Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saffron, Kahwa and Cricket Bats

After visiting Jyeshteswara Temple and Shankaracharya Cave, the next tourist destination is Pahalgam.  Pahalgam is a town in Anantnag District of Jammu and Kashmir.  The distance from Srinagar to Pahalgam is around 90 Kilometers and is covered in about two to three hours, depending on the stopover to see Awantipora Temple ruins on the way. This journey from Srinagar to Pahalgam itself has many interesting interludes and is an enjoyable ride.  The road from Srinagar to Pahalgam is laid on the sides of Jhelum and Lidder rivers. Jhelum's original name (in Sanskrit) is Vitasta river. Viewers of the noted serial "Chanakya" would have heard this name repeatedly in its first few episodes.  King Porus or Raja Purushottama, who ruled the land between present Chenab and Jhelum rivers known as Paurava, did his best to defeat Alexander and stop him from crossing Vitasta river.  Story about Vitasta says that Godess Parvati took the shape of a river at the request of sage Kashyapa to liberate these parts of land from the bad practices of Pishachas. She is believed to have come out of the higher worlds as a river through an opening created by Lord Shiva, about the length between the wrist and forefinger (vitasta), less than one feet. Jhelum flows in the middle of Srinagar city and the road to Pahalgam is along the side of this river. Vitasta also means a "Perennial river". This river is a very important player in the lives of people and economy of Kashmir. The river joins Chenab in Pakistan and Chenab itself gets merged with Sindhu (Indus) later on.

As we move from Srinagar towards Pahalgam, we can see Saffron fields on either side of the road.  Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of a plant known as "Saffron Crocus".  The plant grows up to a height of one feet from the ground.  Cool and sunny climate is required for its growth and the areas near Srinagar and Bijbehera are suited for this. They say each plant gives out up to four flowers. Saffron flowers have the crocus threads in them as can be seen in the accompanying picture, taken from the internet. These threads are manually collected, dried and packed for sale.  This provides jobs to hundreds of farm workers. Saffron is one of the costliest spices used as a seasoning and coloring agent in choice dishes.  Saffron growing is said to have started in Greece and later moved to other parts of the world.  Presently Iran is the biggest producer of Saffron in the world. High quality saffron is sold at up to Rupees 250 per gram! Saffron sellers can be seen almost everywhere; while riding Shikaras on Dal Lake or roadside stops on the way to Pahalgam. Each one claims that what he sells alone is good quality saffron and the others are fake.

The drivers of vehicles carrying the tourists from Srinagar to Pahalgam stop for having a cup of tea in the roadside tea stalls.  This is also to encourage the tourists to buy saffron and dry fruits from the shops in the area.  Along with traditional tea, an interesting drink called "Kahwa" is sold in these stalls.  Kahwa is a traditional green tea served to guests in the Kashmir valley.  It is made by boiling Tea leaves with Saffron strands and adding Cinnamon bark and cardamom pods.  Sometimes Kashmiri rose petals are also added.  The cup of Kahwa served to us was photographed and is given alongside.  Honey, crushed almonds and walnuts were also added to the Kahwa served to us.  A cup of Kahwa is charged at twenty to thirty rupees, depending on whether the consumer is a local or tourist.  It is a refreshing drink and should be enjoyed on the trip from Srinagar to Pahalgam.

As we proceed towards Pahalgam after sipping hot Kahwa, we can see huge piles of wood cut to standard size and arranged systematically on both sides of the road. These are Pine wood pieces cut and arranged for manufacture of cricket bats. We are told that Kashmir Cricket Bats meet international standards and many famous cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag were fond of bats manufactured here. We can see a number of bat manufacturing factories on both sides of the road.  It is like a cottage industry in Anantnag, Baramulla and Pahalgam districts of Kashmir.  Linseed Oil is applied to these bats and knocked against cricket balls for hours for "seasoning" the bats.  Bats cost anywhere between 500 to 10,000 rupees depending on the quality of bats. This industry provides jobs to hundreds of workers.

Walnut trees could be seen on either side of the road on further drive to Pahalgam. During April, all the apple orchards on both side of the road are full of flowers. For enjoying Kashmir Apples one has to go there in the Autumn months of September to November.  You can also have pears, apricots, almonds and of course, walnuts then.

