Wednesday, July 17 – Landing at dawn through a drizzling sky into Hyderabad, a city that breathes the richness of the bygone era and the grandeur of the Nizams! Today India is techie glitz and a thriving metropolis where the old and the new goes hand in hand.
After maneuvering through the efficiently-designed and impressive Hyderabad International Airport, I excitedly step onto the soil of my “Matru bhoomi” (The Mother Land), breathing in the fresh air, connecting to my spirit, and set out on a calm 30 minute drive to the top of the hill to take in the panorama of the unique city at 2,000 feet.
A horse carriage awaits to transport guests to the breathtaking Falaknuma Palace, also known as the “mirror of the sky,” and where the Nizam of Hyderabad once lived. Stepping into Falaknuma Palace is like traveling back in time to the turn of the century; a journey into the clouds and into the glided ages, where grandeur and excess is celebrated and savored in equal measure.
As I walk into the palace, each step takes me back into the rich history of Nizam, as I glide through these precious courtyards, time stands still…
Aadab – welcome to Hyderabad!!!
Friday, July 19 – While Hyderabad is hard to leave, a spiritual experience awaits at India’s holiest of the seven sacred cities, where a feeling of spirituality and then experience of Hinduism take over. Next on my list is Varanasi.
Saturday, July 20 – The plane flyies over the green plains dotted with the traditional red roofs of courtyard houses. After a peaceful landing at the tiny but well managed Varanasi Airport, where images of Hindu gods and sights of Buddha surround you, I step out excitedly under the dry, shining sky. My first step into the holy city brings a wave of scents as the air is filled with the smell of sarson oil (mustard oil), used by the locals for cooking, hair conditioner, and body lotion. Several foreign tourists look enthusiastic to discover one of the oldest cities in the world. I bow down humbly and thank God for the opportunity to step onto this beautiful soil.
Namaste. Welcome to the holy city of Varanasi.
My first encounter in Varanasi is a drive by the birthplace and home of the late Pandit Ravishankar, legendary sitar maestro who spearheaded the worldwide spread of Indian music and had a major influence on Western musicians including the Beatles.
I had a blissful morning on the ghats of the holy river Ganges as the sun cast its first rays over the river. It was a moment of serendipity and bliss.
Sunday, July 21 – A peaceful Sunday morning here in Varanasi – sitting on the porch with a cool breeze, sounds of a flute in the background, overlooking a royal fountain and beautifully landscaped palace gardens with a resident peacock for company. I savor end a traditional breakfast of Banarasi Poori Bhaji, Makooni, complete with a cup of Banarasi Chai – life is blessed in the holy city.
It is an emotional day for me. One place that I have been longing to visit is Sarnath and today I was able to do so. Sarnath literally translates to “deer park.” After attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha went to Sarnath where he preached his first discourse which set in motion the “Wheel of Dharma.” It is one of the most holy sites as the place of Buddha’s first teaching.
Half of the Ashoka Stambha (pillar) built by King Asoka, built at Sarnath, is preserved with an inscription in Pali, the native language. The top of the Ashoka pillar is well preserved at the archaeological museum located at the site.
As I head from the Banarasi Lanes to the former capital of the British Raj, my journey gets increasingly more cultural. Kolkatta is a city that exudes charm, character, and culture thats as deep as its lovely people, and a place I still fondly call “Cal.” It’s my first time in Cal and I am already loving everything about it.
Monday, July 22 – It is a rainy day here in Kolkata but it hasn’t dampened my spirit. I start at the immaculate Victoria Memorial and continue onto St. Paul’s Cathedral, a tram ride rubbing shoulders with the locals, and a view of the Howrah Bridge. I drive through College Street to enIndian Coffee House. One a meeting place for freedom fighters, bohemians, and revolutionaries, today the coffee house is abuzz with student conversation.
Tuesday, July 23 – As my Druk Air flight gets ready to soar into bright blue skies, my journey unfolds into the magical Kingdom of Bhutan, secluded high in the Himalayas with unique customs and people with deeply held beliefs.
Tashi Delek – May all good things come your way !!!
Wednesday, July 24 – Stepping off the plane and into Bhutan, I was welcomed by a clear blue sky. Paro Airport, Bhutan’s only international gateway has a single striped tarmac and is set in a hollow surrounded by dune-colored fields that are dotted with traditional Bhutanese Homes. A beautiful Bhutanese woman wearing Kira and a man wearing Gho, traditional Bhutanese attire, greeted me and a feeling of peace and a spiritual connection falls upon me. Welcome to the land of the Thunder Dragon – Bhutan.
If there is any country on Earth that qualifies as an Eden, not just in part, but in its entirety, I believe it is Bhutan. This tiny kingdom has the highest original forest cover of any nation. In less than 100 kilometers (60 miles), Bhutan rises 25,000 feet from the subtropical jungles of the south to the arctic cold of the high Himalayas. This extraordinary range of conditions, packed into such a small area, makes Bhutan very special. Combined with all these riches is an underlying conservation ethic, embedded deep in Bhutan’s Buddhist culture and in the hearts and minds of the ordinary man and woman.
