DBF’s Travel Diaries

Hola Mohalla 2013: Jo Bole So Nihal!

Guest Post and Photographs by Priyanka Bhaskar, a DelhiByFoot community member about our first ‘Out-of-Delhi’ Event of 2013 done earlier in March.  Additional pictures by Ramit Mitra, founder of DelhiByFoot and organising leader of this 2-day trip.

Priyanka is a true-blood travel and trekking enthusiast, having completed tough treks like Everest Base Camp (2013), Chadar Trek (Ladkah, 2011) and photo-documenting Alleppey’s famed Snake Boat Race among many regular travels. When she isn’t out exploring India, she sits at her office desk in an IT company in Gurgaon, day-dreaming and planning about the next trip across the length and breadth of India!
Hola Mohalla
Being educated in a Sikh school, I wasn’t a stranger to the Hola Mohalla festival. While studying Sikh history, we had learned that Guru Gobind Singh ji laid the foundation of Khalsa panth to fight Mughals and Rajputs at the same time. In the early years of the 18th century, he started the tradition of Hola Mohalla, a festival to celebrate the warrior-ship of Sikhs. Hola Mohalla is a three-day festival to showcase the bravery and regalia of the religion, which was established with valour as its fundamental principle.  It is a practice that has withstood the test of time for over three centuries with all its colors, moods and heroism.

Finding it on the event list of DelhiByFoot’s ‘out-of-Delhi Events’ gave me a chance to experience the enormity of the event in person. Though it meant skipping the festival of Holi with family, for a more masculine Hola festival, it was worth taking the chance!

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Style Quotient!

A day before Holi on 26th March 2013, the team gathered at Patel Chowk metro station in Delhi to board the Tempo Traveller arranged by DBF on way to the small town of Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab near the foothills of Himachal Pradesh. The incoming reports from the town suggested that huge crowds, upwards of 2.5 million people, are expected to visit the place during Hola this year, and finding accommodation in the place had been a real challenge for the organizers. But, we realized that Ramit, the founder of DelhiByFoot had skillfully organized a smooth landing and comfortable stay for all of us in the small town.

Amidst the constant chant of ‘Guru-baani’, the ‘too-much-to-handle-small-town’ traffic and golden lights of beautifully lit Gurudwaras, we reached our destination around 5am in the morning. “Sambhal ke rehna aap log, yahaan rang bhi bohat chaltaa hai aur bhang bhi bohat chaltii hai”, with this (pleasant!) warning from our driver, we got off the bus to a homely, clean and cozy guest house. After a couple of hours rest, we were all set to ‘chase the light’ before it transformed into harsh afternoon light. That was the first photography ‘mantra’ from our Photography coach, professional photo-journalist and documentary maker, Prashanth Vishwanathan.

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We caught breakfast in one of the langars (Community Lunch-houses), a hearty serving of Pakodas and Jalebis with a perfect cup of milky chai to raise the spirits.
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Devotees carry freshly cooked ‘Guru Ka Prasaad’ for serving at langars

The ‘mela’ was essentially devoid of ‘shutter bug tourists’ and was mostly flocked by locals of nearby villages and foreign tourists . The lanes and bylanes of the town were marked with arrays of make shift shops selling trinkets, colorful chakriis, dholaks (drums), bubble making loops, children’s plastic toys and other typical ‘Village Mela’ kind of knick-knacks.

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The regular appearance of Nihangs with their massive, colorful turbans got the entire group go shutter-happy after them. The fancy turbans boasting of several hundred meters of cloth and kilos of weight wrapped around their heads were incredible!

After walking around for a couple of hours, it was clear that we were in for a raw, rustic and earthy ‘mela’ experience, which was far removed from the urban fare that we city buffs were used to at the Dilli Haat Melas & Fairs! The constant chant of Shabads, the hustle and bustle of vehicles marking influx of devotees and chaotic Brownian movement of villagers on the narrow streets – it all set the scene for two days of hyper activity. Ramit, in typical ‘DBF-walk style’ kept up a constant stream of stories, anecdotes and historical information flowing about the place, the festival and its passage over time, while Prashanth added his dose of photography tips. And we were loving every moment of it!

We had a quick indoor session to brush up our basics and learn tips-and-tricks from Prashanth. He showcased his shots from that morning to support the theory, and a group member commented, “We too traversed the same streets and roads yet we didn’t see all this that you have captured”. Needless to say, we were in for some good learning, qualifying the trip to be an ‘Outdoor on-ground photo workshop’. We even found many inter-village sports event to practice what we had learnt that morning. Kabaddi and wrestling tournaments were being held in the town, and well, those were some action packed events! We practiced to our hearts’ content, capturing motion and emotion at the same time, ensuring to be on the right side of the light and being cautious at the same time to not fall into the ring!!

