilometres from Mumbai, we thought this was the ideal opportunity to visit a place where faith and belief overpowers logic and rational thinking. And who knows what will happen in the intervening 12 years before the next Kumbh Mela in Nashik!

One of the easiest ways to travel from Mumbai to Nashik is by a local train up to Kasara local railway station. Travelling by a local train is easy and...

....and beautiful green scenery greets you on the way.

It was good to have a break from the humdrums of daily life and spend some quality time with each other

You always get to see different types of people when you travel in the Mumbai local!

With a population of 60,000 people, Kasara is the last stop in the central line of the Mumbai local train service. Just have a look at the green backdrop of this busy railway station

Amruta with her Canon D1200 was an eye candy for all the local people. The moment she would point her lens in their direction, beautiful expressions of shyness combined happiness would crop on their face.

A boy in a school uniform, goats, taxis and mountains - how much more random can a composition get!

From Kasara railway station we took a shared cab that dropped us, in an hour and a half, to the Central Bus Stand (CBS) in Nashik. These cabs are cheap (Rs.100 per person) and are crammed in with lot of people. The trick is to just pay them for an extra person (Who doesn't exist) and get more space!

A cute little girl playing inside a grilled road block

One important thing that we have learnt from all the chess trips that we have undertaken until now is that it's fine to reach your destination a few minutes late, but never compromise on food!

Nashik to Trimbakeshwar is barely 30 kilometres and a bus from CBS takes you there in 45 odd minutes. 

Trimbakeshwar is an ancient Hindu temple in the town of Trimbak, in the Nashik District of Maharashtra. It is dedicated to the god Shiva and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas.
Kusavarta, a kunda (sacred pond) in the temple premises is the source of the Godavari River, the longest river in peninsular India. This is the same place where the Shahi Snaan was to be held on the 25th of September. The current temple was built by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao (Nanasaheb).

Different people from different parts of the country came to Trimbakeshwar

We had booked our rooms at the Prayag Kumbh Camp which was a kilometre away from the main temple. These camps are made temporarily for the period of the Kumbh Mela. Once the mela is done, they are dismantled and the material is taken to the site of the next mela where a similar camp is reconstructed.

For a cost of Rs.4500 for two nights, the room was surely not upto the mark.

The cooler, however, did give us some relief from the sweltering afternoon sun

Some very interesting visitors were waiting to enter the room and meet us!

After resting for a few minutes, at around 4 p.m. in the afternoon we decided to go to the city centre where all the activites related to the Kumbh Mela were taking place. At first you are lost with regards to what is to be done. There are so many things going on at different places that it is difficult to keep a track of everything. But you slowly start exploring and within a few hours feel at ease in the new location.

We saw a huge tent with lots of footwear kept outside. We realized that some important person must be inside.

The highly controversial Baba Ramdev was sitting inside along with a few other spiritual leaders

Barricades were put at a lot of places to control the crowd

Her eyes tell the story of her life

A direct connection with the almighty?!!

Faith is not a path of comforts

The main attraction for both of us was to see the Naga Sadhus. Naga sadhus live in the Himalayas and usually visit the civilization during the "mahakumbh" festival to take part in the holy dip. The roam around without any clothes - completely naked. Their hair are long and with ash smeared on their bodies they look pretty intimidating. Amruta's main focus as a photographer was to capture the Naga Sadhus who can hardly be seen anywhere except for the Kumbh Melas.

A Naga Sadhu wearing 21 kilograms of Rudraksh Mala

Shiva, one of three major deities in Hinduism, is the God that these mortals were trying to imitate

You have got to be kidding me if you said that these guys don't look scary! Imagine Amruta going in front of them and taking pictures! Requires huge amounts of courage!

Acrobatic is the right word!

After a while, when I started to feel at ease, I even went and sat inside one of the tents! After a few minutes I challenged this guy to a game of chess! To which he replied, "Beta, hum in sab chizo se upar utth gaye hai!" (son, we have risen above these things!)

In the end he hit me with the broom (!) on my head, posing for a photograph (of course, for money!) and asking me to walk on the a better path than playing chess! That's an advice hard to heed!

If looks could kill!

Just have a look at his eyes!

Smoking Chillum is their favourite way to unwind

That's how it is done!

This weird man liked to weave his hair with rings. When Amruta tried to take his picture he asked for her favourite Eagle ring! Of course, she didn't give to him and after a long argument he allowed her to take his picture! (Moral of the story: You cannot win an arguement with Amruta!) 

Halogen lights inside the tents to give you a feeling spiritual enlightenment!

We met this weird man who was continuously putting something in the fire! We went to have a closer look and found...

...he was putting in red chillies! And guess what the reason was?! To keep the bad spirits away!

A true entrepreneur like Vithal Kamat doesn't miss out on a good opportunity to set up his restaurant!

Nothing like having a nice plate of simple food with roti, batata ki sabji, dal, rajma and papad, after a hard day of dealing with Naga Sadhus!

The first day had been successful. We had got a good feel of the place and Amruta was able to get some excellent pictures of the Naga Sadhus. Of course, we were lighter in terms of money than what we started, as every Naga Sadhu wanted a few bucks before allowing us to capture them, but it didn't really matter to us. Taking pictures was the main reason we were here and we were ready to spend on it! It was now time for some rest and to get ready for the next day!

Cool hairstyle, eh?!

As Nashik is just a few kilometres away, our very good friend Vinod Bhagwat came to meet us! And I had a small present for him - The Semi Slav by Lars Schandorff. (Jacob Aagaard, look I always promote Quality Chess!)

Having good police protection makes you feel secure amidst all these dangerous babas!

With the Shahi Snaan was about to begin in less than 24 hours, people from all over India converged upon Trimbakeshwar!

