Paris, mon amour

So here I am

Leaving you behind –

The train lifts its skirt and runs

Before I can change my mind –

Wondering who,

If anyone, can ever conquer

This memory of you.

 

I’d stay and save

Myself the mediocrity.

If you’d let me have

You for eternity.

But you’re a fickle lover,

O Paris, mon amour,

Let’s not linger

On this goodbye.

My time is up! Au revoir!

 

The canals in the new town

Reflect my parting blues;

In a concert of cities

Who would want to follow you?

O Paris, mon amour,

Let’s not fake niceties now.

It’s not me. It is You.

 

You invited me over

For a drink or two;

Before night fell, I was in love,

You had had your someone new.

I was never the only one,

This much I knew.

Your streets are full of lovers gone mad

Artists, they call them,

Victims of cobbled-street voodoo.

O Paris, mon amour,

Let me go

Before I’m a prisoner, too.

 

No corner cafe will ever smell the same

The streets won’t sing again

Church bells will never promise

The stunning spell of Notre Dame.

What have you done?

O Paris, ma chérie,

My heart is now a homeless refugee,

My soul is yours to claim.

 

I’ll be back another night

For one more forbidden affair

Between my pen and your rues.

Until then,

O Paris, mon amour,

Grant me this final farewell kiss,

Bid me a fond adieu.

 

 

A punctured tyre, Delhi autowallahs, and memories of Spiti

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It’s an average day on the streets of Delhi (read: hot, humid and ceaselessly chaotic). I’m on my way to office and an hour late when the worst decides to happen. The auto-rickshaw I’m riding in veers to the very edge of the Barapullah flyover and wobbles to a stop.
“It’s a puncture.” The dreaded words seem to reach me from the farthest, deepest realms of hell.

My first instinct is to inquire how long it’ll take to replace the tyre, as the autowallah fishes out his tools and a spare. It’s then that I realize – my own words ringing in my head – how selfish a question that is. Behind this epiphany is my last travel assignment.

A few weeks ago, I was in Himachal’s Spiti valley, a singular place where everyone seems to adore everyone else. There are few means of public transport, if any, in this remote, treacherous hilly terrain. So hitchhiking is the norm. A stunt I would never pull in Delhi. It took me by surprise first when we were on our way to the valley from Manali – a grueling 11-hour bumpy ride in a shared Tata Sumo. As some of the passengers got down at Lohsur, the first village of Spiti, we finally had some breathing room in the SUV. Much to my ire, the car stopped only a few miles further at the gesture of a local Bohti woman, a farm hand by the looks of her luggage.

“Here we go,” I thought, used to the business acumen of urban transport service providers. “He’ll make the most out of the empty seats.” However, these seats weren’t traded for money, but given out free of cost to locals looking for a ride to their villages. I readily scooted to my cramped end of the jeep as soon as I realized this unspoken protocol between the drivers and the locals. It was a gesture I wouldn’t dare expect from the fast-paced cities I’m used to treading. Nor would I have ever thought of lending a hand to someone on the road myself. Be the change you want to see, they say. Perhaps, we can all learn from Spiti. (I got more glimpses into the bond all Spitians share over the next few days as a yak owner insisted on hosting me for tea after completing a four-hour trek alongside me, and a rope twiner explained how a whole village gathered to help a family prepare for their boy’s birthday bash, where the whole valley would congregate. )

Cut to current day, we’re standing atop a scorching flyover in the heart of India and my auto driver is struggling to replace a punctured tyre on his own, sweating profusely on the sizzling tar. Autos do not carry a jack so the punctured tyre itself is used to prop up the vehicle while the new one is put in its place. Of course, this requires the auto to be lifted from one side briefly. The driver, who looks guilty of imposing this situation on me, hesitates to ask me for help. “I got this,” I tell him and recline the auto for him to do his thing. With adept hands that know their job from years of habit, he unscrews one and installs the other tyre. In the meantime, as I prop up the auto with some help from the deflated tyre, another auto-rickshaw slows to a halt a little further up the road.

Finally! Someone to offer help in Delhi, I think. But this man is in no mood to lend a rival a helping hand. Instead, he delivers the most surreptitious of nods only autowallahs can pull in his rear-view mirror, inquiring if I want to abandon ship and ride with him instead. When I reject his benevolent (not!) offer, he drives away without a second glance. A mere 10 minutes of teamwork later, we’re on our way again.