Later that afternoon, we witnessed the Gatka (mock warfare encounters) competitions. Even the audience was equipped with assorted varieties of arms, let alone the participants- spears, ‘desi’ guns and swords to name a few. We felt like we had been tele-ported back in time. Ramit had fortunately enough, got us special ‘Press’ access on the stage to witness the event from close quarters. There were numerous such moments when I would miss a beat and forget to click.

Gatka or Mock Martial Fights
Gatka Competitions of various Martial Fighting styles
Not for a moment did any fight seem to be a mock battle of strength or agility, each fight was done with so much vigour and fierceness!
Not for a moment did any fight seem to be a mock battle of strength or agility, each fight was done with so much vigour and fierce power!

The events continued till late evening, giving us a chance to shoot in the changing outdoor’s light. Our mentor, Prashanth continuously reminded us the lesson of using correct white-balance as afternoon gave way to evening which turned to night.Hola Mohalla

The weapons of Gatka, swords, sticks, spears, small daggers and many more.
The weapons of Gatka competitions, swords, sticks, spears, small daggers and many more.

Day2:  Lazy start to the day. The grand finale of the event was scheduled for the later half of the day. Ramit had managed to get our group invited to the house of one of the locals of Anandpur Sahib who as a gracious host had invited us for tea and then presented each of us with a traditional ‘saffron’ colored cotton scarf which meant that most of us took advantage of the morning’s free time to get some turban tying done. We were now a team of ‘Rajnikath-for-Bhagat-Singh’, ‘almost-convincing-Sukhdev’ and a ‘genuinely-turbaned-Sikhnee’ in the group.

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Shri Narender Singh ji giving us a dose of his gracious hospitality at his home. And then the turban-tying fun began!

We ambled at comfortable pace, walking past the campsites of Nihangs, dodging the few rare occasions of Holi colors of ‘Gulaal’ being applied and braving the sudden unexpected rains.

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Hola Mohalla

Members of our Gang pose with some of the Nihangs at their camps
Members of our Gang pose with some of the Nihangs at their camps

It was time for yet another photography lesson before the mega horse-riding events – the lesson of panning. Panning essentially is an art to make moving objects look static and static background look as if it is zooming past. So there we were, all of us standing in a queue beside the lane, and not just focusing the camera on every passerby but also moving it at the speed they were moving. Well, what we were unable to master with gently moving humans, we were hoping to attempt with lightning speed horses. Pipe dreams!

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Best panning shot I could get during our practice sessions!

The procession of participants of the grand finale was to start soon and there was a palpable sense of excited anticipation among the people on the streets. Although  spirits were a bit dampened by the unseasonal rain that delayed the whole event by almost an hour, however all gloom was lifted as soon as the procession hit the road! We ran hither and thither to keep pace with the bustling energy of the procession. The mock battles, the warrior dances, the rhythm of the Dhols, the war-cries of ‘Jo bole so nihaal’ and breath-taking stunts – to capture all at once was challenging for the best of us.

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We followed the procession for about half a Km, and then we fell out of the parade to secure our place in the actual venue for the grand finale of the event.
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The procession had people walking, dancing, riding horses and even camels, all bedecked in battle-finery and war regalia!
Gatka-style stunts
Gatka-style stunts, as we walked with the grand procession. Age was evidently no bar, as chubby youngsters aged 7-10 yrs and seasoned gray-haired veterans held their ground equally.

Soon the hordes of Nihangs riding on their neighing horses, led by their dera heads arrived at the venue alongwith flashy cars and modified Bullet Bikes. The much awaited equestrian sports began. Crowds lined up on both side of the alley in which the tent pegging event was to happen. And then came the array of mounted horsemen, riding at full gallop, using lances(spears) to scoop up grass bundles from the ground. Even with my camera set in a continuous shooting mode at an interval of 2 seconds, the horse was at the entry point in one shot and out of the frame in the next! Many photo enthusiasts, including myself, were dragged away and saved just in time from being trampled under the furiously driven horses’ hooves as we lost all sense of speed and time behind the cameras! I think I was right in abandoning the dream of panning shots.

DSC_4134Hola Mohalla DelhiByFootHola Mohalla DelhiByFootThen came the turn for bare back horse riding – one rider and one horse; one rider, two horses and hands up in the air; and finally hold your breath, since it was one rider, three horses and hands up in the air! Although I had seen the photos of this event many times, it was no match for the rush of adrenaline when experienced in person!!  After going click-click for a few rounds , and almost getting trampled by the oncoming fast horses, as I kept trying to get good shots, I gave up and decided to give my camera rest and take it all in with my eyes!

