The onset of the monsoon in Southwest India commemorates the Hindu month of Aashaadh; a time when thousands and thousands of vaishnavites across Maharashtra and the Deccan plateau undertake the waari.
Today, June 29th 2016 is the Prasthaan or the departure of the Sant Dnyaneshwar waari from Alandi. The pilgrims or waarkaris will walk nearly 27 kms to reach Bhavani Peth in Pune from Alandi this evening. The tarmac road burns up on sunny days and a less-experienced waarkari will want to hop into the next vehicle. Except, the vehicles too are slowly winding their way through the throngs of people and walking to Pune might actually be a faster option.
The waarkaris will travel a distance of nearly 230 kms from Alandi to Pandharpur in about 15 days. The waari culminates in Pandharpur on the eve of Aashadhi Ekaadashi,when thousands will line up at the doors of the Vitthal temple for darshan of their ‘sakha’ or friend. Mukhadarshan (darshan of the idol) could take days so many waarkaris opt for kalas darshan (paying obeisance to the temple tower) and return home after a bath in the Chandrabhaga River.
Here’s a photo essay in three parts to commemorate the Aashaadhi Waari 2016.
The Portuguese certainly knew what they were doing when they captured India’s West Coast in order to control trade routes. Judging by the sheer size and expanse of the outstanding and absolutely robust Diu Fort, no force could have stood a chance against the Portuguese.
Built in 1535 as a vantage point over the Arabian Sea, the Diu Fort covers 56,736 sq mts. (I know, right?) and is a huge delight to explore. I won’t be surprised if, while exploring the fort, you start to feel like an intrepid sailor out to discover new lands.
The entrance, with its double moat and imposing walls, can be pretty intimidating. One architectural feature that lent an air of friendliness to this otherwise formidable monument was this balcony here.
Granted, it was meant as a look-out. Nevertheless, it offered a certain degree of human contact. All that was missing was a cute Portuguese soldier, singing fado, drinking port wine and mournfully waving out to visitors.
The entrance has a huge iron door where one has to bend to enter the fort. From what little I know of this standard practice, the bending was meant to instill a sense of deference on part of the visitor.
Walking around, the mind boggles at the grandiosity of this monument. Although sparsely decorated, one gets a fairly good idea of its functionality. There are numerous chapels inside the fort, indicating the presence of a great many soldiers. In addition, you’ll find storage rooms, underground tunnels and of course, canons that menacingly look out over the sea. Needless to mention, the fort was built to withstand long sieges. (Note, though that certain areas of the fort may be closed off. )
On one end of the fort stands a lighthouse. Westwards, you’ll see the Panikota Fort in the middle of the sea, built by the Portuguese to defend the supply on their boats. The Panikota Fort looks like a ship and houses a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady Of The Sea, in addition to a lighthouse.
Signs of vibrant life prevailed inside the fort, thanks to this gorgeous Gulmohur. Other signs of life include a prison on the premises of the Fort, obviously off-limits to visitors.
Provide a good hour at least to explore the fort from end-to-end. Wear good sports shoes and carry your water bottle and camera with you. This one is a must-do for all those who love their history and adventure.
It’s the month of Ashadh and soon Ashadhi Ekadashi will be upon us-which means warkaris from across the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are marching towards Pandharpur as I post this – braving the heat, rains (if at all the Rain Gods decide to be merciful this year), blisters on their feet, sunstrokes, knee pain, and assorted physical ailments..all in an effort to have a glimpse of their beloved God, Vitthal.
Now to use the words of Madonna,
“I’m not religious
But I feel so moved
Makes me want to pray
Pray you’ll always be here
I’m not religious
But I feel such love
Makes me want to pray…..”
It’s the warkaris who truly make me believe …..what else but faith would make someone walk 250 kms over 18 days in all kinds of weather on all kinds of terrain, with lack of public sanitation, sleep in tents on hard ground, drink tanker water and bathe in the same.
There’s a lot I can say about my experience on the wari and what it taught me..but I shy away from revealing its most private lessons to me…that’s a secret I share, I can safely say, with Vitthal himself…
Until then, here’s a short photo essay on these mascots of faith–the warkaris…
No self-help guide to getting rich will ever state that you take the travel writer, blogger, and freelance language trainer route. But if you want to feel like a millionairess if only for a few days, do travel to Uganda. Ugandan Shillings are a miraculous currency that will make you feel like there’s money coming out your wazoo. All you have to do is go around showering it in plenty for that fabulous feeling that you’re finally, and I mean, finally, loaded. It’s like this. You could take all the currency in 1,000 Ugandan Shilling notes, scatter them along the way from Entebbe Airport till you hit Jinja town and still have enough left over to pay for your hotel, meals, buy a an exotic bird or two, and pay for a flight to Europe and back.
