Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Travel to places connected with Sri Ramakrishna

January 7, 2014

For a long time I wanted to go to Kolkata and visit places connected to Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Belur math, Kamarpukur and Jayrambati.  This became a possibility when a friend called up inviting me for his marriage in Kolkata! I booked tickets but the train was full and I was kept on waiting list (WL).  I could have tried to get the tickets through the emergency booking facility, tatkal but I thought I will leave it to destiny. I will travel only if the tickets get confirmed!  Air travel was possibility but too expensive given my current financial condition. I did not book hotel accommodation thinking that, if at all my train tickets are confirmed, I would stay at an old friend’s house.  I sent a mail to this friend informing of my visit.  This was 21 days before travel.

3 days before travel date my booking status was updated from WL to RAC.  So I could travel but I have to share the berth with another passenger!  There was no mail from my friend with whom I expected to stay in the even that my tickets get booked.  So I call him and tell him that I would be around for 4 days but mostly will be touring places connected to Sri Ramakrishna.  He thinks! and tells me in the most humble way that it will be difficult to accommodate me!   But then he also informs me that Belur math has a guest house and that I could book it.  I did not know about it. There is no information on the Belur Math page about the guest house! I search again but in vain.  He searched and found a page where one could give feedback about the Belur Math website.  In the ‘feedback’ he wrote about my need for a guest room gave my name, email address and phone number.  We decide to wait for a day before taking any other action.  A day later I get a message that my request is forwarded to the Maharaj(Swami) who takes care of matters pertaining to the guest house!  Another day later I get a message from the Maharaj asking me to give arrival and departure details in an attached form.  I am excited. I fill the form. A day left for my travel and no communication from the Maharaj. I consult my friend. We agree that absence of a confirmation mail implies that it is confirmed!  Looking back I can see how optimistically deluded we were.

Location of Belur math guest house

Location of Belur math guest house

The train reached 1 hour late. It is 6:45 in the evening but already dark.  The taxi-wallah takes me to Belur Math and asks where I wanted to be dropped. I had no idea that Belur Math would be such a huge campus.  We went inside the big arch entrance and then I got down thinking I could walk and ask for directions to the guest house.  To my good fortune I crossed a young monk who tells me that if I have not got a confirmation mail then I do not have the guest room.  In fact I am supposed to be carrying a print out of the confirmation! The guest house keeper would not accept me without a printed confirmation letter.  Besides, the procedure is to apply 2 months in advance!

However, since I am single and with only a backpack for luggage the guest house authorities may consider me on compassionate grounds!   The monk takes me to the math office for guest house accommodation.  It is closed. They close at 6:30 pm. Then he takes me to the guest house. It is a small walk outside the math compound on a lane that leads to the ferry ride to Dakshineshwar.  He leaves me at the guest house gate indicating that now it is between me and the guest house keeper.  Here is the google map showing the location of the guest house. It is useful because the guest house building does not have a name board!

As pointed out by the monk, the guest house keeper asked me for a print out of the confirmation e-mail.  I told him I had not received any.  He was visibly unhappy; I did not have a document and I was ignorant of the procedure!  He called up the Maharaj  in-charge of guest house related matters.  I told him I had come from Bangalore, had intimated the math a few days ago about my need for a room, and that I had not received any reply from the math office.  He must have got annoyed,  ‘we also have other works to do’, but quickly recovered and asked me to hand over the phone to the guest house keeper. I was allowed to stay but should vacate the following day.   A single room, probably reserved for monks, was given to me!  I was supremely grateful; I was saved from the trouble of going in search of a guest house that late after 26 hours of train travel. I would have agreed to sleep even in the courtyard!

A board inside the single room accommodation.

Instruction board inside the single room accommodation.

Breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and lunch at 11:30 a.m. are served in the guest house. In the morning I toured the Belur Math campus: temples, museum, Sw. Vivekananda’s room and the place where remains of several of the first disciples were interned.  When I was back for lunch I was told that I was to meet the Maharaj.  Though, it was closing time for the office the Maharaj agreed to meet me immediately because I had decided to pack off late afternoon.  The Maharaj took down my name, searched Microsoft Outlook and gave me the print out of my mail. Then he took asked me to accompany him to meet another monk, his superior.  I sat outside the office, when he went in and spoke to the senior monk.  The senior monk apparently dismissed it; it was not necessary for me to meet him.  There was more good news for me.  I could come back the day after the marriage and another room in some other place could be arranged for me! I was humbled at his efforts to accommodate me even after I had thrust myself on him, though out of ignorance. Truly grateful.

I was back early next day.  The guest house keeper who had by now become friendly gave me the key to a different single room in the same guest house.  I had no sleep the previous night-the marraige got over by 2:30 a.m.  So I slept. A lot.   The guest house keeper told me meet another Maharaj if I wanted to book the car to Kamarpukur and Jayrambati.  But before that I wanted to got Dakshineshwar.  However, by the time I came back from Dakshineshwar it was time for the prayer in main temple at Belur Math.  The office closed by the time I was out of prayer hall.   When I returned to the guest house for dinner the keeper was annoyed that I did not meet the Maharaj. How was I to go now? I pleaded. He spoke to the Maharaj and yet again he obliged,  ‘was I ok with joining 3 others in the car to Kamarpukur the next morning?’  Of course, I was. The Maharaj also suggested I stay at Kamarpukur. The accommodation in Kamarpukur could be arranged!