Places you travel to, change you. And you, in turn, change them back. Among other things, Spiti taught me to lend a helping hand when I can. Have you brought any souvenirs of the soul from your travels? Tell me in the comments below.

How I quit engineering and became a travel writer-photographer

Scuba diving in Andamans

Five years ago, I dared to dream.

In 2011, I was a computer engineer gulping cupfuls of machine-spewed instant coffee at an IT company while pondering a strange existentialist cloud that rained often on my cubicle. I was disillusioned by the tech bubble that encircled my life, the kind that makes managers worry about web servers instead of people when natural disasters strike. They were just doing their job I guess, but it was clear to me that that job wasn’t my calling. So, I quit. And I dared to dream of a career which would make me travel the world to tell stories through my favourite channels of expression – writing and photography. Now, before you denounce this reckless career leap as a millennial’s privilege, let me stop you right there and agree with you. Yes, I’m one of those Gen-Y yuppies who are constantly seeking their ‘special’ place in this world, unlike their parents whose idea of success was a secure, well-paying job.

Truth is, everybody dreams reckless dreams. But few give up everything to follow them. After all, the blue pill is so much easier to swallow (Matrix reference). You continue on the path you did not choose because you’re already on it, because “it’s too late to turn back”, because if you went after the dream you might “lose everything” and yet never find the fabled treasure, or worse.

I took the red pill.

As I gave up that life, I joined a journalism college and sat amidst History, English Hon. and Journalism grads, trying to comprehend what it meant to be a scribe in the new world. I was told I was a decent writer but had no sense of news. My introduction in every class followed the same pattern. After the customary name, domicile and interests trivia, and the mandatory ‘why quit engineering’ argument, I announced my intent: ‘To become a travel writer and photographer’. It met as much amusement as rebuke. So much so that at one point, I felt I was being unreasonable asking for such a surreal way of life. My ambitions were watered down to the nearest common denominator: city reporter. A city feature writer at most, if I was lucky.

No Signboards

Desperation took over. Whenever an ad announced ‘The Best Job in the World’ – more often that not related to travel – I threw my hat in the ring, akin to buying a lottery ticket. My resume held no qualification for the job, only ‘immense passion for travel, and unbridled creativity in storytelling’.  I was a daydreamer, chasing my phantasm with the single-mindedness of a sniper. I shot out query letters to professional travel writers asking for advice. When no tips returned, I inquired about their career trajectory. Perhaps I could try to emulate it. Vague responses only made the job look more like a myth. Travel cafes offered workshops on writing; blogs gave advice on shoe-string budgets and marketing; magazines asked for experience which wasn’t available without prior experience. They were all selling real estate on whimsical clouds. It is then that I decided that if I ever became a travel journalist, I’d write about it. If not concrete advice, at least my own story. So it would give hope to anyone who dreams the same dream.

It’s 2016. And I’m here. A writer-photographer for a travel magazine, one of the two publications I mentioned in a naive Facebook note I posted in 2011 while sketching out the goal. [For those who are quick to make Bollywood comparisons, this was two years before YJHD and Ranbir Kapoor made it cool to be a travel photographer.] I wish I could tell you if the dream lives up to its projection in my head. But I’ve just got here; I’m yet to savour it. Perhaps six months later, I’ll tell you whether the Loch Ness Monster really has gigantic flippers for feet.

Lucky Number: None

It wasn’t luck that got me here. It was an immense amount of stubbornness, courage to take silly risks, many sacrifices, and working insanely hard at whatever I took up along the way. (Also, a lingering sense of discontent that soiled every success I tasted along the way.)

I topped my journalism school. Not that medals are any indicator of talent, but that gold medallion gave me a lot of self-belief, an assurance that I was perhaps right about changing the course of my career. The industry was in such a dire state that there were no campus placements that year. So I interned at what is routinely called the biggest English-language daily in the world.

The internship was supposed to last four months. But after just two months of reporting in a city I loathed, I ran into a wall. A bad bout of hepatitis-induced jaundice made sure that I lay shackled to a bed for four months while my peers got published and scored jobs. When I went back to the newsroom, vitals nearing normalcy, reporting jobs had run out. I finished my internship in a different department, one that held promise of a job but involved work that I had never intended to do. I wanted to tell stories; instead I spent eight ill-timed hours editing others’ political stories and populating pages with them. A far cry from travel writing. But I kept at it for over two years. Back then, it felt like a means to an end. But in hindsight, it was a significant phase of growth.

