Leisure & Travel

Leisure & Travel

Equal Education for All Odyssey (contd.)

EducationWorld’s special correspondent
Srinidhi Raghavendra is on a five-month, 25,000 km motorcycle odyssey to highlight the importance of equal access to quality education. In January he traversed the Hindi heartland states of north India

Educationworld’s special correspondent Srinidhi Raghavendra together with Kishore Patwardhan under the aegis of Borderless Bikers, Bangalore is on a South Asian Motorcycle Odyssey to spread the message that the people of India and neighbouring nations need to demand Equal Quality Education for All. The duo has traversed 15,500 km during the past four months vrooming through India (22 states), Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, and were on the Bangladesh border when this despatch was filed (March). The expedition is being supported by EducationWorld; TVS Motor Company, manufacturers of India’s first fully indigenous motorcycle; Intel, the world’s leading computer chip manufacturer, and Cramster, Bangalore, India’s sole motorcycle panniers manufacturer.

Given below is an account of their journey through the Hindi heartland states of north India.

January 2-5, Delhi. The first day of our stay in Delhi was spent on routine administrative work including leaving our 150cc TVS Apache motor cycles for servicing at CPL TVS and filling up visa application forms for Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand etc. More importantly we were informed by Intel’s Ajit Singh that we could collect the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) from their office in Delhi. Intel, the transnational technology giant (annual sales: Rs.135,000 crore) wanted us to test their yet-to-be-launched UMPC in the field and provide feedback on modifications if any, for Indian conditions. The Intel team in Bangalore and Delhi were confident that this PC would fulfill all our communication technology needs during the tour.

As I opened the package and examined the UMPC, I was thrilled to bits. This compact 9"x5"x1" mobile computer offers all the features of a fully loaded desktop PC with a 60 GB hard disk which can store several thousand hi-resolution digital pictures, and ample text data. The UMPC features a built-in finger print security, stylus pen, web camera, stereo speakers, microphone, wireless, bluetooth and LAN networking capabilities, and a geographical positioning system in addition to several useful accessories including a compact foldable keyboard, mouse and a host of other connectivity options. UMPC also incorporates a unique handwriting recognition software program which can read matter written with the stylus pen and convert it into text. Even bad handwriting such as mine is read accurately. A wonderful gadget indeed for an individual on the move.

For three days until January 5, we were obliged to stay put in Delhi arguing with the obstinate diplomats of the Myanmar embassy and Pakistan high commission who rejected our visa applications on flimsy grounds. "You can visit Myanmar only by air. Road entry from Indian side is not possible," pronounced the visa officer at the Myanmar embassy. Despite the widely proclaimed Indo-Pak bonhomie, Pakistan high commission officials were equally unhelpful. "Even if you have a letter of invitation from Intel, Islamabad, we will take at least six months to process the visa. Moreover we issue tourist visas only to those who have blood relatives in Pakistan. So please don’t waste your time," said the visa officer. Therefore we were forced to recast our itinerary and cut it short to just over four months, restricting it to five countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh).

January 6, Delhi-Kurukshetra via Panipat. We hit the road at 8.30 a.m heading towards the Grand Trunk Road, perhaps the oldest highway in the country. Our first halt was the historic town of Kurukshetra, where the epic battle of the Mahabharatha was reportedly fought, about 210 km from Delhi. Way back in 1993 as a college student I had cycled down the same road towards Ladakh. Since then the road and infrastructure conditions have improved phenomenally. Unfortunately the traffic is unruly with truck and bus drivers racing down the highway with little consideration for smaller vehicles.