DelhiByFoot Hola Mohalla
Yes, almost like this I also had rush out of the path of the fast horses to avoid being hit by them as they galloped past us!
Rider on two horses
Rider on two horses balances his 2 feet on the backs of 2 horses
a thrill which is beyond words....when a Nihang rider balances his 2 feet on the backs of 2 horses, whilst they run at top speed...
The adrenaline thrill which is beyond words! When Nihang riders balance their two feet on the backs of three horses, whilst they run at unbelievable speeds

A gala finish to a gala event. The event left the whooshing sound in our heads for quite some time afterwards. The small town was enveloped in peace and quiet again, but our memories were well-preserved in our hearts and cameras as we departed for Delhi. Tired but overwhelmed with the experiences, we seemingly returned to present-day reality from a time-travel back into history.

“Pujo Aaschhey”- Cultural heritage explorations in Delhi’s ‘Mini Bengal’

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Courtesy: Vaishali Ahuja

Guest Post and Text by Vaishali AhujaAdditional pictures with respective credits wherever applicable is given.

It was my 3rd walk with DelhiByFoot and indeed just as pleasant as the other ones. The previous walks I participated in were more of historical heritage events while this one was a experience of the rich cultural heritage of the melting pot that Delhi is.

The event notice mentioned we will be witnessing the age-old traditions of the Bengali community as they prepare for their grandest festival, Durga Pujo in Chittaranjan Park (popularly called CR Park), which is home to the largest concentration of Bengali residents in Delhi NCR. The opportunity to experience the stories and shoot pictures of artisans making the Durga Pratima (Durga Idols), eating traditional foods and unique shopping as activities in our 3-hr walk was what had piqued my interest. So 8am on a Sunday morning, I hauled myself and my husband off for a exploration ofMini Bengal,’ as most Delhizens refer to CR Park.

I must say that the preparations by DelhiByFoot (DBF) were no less than the preparations for the Durga Pujo celebrations. Although most of us, the participants were eager to go and check out the artistry of the ‘Kumhars’ (Idol Makers) right away, DBF began the morning with a small round of orientation of the locality and its history. A short walk later through the streets of CR Park where we saw many workmen busy in erecting mammoth ‘Pandals’ (Tents set up for the actual 5-day pujo) in big open grounds, we took a break. Here we were served with a scrumptious Bengali breakfast in smartly packed boxes which I really enjoyed and the timing was perfect since by now all the participants were feeling the strong pangs of hunger!

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RadhaBallavi (Puri with filling of Urad Daal), Aloo Dum and Bengali Sweets, the quintessential Sondesh and Kheerkodom. Pure Vegetarian Bliss!

Over breakfast we were introduced to our ‘Story-teller’ of the day, Mrs. Indrani Gupta who herself is a Bengali and has lived in this area for many years and also has been part of one of Delhi’s oldest Bengali community Pujo celebrations at Kashmiri Gate. She carried with her intricate details about the festival, essentially the how, where, when and why of everything related to Durga Pujo. Having witnessed the preparations of this festival since her early childhood she was also able to share the deviations of how things have changed over time in the fast paced world, where people are hard pressed to take out time for all the rituals and traditions. She pointed out alterations that have now come about, be it the setting up of the pandals to the way the idols are created to how the 5 days celebrations are done inside the pandals.

After breakfast was over we headed towards the Shiv Mandir (a large temple complex in the area) where the idol makers or the ‘Kumhars’ temporarily live for 3-4 months as they prepare the clay idols. The moment we stepped in the artisan’s compound, the buzz of activity was palpable.

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The workshop of the Artisans (Kumhars) Pic Credits: Suvendu Das

Indrani Didi, as we all addressed her, was truly engaging in her story telling technique and I thoroughly enjoyed her stories which were embellished with the different mythological and practical philosophies related to the origin of Durga Puja celebrations. One being of how Shri Ram prayed to Goddess Durga for her blessings before he began his attack against Ravana, which actually helped me figure out how closely the story of the legendary battle of Lord Rama and Ravana  ending on Dussehra, matches the culmination of Durga Pujo with ‘Visarjan’ (immersion) of the Durga Idol on the same day when rest of North Indians celebrate Dussehra. While the other one was that during this time of year, Goddess Durga killed the Mahishasur, the Buffalo Demon, who started to destroy the world after getting powers of invincibility from Lord Brahma. Hindus worship all forms of the Divine Goddess Shakti by observing fast during the 9 days of Navratra.

The idol makers do not use many tools while making these idols. Just the brush and the required glazing clays do enough over the base skeleton of bamboo and hay.
Vegetable dye-based, water-soluble colours are applied using brushes and then a bit of glazing is enough to create the masterpieces of clay!