Did I like it? No.

Did I learn from it? Yes, for a while.

Did I do it nevertheless? As well as I possibly could. A double-promotion later, I approached the nicest boss in office with mutiny (and guilt) on my mind. I wanted out. I wanted to write. Before my CV was cast in an editor’s mold. And a transfer within the company was the only way. Few firms would hire a rookie reporter, with no sources or portfolio, at the salary of a senior sub-editor.

Earning It

Internal transfers aren’t uncommon, but they do meet some resistance. Especially when you want to leave the desk for the field. (Because almost everyone wants to do that). I was fortunate to have bosses who acknowledged my calling. But the team I aspired for was the weekly national features team. If I got in, I would be the youngest in the room by at least 6-7 years. I was vying to fill the boots of someone who had 10-odd years of writing experience. I knew I had to earn my place. So, after two years of editing monotonous political stories, I put pen to paper, summoned my muse, and tried to write content-rich national features hinged on news.

Words had abandoned me. The metaphors that once laced my tongue bled like ulcers in the mouth. I wrote nevertheless; I crawled through language, groping for one word, then the next. I turned to my personal blog for momentum. [Yes, this one.] For the next five months, I balanced two jobs. While I continued to follow the eight-hour rut of politics and pages every day, I also contributed the occasional feature story to iron out any doubts about my abilities. In March 2015, I finally broke in. I was a feature writer with a nationwide audience.

Sunset at chidiya tapu

Life turned easier after the transition. For one, my day turned turtle. For the first time in 2.5 years, I was going to office in the first half of the day and coming back before midnight. I was eating three meals a day and watching the occasional sunset. My reluctant editing stint proved to be a strength on the new job – I wrote without the fluff which usually clouds rookie writing, because I’d spent two years cutting out that very fat from stories. Most importantly, I was telling stories under my own name. For me, nothing beats the thrill of receiving a phone call/sms/fan-mail about a story that resonates with someone.

The travel dream remained dormant but never died. Being the youngest in the team eventually proved to be an advantage. I could leave for an assignment at a moment’s notice. Any assignment. My job took me to Nepal twice, to China, and to Andamans for a scuba diving experience – all in a single year. Outsiders called me lucky; my insides winced. It’s an easy thing to attribute someone’s way of life to luck. No, I wasn’t lucky. I’d worked my guts out for this; I’d rebelled for this; I’d given up an IT career that promised money and the American dream, for this. While most of my engineering friends uploaded selfies with their new sedans, or pictures of a posh office in Silicon Valley, or a home they moved into with their better halves, I had been busy figuring out if I could pay the bills on time that month. Journalism isn’t an easy job, and the industry pay standards don’t make it any easier. My only reward: Every Sunday when my story came out, Ma would call from a faraway hamlet, once home, telling me she’d read me; school teachers and cousins and former best friends would message to say my stories had become a ritualistic accompaniment with their Sunday morning cup of tea. There is no greater reward for a writer than to be read.

The Treasure Trunk

The job was great. I enjoyed a big audience and the freedom to write on various subjects. But it still wasn’t what I had spelled out five years ago in that classroom. There was travel involved, but it was purely incidental. My feet itched to wander. So, after 1.5 years of writing features on topics ranging from alternative sexuality in comics to couple apps and suicide helplines (http://bit.ly/29xLc7r), I unlocked the trunk beneath my bed and dug out the dream, now covered in sheaths of dust. I applied to a travel magazine. By this time, I had built a portfolio of over 50 national features and composed a Flickr page that featured eclectic frames – from wildlife photographs and unexplored landscapes to underwater creatures and street portraits. The work laid out on the table, I wasn’t asked to give a test. Salary terms were negotiated, the offer handed out. It was mine. Just like that.

Andamans-sea

Sometimes life offers mirages in the middle of a scorching desert. Sometimes, we build them ourselves, making up a reason to keep walking through the harshest of terrains, plotting dreams with emboldened crosses, reaffirmed, on tattered maps, imagining treasures beyond belief for the taking – if only we walked. If only we survived this. But what happens when you suddenly have it, the dream, tossing and turning like a baby dragon of folklore in the palm of your hand?