We reached the famous battleground of Panipat at noon and proceeded to Kala Aamb, a park built to commemorate the three historic battles which were fought there including the first, where Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodhi (1526) to found the Mughal dynasty. The vast memorial park is well landscaped with green spaces, ponds and elegant monuments. But unfortunately due to lack of publicity, there are hardly any visitors. Getting back on the highway, we wheeled into Kurukshetra and were welcomed by the president of the local Rotary Club and its members who comfortably lodged us in Hotel Heritage. After freshening up we proceeded to view the important landmarks of this mythological city. Sannihit Sarovar and Brahma Sarovar are two large man-made water tanks. The former is believed to be the place where Duryodhana hid at the end of the Mahabharata war and the latter, reputedly Asia’s largest man-made water tank, sprawls over 3 sq km.

January 7. The Krishna Museum in Kurukshetra houses a collection of historic and modern artefacts, antiques, paintings and costumes associated with Lord Krishna. Records in the museum trace references to Lord Krishna to the Harappan civilisation (5,000 B.C), and somewhat surprisingly, the museum is sparkling clean and well maintained.

After a quick tour of the Krishna Museum, we headed towards Ludhiana, making it there before nightfall. Since we didn’t have any hosting arrangements in this industrial city, we were looking for a safe and cheap hotel when we encountered the affable and cheerful Davinder Nagi, a bhangra artist based in Punjab’s wealthiest city (pop.3.5 million). Davinder insisted that we follow his car to his house where he lodged us in an annexe. Emphatic that "in Punjab, our culture is to make our guests comfortable," he laid out a sumptuous Punjabi dinner for us.

January 8. Following our mission, we visited Ryan International School, which has an enrollment of 1,450 students instructed by 85 teachers.

During a brainstorming session on the importance of Equal Education for All, the students of Ryan International made several innovative suggestions about ways and means to improve class retention averages. We showed the staff and students some photographs taken during our journey of poor, out-of-school and tribal children on the UMPC. When we suggested that batches of slum children could be taught in Ryan International for two-three hours per week, they enthusiastically supported the idea. "We have an annual interaction event with underprivileged children every Christmas. But now I am more than convinced that we should upgrade it to once a fortnight. We will launch a programme and inform you about it," promised Jayashree Gupta, principal of the school.

January 9, ludhiana-Amritsar and Wagah. Starting from Ludhiana at 11 a.m we had a fairly uneventful and swift ride on the busy but smooth NH 1 to Amritsar via Jalandhar. Since there was time till nightfall, we headed for Wagah, the famous border town between India and Pakistan, accompanied by Ashish Rana, an official of the well-known NGO Seva Bharati. Ashish explained the belligerent flag hoisting and gates closure ceremonies performed every day by Indian and Pakistani soldiers before enthralled citizens of both countries.

Based in Attari, 2 km from Wagah, Rana is working with the large number of youth addicted to hard drugs coming from across the border. According to Rana the massive fencing on the border doesn’t deter people from the other side who throw packets containing drugs and sometimes even small arms over the fence to the Indian side, where customers waiting to receive them throw back money. Rana and Seva Bharati are doing commendable work rehabilitating drug addicts.

January 10. In our itinerary we had budgeted a whole day to sightseeing in Amritsar (pop.1.2 million), holy city of the Sikhs and India’s largest producer of milk, butter and ghee. The main attractions here are the Harmandir Sahib aka Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh. The former, built by Sikh gurus, is sited within a fort-like enclosure and has a large water tank in the centre of which the temple is built. Contiguous to the shrine is Jallianwala Bagh, site of the heinous massacre in 1919 of over 2,000 peaceful Indian protestors, agitating for the right to freedom of assembly, by the infamous General Dyer and his troops.

We also took in the Durgyana Mandir, a glorious replica of the Harmandir Sahib, with a small temple dedicated to Lord Rama and goddess Durga.

Shashank Sharma, another Seva Bharati volunteer invited us to visit their projects at Batala, a small town 54 km from Amritsar. Achal, a village about 30 km from Batala has an ancient temple dedicated to Karthikeyan, son of celestial couple Shiva and Parvathi. Walking us through the temple, our host recounted its history highlighting its brief period of disturbance during the Punjab terrorism days. Batala is an important Sikh pilgrimage site, where we visited the Panth Sahib, a gurudwara built in 1544 in memory of Guru Nanak’s wife.