At the risk of sounding economically-challenged, (and if I haven’t made it clear already), spending in Ugandan Shillings was a huge financial validation. Not because life is cheap (for the locals, it’s certainly not), but because I could afford it all in Indian currency. Everything starts with 1,000 shillings and upwards. A short boda-boda ride -1,000. That’s about 22 Indian rupees. A cup of tea-1,000 shillings. But being a non-millionairess, I’m not equipped to handle large denominations. In any currency. 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 Shilling notes are commonplace for tourists who can be seen number-crunching on their pocket calculators in order to pay for a cappuccino and cake. I, on the other hand, resorted to good old addition sums (25 + 25 = 50, so carry over 5) on scraps of paper.
I began to feel paranoid after a visit to the bank for currency exchange. Would I have to hire a bodyguard for carrying this stupendous amount of money? I’d received 259,397 shillings in exchange for 100 USD. I had never, ever been in possession of a six figure amount all at once. The maximum I’d ever carried on me was a three figure number in Euros, and even then I’d been robbed.
I brushed my fearful thoughts aside, and began to imagine everything I could afford in Uganda. All the second-hand clothing (from Europe, no less) in Jinja town. All the batik fabric I fancied. All those beautiful seed-bead bracelets to gift to all the girls I’d never even spoken to in my building.
Entry to the Source of the Nile ten times over. Perhaps, even a gorilla; the perfect African souvenir. But the thought of clearing customs in Bombay put the fear of Godzilla in me, and I decided against the impulse purchase. So I stuck to more mundane things like bookmarks made from tree bark. That’s only because my animal-loving self refused to consider earrings made from ivory and bracelets made from animal bones as the perfect gifts.
Big daddy, who is well-versed in money matters, tells me the Ugandan Shilling (UGX) has a low purchasing power. That means you have to shell out more money to afford more stuff. I figured that out when I paid some 4,000 Shillings for five litres of water. Mind you, that’s only some 88 rupees. Or 3,000 for a small dabba of yoghurt. But converted to Indian rupees, that was about the same as what we’d pay in India. Except I was paying thousands for it.
Take, for example, our very generous pulao, raita, pickle meal at the New Welcome Restaurant. (There was a (Old) Welcome restaurant, but the management has changed since). We ended up paying 13,500 Ugandan Shillings. That’s about 300 + rupees for a week’s worth of rice. I could eat here everyday, and pretty soon start to look like a “traditionally-built” African woman a la Mma Ramotswe.
Did I mention the hotel management is Gujarati? Indeed, Gujjus from Nadiad who are part of an 800-people strong Hindu community in Jinja town, alone. Needless to say, there is a Devi temple in Jinja with Ganesh et al thrown in for good measure.
I was also starting to have difficulties changing the bigger denominations into smaller ones. First of all, it’s unlikely you walk around in Jinja flush with cash. Even if it is just 2,300 in Indian rupees, it still adds up to…well, let’s see now, 1,000 Shillings is 22 rupees so 2,300 x 22= Cash numbers that only a drug lord is expected to carry. You certainly don’t flash big notes in the faces of the shopkeepers, unless you’ve stepped out of a second-hand SUV just imported from Japan or you’re of Indian- origin and own a sugarcane estate in Kakira (Hint: the Madhvanis).
At the supermarket in Kampala, we ended up buying so much, you’d think we were a family of ogres. But who could say ‘No’ to a litre of skimmed milk at 66 rupees. It was so deliciously fresh, I wanted to go kiss the cow that gave the milk, then shake the hand of the factory owner that removed the fat from it.
Ugandan produce is fresh, preservative-free and tastes like it should-natural. The bread is so soft, you just know it’ll taste even better as golden buttery toast. The tea is local produce that is best had black with some lemon. All of which justifies the hefty 23,100 bill. I’d imagine the supermarket was closed the next day-the lady had done business for a whole week, thanks to gluttonous tourists like us.
Big amounts aside, Ugandan Shillings have the most charming coins. Embedded with animal motifs, in particular, the national bird, the crested crane, these coins, as far as I’m concerned, are second only to my Euro collection. So you see, for those on the same path as me, that’s how you go about feeling like a millionairess. Travel to Uganda, eat like a queen, spend those high denomination notes, but make sure you keep some of them coins.
Here’re a few must-buys if you’re ever in Uganda.
- Out of Africa Macadamia Nuts (Kenyan speciality but are slightly cheaper in Uganda. Try the duty-free in Entebbe).
- Ugandan Waragi –Homemade gin variety.
- Amarula-A cream liqueur made from the Marula fruit. A South African specialty available across Africa. Again, duty free or any supermarket.
- Organic tea and coffee, local produce. Available at Shoprite and other supermarkets.
- Cocoa powder/soya malt-local produce. Available at Shoprite and other supermarkets.
- Dried and/or candied fruits-Available at Shoprite and other supermarkets.
- And for those of us in India reeling from the rising prices of ginger, buy it by the truckload. It’s fresh, flavourful and very, very cheap. If you do get some, make sure to send me a carton.