The local guides do not know the history and details of the places that they are supposed to explain to the visitors.  They are more keen about giving out information about the various movies that were filmed in different locations and the stars that acted in those movies.  One such information given to us was that in the nearby Sangam (confluence) of Lidder and Jhelum rivers, the song "Mere man ki Ganga, Tere man ki Jamuna....." from the film "Sangam" was filmed in the early sixties.  Of course, most of the tourists are also interested only in such details.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Kindled the flame of Tulip buds

When spring winds weakened the mountain floods,
And kindled the flame of the Tulip buds,
When bees grew loud and the days grew long,
And the peach groves thrilled to the Oriole's song....

Queen Gulnaar was the most beautiful woman of her times.  As the Queen of King Feroz of Persia (present day Iran), she had everything she needed in this world.  Her husband was very fond of her and all material wealth was at her beck and call.  Yet she was not happy and one desire haunted her each time she saw her own image in the mirror.  She longed for a rival!  "Give me a rival, King Feroz", she begged her husband and King.  She felt an emptiness in her life as there was no one matching her beauty.  Just to satisfy her desire of having a rival, the King commanded his ministers to bring in unmatched beauties in the world. They brought seven most beautiful brides for the KIng.  The King married them all, led them to her room and told her that he has brought her the rivals she desired.

Seven Queens shone around her ivory bed,
Like seven soft gems on a silken thread,
Like seven fair lamps on a royal tower,
Like seven petals of the Beauty's flower...

Queen Gulnaar was not satisfied.  Though they were seven beautiful brides, they were no match for her beauty.  They were only fit for being her handmaids. "Bring me a rival, King Feroz", she again demanded.

A few years later the Queen was looking at her own image in the mirror.  Her two-year old little daughter runs to her, snatches the mirror and views her own image in it.  At last Queen Gulnaar is satisfied.

Queen Gulnaar laughed like a tremulous rose;
"Here is my rival, O King Feroz"   


The story of Queen Gulnaar and King Feroz is the theme of a delightful poem titled "Queen's Rival" by Sarojini Naidu, known as the "Nightingale of India".  Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) was born as Sarojini Chattopadhyay and lived in Hyderabad in her early years. She married a doctor, Govindarajulu Naidu, and later came to be known as Sarojini Naidu. Her brother Harindranath Chattopadhyay was a well-known actor and writer.  His role as an actor in the Hindi movie "Bawarchi" was one of his memorable performances.  Sarojini Naidu took part in the freedom struggle and was president of Indian National Congress in 1925 and presided over the AICC session in Kanpur.  She became the first woman Governor of an Indian state, of United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, before formation of Uttar Pradesh.  Her daughter Padmaja Naidu also worked in politics and later became Governor of West Bengal.

Sarojini Naidu spent her early life in Hyderabad with her father Aghoranath Chattopadhyay, who was the Principal of the Nizam Medical College.  Thus she became well versed with culture of the surroundings.  She was later educated in King's College, London and Cambridge University.  This led her to writing poems in English.  She learnt Persian language and wrote a play "Maher Muneer" in Persian. "Queen's Rival", story of a Persian King and Queen, was probably a natural product of her learning Persian. Her poetry in English language is of rich quality and expressions are a reflection of her keen observation of the surroundings and human emotions.

The first time I heard of Tulip flower was while studying the poem "Queen's Rival" in High School, nearly five decades ago. I asked the teacher in the class: "What is Tulip and why kindling them?".  He answered that it was a flower.  "What is Oriole?" was the next question.  It is a bird, he said.  Further questions did not elicit any response as he had seen neither the flower nor the bird.  The next encounter with Tulips was while viewing the song "Dekha ek khwab to ye Gul khile huye" in the film "Silsila" filmed on Amitabh Bachan and Rekha. During our visit to Srinagar in Kashmir last month, we had an opportunity to visit "Kashmir Tulip Festival", in the Indira Gandhi Memorial Garden.
Oriole is a bright colored singing bird found in such surroundings.  Tulip flowers originated in Persia and traveled to other parts of the world in the 10th century.  The word "Tulip" has Persian origin.  It grows in mountainous areas of temperate climate. Long and cool spring period is required for growing Tulip flowers.  Vast areas of Tulip flowers in as many as 16 colors are grown in regions with such climatic conditions.  