January 11, Batala. We proceeded from Batala to Pathankot and at Lakhanpur, crossed the border and entered the state of Jammu & Kashmir (pop. 10 million). On the way to the town of Jammu, we traversed several long bridges (more than 1 km length) spanning wide rivers. But ominously not a single one had flowing water. A long summer is imminent in Jammu (pop. 260,000) where we reached at 6.30 p.m.

January 12, Jammu. Our day started early at 8.00 a.m with a tour of Jammu which serves as the administrative capital of J&K in winter. We made a beeline for the sprawling Raghunath Mandir built by Raja Gulab Singh, former ruler of Jammu and Kashmir where there is ultra-tight security as it has been the target of militant attacks on several occasions.

Following a tour of the bustling lanes of the city and a visit to the Dogra Heritage Park built in memory of Dogra General Zorawar Singh, we hit the road for Katra at the base of Trikuta hills, the starting point of the 17 km trek to the revered shrine of Vaishnodevi. The mountain roads are excellent and our Apaches handled well even on sharp curves.

January 13. We started early as we had an arduous (17 km) uphill trek to Vaishnodevi. After registering ourselves we moved towards the Banganga checkpost, the first of a series of security points en route to the shrine, which attracts over 7 million pilgrims annually. Starting up the cobbled path at about 8.00 a.m, we reached the shrine at 1.30 p.m.

Although this wasn’t my first visit to Vaishnodevi, it was the first time I had an afternoon darshan, and the choti gupha or the original narrow cave passage through which a stream runs, was open to visitors. In this shrine alms and donations are not solicited from piligrims. On the contrary every pilgrim is given a silver coin as a memento. We also visited the Bhairon shrine, 3 km away and accessible via a steep uphill footpath.

For well-heeled visitors to Vaishnodevi who can’t make the trek, there are other options. Deccan Aviation runs a regular helicopter service from Katra to Sanjichat, about 3 km from the shrine (Rs.4,000 return) and J&K tourism operates an electric three-wheeler from the half way point to the Bhavan (Rs.100 per person). Apart from these there are traditional modes of transport — pony rides and palanquins driven by human power.

January 14, Katra. The short 110 km ride from Katra covering Dera Baba Banda, Baba Dhansar, Baba Jitto and Resai was packed with so much discovery and adventure that we were totally exhausted — and exhilarated —by the end of the day. Due to the chilly morning conditions we could start from Katra only at about 10 a.m. Our first stop was at the Baba Jitto shrine (27 km), a scenic picnic-cum-pilgrimage spot constructed in memory of Jitto Baba, a legendary local hero who fought against British rule.

Next we proceeded to Baba Dhansar, a river-side cave temple deep within a valley, amid thick forest about 1,000 ft below road level. Once in the valley, the outside world melts away and one feels transported to heaven. Adjacent to the temple is a crystal clear waterfall dropping into a shimmering pool, creating an ethereal ambience.

Retracing our steps, we took a 10 km detour to visit Dera Baba Banda, a gurudwara built in honour of Sikh guru Banda Bahadur on the banks of river Chenab. The 10 km stretch from Katra-Ransoo (Shiv Khori) to Dera Baba Banda offers sprawling vistas of wooded hills, snow capped mountains, vast flood plains, azure rivers, green fields and quaint hamlets.

January 15, Jammu via Akhnoor. Rising early we commenced our trek to the Shiv Khori caves at 8.00 a.m. This 1.5 km deep cave passageway was discovered by local shepherds in 1965, but the J&K government started taking interest in developing the cave shrine only in 1998, and subsequently it’s fast gaining popularity. According to statistics of J&K tourism, over 20,000 people visited Shiv Khori last year (2006). Located on the edge of a massive cliff, the cave enshrines a striking 4 ft tall stalagmite formation in the shape of a shiva linga.

