Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Rituals and Religion of Ladakh

ladakh teaching monasteries

Politics and national interest have been inextricably and inevitably linked with religion in Ladakh. The success of Buddhism here was not simply a matter of vanquishing its adversaries outside Ladakh – Brahminism in India and the Bon Chos in Tibet. It was the unifying role it played in enlarging autonomous tribal clans intro centralized feudal kingdoms. When fleeing monks and the laity met with strong resistance from local principalities, they were forced to assume a martial character, which ironically added a warlike dimension to a pacifist religion.

Forts and monasteries grew a pace as expansionist kingdoms consolidated their temporal and spiritual powers by extending their frontiers, so establishing Buddhism in Ladakh, Song-sen-gam-po, a legendary figure, was one such tribal chief and in stories about him it is often difficult to sift fact from fiction. Yet it is true that he made deliberate use of religion by contracting marriages with Buddhist princesses from Nepal and China to secure his position, and so founded the first Buddhist kingdom in Tibet. In strategy, he was an inspiration for later Ladakhi kings.

Read more about Ladakh

Ladakhi Buddhism teaching and its stories

sindhu festival in ladakh
Sindhu festival in Ladakh
Ladakhi Buddhism is usually identified with Tibet, although the original inspiration came from Kashmir, probably during the Kushan period. It was later that the Tibetan branch established itself under what is termed the Second Advancement. This was Buddhism in its more developed and institutionalized form, inspired by the teachings of the Indian Monks, Padmasambhaba and Atisa. They had sought asylum in Tibet when Buddhism lost its royal patronage in India, and wanted to reflect the teachings of Sakyamuni as sincerely as possible.

Central to the Buddha’s teaching was the belief that every soul has the capacity to reach a state of enlightenment without the assistance of priest or rituals. Nirvana could be achieved by following the reformist or middle path.

The complexity of Buddhism lies in this concept, where the Bodhisattva returns to the world in several incarnations, striving for the liberation of mankind. A thousand Buddhas, of whom Sakyamuni is the fourth, will have to seek birth for the liberation of human souls. With the development  of the Vajrayna school – the vehicle of the Thunderbolt – Tantric elements from Hinduism also merged into Buddhism. In particular, the feminine principle of power was introduced. As Buddhism spread, it did not suppress the well-developed cosmology of the earlier religion, Bon Chos, but absorbed its gods, demons and its rituals.  Perhaps these are the inspiration for the Dharmapalas, the fierce-looking guardians of the law, who feature in the gompa dance-drama.

Mahayana rituals and traditions

Thiksey Monastery
The theological shift from Hinayana’s ascetic mould to the more practical Mahayana ideal of Bodhisattva removed for Nirvana-seekers the necessity of giving up their worldly concerns. The Mahayana ideal explains the attitude of the lay Buddhist who olds back his own salvation to help others reach the right path.

As a consequence, Mahayana Buddhism helped intensity the contact between monk and the community. In this process, the representational aspect of the Buddha was deified, and a pantheon with personified forms was the logical consequence. Under the influence of the Bhakti movement, Buddhist practice underwent major changes. The oral tradition came to be systematized into written tests, and the laity to be socially organized into congregations.

Ideas and Icons

The deification of the Buddha developed a complex and fascinating iconography. The basic idea is that of the five Dhyani Buddhas and their related Bodhisattavas, which are elaborated in the mandalas. The Tantric additions of the female deities are not fully evolved in the older temples or gompas.

The gompa is the living vehicle of Ladakhi Buddhism and iconography, the entrance of the du-khang or the main temple is guarded by the lords of the Four Quarters. They can be identified by their colors and attributes: North: Kuvera – yellow banner and mongoose; South: Vimdhaka – green or blue, elephant head and sword; East: Dhritarashtra – white, playing the lute; West: Virupaksha – red, carrying a chorten.