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa source: www.oldindianphotos.in

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
source: http://www.oldindianphotos.in

The car was ready at 7:00 a.m.  The 3 others were a devotee, his mom and nephew from Andhrapradesh. The driver was good at conversation and regaled me with stories related to Sri Ramakrishna’s life.  He was driving devotees since 1974! and knew Ramakrsishna’s life story like the back of his palm.  Among other things he told me the story of Rani Rasmani, which is not in the Gospel (at least not in the English version).  We reached Kamarpukur at 11:00 a.m. after a break for tea-the best tea I had in my 5 day trip, on the way.

The Maharaj in-charge of the Kamarpukur math was happy to note that I had a research background,  ‘more students should pursue science’.  He was aware that the nation highest honour, Bharat Ratna, was conferred upon the leading scientist Prof. CNR Rao.  I informed him that it was possible now to do good research because more funds are allocate for research. ‘Yes, but it is not enough.’ I was surprised.  It is the first time I heard a non-scientist saying that more funds should be allocated for research.  Usually it is the scientists who complain of the lack of funds.  There were others waiting to meet him.  So we decided to meet again but for now I was allotted a room usually reserved for monks!  I was given a special lunch coupon with VIP written on it!  It being a weekend a large number of people would queue for lunch. With the coupon we could skip the queue. It did help me save time.  It was unbelievable. Having a degree in research can also be an advantage. Who could have thought in India!

In Kamarpukur, after seeing the Jogi Shiva temple, Haldarpukur (the pond) and the main temple, which is built in the place where Sri Ramakrishna was born, we went to Jayrambati a few kilometers away.   Holy mother was born here and spent several years after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna.  We attended the evening prayer there and were back before dark to Kamarpukur.  I spent the evening until dinner in the prayer hall where a Maharaj was reading from the Gospel. It was in Bengali language; I tried to follow the language but soon realised that I cannot understand beyond the simple pleasantries in Bengali.

Places to see in Aantpur. Board in Aantpur math

Places to see in Aantpur. Board in Aantpur math

The next day we had breakfast and started for Aantpur as suggested by the driver. It was in Aantpur that the idea of starting the Ramakrishan math and misson occurred to Swami Vivekananda.  The Maharaj in-charge of Aantpur math offered us fruits and asked to leave only after having lunch.  We saw Swami Premananda’s house (now belonging to the math) and the dhuni (fire place) where Swami Vivekananda along with other monks decided on the idea of the math and mission.  We then went behind the house to see the pond that was used by Swami Vivekananda.  There seemed to be ponds everywhere and in fact all along from Howrah to Kamarpukur and Jayrambati.  Having spent my childhood in a relatively dry region of Maharashtra I found this much water beyond imagination.

I was back in Belur by early evening.  There was time enough to visit the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar once more.  But before that I met the Maharaj, who had arranged the car, and paid the car charges.  My stay and food in the guest house at Belur Math and Kamarpukur and food at Aantpur was free!  I donated modest amounts for my own satisfaction in all these places.

  • I have not included descriptions of the places here.  Please read here and here for exhaustive and minimal information, respectively of both the places.
  • There is a private lodge in Kamarpukur.  It looks good though I haven’t checked the rooms. Here are the details: Relax Lodge, Ph. no. 03211 244699
  • On a walk around the Belur Math compound I came across a good lodge near the main gate. The rooms are good. They even have AC. It is called ‘Om Plaza’ , Ph. no.  26540378
  • If you want accommodation in the math guest house please contact the math office 2 months in advance.  The guest house is available for devotees. It helps if you come with a recommendation from a monk. For instance, if you are from Chennai you should have met or known the Maharaj in the Ramakrishna Math in Chennai.

Nagarjuna hill

August 29, 2012

A friend from the US was visiting Hyderabad. He had a day free and was open to spending it any which way. I had recently read the travelogue on the Chinese Buddhist monk Huen Tsang’s visit to India and was still in awe of his 19000 mile journey in search of Buddhist manuscripts and places all through from China to India. HuenTsang had visited Amaravati in Andhrapradesh. It is ~270 kms from Hyderabad but we would need more than a day to visit that place. A closer place, ~170 kms from Hyderabad would be NagarjunaKonda (Nagarajuna Hill). I knew that Nagarjuna was a great Buddist monk and teacher and that the Nagarjunasagar Dam, where the NagarjunaKonda is located, was named after him. We decided that we would start early to NagarjunaKonda and come back before it was late- i hate to drive at night because the hi-beam light used by almost every vehicle is blinding making it difficult to spot the road ahead.