January 16, Chandigarh via Hoshiarpur. Returning to Jammu, we set out at 8 a.m for Lakhanpur where we took a detour and hit the road to Hoshiarpur which took us to Chandigarh. The ride out of Jammu was a painful jostle through thick traffic and frequent jams because the road is being converted into a four-lane highway.

We took a detour at Pathankot and headed up the hilly road to Hoshiarpur, reaching Chandigarh late in the evening (9.00 p.m). Fortunately Dr. Dhirendra, a friend of Sunil Mitter (Ludhiana) was waiting for us at the Sukhna Lake Club, Chandigarh for dinner.

January 17, Chandigarh-Delhi. We had to reach Delhi by 2 p.m the next day so as to catch Ajit Singh of Intel, for our UMPC’s internet compatability. Keeping this deadline in mind we left Chandigarh at 7.30 a.m, speeding on the highway and reaching Delhi at about 3.30 p.m.

January 18-24, Delhi. In the national capital our first priority was to acquire a road permit to travel across Myanmar to Thailand, and further upto Singapore and return the same way. But the embassy officials of the three countries hesitated to issue visas, because according to them, road entry on the Myanmar India side has been prohibited for a long time. Our interaction with the high commissions of Thailand and Singapore was more fruitful, with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) even offering to sponsor our travel in the city state. It was STB which suggested that we obtain a clearance letter from the Union ministry of external affairs to enter Myanmar. But moving files in MEA is more difficult than moving mountains, and hence after running from pillar to post in the MEA, we threw in the towel.

Adopting an alternative stratagem on January 25, we made enquiries at the Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh embassies about the possibility of travelling in their countries on our Indian registered motorcycles. To our pleasant surprise officials of these embassies were very courteous, and assured us that there would be no problems about entering their countries. Enthused, we re-charted our itinerary resolving to head towards Lucknow and Gorakhpur from where we would enter Nepal at the Sanauli-Bhairava border crossing.

January 25, Haridwar. Starting at 8.30 a.m we took the Delhi-Ghaziabad-Haridwar road battling through choking traffic and densely populated parts of old Delhi. The 35 km stretch from Delhi to Ghaziabad is classified a national highway, but the traffic on this stretch is worse than inner city traffic in Bangalore, putting life and limb at risk. Proceeding to Meerut, (pop.1.6 million) a town famous for communal riots and illegal arms trade, our progress was slow and we had several narrow shaves as vehicles of all descriptions, shapes and speeds zig zagged across the road from all directions.

January 26, Haridwar-Neelkanth-Rishikesh. Republic Day was one of the happiest days of our tour. We rode along the banks of the sacred Ganges as it rushed towards the plains, creating rapids and eddies in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. In the evening we witnessed the ethereal ganga aarati at Paramarth Ashram, Rishikesh, amidst hypnotic chanting of Vedic hymns and rapped with students of the Paramarth Gurukul who are committed to the study and promotion of Indian culture, peace and knowledge worldwide.

Our first stop was at the majestic Daksheshwar Mahadev temple where Lord Shiva’s first wife Parvati allegedly jumped into the sacrificial altar, after her father King Daksha made derogatory remarks about her husband. Proceeding to Rishikesh, reputedly the world’s yoga capital, we stopped at the Vivekananda park where a large image of Lord Shiva towers against the horizon and can be seen from any corner of Haridwar.

As we entered Rishikesh we were directed to Muni Ki Reti on the banks of the Ganges where the water is cleaner and better than at Haridwar and also runs faster. The area is dotted with temples, medieval and contemporary. Our journey took us on the Ram Jhula suspension bridge across the river. This swaying suspension bridge is open to automotive two wheelers. Riding across was a thrilling experience.

Once across the bridge we headed towards the Neelkanth Mahadev temple 27 km from Rishikesh. The road passes through the thick jungle of the Corbett National Park noted for sightings of bears, leopards and tigers. Like most other temples in the Himalayas, Neelkanth Mahadev attracts thousands of people. But shops and commercial establishments are ubiquitous right around the temple leaving only a narrow, difficult passage for entry.