As I embark on the winding roads, the Wangchu River follows us on our hour and a half drive into Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. At an altitude of 2,350m/7,710 feet, Thimphu is a small, charming capital city sandwiched in the heart of the Himalayas. It sits in a valley fanning out from the river. The skyline hardly changes as new buildings are all constructed under zoning regulations. Thimphu’s development is strictly monitored and buildings cannot exceed a certain height, nor can they be designed in anything but the traditional Bhutanese style. In fact, Thimphu’s first and only traffic light was enshrined in achorten (a small Buddhist temple). Not being suitable to the nature of Thimphu, the traffic light was removed on the King’s orders.
As we drive along my attention is directed to a set of Indian Army Trucks parked along the roadside. The Indian soldiers are peacefully eating their lunch and looking down the valley. Excitedly I jumped out of the car to spend a few minutes chatting with my Indian Army brothers. I was invited by them to share their lunch, an unexpected treat! The Military of Bhutan relies on Indian support for training and materials.
After the refreshing break the road to Thimphu continues. As the mountainsides get denser with houses and modern buildings I began to see more cars and people bustling about. Thimphu is in sight.
We stop at the famous Memorial Chorten built in memory of His Majesty, the third king of Bhutan, where Bhutanese come with undivided devotion to pray. School children stop to offer a round around the Chorten before heading back home. I join in with the locals to complete my round around.
Hopping back in the car my next stop is at Ziluka Nunnery, the biggest nunnery in Bhutan. It overlooks the Tashichhoedzong or Thimphu Dzong. We walked up a wide path to reach the nunnery. The monks offer a special prayer for me inside their Chorten and humbled by their gesture I offer a bag of red rice locally grown, leaving with a sense of blessing.
After passing by the home of the former King of Bhutan and his four wives, I arrive at the peaceful Amankora, my home for the night. Amankora is a series of luxury lodges in Bhutan’ s central and western valley, the first one is in the tiny kingdom. Set in the upper reaches of the Motithang area, the 16-suite lodge of Amankora Thimphu is close to the capital’s sights and shopping yet remains a secluded retreat. The Dzong inspired architecture incorporates whitewashed stone buildings.
As I sit in the white courtyard in front of a campfire, surrounded by towering green trees, sipping on warm apple juice infused with lemon, chatting with other guests, a cultural dance unfolds before me.
Thursday, July 25 – At 5:00am this morning rays of the dawn sky fills my room. I awake to bird’s chirping and a lush green valley that sits beyond the window. I watch the sun rise behind the clouds – a great way to start a beautiful day in the Thimphu Valley!
After breakfast we drive through the valley where children are walking down the paths towards their schools donning their traditional Bhutanese uniforms. The elderly are chanting on their rosaries walking towards the Dzong for morning prayers. The town square is bustling with men and women heading to work as the traffic police direct the cars in the town’s cross road.
Today my guide and I hike the narrow path to the Chagri Monastery. Arriving at top was a magical experience. The beautifully monastery is filled with Buddha images and peaceful humble monks, clad in red and yellow robes. The atmosphere is filled with rhythmic chanting by a group of monks. Today is a special day in the lunar calendar that falls once a year and we were blessed to be part of the special prayer ceremony. With a feeling of serenity we begin our downhill climb towards our base.
I was ready to get out and continue my exploration. We tour the weaving center, paper making factory, the Dzong, the golden Buddha statue that is currently being built on top of a hill to guard the valley below, and finish with a stroll through the local markets.
A delicious Indian dinner of kebabs, curries, naan bread and basmati rice awaits me with the traditional Indian hospitality of the lovely Taj Tashi Hotel in the center of Thimphu. In keeping with the enchanting surrounds, the hotel is a blend of Bhutan’s Dzong architecture and modern design. Adorned with classical hand-drawn Buddhist murals, its 66 elegant guestrooms offer breathtaking views of the mountains that rise above the Thimphu Valley.
Tashi Delek – may all good things come your way.
Saturday, July 27 – 24 Hours in Punakha
A fond farewell to the lovely Town of Thimphu – my next stop is the valley of Punakha. The winding roads to the valley pass through picture perfect local villages and along a beautiful river to the famous Dochula Pass. Located at 3150 meters above sea level, its only 30 km from Thimohu, making it a must stop over if you are traveling to Wangdu, Punakha or Eastern Bhutan. Stepping out of my car and breathing in the cool mountain air I am greeted with spectacular views of the Himalayan Mountains and the 108 chortens/stupas built next to each other and surrounded by numerous colorful prayer flags. They were built by Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck to commemorate the victory and memory of the soldiers who lost their lives fighting against terrorists groups in 2003.
Continuing the beautiful drive to Punakha, the air started to warm as we began our descent into Punakha valley. At an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet, Punakha is the ancient capital of Bhutan, and still serves as the residence of the central monastic body. This warmer, fertile valley is blessed by the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers and at the confluence of the two is Bhutan’s most beautiful Dzong; the Punskha Dzong (Palace of Happiness), built in 1637.
I took a one-hour hike through the lush green rice paddies to Chimi Lakhang, the Temple of Fertility, built in 1499 by Lama Drukpa Kuenley. It is believed that childless couples that pray here will be blessed with children.
Afterwards I head to the stunning Amankora in Punakha, accessed by a suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River. The lodge compound is centered around a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse built as a residence by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, to oversee the surrounding rice fields and fruit plantations.
The highlight of my last day in Bhutan remained very special as I climbed up to the Tiger’s Nest at an altitude of approximately 9,000 feet. The monastery is one of the most venerated places of pilgrimage in the Himalayan region.