The idol makers do not use any fancy tools while making these idols. Bare hands create a base skeleton of bamboo, hay, hemp and clay. Multiple layers of fine clay is used to sculpt the features and painstaking effort goes in making these clay idols in separate stages over many weeks. The most primitive philosophy of making these idols of clay is that they come from and go back to the Earth after ‘Visarjan’ (Immersion of idol in water)

A 3-pic collage shows the It was a great experience shooting them, knowing how the idols are made in stages, how they are beautified
A 3-pic collage by Ramit, co-founder of DelhiByFoot and my husband Mohit shows how the basic skeleton of the idol gets its multiple layers, and the idol’s finer features and expressions become easily visible as each stage progresses.
Sheer experience of many years of idol making gives the senior-most Kumhar, usually the Head Kumhar, the privilege the Head Kumhar creates the faces of the idols. of
Sheer experience of many years of idol making gives the senior-most Kumhar (Idol maker), usually the Head craftsman, the privilege of carving the idol’s faces and heads; and their devotion shows in the benevolent and beatific expression on the Divine Mother’s face!

Bengalis celebrate these 9 days as the arrival of Goddess Durga to visit her parental house from her heavenly abode of Kailash where Lord Shiva resides. She descends on Earth with her children, Goddess Saraswati and Lakshmi and the Gods Ganesh and Kartik to live amidst the people. Before these 9 days, devotees pray to her through songs that welcome her imminent arrival and on the 10th day, Dashami, they bid adieu to her with farewell prayers at the Visarjan ( idol is immersed in any water body).

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I was amazed with the details of the features of the idol, that too done on base coat of simple ‘mitti’ (clay). After the remaining layer of polishing clay is smeared, followed by painting, enameling and ornamentation, it will be a lovely sight!
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Beheaded ‘Mahisha’ (literally Buffalo in Sanskrit) the form in which the mighty ‘Asura’ (Demon) changed into before he was finally killed by the Goddess. This I believe signifies the winning of battle by Good over Evil.

DelhiByFoot ended the walk at the local CR Park bazaars which sell all things Bengali- from daily groceries to special things which are considered necessary for the Puja, for example traditional clothing attire and cotton sarees. Me and my husband had been enjoying listening and clicking pictures so much that we hardly realised how soon the 3 hours had elapsed! Some of us bade adieu while others stayed for a luncheon of Bengali delicacies. I left the place wondering how beautiful this area would soon be, as in the second week of October, thousands will come to worship the beautiful idols inside aesthetically themed and designed Durga Pujo Pandals and the people will all be enjoying the festive fervor.

The Story-teller at the market. Pic Courtesy: Papiya Banerjee
DBF’s Story-teller explaining a finer point at the market. Pic Credits: Papiya Banerjee

I really like the concept of such walks where they have specialized people who can narrate you the stories with their experiences and references. I had a great experience, learning more about my countrymen of a different state and I will be back surely this year during the Durga Pujo to actually experience the festivities first hand!  Kudos to DelhiByFoot for organizing this wonderful walk and sharing such a rich aspect of Delhi with the lucky few!

Did the blog make you all interested to be part of such an unique cultural heritage experience, then join us here.

Immortalising a mere mix of clay – Ganpati Bappa in the making!

Ganpati Bappa Morya… Mangalmurti Morya…

The Lord Ganpati or Ganeshji as he is fondly called by his devout followers, comes to our homes once annually.  Lord Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, is the Hindu God of wisdom and prosperity and is traditionally invoked at the beginning of any new venture or new travel.

Today on Ganesh Chaturthi, the Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Ganeshji in His present form with the head of an elephant we take you on an unique photographic journey from the streets of Delhi. Experience virtually the journey undertaken by beautifully decorated and artistic clay Ganesha models made by skilled artisans of Delhi on their way to the ‘Prayer rooms’ of well decorated homes and specially erected temporary tented structures ‘Mandaps and Pandals’ in many areas of Delhi.

Ganesh Idols
Ganesh Idols ready for journey to our homes, depict Lord Ganesh in various poses. Size of statues vary from half-a-feet to over 70+ feet in height. Although in Delhi, artisans of Yamuna Pushta area near Akshardham usually make idols of max. 8-10 feet

Puran Singh who is from Rajasthan, spends almost 5 months in Delhi starting from early-August when he begins making idols of Lord Ganesha and of various Gods like Saraswati, Lakshmi, Vishwakarma. He says that it is the western states of India, Maharashtra and Gujarat where the Ganesh Idols are built in massive sizes going beyond the 70+ feet mark. In Delhi as he tells us, the largest he has seen is 15 feet made by one of his competitors 2 years back. This year his personal best is just a little over 8 feet. But he hopes one day he will also make a 20 footer!!! Only if a Ganesh Puja Committee agency can pay him to do so, he says sadly.

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HOW IT ALL BEGINS: Plaster of Paris, riverbed soil and shredded coconut coir are mixed together with water to make a semi-liquid paste

The paste is then poured in rubber moulds which the Idol artists have saved from their previous year’s creations so as to get the structure with finer details of ornaments and postures in which that particular idol will be. Once the idols start drying up, the rubber moulds can be removed and the idol is left to be dried in the sun.