Dare to dream. And don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. But be prepared to give everything up to chase that fantasy beyond the rainbow’s arch. ‘Wishing on a falling star got me here,’ said no one ever.

As for me, my next dream is already keeping me up through nights.

Living an ocean-blue dream and capturing it

Have you ever heard the hymn of the sea? Not the emphatic roar of waves that crash recklessly into the dented black of rocks. But the gentle symphony that lives under the turbulent attire of the surface. It’s a singular form of poetry that seeps in through every pore of the skin. Under water, all you hear is the sound of your breath, which leaves a train of bubbles marching to the surface, and the musical silence of deep blue. It’s the closest you can get to entering a wormhole and exploring a whole new reality, where gravity can’t keep you grounded, the senses are crippled, and the surrounding life forms defy all that your eyes have become accustomed to.

The training manual claimed that it’s the most memorable moment for any beginner. But nothing could prepare me for the first time I breathed underwater. A worn, uncomfortable regulator, which I clasped with my reluctant teeth, flushed dry, hollow air into my protesting lungs on demand from a cylinder hung on my back. All that meant nothing the moment I went down into the ocean blue, which I had loved all my life from the safe realms of the shore, and breathed. In that tiny instant, I became part of the ocean and everything that called it home.

Looking for a subject and something called neutral buoyancy. Pic credit: Anurag

Looking for a subject and something called neutral buoyancy. Pic credit: Anurag

One of the many ironies you get introduced to as part of an open water diver in training is the art of sinking yourself on purpose: You tighten a weight belt around your waist to counteract the buoyancy of water and deflate your BCD (buoyancy control device – a jacket that inflates and deflates on the touch of a button). It goes against all instincts of survival, so you train your mind to do it. As you cross the surface line, the lights go out, a blue tint takes over the world, and all your senses panic. It’s a hostile environment you aren’t supposed to inhabit. The steeply rising water pressure hammers your ear drums, so you equalize your air spaces. You’re taught to do this at every count of five. This and a dozen other things that you can’t afford to forget.

I was horrible in the first few confined water dives (shallow water dives). I drank half the ocean and inhaled some of it. But my dive trainer would have none of my skepticism. It was my dream to scuba dive, and he took it upon himself to see me through. In the training module, all sorts of potential situations are simulated and dealt with – you’re asked to flood your mask with ocean water that stings the eyes and drive it out with one swift forceful blow-out; swim 9 metres to the surface in one extended exhale (for an out-of-air scenario); sip on air from a leaking regulator, and more. I overcame one instinct at a time. By the time I reached my open water dives, I was getting a hang of things, and drinking less salt water than before, but hovering mid-water still confounded me. I kept rising or sinking while my patient trainer levitated in a monk-like stance in front of me. It reminded me of a clumsy Po blundering in front of Master Shifu. After all, it takes just an inhale to go up, an exhale to sink, and you can never hold your breath (lest you tear a lung).

In many ways, learning to scuba dive is like learning to walk, or balancing your first bicycle. You see others do it with almost no effort, and wonder why you keep falling and scraping your knees bloody. But once you get the hang of it, it liberates you. You turn directions by merely turning your hips, do somersaults, swim sideways, fin ahead with a superman fist extended, rise with just a breath, plunge with an exhale… you finally have the superpowers you always wanted. My most memorable moment was surfacing from my last training dive with a wide grin and hearing my instructor call me an ‘open water diver’. Or wait, was it the one where i first saw a stingray and swam circles with it? Or was it the moment i swam with a school of yellow snappers who let me into the clan? I can’t possibly choose.

Thank you for capturing me in action, Anurag

Being a photographer, I have an instinct to take pictures of anything wild and exquisite. Naturally, I itched to capture marine life the moment I laid my mask-protected eyes on it. Once I was a licensed open water diver, I started to learn the tricks of underwater photography the very next day. It’s the most difficult form I’ve tried, by a margin. The blue-green water is the biggest foe of sharpness and colour, the sunlight a mere trickle from the surface, and zoom lenses pointless – so you go as close to stinging fish and corals as possible while floundering for neutral buoyancy (a perfectly horizontal floating position). Not to mention the need for waterproof gear. Not getting into the nitty-gritty of all things camera, i’ll go ahead and present my first attempt at capturing glimpses of a world that I adore. A world that finally accepted me as its own.

