Returned to Baghdad

I went to India on a two-week vacation on June 6 to attend to some family events. In the meanwhile, the security situations in Iraq deteriorated suddenly as ISIS overran large swathes of the north and west of the country and seized over half a dozen cities, including Mosul.

40 Indian nationals were abducted from a construction site in Mosul. 46 Indian nurses are also stranded in Tikrit hospital. These caused a great concern not only in India but around the world. The Indian media is giving wide coverage of the happenings in Iraq.

I was in communication with my colleagues in the bank. They informed me that the situation in Baghdad is okay and there’s no new development in Baghdad that might be a cause for worry.

My friends and relatives in India were apprehensive of my returning to Baghdad. Some advised me against it. However, returning to Baghdad is my call of duty. As always, my wife and my son stood by me. With their good wishes, prayers and blessings of my elders I began my journey from Ranchi yesterday.

The immigration official at the passport control desk refused me when I replied to him that I was going to Baghdad. I talked to him that I am working in Baghdad and was in India on vacation etc. He was acting on the travel advisory issued by the government of India on June 15 2014, wherein Indian nationals were advised to avoid travel to Iraq in view of the precarious security situation prevailing in Iraq. He then directed me to his senior. I talked to him and showed him my residency permit and ID badges in support. Also, I told him that I am a consultant and my bank arranges for my security. He then agreed to let me travel to Baghdad.

The incoming flight from Abu Dhabi to Baghdad was almost half full. This flight generally remains full. There were only a few foreigners like me in the flight. Fewer passengers meant less time through the immigration process.

As I cleared the immigration formalities, the driver called me to inform me that he’s already at the airport waiting for me. Thanks to my colleague Ali Alwan! I took my bag from the carousel and walked out of the airport terminal. We drove out of the airport and entered into the city. It looked normal. As we drove past the market area near our house, I could also see women walking around in the sun.

At the end, I reached my Baghdad home safe. I changed my dress and joined my office immediately.

It was a journey with mixed thoughts, some fears & apprehensions but it was a nice, safe journey at the end. After all, it had lots of good wishes of my friends and relatives and blessings of my elders besides support and prayers of my wife – Jaya and my son – Babai.

Tathagata Tsal

The Buddha Park of Ravangla, also known as Tathagata Tsal, is situated near Rabong (Ravangla) in South Sikkim district, Sikkim, India. Tathagata is Sanskrit and Pali word. It’s used to refer to Lord Buddha. The term is often thought to mean either “one who has thus gone” (tathā-gata) or “one who has thus come” (tathā-āgata). This is interpreted as signifying that the Tathagata is beyond all coming and going – beyond all transitory phenomena.

Lord Buddha is quoted on numerous occasions in the Pali Canon as referring to himself as the Tathagata instead of using the pronouns me, I or myself. This may be meant to emphasize by implication that the teaching is uttered by one who has transcended the human condition, one beyond the otherwise endless cycle of rebirth and death, i.e. beyond suffering.

This place was constructed in 2006-13 and features a 128-foot high statue of the Buddha as its centerpiece.

The site was chosen within the larger religious complex of the Rabong Gompa (Monastery), itself a centuries-old place of pilgrimage. Also nearby is Ralang Monastery, a key monastery in Tibetan Buddhism.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama consecrated the colossal 128 foot hammered copper statue of the Buddha, which he had earlier named Tathagata Tsal, at Ravangla. The statue of the Buddha marks the occasion of the 2550th birth anniversary of Gautama Buddha.

There’s huge gate with murals depicting Jataka tales – on the previous lives of Gautam Buddha.

The temple closes for public by 5:30 p.m. We just managed to get in as last visitors of the day. The main temple is below the huge statue of Lord Buddha. It has a huge hall and the walls have images of Lord Buddha and on his life.

There’s a museum too but we couldn’t see it as it’s getting closed.

There are a large number of steps to come down to the park and walk up  a large number of steps to get to the temple.

After getting out of the park, we had “jhal muri” and hot tea from street vendors. We returned to Gangtok through beautiful green road.

Char Dham [Siddhesvara Dham]

Char Dham or Siddhesvara Dham is a unique pilgrimage tourism venture of the Sikkim Government developed as “ Pilgrim cum Cultural Centre” having a 108 ft statue of Lord Shiva and replicas of four Dhams of the country at one place at Solophok hilltop in Namchi. Jaya & Babai visited this place last year. This time they came with me and Jaya’s father.

Char Dham are the names of four pilgrimage sites in India that are widely revered by Hindus. It comprises Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameswaram. It is considered highly sacred by Hindus to visit Char Dham during one’s lifetime.