Tulip flower moved to Europe in the 16th century and as the climate in Holland suited its growing, many acres around Amsterdam are used to grow the flower now. "Holland Tulip Festival" held during the months of April-May (April end and early May) draws huge tourist crowds from all over the world.  Cycle road trips along the over 100 Kilometer Tulip route is considered as one of the most beautiful road trips by National Geographic.  Kashmir Tulip festival also is held around the same dates. The beauty of Tulip gardens can be enjoyed for a period of a fortnight only. Untimely rains rob the pleasure as it damages the flowers. Tourists have to plan their visit to coincide with the Tulip Festival.

The real lesson of "Queen's Rival" was indeed learnt when we were standing in the Tulip Gardens of Srinagar, with the Himalayan range in the background.  Each word of the poem had its special meaning.  It was truly spring winds that had weakened the mountain floods; there were heavy floods in Srinagar just a week ago.  Flame-like looking Tulip buds had flowered as if their tops were kindled! The flowers (there were other flowers too around the Tulips) had attracted innumerable bees and the sound they made was indeed loud. With the onset of spring, days were growing longer and thus shortening the time span cold nights occupied.  It was time for flowering in the peach and apple gardens making the beautiful Orioles to sing in their sweet voice......  Every word the poet said in the poem was before our eyes. She had indeed experienced each of these and made a mental note to enable reproducing them later in her poem!

Reading and relishing quality poetry is not mere understanding of words.  It is much more than that; it is mentally and emotionally transforming oneself into a different world. Thoughts of the famous 9th century Kashmiri poet-philosopher Anandavardhana and his celebrated work "Dwhanyaloka" naturally flooded the mind. His "Dhwani Theory" states that when a poet writes, he creates a resonance with a particular wavelength.  Only when the reader is tuned to that wavelength, he can understand and appreciate the poet's works. A local poet's Dhwani (Sound) Theory was understood through an English poem about a Persian Queen by an Indian writer, while standing mesmerized  in a Tulip garden with the backdrop of the Himalayan range!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

32 is a big number

A beautiful view of Srinagar city, the valley and Dal Lake can be had from Zabarwan mountain hill top, about 10 Kilometers from Srinagar city.  A good road connects the hill with the city. The hill is called "Sulaiman Hill" and well-known for the "Shankaracharya Temple".  This hill is considered as sacred by many; Buddhists call it Pas-Pahar, Persians and Jews call it as "Bagh-i-Sulaiman" and "Garden of King Solomon" respectively.  In order to reach the top of the hill, one has to climb 243 steps from the parking lot.  Well constructed steps provide support and even elderly people can be seen climbing the hill enthusiastically. The temple is at an elevation of about 1100 feet above Srinagar city and thus gives a beautiful view of the surroundings in all directions (360').

The entire hill area with the temple complex is under the guard of the security forces. Cameras and mobiles are not allowed to be taken to the top of the hill. Hence one has to be satisfied with the photos available on the net. The visitors are put through security check before they start their climb of the 243 steps to the base of the temple and another two dozen steps to the sanctum sanctorum. This temple is considered as the oldest temple in the Kashmir area.  It is an important tourist spot as well and thronged by hundreds of tourists that come to visit Srinagar every day.  A small bowl of excellent "Kheer" prasadam awaits all those who visit the temple and come down the stairs.

One stream of opinion believes that Emperor Ashoka's son Jaluka originally constructed the temple around 200 BC. King Gopaditya who ruled over the area is said to have carried out extensive work at the present temple site. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva by name "Jyeshteswara".  This Jyeshteswara temple has got the popular name "Shankaracharya Temple" as Sri Adi Shankaracharya or Acharya Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada is said to have come here in the early 8th century and stayed for sometime.  There is a small cave by the side of the temple where the seer is believed to have sat in penance during his stay.  A large photo of the Acharya is kept in the cave. The cave itself is about 50 square feet in area.  