The sidewall of a gallery also has the Wheel of Life represented by three concentric circles. The innermost signifies anger, desire and ignorance, represented by the cock, the serpent, and the pig, respectively. The middle circle represents the six states of existence – the worlds of the gods and demigods, death, hell, animals and men. The outer circle represents the chain of causation through 12 symbols.

Importance is also attached to the Dharmapalas: Mahakala (time), Yamantaka (death), Shugdan and Vajra Bhairava. These are usually to be found in the la-khang or the go-khang, both inner sanctuaries where women were forbidden access. The female deities are represented as Green and White Taras on either side of the Amitabha figure. They appear on the ceiling of the Kaikani Chorten. The Dolma Dolkar and The Dolma – Tara images –are often found the du-khand. Sometimes a special temple is dedicated exclusively to the Taras, like the shrine of Tara Doljan at Spituk, where on days ordained by the Tibetan calendar, glass bangles are offered as part of the fertility rate.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Quest for Krishna consciousness: Ashram life in Vrindavan

vrindavan, anandomoyee ma ashram
Sri Anandomoyee Maa Ashram
I was carrying a book named ‘Death Must Die’, written by Atmananda who was a disciple of Sri Anandomoyee Ma. The book was an account of personal spiritual quest by Blanca, an Austrian lady who left his country in search of spiritual awareness. It was a first-hand account of Blanca, later on Atmananda who had close associations with India’s greatest modern saints, unfolding her personal life from the pages of her diaries.

Upon arriving in the Vrindavan, the first reaction was to run away. The place didn’t have the charm of Varanasi as I was expecting to be. Moreover, the heat and humidity drained me completely after a few kilometers of walking. I felt a tremendous urge to leave the city without visiting any temple. Almost 2 hours of sauntering around the lanes, temples and ashrams, I couldn’t find a single place to stay.

Then I thought to go to Ramkrishna Mission, but upon arrival I found it as a charitable hospitable. It was a disappointment and again I was walking down the road and suddenly I crossed the ashram of Sri Anandamoyee Ma. Well, it was a fortuitous event, to the best of my belief, which convinced me to get a stay in this sprawling ashram, established in the name of a saint whose book I was reading for last two days. Eventually, I found an appropriate place to stay, with Vidur, a guy from U.P., a regular visitor who cleared some of my doubts about Vrindavan later on.

Evening Bhajan and emotional outburst

In Vrindavan, everyone as it seemed in a comforting illusion, love towards Lord Krishna was imbibed in the whole atmosphere. My intellectual stream of thought made it difficult to understand the essence of their devotion; also I was too wrenched from the religious structure of our society.

My pride was shattered in the first evening when I had attended evening aarti (evening prayer and ceremony) and devotional songs in the ashram. The secretary Shyamal da, a 50 plus old bramachari (celibate monk), sung 14 songs, pouring his emotions into it. I had observed that the whole atmosphere was gradually grasping from the very core of my heart. At the middle of ceremony, my eyes were wet and shed stream of tears.

From the slokas, songs and overall atmosphere, a sense of self-analysis and reflection came automatically wherein the discursive mind was profoundly stilled and from the stillness spontaneously arising a more fundamentally authentic level of consciousness. I must say it was an emotional outburst, but as a “reasonable man”, I was fully aware of things, depending on my direct experience rather than blindly follow a faith.

vrindavan ashram anandamoyee ma temple

There is a profound spiritual unfulfilling feeling for the last 3-4 years that disturbs me immensely. I feel I am at a crossroad of my life where I have to have a strict decision to stick upon. When I saw young westerners and even old ones at ISCKON, I thought why and what drew these men and women to come to Vrindavan. There were old westerners who left their comfort after such a long habitual way of living and embraced Krishna Consciousness in the small, filthy and terribly crowded city like Vrindavan.

Ashram life – seclusion and discipline

In the ashram there were six young boys, all below age 20. I was amazed to see that those boys had dedicated their studies learning Bhagavatam and other Hindu scriptures. All of them were minutely performed all rituals, with complete dedication and love. 