Lord Shiva overseeing the Char Dham

The four most revered Dhams of the Hindus — Jagannath, Dwarika, Rameshawaram, Badrinath have been replicated in this fantastic complex to benefit the devotees and tourists.

Badrinath temple

For the consecration of the Dham Shri Jagadguru Sankaryacharya Swami Swarupananda Saraswati did the “Pran Prastisha” of the Dham.

There are replicas of the “Dwadash Jyotirlingas” (the twelve jyothirlinga) of Somnath, Mallikarjuna, Mahakaleswar, Omkareshwar, Kedarnath, Bhimashankar, Viswanath, Triambakeshwar, Vaidyanath, Nageswar, Rameshwar and Grishneshwar surrounding the statue of Lord Shiva and the Char Dhams.

There is a grand statue of Kirateshvar Mahadev and a temple of Shirdi Sai Baba too.

Lord Kirateshwar

In Hindu mythology, it is believed that Lord Shiva, after losing Sati in Agnikund, had gone into seclusion and became a hunter in the forests of Sikkim. There is also a famous Kirateshwar Mahadev Temple at Legship, in West Sikkim along the banks of River Rangeet.

There are Tulsi plants (Ocimum tenuiflorum) growing over 6 ft!

Tulsi plants

The Dham has stay facility for the devotees at “Yatri Niwas” which can accommodate more than 90 people at a time.

There’s a restaurant serving thali in the afternoon. We had thalis of food before leaving this place for Rabongla. The food was yummy!

The environment here is serene and divine. It’s a nice place and we felt blessed visiting all the temples.

The Siddhesvara Dham has won the National Tourism Awards 2010-11 under the category of “Most Innovative/Unique Tourism Project” by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

Samdruptse — “Wish fulfilling hill”

On our way to Char Dham, we went to Samdruptse, near Namchi.  Samdruptse is situated at around 75 km from Gangtok.

Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche)

Samdruptse literally means ‘wish fulfilling hill’ in the Bhutia language. A unique, awe-inspiring and gigangtic 135 feet high statue of Guru Rinpoche a.k.a. Guru Padamasambhava is installed atop Samdruptse.

Padmasambhava was born into a Brahmin family of Northwest India. According to tradition, Padmasambhava was incarnated as an eight-year-old child appearing in a lotus blossom floating in Lake Dhanakosha, in the kingdom of Oḍḍiyāna in the present Swat Valley of Pakistan. His special nature was recognized by the childless local king of Oḍḍiyāna and was chosen to take over the kingdom, but he left Oḍḍiyāna for northern parts of India.

It is the highest statue of Guru Padamasambhava in the world. His Holiness the Dalai Lama laid the foundation stone of the statue in October 1997. It was completed in February 2004.

The land of Sikkim, at the border of India and Tibet, was consecrated as a hidden sanctuary for the Buddha’s teachings by the great master Padmasambhava, who blessed it with the vajra wisdom of his body, speech, and mind. He is considered as the second Buddha.

The path leading to the hill-top is lined by coloured flags with Buddhist hymns were being played through sound system placed along side the pathway.

People have been stacking stones to make cairns. Earlier used as messengers, signs and landmarks in unoccupied lands, locals suggest that they are also known to bring good luck for travellers.

A cairn in the structure of a stupa

Guru Rinpoche is the patron saint of Sikkim. Padmasambhava is said to have transmitted Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan and neighboring countries in the 8th century CE. In these lands he is better known as Guru Rinpoche (precious Guru). He introduced the people of Tibet to the practice of Tantric Buddhism.

Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava) oversees parts of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Sikkim from the hill-top.

It is also said that the Samdruptse hill is actually a Dormant Volcano.

Myths say that the buddhist monks have been going on top of the hill and offering prayers to the volcano to keep it calm.

In the hillock at the back of the statue, Buddhists place their prayer flags and built cairns stacking stones to bring good luck to them on the top of ‘wish fulfilling hill’.

 

We had hot tea at the restaurant in a complex outside the entrace to the temple…

…and then went ahead for Char Dham.

 

 

Temi Tea Garden

We planned to visit Char Dham in Namchi. We left the hotel early after having our breakfast.

The road to Namchi from Gangtok is via Temi Bazar. The road cuts from the National Highway at Singhtam. The scenic beauty is excellent on the sides of the road.

A Sikkim tourism restaurant just above the river after crossing Singhtam

Temi is famous for its internationally renowned tea, which is sold under the name Temi tea. We stopped at the garden, which is about 60 kms from Gangtok.

One can savour the breathtaking view of temi tea garden from the road.

