Summer safaris and spirituality for NRIs
May 8, 2007 - 8:14:02 AM
Unlike most NRIs who would not go to India during summer, Siddharth 'Sid' Verma landed in New Delhi this month. With temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius -, India is just too hot for holidays. But not for Sid and his three friends from Canada who love mountain climbing and dream of scaling Himalayan peaks. As they emerged from the New Delhi airport in the morning with their heavy equipment, a tour operator's driver greeted them and led them to a gleaming eight-seater, air-conditioned, luxurious mini-van.
Protected from the heat, they drove straight out of Delhi across Punjab and up the hills. By nightfall, they were in Dharamsala. They checked into a hotel and met the tour operator whom they had contacted on the Internet. He had organized their expedition, including getting two trained mountaineers from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering - and Indian Mountaineering Foundation -.
The guides took care of everything from route planning, equipment, porters, mules, camping and cooking. In addition to mountain climbing, Sid could have gone for rock climbing, glacier adventure tours, trekking, mountain biking, paragliding, river rafting, kayaking and even skiing. After two weeks of climbing adventures in the Himalayas, Sid and his teammates got on the mini van in the morning to motor down to New Delhi to catch a flight back home in the night- without exposing themselves to the scorching heat of the plains.
Another category of NRIs who comes to India during the summer, from May to August, is the pilgrims. These are usually more religiously inclined NRIs in the 60-plus age group.
Dhiru 'Dave' Shah, aged 65, from London, had yearned to go on 'yatra' or pilgrimage for years. After he retired and as he made plans for yatra, his son Tushar, aged 26, surfed the net and came to know that some adventure sports could be combined with the yatra. So he decided to join his father and also look after him because his father was not keeping good health.
While his father could be taking a dip in the Ganges at Haridwar, Tushar could go river rafting in nearby Rishikesh. When Dhiru went on pony or a carrycot for the hill shrines, he could trek up the mountain. As his father needed to rest after these climbs, Tushar could indulge and rough it out in other adventurous escapades.
The major Hindu pilgrimages to the mountain shrines - Vaishno Devi, Jwalamukhi, Kedarnath, Badrinath and Amarnath - happen in the summer. The temple of goddess Jwalamukhi, near Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, has flames from natural gas emitting from the mouth of the deity. The impact is awesome. No wonder Jwalamukhi is one of the most frequented 'yatras' in Himachal Pradesh.
The most famous yatras - Haridwar, Rishikesh, Badrinath and Kedarnath - are in Uttranchal. After the mandatory dip in the holy Ganges at Haridwar and Rishikesh, the devoted pilgrims head for the hills to the sources of the Ganges and the Yumuna. Later Badrinath and Kedarnath temples are visited along with many others on the way. Two-week package pilgrim tours called 'Char Dham' are offered on the Internet for all these and more.
Kashmir offers famous and tough climbs to major pilgrimages. Goddess Vaishno Devi is perhaps the most popular one with NRIs. The starting point is Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, and the pilgrims move up to Katra, a small town 50 km away. From here, a 14-km climb is mostly attempted on foot but the old and inform use a carrycot or a pony.
The most arduous climb is to the Amarnath shrine with its massive Shiv Lingum that waxes and wanes with the moon. About 141 km from the Kashmir's capital Srinagar, Amarnath is controlled by the Indian Army due to terror threats; so prior permission is needed from the Indian government. Devotees generally make the 45-km pilgrimage on foot from Pahalgam, 96 km from Srinagar, and cover the journey in four-five days.
For the Sikhs, four major pilgrim centres are Amritsar with its Golden temple, Anandpur Sahib, Ponta Sahib and Hemkund, the last one being the most difficult climb.
The ultimate yatra is lunar landscape of Mount Kailash in Tibet, equally revered by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. This trek is not for the faint hearted. Extensive medical checkups, physical training, yoga, top fitness and special clothing and equipment are essential for this perilous journey to high altitudes. Special permits/visas are required from India and China. It takes at least 16-18 days after the preparations. Both for the young and the middle-aged NRIs, it is the ultimate spiritual safari.
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