Ashram life was not hard, particularly because I was a traveler or guest there, but I maintained a life of devotee out there. I woke up in the morning then after bath, I went to the temple for morning bhajan and mediation, and then breakfast at ashram. It was very light breakfast, probably some potatoes or chapatti (Indian bread) and a glass of milk. Then I stayed there or roamed around Vrindavan, but personally I didn’t like much the whole surroundings, particularly because of ferocious monkeys and heat. I preferred to stay inside the ashram, read and written down my notes.

isckon temple vrindavan architecture
ISCKON Temple in Vrindavan
Many people ask or wish to ask perhaps, what’s the principle difference living in a secluded place or ashram, if you are doing almost the same routine. Well, there is one principle difference I find while staying in mountains or in ashram or monasteries is the level of concentration, to an extent of heightened awareness. It happens during smoking pot, but solitude living naturally impose that awareness within me, of course without any physical discomfort like marijuana.  

I would wish to stay in that place for more but I have certain works to come back to Delhi. Shymal da (the secretary) asked me to come again and stay there for a few months. He told me that I was in a juncture where I had to decide quick about my life. I understood what he meant and I said prostrate before him and bid adieu. 

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pages from my Yamunotri travel and ruminations

It has taken years to understand the real meaning of traveling, still I believe I am not fully realized the impact of my wanderings. We humans are very utilitarian, especially our class of people who always want to get something out of everything.  I am not sure about my planning and that creates utmost difficulties, both mentally and physically while traveling.

August 14, 2015

Rishikesh (Om Guest House)

rishikesh lakshman jhula
Lakxman Jhula in Rishikesh
Without understanding where to go, I hopped on to a bus to Rishikesh. This is a very typical method of mine, whenever I feel doubt where to head on, I ride on to Rishikesh. The place is always being my stopover juncture, though it’s been a long time I hadn’t visited this bustling Himalayan foothills.

I thought of getting into a different guest house this time, but most of them were expensive despite of the fact that it was not exactly a tourist season. So, I had decided to head for my familiar Om Guest House whose owner instantly recognized me, even after 2 years. 

“ Room with river view Rs. 400, and without the view Rs. 300.” He said.

“ Just give me Rs. 300, I will go and see the river.” I retorted with a smile.

The room and washroom were clean; though bed sheet was not new. Personally I don’t mind in anything as long as there is a clean washroom.

ganga beach near rishikesh
Ganga Beach near Rishikesh
I cleaned myself, paid the rent for two days and went out for a heavy breakfast in German Bakery. Rishikesh was so familiar, it seemed a home to me. I knew exactly where was what, so I wasn’t a tourist at all, still I didn’t explore much in this town except a few familiar places where I could sit tight for hours without any disturbance.

I liked the way shops were lined up to till an end to Swarga Ashram road. The road suddenly became desolate and then I started finding a place to take a rest nearby the river. I sat near on the lonely ghat where a sadhu was attentively writing something on his notebook. I deliberately looked at him, expecting him to see him, but he seemed totally absorbed in his writing. There were one young boy and two girls playing in the water. It was very calm but humid morning and I was trying to absorb in the surrounding. There were plenty of thoughts gushing into my mind and my deliberate attempt to stop my internal babbling seemed futile, so I looked again to the sadhu who was still absorbed in his writing. After sometimes, two more sadhus came to this place with their food and asked that writer sadhu to join them. There was a sense of calmness in the face of that sadhu and it was perfectly fitted with the meandering river and silence.

Read More about Rishikesh Travel

Spiritual Journey to Rishikesh

August 15, 2015

I woke up early with loud jingoistic uproar in the street. Then the thought surfaced in my mind that it was Independence Day. I went for a bath in Ganges, the chilling water of the river instantly refreshed the whole body, preparing myself for Devprayag’s journey.