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WHY GOD MADE RUBBER TREES: Puran Singh shows off a rubber mould from the outside while his grandson on right shows another mould inside-out, where you see intricate patterns of idol decorations like jewellery and facial features etc.

That was the easy part!!

Powerless Gods: The idols do not have hands since the moulds do not support such a complete kind of creating idols. So it is all done by hand.
EVEN THE GODS ARE POWERLESS TODAY: The idols do not have hands since the moulds do not support such a complete creation of the idols. Protruding features of any idol like Ganesha’s trunk and the hands are all made out of separate moulds and then each hand/trunk joined painstakingly by hand.
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SAATHI HAATH BADHANA: My hands joined with Your Hands. Will you give me some of your power? Few of your blessings?

This is followed by another round of drying out the idols in the open sun.

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AND WE GET THE SUN TAN: The dried out idols are sand-papered to smoothen out the surfaces and the cracks which formed while being dried are filled with the same paste. Once it is dry again, a solution of distemper paint and water-soluble adhesive is applied all over the idols to firm up the idol.

Color coding of the different parts of the Lord’s idol begins as you see on the right-hand picture above, done by the head of artisans, in this case Puran Singh. His family of 10 members is working with him for the past 4 weeks on churning out hundreds of small and big Ganesha idols.

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WHEN GODS AND MEN STOOD SHOULDER TO SHOULDER: The Gods Wait For Their Journey at a DTC Bus Stand
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WORK-IN-PROGRESS: Ganesh Idols having being colored with ‘body-colored’ paint
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The hollow idols help keep the weight low. Puran’s grandson plays with one of the rubber moulds…
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READYING FOR THE COLOURS: Puran’s 2 daughters help in brushing away bits of accidentally formed dust globules/dried out paint/distemper solution
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PYAAR SE RANG DEENI….Puran’s daughter adds color, love and devotion
And on the 4th day of creation God said 'Let there be Light and Glitter'
And on the 4th day of creation God said ‘LET THERE BE LIGHT & GLITTER’ !!!
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START THEM YOUNG: The ‘Gems’ are stuck by the grandson of Puran. Please do not cry child labour! This was fun for the tiny tot as he let his randomness beautify the idols even more!
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THE ‘VIGHNAHARTAA” LOVES HIS SWEETS: Modaks, a traditional Marathi droplet-shaped sweet, made of rice powder covering stuffed with coconut and jaggery mixture is very popular in West India. But we in Delhi say it with Besan or Motichoor ke Ladoo!!
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The Lord’s Mobile Connection: Yes the mob number is the identifier of who has booked this particular Idol. Simple. WHAT AN IDEA SIRJI!!!
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The Lord’s Message to us all: LIFE IS MORE THAN JUST A RACE!!!

Historical Note:  Regular pujas and 10 to 21 days long Ganesh Mahotsav celebrations were started during Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaja, the great Maratha ruler. to promote culture and nationalism, the festival was revived by Lokmanya Tilak (a freedom fighter) to spread the message of freedom struggle and to defy the British who had banned public assemblies. The festival gave the Indians a feeling of unity and revived their patriotic spirit and faith. This public festival formed the background for political leaders who delivered speeches to inspire people against the Western rule.

Note: Ganesh Chaturthi and worshipping of the idols at homes and Pandals across the city/country continue for five, seven, or ten days. After 10 days the idols are immersed in water tanks/ sources of water like rivers/ seas. We hope to bring to you how Delhi gives a warm-sendoff to the ‘Lambodar’ also.

Till then cheers and Happy Ganesh Mahotsav.

May Lord Ganesh shower you with success in all your endeavours.

World Photography Day: When Trams Criss-crossed Old Delhi

Today is World Photography Day and while looking through my collection of pics clicked by me or collated over the years from various sources, this pic of Delhi from the LIFE Magazine Archives stopped me.

So let me see if I can transport you back in time, to just over a 100 years ago, in the streets of Shajahanabad!

Imagine a ride on the roads of Delhi in an electric, train-like, rickety, single carriage vehicle, which runs so slowly, yet surely on its circuit of iron tracks that you could alight or board the tram at any given point of time, if you had a certain level of minimum fitness! Imagine you gaze at the Red Fort passing by, at horse-drawn carts (Tongas) going their way making the characteristic ‘clip-clop’ noise carrying men and purdah-clad women with their families. The trees lining the central verge of Chandni Chowk pass by your window and Gurudwara Sis Ganj comes into view. The smells and sights of the Jalebis and Kachori-Aloo Sabzee permeates your senses. You are hard-pressed to find any motorised version of transport. And a drop in electricity voltage may just stop the tramcar in its tracks, that important appointment be damned!!! You get down and quickly order a plate of Samosas, and just at that moment the Tramcar Conductor rings the bell to let all know that the electricity is back. You rush to get onboard, the Samosa-vendor trailing you to receive his 1 or 2 Annas for the 2 Samosas and walks along the tram car chatting with you as he brings out the requisite paisas/annas to return back to you…and the Tram rolls on towards the Fatehpuri Masjid and you settle down for the slow-rocking journey to your ultimate destination, the Sadar Bazar.