It’s one and the only tea estate in Sikkim, which produces top quality tea in the international market.

Temi tea garden is considered one of the best in India and in the world.

The garden is laid over a gradually sloping hill.

The tea produced in this garden is also partly marketed under the trade name “Temi Tea”.

There’s a restaurant selling hot momos and tea. Momo is a type of dumpling native to Nepal, and in some communities in Tibet, Bhutan.

 

We enjoyed the lovely tea with hot momos and fale. Fale (falay) is another Himalayan cuisine but not as popular as momo. Fale is TIbetan style puff pastry filled with minced goat/lamb meat.

Then we drove towards Namchi.

Banjhakri Waterfalls

Banjhakri waterfalls is a popular tourist spot near Gangtok in Sikkim.

We visited Gangtok for a couple of days with Jaya’s father. He wanted to see the institute of Babai and the place too. We reached Gangtok yesterday.

We decided today to visit Bankjhakri waterfalls with him due to its proximity to the city of Gangtok.

It’s around 4 km from Gangtok. The falls is set amidst dense greenery and the theme park itself is littered with ethnic sculptures and figurines of the Jhakri culture.

The waterfall roars down from a height of say 70 feet. Enough facilities have been provided for the tourists to go closer to the waterfall.

The word ‘Banjhakri’ means a forest shaman. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.

These shamanistic practices are depicted via the figurines in this theme park. Some of these depict rituals, some healing ceremonies and others the initiation process in the life of a shaman.

Sikkimese style bridges have been built over the water streams and that lead to small view points from where one can get great shots of the waterfall.

Baba couldn’t walk up the stairs to reach the waterfall area, so he sat near the stairs leading to the waterfall and was watching some local boys catching fish in the stream.

It even hosts some decent momo stalls.

Nothing beats a hot plate of momo, aloo dum and a steaming hot cup of tea on a afternoon here. The items were nicely cooked that we repeated the orders.  Then we returned to our hotel in Gangtok via Hanumantok, Ganeshtok and MG Road.

It’s a nice place and worth a visit. It should be on every Gangtok visitor’s itinerary.

Heavy rush today at Baghdad airport

Today I am going to India by 12:30 pm Etihad flight from Baghdad via Abu Dhabi. I asked for the car to arrive at 9:30 am. The car arrived at 9:15 am and so I started earlier. Thank God, I started earlier as there was huge rush at the airport checkpoint. The drives used to get in flashing their badge. That system is not working today causing such a huge traffic snarl near the check point. The dog sniffing was also done at the end of the traffic jam.

There’s one good change that they have replaced the system of opening the luggage for physical checking. They have put X-ray scanners and also metal detectors for the people. It saved the time and the trouble of opening the bags and then again locking them.

I ultimately arrived at the airport gate at 11:00 am. Again there was a long queue for second dog sniffing. Thank God there wasn’t any rush at Etihad counter. When I entered the departure hall after clearing passport control, it was 11:45 am. I just walked into the First Class lounge at the airport to have a small sandwich and a cup of coffee.

A corner of First Class lounge at Baghdad International Airport

As I finished it, the boarding for the flight was announced. This time there wasn’t a single moment at the airport to talk to people before undertaking the journey.

Chhinnamasta temple

Jaya and I decided to go on pilgrimage to Chhinnamasta temple during this auspicious nine-day period of Navaratri. This is after many years that I am at home during the Vasanta Navratri period this year. Vasanta Navaratri started from March 31 this year. We therefore visited the temple today.

Navaratri is a festival dedicated to the worship of the Hindu deity Durga. Vasanta Navaratri, is nine days dedicated to the nine forms of Shakti (Mother Goddess) in the month of Chaitra (March–April) and is observed during the Shukla Paksha (waxing phase of moon) of Chaitra. The beginning of this Navratri also marks the start of the new year as per the Hindu mythological lunar calendar (Vikrami Samvat).

The word Navaratri means ‘nine nights’ in Sanskrit – nava meaning nine and ratri meaning nights. During these nine nights and ten days, nine forms of Shakti/Devi are worshiped. The tenth day is commonly referred to as Vijayadashami or “Dussehra”. The beginning of spring and the beginning of autumn are considered to be important junctions of climatic and solar influences. These two periods are taken as sacred opportunities for the worship of the Divine Mother Durga. Navaratri or Navadurga Parva happens to be the most auspicious and unique period of devotional sadhanas and worship of Shakti (the sublime, ultimate, absolute creative energy) of the Divine conceptualized as the Mother Goddess-Durga, whose worship dates back to prehistoric times before the dawn of the Vedic age.