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Have you heard the hymn of the sea? It’s the song within that we drowned in everyday’s cacophony.

Rebuilding Nepal, one smile at a time: A photo essay

I had the fortune of seeing Nepal in November last year, in its full glory, while attending a climate change conference as an Indian journalist. When a deadly earthquake struck the affectionate country on April 25 this year and shattered its homes and heritage, their smiles haunted me. I knew i had to go back to see for myself what had become of the places that had welcomed me so warmly. I had to bring their stories to the world. A month after the quake, I got an opportunity to cover rehabilitation efforts in Kathmandu.

Although i wasn’t scheduled to, i hopped on a relief truck convoy (of Live to Love Foundation), with some kung-fu nuns of the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery, headed to reportedly the worst-hit areas in the mountains, Sindhupal Chowk district. It was worse than i had expected or remembered from my time in Kutch during 2001. Whole villages had been wiped out, many houses lining the narrow, steep route barely hung on, some dangled precariously over the cliff’s edge; but the people continued to wear their smiles when confronted by a stranger offering to help, even if only by means of his camera. A week before that, social media was raging against the Indian media for overdoing their coverage of the disaster. While their concerns were partly true, if you set aside those who had access to Twitter even in times when people were looking for potable water, the ground reality was very different: i was welcomed, once again, with open arms. Not once did a local object to a picture being taken or a question being asked. A man taking shelter under tarpaulin sheets on the playground of what was once a school offered me tea. Such is the soul of Nepal; they lose their homes, families, and history, but not their kindness.

Here are some of my frames from a Nepal that was knocked down but got back up. Immediately after coming back to India, i filed my stories and apart from the frames that my publication carried, I stayed clear of publishing any more since it felt like indulging in tragedy porn. But now that the dust has settled and Nepal is rebuilding itself, i feel compelled to share its story with you. It’s a story not of disaster, but of resilience and compassion in the face of daunting odds.

Click on any picture to view them all in fullscreen mode along with their context (highly recommended):

Not a Goodbye

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Melancholy is a strange visitor. It walks in uninvited, without the courtesy of a simple tap on the door, and leaves as it pleases, in the dead of night or amidst the din of daylight.

China was supposed to be a solitary exploration trip, even though I was part of an official delegation of 200 people, who had been “selected” by the government to represent the youth of the country and have cultural exchanges with those in China (more on this in another post). Travel is almost as essential to my being as love, and i get the most out of a trip when i’m left alone in my own mind to observe and tap into the soul of a place. So this trip, my first outside India (apart from a journalistic adventure to Nepal), meant the world. It was my first taste of a completely new culture and its people. I expected myself to space out and explore China, while my soliloquies and camera kept me company in a country which didn’t speak any tongue I was familiar with.

While the first half a day or so went exactly as planned, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a few crazies. And before I knew it, we were together everywhere. Be it scaling the great wall of China, haggling to the extremes at flea markets, making ready-to-eat vegetarian food and masala chai on the 28th floor of a five-star hotel that overlooked the magnificent Guangzhou, making fun of other unruly youth delegates, singing English songs (with a blend of desi rap) to a clueless yet thrilled Chinese audience in a karaoke bar, biking on the Xi’an wall, or making sure everyone was up in the morning in time for the bus, we did it all together. From different parts of the country, the eight of us revelled in one another’s eccentricities. Theplas were passed around in tour buses, Marathi slangs learned, Kolkata praised and scoffed at in equal measure, Sindhis disowned and adored at the same time, college-like gossip spread; the beauty of a country that makes you stick out – it makes you stick together. Having said that, it wouldn’t have happened with anyone; it took a very special blend of wonderfully weird people to form a family out there.

The saddest thing about goodbyes, I read somewhere, is not knowing whether they’ll miss you or forget you. I’ve always been awful with separation; so I escape it, with a joke or two while gasping for breath inside. But turns out I’m not alone in being over-sentimental about goodbyes. This peculiar set of people, who had met one another only a week ago at a nondescript (and sweltering hot) orientation session, cried their eyes out at being separated. For the first time, I know I’m missed, as much as I miss you all.