Devprayag and Ramkrishna Sharda Math

I first met this rather young sadhu of Ramkrishna Order in 2012 when we both were traveling in the same compartment of the train. Second time when I went to Rishikesh in 2013, I had gone to meet him in Devprayag. He then welcomed me full-heartedly; at the time he was working to build the monastery, staying in two small rooms with one disciple. He invited me and asked me to stay overnight. I listened to him attentively and talked a lot about my life and general way of living. He asked me to stay and do ashram’s work, but I left the next day.  In 2013, Uttarakhand tsunami crushed the whole state, particularly mountainous regions. I once thought to call him but my innate nature of indifference and certain personal circumstances didn’t allow me to call him.

This time I went to Devaprayag to meet him with a hope of gaining certain insights. First he didn’t recognize me but later on when he did, he asked me to have my lunch. I had finished my food in complete silence while looking at him attentively. I instinctively felt he was not at all affectionate as he was in the earlier times and the feeling was fortified when after lunch he bid adieu by saying “come again”.

August 16

Every time I think of one place and land up in a different one. I thought I would go to Kedarnath, but I went to Yamunotri. It’s rainy season so there were very few pilgrims in Janki Chatti, the last stop from where trek to Yamunotri starts. For the first instant, I fell in love with the place. There were very few people, some hotels, small village named Kharsali and thundering Yamuna river passed through.  

In the evening,  I went for a leisure stroll in nearby Kharsali village. I was amazed by the cleanliness and exquisite village houses. People were simple, but extremely poor, small children wore torn pants and shirts but all of them were smiling. Most of them didn’t have any occupation, solely depend on pilgrims. There were small houses when men and women were living their lives in hope and certain air of despondency. 

Life is cruel for poor, especially those poor people who want to create a family, raise their children, educate them, proper food, clothes and basic stuff. Nevertheless, those innocent village eyes didn’t reflect despair, unfulfillment and impatience.

A Yugoslavian monk and living in present

There was an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Shani (Lord Saturn) where I met this lanky, tall and mysterious Yugoslavian man. He was immensely tall, sported a beard and long hair. He was thin as matchstick, wearing a full sweater and old sleepers. The thing that attracted me was his broad smile and Hindi fluency.

He spoke with me very little and too my surprise, spoke in fluent Hindi. When the priest of the temple sported tilak on our foreheads, he uttered some Vedic slokas fluently. Later on he told me that it was a special slokas from Vedas on Tilak Ceremony. 

I met this man once again in the nearby village. I was told he had become a monk in Ukimath, but when I met him, he seemed to me a lost soul. When I told him there was a very good Shiv Temple nearby, he suddenly became defensive, enumerating his exploration of thousands of temples. For a few seconds I saw a disappointment in his eyes and his face reflected despair. When I asked him what his plan was for the next day, he said he didn’t know.

“ में वर्तमान में जीता हूँ, भब्यष्य काल में नही है ”

( I live in present time, not in future.)

August 17, 2015

Trek to Yamunotri

I started early in the morning with empty stomach. I never anticipated that it was so exhausting to climb just 5km but the path to Yamunotri was too steep. I had started at 7am and thought to reach at 9 am but it took me 3 and half hour to reach Yamunotri.

However, the journey towards the temple had overwhelmed me with the natural beauty. I stopped numerous times at various places to see, to observe nature’s magical passes through roaring waterfalls, verdant forests, unknown chirping of birds and mysterious atmosphere all around the valley. 

The trek route is probably the best with smooth cement paved track all through the bridge at the entrance of the temple. However, it is also the steepest I have ever experienced till now compared to my earlier treks. 

The distance from Janki Chatti to Yamunotri is mercifully 5km but it takes lots of energy to reach the temple complex. After reaching generally pilgrims do a bath in hot water that comes through the mountains. It refreshes the body and prepares people to do rituals in a calm way.

August 18 and 19

I stayed in Janki Chatti for next two days and spent some time in the village. It was a fortuitous event I met the most extraordinary sadhu in my life. This monk called Ram Das Mauni Baba (silent monk) was 80 plus, staying there for last 40 years. He was not even concerned about people around his temple, most of the time engaged in his daily work. He only ate fruits and dry fruits and never cooked anything for last 40 years.