We retraced our ride to Rishikesh and arrived at the Swarg Ashram at about 5.00 p.m and stopped for tea. Here we had our first glimpse of the famed Rudraksha tree. We rode onto the Parmarth Ashram where preparations were underway for the evening’s ganga aarati. Every evening this traditional lamp-lighting ritual is staged in a grand manner with the ashram’s students chanting Vedic hymns and singing songs in praise of the life-giving Ganges. Moreover unlike Haridwar organisers take pains to ensure that every visitor gets an opportunity to perform the aarati, a truly moving experience and guaranteed to strike a deep chord in every Indian breast.

After the aarati we visited the Gurukul (school) of Paramarth ashram which has an enrollment of 400 students aged nine-17 who are provided free education, board and lodging. Intensive learning of Sanskrit and Indian culture studies apart, the students also study mainstream subjects to write the class X and XII exams of the Uttarakhand state board. The ashram spends about Rs.1,850 per student per month towards tuition, food and residential expenses. Students and teachers showed great interest in the idea of Equal Education for All, with some vowing to return to their villages to teach the deprived and disadvantaged. It was inspiring to witness the enthusiasm and nationalism these children exhibited. It made us more hopeful about the future of this country, endowed with the world’s most short-changed, but still cheerful children.

January 27-28, Haridwar-Lucknow. As per plan we started our next leg at 8.00 a.m and took the Najibabad road which snakes over the river and past the hilltop Chandi Devi temple, skirting the fringes of Corbett National Park.

Gunning our TVS Apache mobikes, we entered India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (pop. 166 million) and immediately experienced a sudden change of environment. Uttarakhand is sparsely populated, with smooth, wide roads and scenic beauty — poles apart from overpopulated, polluted UP with dusty, potholed roads. As we entered Najibabad town, the chaos, disorder and anarchic road conditions heavily impacted us. Oncoming vehicles are driven as if with the deliberate purpose of mowing down anyone who comes in the way. It was perhaps the most traumatic riding experience of our 55 day journey.

The Najibabad-Moradabad road has no trace of asphalt or concrete. Only long stretches of red mud and rock. Battling the cold and thick fog, we reached Shah Jahanpur at about 11.00 p.m and spent the night curled up in our sleeping bags on string cots on the highway.

January 28, Shah Jahanpur-Lucknow. The day started ominously. It was a cold and foggy morning when before sunrise we started towards Lucknow. So thick was the fog on the open highway, that it was impossible to proceed. We took shelter inside the guardroom of a petrol bunk. But with the fog showing no signs of lifting even after three hours, we resumed riding towards Lucknow. After some time Kishore fell back and thinking it would be best to follow a moderately fast truck for better lighting and visibility, I moved behind a truck and was riding a steady speed of 50 kmph.

Suddenly without any warning another truck overtook me and cut sharply in front of me, forcing me to slam brakes. The next thing I knew I was being dragged along the road with my bike. Fortunately there wasn’t a truck behind me, otherwise it would have been curtains down for me. A kind villager came running and helped me up with my bike. Muddy, bruised, aching arms and legs, I took stock of the damage. There was a cut of one inch diameter on my left knee. Luckily my padded riding jacket had saved my arm and shoulder and the Cramster panniers saved me by bearing most of the impact, as I dragged along the highway. The gear lever on my bike had gotten bent making it difficult to change gears but I somehow managed to ride. As we rode ahead we witnessed the bloody carnage that’s routine on UP’s highways — trucks, buses and tractors with their badly mangled metallic remains strewn along the edges of the highway. I had been lucky.

Fortunately the fog started clearing and sunrays were illuminating the road. We proceeded ahead and reached Kamlapur, a town 50 km en route to Lucknow. Espying an ancient temple, I suggested we stop and take a closer look. Surprisingly Kishore agreed and we wheeled into the temple complex through large wooden doors, pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the Sanskrit Vidyapeeth temple and several other heritage buildings inside the complex.