Defying my plans, the trip turned out to be about the people, more than the place. I’ll remember China well, and what’s even better, I’ll remember every incredible place we visited with some weird shit we did together attached to the memory. For a boy addicted to a perennial sense of sadness, this has been a welcome break. Jesse laments in ‘Before Sunrise’ about never having been to a place where he himself wasn’t there. While at first that might not make any sense, I relate to that feeling quite often. I’m almost tired of being with myself, of having every experience under the sun in the company of my own cynicism. There is no place I have visited, nothing I have done, where I wasn’t there to ruin it for myself. Until China, that is. I didn’t quite understand it then, but in retrospect, when I look back at all the memories we made, I thankfully do not find me in the frame. Instead, there’s this 16-year-old version who loved every moment he lived, and did not quite ponder over the pointlessness of it all. I had lost touch with him over the years.

As I return to my writer’s desk, I feel like I’ve suddenly been pulled back from a magical world of dragons and terracotta warriors and intimidatingly high walls to my boring old closet, filled with woollens that suffocate. But for what it’s worth, that alternate universe lingers on in our collective memory. And the people in it continue to defy the goodbye we didn’t say.

Who says only love stories must end in forevers?

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Whispers in the Valley

‘Jesus was here’

Nestled on the fringes of civilization is a small village in the Athwatoo block of Bandipora district, North Kashmir. Based on a hill, self-sustaining with its own primary school, grocery shop and a police station, the village looks nothing out of the ordinary. But this remote hamlet’s claim to fame is nothing short of incredible: This is the place where, some claim, Jesus was last seen.

The life and death of Jesus Christ is a story with many versions, among experts and commoners alike. A lot of these versions indicate a  possibility that Jesus was in India for a long duration; some even say he died here.

Surrounded by a village of nearly 600 houses and a population of about 5,000, an isolated spot here stands amidst dense pine and fir trees. The eerie spot features a make-shift hut adorned with prayer flags. The place is a popular prayer area for locals. “The spot marks the last sighting place of Jesus Christ, according to some believers,” says Major Anshuman Bhadauria of the Madras Regiment posted at the site as of April, 2012.

The spot where, some say, Jesus was last spotted. Some others call it the ersting space of 'Musa' - an Islamic figure

The spot where, some say, Jesus was last spotted. Some others call it the resting place of ‘Musa’ – a historic  Islamic figure

If legend is to be believed, Jesus survived the crucification and travelled to India. This theory lends support to another tale that marks a spot in Srinagar as the final resting place of Jesus Christ. (Scroll down to ‘What’s inside Roza Bal’) Interestingly, experts say that a period stretching from 12 to 30 years in Jesus’ life is undocumented in the New Testament, apart from a single statement which says: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.”

The theory that Jesus spent these 18 missing years in India was first triggered when some manuscripts were reportedly found by a Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch in a Buddhist monastery in India. In his book ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’, he claims to have read secret manuscripts that talked about a certain 14-year-old wandering prophet ‘Isa’. A similar belief appears in another book- ‘Jesus in India’ and a few documentaries.  These theories also point to a resemblance between Buddha’s teachings and miracles; and those of Jesus. A few books, articles and a BBC documentary on the topic may not have confirmed the legend, but enough debates and doubts have been created on the subject.

The locals of the village, however, insist that the Jesus sighting story is a sham. “This is the resting place of Musa, follower of Dargiz Sahab. He stayed here, on this spot, for 3-4 years,” says Anjum Nisar, a teacher at a local primary school. The Sarpanch, Ghulam Rasool Lone, nods firmly in agreement. There is a grave marked at the spot which, as we debate legends, is cleaned and prayed upon by a local woman.

Locals come to the spot often to pray and follow a ritual: they tie pieces of cloth to trees in the area to ask for favours and untie them when a favour is granted. The grains they offer in return attract ravens and monkeys to the spot. These creatures only add to the spooky feeling of the place.

Woman ties a prayer flag

Woman ties a prayer flag near the ‘grave of Musa’

The ravens only add to the eerie feeling at the spot

The ravens only add to the eerie feeling at the spot

Athwatoo would have made a great tourist location just for its scenic beauty, had it not been for the immense historical significance attached to it. Religious beliefs, contradicting ones to that, steal the show in a location truly made for the Gods. The place, however, witnessed bloodshed over a decade ago, when a group of four foreigners’ trip turned tragic. “The foreigners were abducted from Bandipore by militants and beheaded here,” Major Bhadauria says. The area was a militant hotspot until a few years ago.