Chhinnamasta Temple dedicated to Goddess Chinnamasta is a hindu pilgrimage. The temple is located at Rajrappa, 28 km away from Ramgarh Cantonment along NH-23 in the Ramgarh district of the State of Jharkhand, India. It is situated on a hillock at the confluence of rivers Damodar and Bhairavi popularly known as Bhera. Rajrappa is around 80 km from Ranchi.

The Bhera River joins the Damodar River from a height of 20 feet creating a waterfall.

Chhinnamasta (She whose head is severed), also called Chhinnamastika and Prachanda Chandika, is one of the Mahavidyas, ten Tantric goddesses and a ferocious aspect of Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. The headless statue of Goddess Chhinamastika stands upon the bodies of Kamdeo and Rati in a lotus bed.

The temple is very old and the place Rajrappa finds mention in the Vedas, Puranas and Hindu scriptures as a “Shakti Peeth” which is flocked by devotees from Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam and Nepal for worship of Goddess Chinnamastika.

Vedic book Durga Saptashati also mentions the temple.

The art and architectural design resembles the design of temples of Tantrik importance. The temple is considered as notable as the tantrik site of Kamakhya Temple of Assam which has a similar architecture.

The ancient temple of Goddess was destroyed and later a new temple was constructed and the original idol of Goddess was placed in it. Animal sacrifice is still practiced in the temple.

We performed our pujas, prayed at the temple and sat there for some time. Then we left for our home in Ranchi in the afternoon after praying at other Dakshina-Kali and Mahavidya temples nearby.

The place attracts devotees from all parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Pilgrims come here throughout the year. The place also attracts many foreign tourists due to its natural and religious importance.

Jai Maa Chhinnamasta!

Tsomgo (Changu) Lake

Jaya & I visited our son Babai for three days. On Monday, March 17 we decided to visit Tsomgo Lake and hired a cab through hotel. We asked the hotel on Saturday to arrange for the trip and the inner line permit needed to visit there.

Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake is perched within mountains at an altitude of 12,400 ft. Located in Sikkim at Gangtok – Nathula Highway only 40 km, from Gangtok, the Changu Lake is one of the most spectacular landscapes of Sikkim.

ROAD JOURNEY

The road to Nathu La passes the lake on north side. Nathu La is a mountain pass in the Himalayas. It connects the Indian state of Sikkim with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. The pass, at 14,140 ft forms a part of an offshoot of the ancient Silk Road.

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The Chinese border crossing is only some 5 km east-northeast in a straight line, but some 18 km by road. A winding road through rugged mountain terrain and sharp cliffs takes you to Tsomgo.

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We stopped on our way at a village market in Kyongnosla for some coffee and snacks, and for toilet. Sikkim is the first state in India to have toilets in every village. It’s around 31km from Gangtok.

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THE LAKE

Tsomgo Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti, a community based organization formed for conservation of the Tsomgo Lake with support from WWF-India, and others sell picture postcards as entry ticket. The charge is nominal – Rs 10 only.

With a depth of around 48 ft and spreading over 1 km, the magnificent Changu Lake romances with its picturesque surrounding.

The water of the lake comes from the melting of the snow of its surrounding mountains, which is why this lake never dries up.

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This azure blue lake remains completely frozen during winter.

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In winter the placid lake remains frozen with the area around it covered in snow while in late spring the profusion of flowers in bloom adds a riot of colours around the lake. Changu Lake is also the place of origin of Lungtse Chu River. This lake is also home to Brahmini Ducks and a favourite stopover to other species of migratory birds.

FAITH & LEGEND

The lake is highly revered by the local Buddhists and Hindus as a sacred lake. Changu Lake is shrouded in myths and legends. It is said that in ancient times, the Lamas (Buddhist Saints) used to predict the future by observing the lake’s colour. If the water of the lake had a dark tinge, they predicted the future to be dark and gloomy, full of unrest. The faith-healers of Sikkim, popularly known as Jhakhris also visit this lake during Guru Purnima to offer prayers.

A small bridge just at the entrance of the lake will take you to a viewpoint cum cafeteria, from where you can view the complete lake and its surrounding mountains.

In Buddhist traditions, spinning the prayer wheel is as meritorious as chanting mantras.

YAK RIDE

You can trek along the lakeside in deep snow during winter or even take Yak rides along the coast of the lake. The yak is a long-haired bovid found throughout the Himalayan region of south Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau and as far north as Mongolia and Russia. Most yaks are domesticated. The yak may have diverged from cattle at any point between one and five million years ago, and there is some suggestion that it may be more closely related to bison than to the other members of its designated genus. Yaks are heavily built animals with a bulky frame, sturdy legs, and rounded cloven hooves. They have small ears and a wide forehead, with smooth horns that are generally dark in colour. Domesticated yaks have been kept for thousands of years, primarily for their milk, fibre and meat, and as beasts of burden.