The hill was known as 'Gopadri" as mentioned by the well-known Kashmiri poet Kalhana in his "Rajatarangini".  Another King Lalitaditya is said to have enlarged the temple by making additions. The present "Shivalingam" is believed to have been placed there in the 19th century, during the period of Sikh rulers.  The Shivalinga is indeed beautiful and about two feet tall. Unlike in South India, devotees are permitted to touch the Shivalinga as is the practice in many North Indian temples. After the darshan of the Jyeshteswara, visitors go round viewer's gallery around the main temple to have a breath taking view of the Srinagar city and its surroundings, including the snow clad mountains of the "Pir Panjal" range of the Himalayas.  The view is so beautiful that the visitors have to be reminded by the accompanying guides about the further journey to force them to proceed to their vehicles.     

Acharya Adi Shankara is believed to have been born in the village Kaladi in Kerala. We are shown a house on the banks of river Purna when we visit that place, as the house of the Acharya during his childhood days. He took sanyas and traveled all over the country on foot for several years. During his period (788 AD to 820 AD), Kashmir was a great center of learning like Kashi, and this took him to Srinagar.  He is believed to have stayed in the cave near the Jyeshteswara temple for some time while propagating his "Advaita" philosophy.  The picture alongside gives the view of the photo of Acharya kept in the cave. 

One of India's finest poet philosophers, Bhartruhari has made a delightful calculation of the span of human life.  If the life of a human being is considered as 100 years, half of it is lost in sleep in the night.  Of the remaining 50 years, another half is lost in childhood and old age. Childhood when one does not know what to do and old age when one cannot do what he wants to do. Of the remaining 25 years, lot of time is consumed by illness, thinking of the loved ones who are separated for various reasons and serving others for earning livelihood. Where is the time for a human being to be happy and achieve something, he asks.  Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada is said to have lived for only 32 years and renounced the physical body in Kedarnath at that young age.  In this short span of 32 years, being born in Kalady in Kerala, he traveled allover the country by foot when there were no transport facilities.  He made invaluable contributions to Indian Philosophy.  His literary works and principles he enunciated in the "Advaita" school have stood the test of time for over twelve centuries. Many other schools of thinking have later come up and spread the vastness of Indian Philosophy manifold.  He has indeed shown that a life span of 32 years is not all that small. Yes, 32 is truly a big number.

It took me nearly twice that number of years to go to the cave (not by walk, but by aeroplanes and cars!). The least one of the present generation could do is to visit the Jyeshteswara Temple and the Shankaracharya Cave and pay our respects to the memory of the great teacher.  Narrow consideration of religion or any other bias need not cloud our thinking and judgement while doing so.   

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Effective Communication

Some three decades ago, we used different exercises in classrooms during the training sessions on "Effective Communication" and "Effect of Communication". One of them is still fresh in my memory.  This was about  a Manager and his subordinate officer.  Manager was required to send a confidential report to the Regional Manager about the officer, for considering his name for promotion.  This is what he wrote to the Regional Manager:

While working with Mr Natavar Lal I have found him
working studiously and sincerely at his table without
idling or gossiping with colleagues in the office.  He seldom
wastes his time on useless things.  Given a job, he always
finishes the given assignment in time.  He will always be 
deeply engrossed in his official work, and can never be 
found chit-chatting in the canteen.  He has absolutely no 
vanity in spite of his high accomplishment and profound
knowledge of his field.  I think he can easily be 
classed as outstanding and on no account be 
dispensed with.  I strongly feel that Mr Natavar Lal should be 
pushed to accept promotion and a proposal to administration be
sent out as soon as possible.

He signed the letter and gave it to Mr Natavar Lal for dispatching it to the Regional Office. After ensuring that the letter was indeed dispatched, he telephoned the Regional Manager and told him to read the alternate lines as his true recommendation.
Recently a friend has sent me a piece on a conversation between a boy and his girl friend. She accepts his proposal and he is excited.  It reads like this:

He:   Yes! at last.  It was so hard to wait.
She: Do you want me to leave?
He:   No, Don't even think of it.
She: Do you love me?
He:   Of course! Over and over!
She: Have you ever cheated me?
He:   No! Why are you even asking?
She: Will you go on with me on a picnic?
He:   Every chance I get!
She: Will you hit me?
He:   Are you crazy?  I am not that kind of a person.
She: Can I trust you?
He:   Yes.......
She: Darling!