With all their belongings, they sat just about anywhere they could find space!

Who needs a bed!

Food was not a problem as some of the generous sadhus would have free food served to anyone who would come inside. That's what the queue was for!

Some of them were literate...

...some tech savvy...

...and some were catching up on the latest innovations that they had missed living in the mountains!

Amruta was fascinated by their dressing sense! Just have a look at those rings that they have worn on their arms!

The people who look scary at first sight, soon become your friends!

The indefatigable mirchi baba had successfully fought of all the evil spirits throughout the night!

The joy of being photographed!

This lady, aged 75 years, left her house with just one bag of belongings and walked bare foot for hours to reach the Kumbh Mela. She always walks with the Tulsi plant on her head!

On our way to Brahmgiri, which is just a few kilometres from Trimbakeshwar, we saw this unbelievable view!

How often would you get chance to practice in such a beautiful environ! (Yes, I always carry a chess board with me! I wanted to challenge a Naga Sadhu to a game of chess and publish a report on ChessBase! Unfortunately that plan didn't quite work out!)

Water always gives a nice feel to the place!

That's the first time I heard or ate Shri Ram Kand Mool! There is a legend that when Lord Ram (Prince of Ayodhya) was exiled to forests along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, the royal family used to live under a thatch roof and used to feed on kandmool. Very often street vendors in India, especially around places of pilgrimage, are seen selling the so-called Ramakandmool. These vendors claim that this is what Lord Rama ate during his period of exile. It's sweet, tastes quite good.

Giving a helping hand to an elderly man - now that is true religion

This guy went a step ahead. In one hand he held his father's hand and on the back is his son!

The best view is offered on your grandfather's shoulders!

Battle hardened

The wrinkles conceal the bitter-sweet experiences of her life!

What is a journey without a glass of cutting Masala chai?

Nimbu Paani - powering mankind since thousands of years!

While almost everyone created chaos, fought and pushed each other to get a view of the 2 feet idol of God inside the cave...

... I enjoyed the magnificient unending view from the top!

The best thing about kids is that they do not like to control their emotions!

The crowd went crazy when they saw Golden Baba approaching in a car. Once you see the picture I do not need to explain why he is called Golden Baba. He wears nearly four kilograms of gold and their worth is well over Rs.1.5 crore.

In order to look like a follower of some group and get entrance into the Shahi Snaan (the place where you take a dip in the water and all your sins are washed away) we dressed up in this orange avatar. As you might have figured out, taking a dip in those waters was not at all on our mind! Just the experience! And for that we were ready to go the distance!

It was 4 a.m. in the morning but the streets were over flowing with people! There was not even an inch to move. I understood what a stampede would feel like.

The major pool where people wanted to come and have a dip in the holy water. People came in the number of thousands. It was amazing to see how the police and volunteers controlled the crowd.

Ecstacy is the right word to describe the emotions of the people who took a dip in this "holy" water!

This man brought his monkey with him!

Excellent photography!

Just in case you are interested, you can get an entire feel of the Shahi Snaan by looking at the video taken by me. Stay clear if looking at nude men is something you cannot stand.

With so many colourful and weird personalities, the Kumbh Mela is every photographer's delight!

Former External Affairs Minister and four star Army General V.K. Singh was present and took a dip!

At the end of the day (morning!), taking a dip in the Ram Kund was a huge accomplishment for the Naga Sadhus. That was the reason why they had travelled thousand of kilometres. This is one of the days that they are looking forward to, in their otherwise normal life. They danced and enjoyed their moment of glory!

One of the advantages of having long hair!

After all this was over, we were planning to catch a bus back to Nashik and then a train from there to Mumbai. But it turned out that every bus that passed from Trimbakeshwar bus stand was filled with people to the brim. There was absolutely no space to climb in. People were hanging and even sitting on the roof!

It was one of those moments when there was absolutely nothing that you could do.

We were trapped. And there was no way out. On top of everything Amruta's mobile phone was stolen. It was really a difficult situation. On one hand we were grieving the loss of the phone, on the other we didn't see any hope of getting out of this place. 

After a while, we saw a bus stationed in one corner of the bus stand. We ran and asked where exactly was it going. "Mumbai!" came the reply. We were relieved. "But it won't leave for another three hours!" We stood inside the bus for almost an hour trying to make sure that we got a place to stand. Finally when the wait became too long and boring, Amruta and I got down and tried to look for some other options. But there were absolutely none! When we returned back in around 15 minutes, the bus had left! But they said it was three hours!! Was it a conspiracy to leave us, the non-believers, stranded?!! Luckily we had our luggage with us and went back to our hotel.

A kind couple asked us if we wanted to join them in a taxi that they had booked upto Nashik! We thanked them profusely and after some anxious moments where our car could be stopped by locals and policemen, we wriggled out of the madness!

Someone stole Amruta's chappals and her mobile. She was thoroughly exhausted, but the camera in her hand meant that the smile was still intact! We lost quite a bit, but we gained a bucketful of memories! Did you enjoy the pictures? If you did, then do leave a comment below. 

Sometimes I wonder why do people have to jump in that dirty water? Why do they have to believe in these fake mythological stories of four drops of nectar falling on the earth? Are we not smart enough to understand that such an incident never really happened, and dipping in the pond is not going to absolve you of your sins? It makes my blood boil when I see so much of nonsense happening all around me. But then I calm down and think about the positives - the Kumbh Mela is a place where you can find people of so many different regions, religions, sects, communities and even countries coming together. It is truly a conglomeration and pot-pourri of human idiosyncracies. You get to meet new people and make new friends! The Earth would not be such an interesting place to live in, if it were not for these weird things that we indulge in! 

Written by Sagar Shah
Photos by Amruta Mokal