I will take a separate chapter of my visitation with monks in Yamunotri.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Top 6 things not to do in Thailand to enjoy most

thailand canal local homes

Every place has its own charm, uniqueness and some reasons to rejoice. It depends on the priority and psyche of a person how he or she can take thing wholeheartedly. I have met people who told lots of stories about Thailand, how filthy streets were, how stinky those foods were and other despicable thoughts. There are people who find even Afghanistan, a barren land, a heartening experience. It depends not only on what you are looking for, but also how well you can get experiential beauty of it.

One thing is I’m sure that most of the people agree with me, Thailand isn’t boring. It has a certain life energy that flows through its landscape. You can find everything here; from party to serenity; from seducing beaches to dense forests; from backpackers ghettos to innumerable monasteries. There are ten things in my opinion travelers should not indulge in to relish Thailand more than regular travel.

1. Don’t stay in Bangkok

bangkok street homes local

I know many travelers including seasoned ones who rapaciously promote Bangkok in their blogs, social media etc. but I feel staying in Bangkok is sheer wastage of time unless you have enough money and more than enough worthless time to spend. If you visit Thailand for its exotic experiences then there is very little in Bangkok.

In my opinion one day in Bangkok is enough to experience certain things like monasteries, markets,  and of course Khao San Road. Bangkok is expensive, lots of tourists, expensive hostels and full-on urban ambiance. I don’t understand why one spends in urban area while ignoring lots of good things just outskirt of Bangkok.

2. Please avoid Phuket and Pattaya

Why on earth I go to a beach, which is covered with McDonalds, Subway, KFC etc. If you prefer tourism is all about “fun” in KFC and other restaurants and see colorful people all around, Phuket and Pattaya could be a good destination. Phuket is mostly about uncontrollable whoring and abandoned binge drinking. If you are planning to go to Phuket for all good reasons like snorkeling, and scuba diving, I tell you it’s better to go to Koh Tao, the mecca of all those underwater sports.

3. Go to Chiang Mai but don’t stay

@ Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Take an overnight train ride to Chiang Mai (6:15 PM, second class A/C) to enjoy the journey. You can get easily train ticket(s) and train journey is pretty much comfortable. You can pack food from railway canteen or you can buy it in the train. However, reaching Chiang Mai stay outside of the main city. Main city is no different from Bangkok with less crowd and fanfare. You can book your hostel outside of your city and stay there comfortable, or if you stay in Chiang Mai for one day and go straight to Pai. There are certain advantages of staying in Chiang Mai main city but if you are not so fond of parties, cabaret, food joints, and other fun, the city doesn’t offer much. What you buy from the city can be bought in half in outskirt of the city.

4. You don’t have to go to restaurant to taste authentic cuisine

I think everyone will agree with one point that Thai cuisines are one of the best in the world. However, you don’t need to go to expensive restaurants to titillate your taste buds, you can find zillion of food joints everywhere in Thailand where you can find all types of foods. The best part of street food is they are fresh and totally hygienic most of the parts. You can find cheap food everywhere almost in $1 (less than Rs. 70) for a good meal. I like different kinds of juices, especially coconut juice with lots of coconut cream and ice.

5. Culture or fun

If you have less time in Thailand, what you want to do. It all depends on your priority and preference. I feel I can see all those beaches and islands in other places like Indonesia, Cambodia and other South Eastern countries but every country has its own cultural identity that is unique in its own way. Thailand has a rich cultural heritage beyond those sandy shorelines. Places like Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, different art galleries in Bangkok, monasteries in Chiang Mai and many other cultural aspects can’t be missed. 

6. Adventure is a nice shift in Thailand

Thailand has some splendid national parks and less explored jungles. Some highlights are Khao Sok in the south, Khai Yai to the north-east, Doi Inthanon in the South.