For a smallish country on the East African coast, Uganda leaves quite a big impression. My knowledge of Uganda was fairly dark; Idi Amin’s bloody regime; the mass exodus of Asians (Indians, in particular). But ever since I’d found out that an industrialist family of Indian origin, the Madhvanis, had returned to Uganda in the 80’s after the exodus to become one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, that was all the history I needed to pack my bags for Uganda.
The original Madhvani, Muljibhai, then 18 years old, arrived in Uganda from Porbandar, a small village on Gujarat coast’s. Gujarat’s sailors had long traded with the Arabs and the East Africans, even before the Portuguese realised they were suffering from “saudade.” He began a sugarcane factory on the fertile land of Kakira, and soon diversified his business to cover steel, oil, and cotton factories. With four sons to help run his growing empire, the family’s fortunes were rising, until Idi Amin expelled them from the country. The Madhvanis relocated to England, temporarily, with their love for Uganda intact. Once Amin had been deposed, they were one of the first families to return, hoping to reestablish ties with what they considered their homeland. Need I say it, the rest is history multiplied by n.
This story speaks not just for the resilience and fortitude of the Madhvanis. It also speaks for the land that Uganda is; with a warm and welcoming people, and a land so fertile, it makes you wish you were a farmer. Further research revealed that it is also home to Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake and the source of the White Nile, that begins its eventful 2,500 kms journey across North Africa in Jinja.
The International Airport at Entebbe is located right by Lake Victoria. It’s the first thing you see even before you land. I like to think I’ve seen some things during my travels. But to arrive in a foreign country and spot, what is perhaps its biggest attraction already, seemed a bit too easy! Whatever happened to long, butt-numbing drives on the off-road?
Ahmed, our friendly chauffeur, drove us down from Entebbe airport to Jinja. With a sly smile, he bore many ignorant remarks from us Uganda newbies (Look, sugarcane farms! Look, tea plantations! Hey, are we in Kerala?) Having spent four days in arid Kenya prior to this, Uganda’s greenery was a sight for sore eyes. Also, the marabou storks from Kenya had flown in to welcome us.
Arriving in Jinja was like arriving on the sets of some 50’s movie that the crew had forgotten to dismantle. Charming little low-rises, people walking with a leisurely pace, a quiet, relaxed atmosphere enveloped the little town. And somewhere along the way in the centre of town, stood the Madhvani building, restored as a testimonial to the Madhvani legacy.
Our hotel was located a bit away from the town centre, and boda-bodas were the only way to commute. Before I tell you what a boda-boda is, let me tell you that in India, we reserve motorcycle rides for intimate and somewhat adventurous occasions; long bike rides in the monsoon with a beloved, or that time when you and your girlfriend rode off with your brother’s bike; all such romantic images were duly trashed when I realised I’d have to sit behind a complete stranger, in all likelihood, an unwashed stranger who would be the chivalrous knight-in-dirty-clothes on his steely Bajaj Boxer bike.
Not that I have a problem with boda-boda drivers. They were polite and agreed to drive slowly, especially since the Mother had not sat on a bike since 1965. I just wish they’d bathe! A day into my Jinja stay, the national English newspaper, The Daily Monitor featured a news snippet on how some boda-boda drivers had set up a fellow driver into having a bath. I am not making this up.
Our first stop in Jinja was the rustic little vegetable market. Until I got here, I had not known that some of the world’s best bananas, avocados, pineapples and papayas came from Uganda. All organic, all natural, all fresh, and all delicious.
Add to that, some fiery piri piri, and your taste buds are covered!
I also stumbled upon an odd-looking fruit, or perhaps vegetable. A strange, green and prickly mass, I had never seen it before.
Research revealed it is the soursop, belonging to the family of the paw-paw, the Indian cousin of which is the gorgeous custard-apple or sitaphal.
Different types of passion fruit were stacked in gunny bags. Tart and pulpy, with its seeds adding texture, this deceptive little fruit is an acquired taste. (Read: Not for me.)
Next stop. Curio-shopping. Curio shops are apparently ubiquitous in Africa. In Kenya, they offer clean restroom facilities and curios at inflated prices. In Uganda, they offer mostly Kenyan products sourced from the Masai flea markets at inflated Ugandan prices. Most of these shops should bear a sign on the front-‘Do not enter if you cannot bargain!’
All I could afford to buy for friends were some bookmarks made from tree bark, and a few postcards with wildlife motifs. Those set me me back by a few thousand shillings. What? A thousand shillings? Four figure sums for bookmarks? Before you get Uganda off your travel agenda, let me assure you that the Ugandan shilling is one of the most affordable currencies in the world. OK. I’m not an economist, so I won’t go into details of its “purchasing power” and suchlike. But I will tell you, that those four-figure sums are hugely deceptive and amount to virtually nothing in Indian currency. More on our shocking adventures with the Ugandan shilling on Part 2 of Uganda-The People’s Choice.