There is a footnote, though I do not agree with it.  It says, after the marriage, read the same conversation from bottom to top.

A teacher wrote on the board, the following sentence and asked the students to punctuate it: "Woman without her man is nothing"

All the boys wrote: "Woman, without her man, is nothing"

All the girls wrote:  "Woman!  Without her, man is nothing"


Construction of passages like the above require considerable skills and application of mind. It is often an intellectual exercise and many frown on them as meaningless and useless. The first example above gives two meanings when read in full and alternate lines. History has recorded that there were scholars who could create an entire work of poetry (not merely a passage like the ones above) where each verse would give two meanings and tell two different stories!

Sri Krishnadevaraya, Vijayanagara King who ruled between 1509 and 1529 was a patron of performing arts and literature.  His court was embellished by eight poets known as "Ashta Diggajas". The term represents the eight legendary giant elephants that hold the earth on their backs.  Allasani Peddana, Nandi Timmanna, Dhurjati, Madayyagari Mallana, Ayyalagari Ramabhadru, Tenali Ramakrishna, Ramarajabhushunudu and Pingali Suranna were the eight great poets that constituted the Ashtadiggajas in the King's court. One of these, Pingali Suranna had a title "Kaviraja Pandita".  He has written a kavya by name "Raghava Pandaveeyam".  This is in "Dvayarthi Style", which means that each verse gives two meanings.  One meaning tells the story of Ramayana and the other about Mahabharata and Lord Krishna.  Hence the name "Raghava Pandaveeyam". It is also recorded that one Vemulavada Bheemakavi had written a similar kavya in the 14th century itself, but it is not available now.

The second example above (conversation between a boy and his girlfriend and later husband-wife) is an example of "Anuloma-Viloma" kruti.  This is also nothing new.  One Arasanapalai Venkitacharya of 17th century, better known as Venkatadhwari, has written a Sanskrit kavya  by name "Raghava Yadaveeyam" which again tells the story of Ramayana and Mahabharata.  Each verse when read in the normal way tells the story of Ramayana. When the same verses are read in the reverse order, you get the story of Lord Krishna and Mahabharata!

Our ancient literature in Sanskrit as well as other Indian Languages is replete with such intellectual exercises and interesting creations.  Unfortunately we are losing them fast and the younger generation does not even know that such a vast treasure is available well within our backyard.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dal Lake's Floating Market

The first destination for any tourist visiting Kashmir is the "Dal Lake".  This stems from two reasons; its importance among the places of interest in Kashmir and easy accessibility. Tourists arrive in Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar either by road or by air and the visit to tourist destinations starts from Srinagar.  Dal Lake being located in the city itself naturally makes it the first place to visit.  While tourists proceed to other centers like Pahalgam and Gulmarg later on, the first day's plan is always in and around the Dal Lake.  Devoting the first evening for the Dal Lake with a "Shikara" ride followed by a night's stay in the "Houseboats" has become an unwritten rule for the visitors to Kashmir. 

Dal Lake is the second biggest lake in Kashmir.  (Wular Lake which is about 60 Kilometers north of Srinagar is even bigger than Dal lake).  It is called as "Srinagar's Jewel" and occupies a pride of place among the tourist destinations. Its shoreline is nearly 10 miles long (16 Kilometers) and provides the background for the beauty of the city of Srinagar. It occupies an area of 18 square kilometers and is fed by the inflows from Jhelum river.  Fishing and Water Plant harvesting are the important activities in the lake besides tourism related movements.  The famous Shalimar and Nishat Gardens created during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir are along its perimeter.  The lake gives different views depending on the seasons. In spring, there are many flowering water plants.  In July and August, Lotus flowers bloom adding to the beauty of the lake.  The lake freezes in winter and becomes a huge mass of ice. Ice is broken during this time to provide paths for the Shikaras and boats to move in the lake.