The short trek to the mystical spot is through virgin territory and has its own charm

The short trek to the mystical spot is through virgin territory and has its own charm

However, things have changed in the Valley. Now, the tourism department is looking at promoting Bandipora and specifically Athwatoo as a travel destination. A government tourism centre, overlooking the Madmati river, is nearing completion and roads are being built for welcoming tourists this season – a far cry from the situation which existed in the early nineties when the town was ravaged by militancy. Locals say some private hotels are also being built very close by at Vewan which will offer travellers more options than the one offered by the solitary hotel in the vicinity right now.

A new tourism centre is in the making on the bank of the river

A new tourism centre is in the making on the bank of the river

If you want to travel to the legendary spot, the easiest way is to hire a cab from Gulsand Chowk in Bandipora – about 14 kilometres away. A long winding road lands you at the village. Next are two rickety wooden bridges over the wild Madmati. Ask around for ‘Musa’s grave’ and locals will be happy to guide you. A 10-minute trek by the banks of the river takes you to your destination. Follow the colourful prayer clothes and the eerie cries of ravens.

Getting there:  Take a cab from Gulsand Chowk for Athwatoo. The charge is about Rs.500 for a drop and Rs.800 for a return trip (It is better to go for a return journey with a planned stoppage time of at least 2-4 hours). The road ends at Athwatoo village at the tourism centre. Two shaky wooden bridges across the Madmati River and a few meters of walking uphill will lead you to the place. Ask the locals for directions. There are no signs installed (as of April 2012). The place is a haven for adventure tourism.

Road less taken

To reach a place few know of, you’ve got to tread a path few dare to take

To get to a place few know of, you have to take paths few dare to tread

For the locals, it’s just another day at work

Where to stay: Harmukh Health Resort, Barnar. There are just two rooms for the taking in this private hotel in the area. Each room costs up to Rs. 800 per day. There is also a common hall which accommodates 50 people and provides just the basic amenities for a night halt- a carpet to rest on and some blankets. The make-shift accommodation would cost one Rs. 70 per day.

Coming up: The government tourism guesthouse being built will have four rooms and one hall. It is also expected to have a common kitchen and a cafeteria.

 

What’s inside Roza bal?

An unknown shrine located in Khanyar, Srinagar has caught the attention of many after the beliefs surrounding it featured in books and documentaries. Roza Bal is the final resting place of Yuz Asaf, who is believed by many to be none other than ‘Jesus Christ of Nazareth’.

The mysterious shrine is in the heart of Srinagar city in Jammu and Kashmir

The mysterious shrine is in the heart of Srinagar city in Jammu and Kashmir

Of course, for that to be true, Jesus would have survived the crucification and travelled to India and died much later than what is officially recorded. That is exactly what this version of his life says. Another mysterious name that appears at the shrine is that of Syed Naseerudin.

The locals do not know the story behind either of the two names mentioned. But they strongly deny the belief about Jesus Christ. They have even got the doors of the shrine closed for tourists and locals alike after attempts were made to uncover the truth.

“A few years ago, a foreign lady came and got the doors opened for some documentary work. Later we heard they were using some machines to dig in and collect samples. We immediately got a complaint filed. You do not do such work at a shrine,” says another local. Since then, even photography and shooting videos outside the shrine have been prohibited.

“The place is being misused to attract tourists,” says Aijaaz. Another local, Mohammad Rafiq, tries to reason how a prophet of the stature of Jesus Christ could be buried in such a place. The locals are trying their best to counter these “man-made stories” about the tomb of Jesus. They have even installed a sign board at the site which reads passages from Quran and the Holy Bible which suggest that Jesus is with God, not on earth.

A BBC documentary about the alignment of graves and the footmarks preserved in the shrine created widespread interest in the place. The footmarks revealed markings which resembled those a man would get if crucified with nails. But locals do not seem to buy the rationale. They are convinced it is an Islamic shrine and has nothing to do with Jesus. “We educate the tourists and bust their myth about the shrine,” says another one, concerned about the legend that led us there.

Only a sneak-peek at the graves is currently allowed from a window which opens in an adjoining by-lane. Tourists are inundated with opinions from locals about what the shrine does not contain. In the end, this only adds to the mystery of Roza Bal and Jesus Christ’s connection with India.

Caution: The locals are not tolerant to flouting of the No-Photography rule at the shrine.