Our meeting point was Kachiguda railway station.  I was there by 5:45 a.m.  His father dropped him  at around 6.00 a.m. We started right away and after a few minutes of driving i found that i had already lost the direction. Both of us were new to the city roads. We asked for direction a  couple of times and were soon on the Sagar road. This road lead to Nagarjunasagar dam hence the name Sagar road..  We halted on the way for  a cup of tea and then for breakfast. Three and a half hours later we were at the Nagarjunasagar dam. It has a large reservoir with plenty of water but not enough for the gates to release it. We wanted to drive over the dam but a policeman (or was he a soldier?) stopped us. It was restricted area.  Just then we saw two motorbikes coming out of the dam-driveway! We complained. Apparently, they were irrigation staff! Really?!

The signpost at the dam showed directions to Ethipothala and Anupu. No sign for Nagarjunakonda! Ethipothala has a waterfall and Anupu an Archaelogical museum.  We decided to go to Ethipothala that was 8 kms away. After a while we had to get off the main road into a narrow road to Ethipothala where we paid for the vehicle fee/tax. At Ethipothala there is a government park that encloses the view point for the waterfall. We bought tickets to the park and walked by the fencing along the edge of a hillock that gives a complete view of the water fall.  It is a cascade waterfall.  It was a magnificent view, though water was flowing only at one end of the width of the Chandravanka river. In its full glory it would be a sight to behold. The Chandravanka river is a tributary to the Krishna (on which the dam is built) but it is wider than one would imagine a tributary to be.  It is no wonder that the reservoir of the dam can hold an island of the size of Nagarjunakonda. While at the view point, we asked the park cleaner if there was a way we could actually go over the waterfall or some place near where we could wet or feet. Apparently there was none and he also warned us of the danger of Crocodiles.  We tried spotting the crocodiles for a while but in vain.

Launch to NagarjunaKonda

We drove back towards the dam and asked a passer-by for directions to Nagarjunakonda.  A few more kilometers on a winding road down hill and then up hill and we were at the place where we could buy tickets for a boat ride (referred to as launch) to Nagarjunakonda. Along the way different people gave us different timings for the launch. Some said the last launch was at 2 p.m. However, on reaching we found that there are no launch timings per se.  The launch will run as long as there are enough tourists to fill up the seats. NagarjunaKonda is 14 kms from the launch site and it takes 45 minutes to reach.  The ticket for the launch is Rs. 90 and for the museum on NagarjunaKonda is Rs. 20. NagarjunaKonda is well maintained-it looks clean with lawns everywhere and a proper road map. However, as is typical of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) they put up boards claiming that the property (monument) belonged to them but no board giving details of the history of the monument. So, without a guide this place serves just as a place to walk around and imagine what the monuments were or what their purpose/role in the society of those days or as most tourists used it : just a playground for kids.

The catchment area of the Nagarjunasagar Dam consisted of several archaeological sites including the ancient city/town Vijaypuri. The town has been in existence  since at least the 2-3rd Century A.D.   Before the dam water submerged the place the ASI carried out excavations and collected sculptures, structures and stored them in museums at Nagarjuna Konda and Anupu. Some of the structures were rebuilt on NagarjunaKonda. NagarjunaKonda was a hill as the name Konda indicates. However, after the dam was built the river water submerged nearly half the hill and now it stands as an island.

The museum atop the hill is full off sculptures predominantly in limestone depicting events in the Buddha’s life and more.  If only there was a guide who could take us on a tour of the museum explaining things. I did find to my great satisfaction a book by the ASI on NagarjunaKonda available for sale at Rs. 20. The book is not voluminous and satisfies the curiosity of a casual reader as well as someone who wants dates and details.

Front cover of the book on NagarjunaKonda. The Buddha in the picture can be see in Nagarjunakonda along with several other sculptures.

I found it shockingly interesting that the archaeologists did not find any literature or artefact to explain the association of Nagarjuna with the hill/valley. So why did any one bother to name the hill after him. No one knows who did name the hill. It is an open question!  We also get to know from the book that both Buddhist and Brahmanical traditions co-existed in the hill/valley. Interestingly, many of the Kings professed Brahmanical tradition while the Queens were either Buddhists or were inclined to Buddhism. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to carry some meaning into his tour of NagarjunaKonda. Without a tour guide its practically not possible to appreciate the importance of NagarjunaKonda.

We spent about 2 hours on NagarjunaKonda and were exhausted mostly because of the blazing sun. Fortunately, there is a canteen on NagarjunaKonda just behind the museum that offers tiffins and cold drinks. Vegetable pulav made from the Priya- ‘ready to cook’ packets was also available.  The launch was ready by the time we reached the river. It took about half an hour to fill up all the seats and we were in my Car in about an hour. On the way back we stopped, not far from the dam, at the Hotel Siddharth and good NorthIndian food. We just had one more stop for tea at Ibrahim Patnam before reaching Hyderabad. I had started the trip early with the thought that I would avoid driving at night but i ended up driving among hi-beam lights of cars, buses and trucks on a divider-less road! I reached home at 10 p.m. My friend took an autorikshaw back home.


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