The year was 1908 and the first Electric Trams were introduced by the English for the population of Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, Lal Kuan, Fatehpuri Masjid and Sadar Bazar areas, basically Delhi-6 (Pin Code 110006)

Tram in Delhi _Delhi By Foot

Did you know that Delhi had a robust Electric Tram service in Old Delhi till as late as 1963?
Pic courtesy: Life Magazine Arhives

Kolkata was the first city to get its own Tram Service, as the English were based at Fort Williams and Calcutta was the capital of the Empire. Bombay also had its Tram service before Delhi and both Calcutta and Bombay saw use of Horse-drawn Trams. But Delhi graduated directly to an electric version!!

For almost 55 yrs the trams continued in service of Dilliwallas on 15Kms of track around Delhi6 areas but were ultimately discontinued in the early 1960s due to rising costs of maintenance and to make way for faster means of transportation like motorised vehicles…

I look forward to such a leisurely Tram journey on the streets of Shajahanabad…Do you?

Dr Rajendra Prasad in a horse-drawn cart, but the road has the iron tracks on the road for the Tram Services of Old Delhi
Dr Rajendra Prasad in a horse-drawn cart, but the road has the iron tracks on the road for the Tram Services of Old Delhi

An evening with the Ghosts of Mehrauli, Delhi

Mehrauli Ghost Walks
The full moon behind a cloudy haze and thick foliage gave a taste of what was in store for our Ghosts and Shadows of Delhi Walk

What do you say when the usual calm that you feel at a place turns to stillness of an eerie kind and the air itself seems unwelcoming, whispering us to leave?!

It was 10PM on Saturday night, and we were sauntering in the woods around Mehrauli, just beyond the Qutub Minar Complex. The setting had the perfect ingredients of a horror movie; trees (many barren), tombstones, darkness except a faint glimmer cast by the hazy moon, heaviness in the air, hushed conversations of the group of more than 30 walkers (men, women and children) that are cut off abruptly now and then by the hoot of an owl, the cracked, shrill shriek of a peacock or the distant howls of dogs. But it wasn’t just the setting, there was more to it…

The man leading the group, my team-mate Asif, suddenly asked everybody to take a breather, and started walking towards the back of the group, where I was bringing up the rear. Moments back I had slipped and fallen and sprained my ankle, and was now trailing the group by a few yards because of my limp.

Inside a tomb we gathered
Inside a tomb we gathered for a moment….the group feeling secure in the safety of numbers…while Asif recounts the stories of Metcalfe and his follies…
Interesting anecdotes of long-forgotten souls kept the participants company...narrated by our resident Story-teller Asif...
Interesting anecdotes of long-forgotten souls kept the participants company…narrated by our resident story-teller Asif…

Asif came towards me quietly and held me by my arm to support my limping frame and then said the words which I had been dreading since we began our night walk at 8 pm. He said, “Ramit bhaiya, aaj kuch hai yahaan par, I can feel it.” And I respect what he says about things beyond our worldly comprehension. A student of history, he has also spent and honed his learning about the mystic arts, Sufis, Tantriks and Fakirs.

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The grave next to Sultan Ghiasudin Balban’s Tomb….near where I slipped and fell.

I had been getting that feeling for quite some time too. And it grew stronger when I slipped and hurt my foot. I have probably walked those paths a thousand times both during the day and night. We, Asif and me, know it like the back of our hands and can almost find our way through the jungles blindfolded. It is one of our favourite hideouts in the city – we come here whenever we feel the need for some calm and spiritual peace away from the madding crowds.

And yet I slipped on the paths best known to me inside the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. I was puzzled. And it had started bothering Asif too for the past 10 mins since I fell.

As our walk was a ‘Ghostly Night and Shadows Walk’, naturally some of the participants asked me when I fell if ‘I had felt someone push me’!! I had laughed the matter off and just continued with our walk as it definitely was not the case. No ghost had pushed me!

But the fall made me think. I didn’t want to scare any of the participants. But Asif’s words “Ramit bhaiya, aaj kuch hai yahaan par, I can feel it” made me even more alert and a wee bit wary of continuing the walk any further.

A few lights inside the park provided us those rare moments of respite from the eerie, all-encompassing, still darkness...
A few lights inside the park provided us those rare moments of respite from the eerie, all-encompassing, still darkness…

Me and Asif both also agreed that from the time when we entered the forest area around 8:30PM, the usually breezy environs of the park, seemed to have suddenly become dead. The air hung heavy. Not a leaf moved. We had never ever felt such an oppressive ambience inside the Mehrauli Archaelogical Park. Ever. Rain or Shine. Winter or Summer.