I know the story here is not agreeable to many people but it’s my personal opinion and it’s different from many people I have realized long time ago. One thing I can guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed in Thailand whether you are a fun loving or serenity loving person.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

First impression of Cambodia, and tips in and around Siem Reap

angor wat temple

"Tuk - Tuk! Tuk - Tuk!" "Massage Sir!" "Sir food, good food!" Tonal voices of Khmer, asking you for taking their services in a desperate manner created an annoying feeling. Constant bugging you for services that you didn’t need or at least very apparent that you were not at all interested, created an impression that was not joyful after all. However, when I lived there for a few days and observed the life of people, I understood how poor they were! It’s a compulsion to earn their living by this constant bugging, there’s no alternative for them.

Life in Seam Reap was far different from my anticipation. Every tourist seems to be like a dollar making machine. They see one and jump on it. In spite of everything, people are gentle, not criminals and accept their lives joyfully. I was very surprised to see how in Cambodian border, in front of government officials, thugs tried to cheat tourists. Surprisingly, the building where some unknown Khmer guides you to take your visa on arrival, is the fake one. When you will finally arrive at the real building, you will have to pay another $30 for your visa. I was warned by my friend about this scam, so I had already secured e-visa beforehand, albeit paid extra $7 for processing charge.

Beer at Pub Street

Siem Reap is quintessential backpackers’ destination. After spending much time in Khao San Road in Thailand, I was not desiring the same thing in Cambodia, but my first impression of Siem Reap was astounding. There were hotels, restaurants with catchy taglines, hostels, bars and everything reflected a feeling of alienation, especially when I had an entirely different mindset while traveling to Cambodia. There were ubiquitous pubs, restaurants, lots of hotels, a few hostels, and of course those annoying massage parlors.

There was an alley called‘Pub Street’, pretty much literal by its name. While walking along the street, I was frequently approached by street peddlers for different stuff, starting from postcards, souvenirs, tourist guidebooks and even drugs. And there were girls who approached me and "guaranteed" “happy ending”. I was very surprised to see a 14-15 year old boy working as a waiter in a restaurant with fantastic English and etiquette.

What you can do in Siem Reap

Angor Temples

Ta Phrom Angor Temples
Ta Phrom
The main, and probably for most of tourists, only attraction in Siem Reap is Angor Temples. Even if you aren’t really a heritage person, the temples will mesmerize you with their dumbfounding architecture and fantastic ambiance. The temples and surroundings are peaceful, ideal for any shutter happy individual and if you really want to see more, you can take a guided tour that will ensure you don’t miss the hidden charm. I particularly amazed by the trees in and around the temples.

ta phrom in angor wat temples

I and my two companions, 50 something Canadian couple, hired a Tuk Tuk and went for the temple tour. We started in the late morning as we had planned to see the sunset but unfortunately cloudy weather and sudden rain disappointed us. You can also hire a bicycle but it will take lots of effort, especially in the summers to ride the whole temple complex. Another way is to hire a bicycle ($1) and also hire a tuk tuk and hop in with your bike and start your temple tour journey from the ticket counter.

The full tuk tuk temple tour will charge you around $15 but if you want it to leave it at the ticket counter, it will be around $5. There are total five main temples, but many small relics as well. Don’t miss Angor Wat (the biggest one), Bayon and Ta Prohm. If you find time and wish to spend $20 more, you can take another day for Angkor Thom and other temples.

Hire a tuk tuk tour

tuk tuk in siem reap cambodia
Ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk
If you are not very comfortable in riding bikes, hire tuk-tuk for the whole day and see some popular places like Floating Village, Tonle Sap Lake, Banteay Srey and other places. I was quite shocked to see the mechanics of tuk-tuk; it is a 100 CC scooter, which is attached with a bogey, acting like a local taxi in the city. There is no public transport except tuk tuk so there is no option left for you. The good thing is there are plenty of them, so you can bargain hard to get a good price for hire. I had learnt one thing that is whatever they quoted I said exactly half of it, and then they came down to a good rate.