We preferred Yak ride. It’s our first experience and we enjoyed the ride although initially the sight of the mighty Yaks with their huge horns was a bit scary.

VILLAGE MARKET

There is a small rustic market before entering the Changu Lake which sells yak cheese, trinkets and local curios to the tourists. You would also get snow boots and gumboots on hire from here. Yak cheese is sold in small pieces tied together by a string like a garland. These pieces are chewed like chewing gums. I borrowed one piece for taste. The flavour and smell are like medium cheddar cheese. I chewed it in my mouth until my jaws started complaining. It’s a good and healthy substitute for chewing gums.

There are few eateries too selling Momos and tea in this area. We had some hot soupy noodles at one of the eateries before leaving Tsomgo for Gangtok.

Surprisingly, there was a wall painting of Che Guevara in one of the walls in the market indicating great popularity of the  Argentine Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader.

PROTECTED AREA PERMIT

Tsomgo lake-Baba Mandir falls in the protected area and hence a protected area permit is required. Tsomgo – Baba Mandir permits are issued by Police Check Post for Domestic Tourist. For foreign tourist, permit is issued by Tourism & Civil Aviation Department and Police check post.

More photos are on Flickr.

Baba Mandir

Baba Mandir is a distinguished sightseeing place of Sikkim. This “mandir” or shrine is dedicated to “Baba” Harbhajan Singh, who was a soldier of the Indian Army. He died near the Nathula Pass in eastern Sikkim, India. Two shrines have been built to show reverence to Baba Harbhajan Singh. The old one has been built at the site of the bunker, where Baba Harbhajan was posted during his tenure in the Indian Army. The new one has been built at close proximity from Tsomgo Lake. It’s located at above 13,000 ft.

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DSC02714We visited the shrine nearer to Tsomgo lake as we planned for a trip to Baba Mandir and Tsomgo lake on Monday, March 17, 2014. Even though, it’s around 18 km from there and we had to cover several stretches of the road which were under Chinese surveillance due to close proximity to Indo-Chinese border.

DSC02716Hoards of devotees visit the shrine of Harbhajan Singh every year.

The shrine features three room structures. There is a large portrait of Baba in the central room, which has been placed with other Sikh Gurus and Hindu deity. At the right of the central room, there is the personal room of Baba.

The room houses all essential household belongings, needed for daily livelihood, starting from clothes, slippers, shoes to a clean sleeping camp bed. Neatly ironed uniform and polished boots are also kept. The bed sheets are reportedly found crumbled each morning and the boots become muddy by evening. There is another small room, which is used as office cum storeroom. The room is filled with unused slippers, water bottles, toothbrushes and other items that are offered to Baba. The salary of Major Harbhajan Singh has not been stopped and he is also granted his annual leave.

DSC02720There is a strong belief that water kept in the shrine of Baba gains healing property and turns into sacred water that can cure all possible ailments. This blessed water is needed to be consumed within 21 day and in this period, no family members of the ailing person is supposed to have non-vegetarian food. It is also believed that the slippers kept in the temple, help to cure gout and other foot problems. Followers, who cannot reach to Baba’s temple, are allowed to send letters to Baba, which are opened by Baba’s associates.

It is believed that Baba Harbhajan Singh guards the international boundary between India and China, over the last three decades and he is accomplishing this task alone. Even the Chinese army also confirms that they have noticed a human figure, guarding the border at night, riding on a horse. It is also said that Baba Harbhajan Singh foretells any dangerous activity on the border through the dreams of the fellow army men and safeguards the force.

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There is Yak Golf course here, which is acknowledged as the highest golf course in the world by the Guinness World Records. It’s located at 13,025 ft!

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Because of heavy fog and difficult road terrain, it’s advised by Indian Army to leave the Baba Temple area by 1:30 p.m. so as to reach Gangtok in safety. So, we returned after a while there, after having some cake and hot coffee. Hot coffee in near zero temperature at 13,000 ft was tasting very delicious.

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While returning, we encountered heavy fogs causing poor visibility. It made the driving quite difficult.

After Baba Mandir and Changu Lake we returned to our hotel in Gangtok worshiping at Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok temples on our way.

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We had hot coffee and local snacks at the cafeteria at Ganesh Tok. It’s really refreshing!

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More photos are on Flickr.