Was it that the souls of the hundreds who have been buried here, including the Sultans like Balban were asking us to leave? Were these signs to tell us, the walk leaders of this quest for Ghosts, that we had overstayed our welcome for the evening?

We thought so, and therefore without alarming our participants we called it a day. We walked all of us out leaving those long-lost tales of ghosts of Dilli behind us…with a silent prayer on our lips thanking the good Djinns and Spirits that all our participants were feeling fine even though Asif and I felt totally drained out by the end of the walk. Not physically. But mentally.

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Mehrauli Ghost Walks

Shab-E-Baraat Celebrations in Dilli…

Across the country today one of the most auspicious of Muslim festivals is being celebrated with a whole night of offering special prayers and reciting of the Quran, religious fervour and rituals and ‘Dua’ for ‘divine blessings’. Tonight is the auspicious 15th night of Shabaan, also called “Shab-e-Baraat”, that the Prophet Muhammad taught his disciples to be the beginning of a New year in the spiritual realm, when the affairs of human beings are arranged in the Divine Presence and it is believed that the destinies of all men are written for the coming year taking into account their past deeds.

On this exalted night, the Muslims pray and seek forgiveness for sins of the past 12 months and visit the graves of their relatives and offer flowers, light lamps at/on the graves and seek God’s blessings for the departed souls of their forefathers.

On this intervening night of 24th/25th June, the major and minor Dargahs of Delhi are the best places to feel and experience the unique celebrations of the night of Shab-E-Baraat. The Dargahs of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli, Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya and Dargah-e-Matka Peer in central Delhi and Khwaja Chirag-e-Dehlvi near Malviya Nagar even have their streets being illuminated with lights and candles.

SHAB-e-BARAAT
Walking among the tombs on the night of Shab-e-Baraat is like floating on a carpet of stars.

Flowers, incense sticks, oil-lamps(Diyas) are offered at the graves of the deceased family members and Sufi Saints. Many unmarked graves and graves of long-forgotten people are also cleaned and flowers and oil lamps are offered by the community of people living nearby, as a mark of respect to the long-departed souls.

SHAB-e-BARAAT

One of the holiest and most significant nights of the Islamic calendar, next only to Lailatul Qadir (27th night of Ramadaan) in auspiciousness, the night of “Shab-e-Baraat” is observed 15 days before the start of the holy month of Ramadaan/Ramazaan. The night is known as Laylatul Bara’ah or Lay-latun Nisf-eMin Shaban in the rest of the Arab world, while the Indian sub-continent we popularly know its as the night of “Shab-e-Baraat”.

You will see lamps(Diyas) glowing inside almost all houses around these Dargahs as most of the houses have been built over graves, especially in Nizamuddin Dargah Basti.
You will see lamps(Diyas) glowing inside almost all houses around these Dargahs as most of the houses have been built over graves, especially in Nizamuddin Dargah Basti.
 pattering feet giggling away trying to keep the flames alive, walking among the tombs on the night of Shab E Barat is like floating on a carpet of stars.
Pattering feet and children giggling away while they keep trying to keep the flames alive! A religious fervour thats a spectacle in itself.

There are displays of colorful fireworks and lighting at the Dargahs and sweets like halwa-paratha, sweet-rice pulao and other mithais are distributed as part of acts of charity performed for the poor and needy.

Halwa Paratha, a treat in the bylanes around the Dargahs make for a fitting end to our exploration last year.
Halwa-Paratha, a treat in the bylanes around the Dargahs made for a fitting end to our exploration last year.

Happy Summer Vacations kids…but how happy are they?

Brain drain in the heat. Couch Potato, spending hours on the latest Video Game or the TV screen. Dreaded by parents. Boring summer holidays. Call it what you may but it adds up to the same thing: Young brains slowing down during the long, lazy days of summer, more so as the lessening of school routines cause kids to backslide, forgetting valuable reading and learning skills. On the other hand school summer projects handed out by teachers presumably to keep the young mind engaged productively, often turn into ‘chores’ for the parents to push their children to complete before school re-opens.

But reflect for a moment to the time a decade or two ago, when we were in school, we all had the most fun during summer holidays as we looked forward to those days away from school, of well-planned travels to distant vacation spots or by visiting the home-states/cities where our parents were from, to renew the family ties with grandparents, cousins, uncles & aunts. We planned picnics, visits to museums, played Ludo indoors at a friend’s place, but rushed out for some outdoorsy kind of games and fun as the sun went down in the evening, continuing to play long after the streetlights had switched on. We helped our mothers in making pickles, preserves, jams & sherbets from seasonal fruits. We created scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine cuttings about our favourite Animal/Bird/City/India or carefully exchanged stamps with other philately-minded children. Reading and exchanging of comics also ranked high on our list of ‘To Dos’.