As we parked our bikes we were accosted by a group of curious students of the Sanskrit Vidyapeeth. Being a residential school the principal was on call, though it was a Sunday. "This is a 116-year-old building and our Vidyapeeth is about 112 years old. Over 250,000 children have been educated here during the past century and currently 450 students are enrolled here," said Sudhir Sharma principal of the school.

January 29, Lucknow. Our first task of the day was to leave our bikes for service at Speed TVS. With the help of Rajesh Rewatkar, manager of TVS in Uttar Pradesh, we chalked out a new itinerary avoiding Gorakhpur which had been placed under police curfew. Rajesh advised us to enter Nepal through Basti and cross the Sanauli-Bhairava border there instead of Birganj-Raxaul border.

While our iron steeds were being serviced and mended, we set out to explore the cultural city of Lucknow, (pop. 2.5 million). High on our list was the Bada Imambara, one of the oldest monuments of the city and a massive palace with unique architectural accomplishments. The main hall on the ground floor is the mosque with exquisite calligraphic motifs. On the next level is the Bhul Bhulaian, a labyrinthine maze of secret passages and 489 doorways. Another interesting feature of the Imambara is the Bholia Well with a secret chamber between two levels of water in which members of the royal family would hide during enemy incursions. Emerging from the Bada Imambara we were accosted by a cheerful cycle rickshaw driver who insisted on showing us a Lucknow Chikan factory gratis. This intricate hand embroidery is extensively used by couture designers to embellish sarees, kurtas, table cloths etc.

The Art Gallery is housed in an impressive colonial building but displays only about a dozen large canvases essayed by Nawabs and former rulers of Lucknow and an equal number of miniatures. Freelance guides are on call to explain the unique features of each painting if paid a negotiable fee. The tourism department could provide an explanatory plaque next to each painting to facilitate viewing for visitors who prefer to ignore the guides. The Clock tower is a striking landmark of the city, but requires proper maintenance to be converted into a tourist draw, if only the government wishes to do something. But in this Hindi heartland state, tourism development is only an afterthought. From the clock tower the Chota Imambara is just about 100 metres away and preparations for Moharram were in full swing. Therefore we could not explore the monument although we were permitted to visit the ornate bathing chambers of royalty. As promised our bikes were ready and good as new, when we returned to the TVS garage to take delivery.

January 30, Lucknow-Basti. Starting from Lucknow at 9.30 a.m we set out on the Lucknow-Ayodhya-Basti road. As expected, we observed that hardly anybody follows road traffic rules and regulations. Every motorist jumped red lights and when we respected them, we were abused for blocking traffic. Lucknow is notorious for law breakers and nobody bothers about the traffic police, who seem lost in their nonchalant world of paan chewing, smoking or sipping tea in local tea shops.

Reaching Ayodhya at tea-time (4 p.m), we visited the controversial Ram Janam Bhumi temple, which is more heavily guarded than the India-Pakistan border at Wagah. The security guards even asked us to remove our jackets, as they suspected the shoulder and elbow pads might contain weapons. In Ayodhya I again saw the ugly, extortive face of Hinduism. Everyone in the small temple town is on the make. From touts who offer guidance, to temples collecting donations in the name of Lord Rama, it’s an all-out assault. There are over 3,000 ancient temples here, but we didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm to view them.

Chastened by the accident two days ago, we pressed ahead slowly with great care and reached Basti at 8.30 p.m. Hotel Pratap hadn’t bothered to do our bookings, and when we reached, they scrambled to give us a room. Since none of the ordinary rooms were available we were accommodated in a deluxe room priced Rs.950 per night, and way beyond our budget. Assuming that TVS would pay for our accommodation since they had booked the room, we were rudely shocked when presented the bill by the hotel. This was a great set-back as we were travelling out of the country next day.