Indulge in fish massage

fish massage siem reap cambodia

If you don’t want to splurge in spa, there is a good alternative for your feet. There are dozens of shops lined around Pub Street, offering fish massage. If you are wondering what is that, let me tell you it’s not a great thing but it claims that tiny fishes actually nibble your dead skin from your toes and give relaxation. Well, I haven’t tried it, you can obviously.

Try Khmer cuisines

I liked Cambodian foods than Thailand but many people don’t agree with me. You can try a traditional cooking class where your chef guides you through ingredients, cooking style and serving. The most famous is Amok (fish and chicken), also you try green mango salad and spring rolls. Remember if you are not comfortable in eating raw vegetables, order fried spring rolls.

Take a bike tour to nearby villages

I did it and I enjoyed it. I hired a bike for $1 and went straight to Siem Reap War Memorial. From there I traveled to nearby villages and lost somewhere. Then I discovered a hidden resort in the middle of village with superb ambiance and free wifi. Cambodian villages are same like Indian North Eastern villages, same landscape, same vegetation, and same smell of earth. That was my best experience in Siem Reap apart from 4 hours dip in swimming pool.

Tro u -  Cambodian string instrument
Tro u -  Cambodian string instrument
Buy souvenirs

I know buying souvenirs is not exactly in the list of a traveler, but the tempting things in old market with such cheap prices compelled me to buy something for my home. You can go to Old Market (Phsar Chas) where you can get lots of things such as paintings, shawls, local made vessels, Buddha statues, bamboo craft, and numerous other things. I had bought one slingshot, one Cambodian violin, chopsticks, a coconut handbag and some silk scarfs for my neighbors.

Tips to travel in and around Siem Reap

First and foremost tips if you are coming through Poipet, don’t ever listen to any locals. Follow backpackers and team up with other travelers and find the actual visa center. It is just a 10 minute walk passing a few desolate casinos.

In the bus station, do not change your dollar. In Siem Reap there is no need to exchange money because everybody accepts dollars.

bar pubs in pub street siem reap
Bar @ Pub Street
Wait for some time in the bus station, or if you are alone, team up with 3-4 travelers and hire a taxi. It will take $10- $12 (in 2015) for one passenger. A bus will charge you less but then it will take lots of hours to reach the city.

The taxi will take leave you at a place where you will find a smiling tuk-tuk driver saying he will take you free to your hostel/hotel. Don’t fall prey to it, because it is an exchange for next day Angor Temple tour, which he will charge anything around $20-$25. If you don’t have much luggage, you can walk for 15 minutes and reach the Pub Street Area (Sok San road) where you will find hordes of hotels, restaurants, cheap hostels everything.

Pub Street restaurants are expensive; you can get the same food in a cheaper price in Sok San Restaurants.

Bayon Temple
Always bargain hard while buying souvenirs.

Don’t fall prey for prostitutes. In the night, there are lots of locals talk about ‘Boom Boom’,, ‘Happy Ending’, weed etc.

Beer is cheaper than coke or juice. Should I need to give a tip on that?!?!

Siem Reap is relatively safe, still book hostel that has personal locker facility.

There is no public transportation, so you either hire tuk-tuk or rent a bike and explore. If the weather condition is fine, you can also take a walking tour.

You really don't need additional SIM for Internet. Every restaurant, hotel, hostels has free WiFi.

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Modern yoga retreat, new dimension, new way of living

My friend Yann, a French Catholic priest and a Hindi student from Banaras Hindu University, every year spends 10-15 days of silent retreat in Himalayas. He surrenders everything including his laptop and phone and usually spends time in remote locations of Uttarakhand. I met him last in 2012, as we were trekking together to Gaumukh and Tapovan. Later, on the same trip he spent his silent retreat in Munshiyari (Kumaon).