Dal Lake finds reference in various ancient Sanskrit texts and is mentioned in them as "Mahasarit" (महासरित्).  As per ancient history of Kashmir, there was a village to the east of Dal Lake by name "Isabar", fed by a spring "Shatadhara" (शतधारा).  A temple of Godess Durga who was popularly called as "Sureshwari" graced this village. There is a hill overlooking the Dal Lake with a temple referred to as "Shankaracharya Temple", with a cave in which Acharya Adi Shankara is said to have sat in penance during his visit to kashmir.  It may also be recalled that Shankaracharya named his famous and scholarly disciple Mandana Mishra as "Sureshvaracharya" after giving sanyas to him and made him the first pontiff of the "Dakshinamnaya Peetham" in Sringeri of Karnataka.      

Houseboats are one of the main attractions in the Dal Lake. There are hundreds of house boats in the lake that provide lodging facilities to the tourists. The boats are constructed using the "Devadaru" (Himalayan Cedar) tree material.  Devadaru in sanskrit means "The tree of the Gods". This is considered as the ideal material due to its water resistant quality and capacity to withstand standing in water for long periods of time. Unlike houseboats in Kerala which move around in the backwaters, house boats in Dal Lake are mostly stationary and fixed to the ground. But they do provide some amount of vibrations and give a feeling of movement. The houseboats have seating space to enjoy the beauty of the lake and scenery as well as other conveniences available in hotel rooms.  The walls and ceilings are made from panels with intricate wood carvings.  They are furnished with thick carpets and other handicrafts reflecting the rich cultural heritage of Kashmir.  The rents are to be negotiated if the tourist is not on an arranged tour by a tour operator.  The boat owners provide breakfast and dinner on request and the food is cooked in their houses that are just behind the houseboats.

Shikara is a beautifully and colorfully decorated boat that provides transportation on the lake and is used for both movement to the houseboats from the shore as well as pleasure ride on the big lake. Hundreds of Shikaras can be seen lined along the Dal Lake and a trip to Kashmir is incomplete without a joy ride on the lake in a Shikara for at least one hour. Any time of the day or night is fine, but most prefer an early morning ride or late evening ride just before sunset.  The shikaras have been made immortal by the famous song "Ye chand sa roshan chehra" in the 1964 film "Kashmir ki Kali", starring Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore.  Shammi Kappoor was so much fascinated by Dal Lake that he spent lots of time visiting the lake and staying in the houseboats there.  As per Shammi Kapoor's wish, after his death in 2011, his ashes were immersed in the Dal Lake.  A galaxy of Bollywood stars including Sharmila Tagore were present during the immersion.

A very important attraction on the Dal lake is its floating market.  As one sets out on the lake in a Shikara, the tourist is swarmed by a number of boats around him offering various items for sale.  The items include routine things from bread to toothpaste as well as items of jewelry, handicrafts, saffron, flowers and vegetables. It is called as a floating market since the buyer as well as seller are in boats floating on the Dal Lake waters.  The tourist has the option of getting his shikara parked outside houseboats of bigger shops selling handicrafts, shawls and other items as well. Once the purchase is concluded, the shikara again takes off and proceeds to the next shop on another houseboat!  The continuous chase by the traders often puts off a tourist, but that is the beauty of the floating market on the Dal Lake.  Of course, there are innumerable tourists who enjoy shopping on the waters and hard bargaining that goes on.  An item initially quoted at Two Thousand Rupees is sold finally for as low as Three Hundred at times.  There are boats with Kashmiri dresses for taking photos of tourists in the local costumes as well.  Cash is the King here and cards are not that favored even in big shops.

"Save Dal Lake" boards can be seen in many places in and around the Lake.  Lake water is not to be touched and swarms of mosquitos are to be seen around.  The Lake overflows during the rainy season and entering the houseboats also poses problems.  Cleaning the waters and improving the facilities for tourists is the requirement of the day.

Pictures taken in our camera do not do justice to the beautiful lake and the activities.  Hence photos from the internet have been used in this post.  Our visit last week to Dal Lake, Shikara rides, shopping on the floating market and stay in Houseboat will be treasured for ever.