He is not alone, at least amongst my acquaintances; there are lots of people who undergo this type of withdrawal process, cutting back usual life and giving up all habits including cigarettes and coffee. Another friend of mine, Philip, an Austrian yogi, who undergoes Vipassana meditation whenever he comes to India. He also suggested me lots of time to go for it, but somehow for many reasons, I couldn't. It is a conscious effort not to undergo this type of seclusion, perhaps because of my books and diary that I can't leave without. However, it is no uncommon these days when aspirants go to Yoga retreat, but totally cut off from the usual world, without communication. This type of queer withdrawal process invites curiosity.

So, why people want to to withdraw from the usual life? What is the motive or is there any motive at all? For bourgeois, usual people, who spend their time engaging themselves in tangible life struggles; this type of withdrawal seems strange, rather peculiar. They think it is only for hermits, but the question is, is it necessary to be a hermit to reach a peaceful state of mind.

Ancient Tibetan Yogis retreat and its modern consequences

Ancient Tibetan yogis performed silent retreats for years when they lived in small caves without minimum food. Even in today Tibetan yogis who wish to perform silent retreat take permission from their masters and go for retreat. For them it is extremely important part of their monk-hood as it gives awareness about duality of existence. Meditation in silent retreat for long time helps them to understand body and mind as a single entity. There are examples when Lamas underwent years of silent retreat without touch of human contacts.

chopta trek camp
Retreat at Chopta
Originally this type of solo retreat is known as 'Lerung', a part of Tibetan Buddhism that is believed to create awareness of the existence and stop the mind rushing about in an aimless (even a purposeful) stream of thoughts.

Urban silent retreats and yoga schools

Following the path of ancient Tibetan yogis, silent and solo retreats are becoming popular these days, especially amongst Westerners. The heavy life and daily frictions of professional and personal life create a self-hypnosis construction when a person sees things that appears, and life small and big judgments are based on those appearances.

Retreat center at Tara Mandala
In a solo retreat, a person looks down closely how the mind works. It is actually the breaking down this false construction of “me” within and see what is real inside. It is of course not an easy course of action because the years of impressions created on the mind lead the individual in according the resultant force of all those impressions. So, many people take frequent solo retreat and continue the meditation techniques in their daily life to break the “construction”.

The idea of detach from everyone, without any sort of electronic device is unfathomable to many, but things work in a different way in silent retreats where a person face to face with himself or herself.

Indian Silent Retreat centers

Vipassana Meditation Center in Dharamkot

Vipassana Meditation centers spread throughout India but I liked Dharamkot center because of its natural peaceful surroundings, dense wood and Dhauladhar Mountain on the back. The center is as usual like others where you are given a room with a mattress, and blanket. You are not allowed to talk to anybody, even not to look directly at women in the center. Minimum of vegetarian food, 10 -12 hours of meditation practice every day and sleep. You can talk to the master though once if you have any question. Many people don't prefer to talk and keep silent for 12 days. You can't take your electronic gadgets, books, notebook anything with you.

Tushita Meditation Center, Dharamkot

Aspirants, who sometimes feel too tough to lead Vipassana, can register themselves in Tushita Meditation Center, adjacent to Vipassana in Dharamkot. The center stresses on silence but there is no strict rule. So, you can carry your notepad, books but not mobile phone or laptop. There is even a small place where aspirant can smoke cigarettes if he or she wishes.

Yogoda Satsanga Society, Dwarahat

Paramahansa Yogananda founded this society in 1917 in the lap of pristine Uttarakhand valley. The center is probably the best place for Kriya Yoga and understanding the philosophy of life. The atmosphere is fascinating with surrounding green valleys and silence.

Mayavati Ashram, Lohaghat

advaitya ashram mayawati lohaghat
Advaitya Ashram, Lohaghat
Best known as Advaita Ashram, situated at an altitude of 1940 m, 9km from the town of Lohaghat (Uttarakhand), this Ashram and surrounding area is simply spectacular. This small monastery is a branch of Ramkrishna Mission, which governs by the principle of monism (advaitya) where no idol is worshiped. The guest house is neat and clean with plenty of silence.

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