Parents were lenient during summer holidays, and rightly so, unless you had the all-important Medical & Engineering ‘Entrance’ or ‘Board’ exam preparations to contend with! But majority of those years and school holidays was simple, whole-hearted, joyful fun! Some of us also had to do school projects and read up chapters of textbooks which would come upon us in the months of monsoon, July & August. But all this and more was done under the careful watch of our parents

When was the last time you had such fun with the children of your family?

Bunch of happy kids at an Art Workshop

So what has changed now?

Parents, we ask you, do you have time to give your children as once our parents gave to us during those two months of May & June? We still do a mandatory week/10-day vacation but that’s the best we accomplish in trying to connect with our children since our hectic office schedules demand us to be back in our ‘office cubicles’ within that week. What has changed fundamentally is that we have handed over that carefree time we had spent with our parents, in favour of things that may or may not be liked by our children, may or may not be useful for our children and which definitely are not wholesome, fun and family-oriented.

One can see scores of children being sent for theatre workshops, tennis and basketball coaching academies and dance or music classes. Summers are also when children have the leeway to pick up skills in abstruse activities like playing Golf, horse-riding and Polo, learning an esoteric new language, or karate classes and the list can go on and on. Definitely these classes expose the children to a variety of experiences which can lead to greater avenues of taking it up as a serious passion and hobby in the future by the child. Those conducting these classes also teach with lots of passion, creativity and make it an amazing, eye-opening experience for kids to enjoy, who in turn have real fun while they learn something new. Development of a skill, enhancement of a child’s personality and definitely using the long, lean summer days judiciously in learning something useful are the three most important reasons why we push children into these kinds of classes and activities. I mean those were the reasons when I was in school!

When was the last time you took your children to the city jungles or the city zoo for a day-long picnic?

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But, my point is where are you in the whole process, where is your involvement as a parent? Are you just going to land up for the final ‘show/presentation of what your child has learnt in his summer vacation and pictures of which you can proudly show to family and friends, or share it on the third ‘F’ nowadays, Facebook? Does the learning translate simply into a ‘packaged result’ like a theatre production by the group of children in the acting school, an exhibition of paintings or crafts made out of waste, a musical evening, or maybe a 500-word story written in French-the new language you made your child learn or an exhibition match of cricket teams in the academy. Is your role as parents limited to the above ‘objective’ being met, like any corporate project deadline? Spending the money to enroll the child in such activities, was that the ‘responsibility’ you had towards the child? Was that the objective of this year’s summer vacation? Will your child dread the next vacations, as he/she doesn’t know what new thing you wish he/she could pick up the next year? Maybe next year your child can try playing Squash, or Archery, making pottery or the latest fad of using pre-cut kits to make ‘Angry Birds’ toys! But the question still does not change. Where are you in the whole scheme of things, this year or the year after or the next vacation?

Have we as parents not abdicated the responsibilities of a parent by ‘outsourcing’ the ‘Summer Family Time’? The catch phrase I use here is ‘Summer Family Time’, and we are not referring to going to the mall on weekends to watch the latest animation movie like ‘The Croods’, or eating ‘Family/Kids Meals’ at KFC or McDonalds.

Today experts on education, child psychology and family studies recommend making minor changes to the summer schedule you chalk out for your children that will bring back those charming moments that we still treasure from our days of school. Experts say a family outdoor field trip, museum visit, board games that can be played by the family as a team, visiting the local library or bookstore or a simple story-telling session with ‘Dadi/Nani’, the grandparents can make the summer vacations more than an objective-oriented ‘class/academy’ or a hurriedly put-together summer project.

Experts suggest parents to slip in easy concepts like math exercises during card games, correct vocabulary while playing words games like scrabble, or a visit to the Children’s Doll Museum to teach diversity of clothes & cultures within and outside of India. A drive on roads of Delhi can be used to teach concepts of geographical and topographical importance. Mothers may explain the importance of herbs, plants & nutritional values of foods as they cook in the kitchens. Small mental math like how much will be the cost of petrol, down to the last decimal if a full tank-up is done, or quiz the child on the news in the newspapers to check his comprehension of written text will go a long way in improving their cognitive skills.

Delhi Outdoors, Heritage & Gardens

Just go out!!!

We personally believe parents can simply go out of their houses, AC cars, malls and into the open spaces that any city has to offer. Delhi has many historical sites within easy reach to bring out kids and parents alike, who can together learn about the city’s glorious past, quiz each other on geographical and historical facts and figures and get rewarded by each other. Pack a bag of goodies to eat and go out for a picnic in the beautiful parks of Delhi. Teach your kids the importance of civic duties like disposing the garbage responsibly which we created during the picnic. Learn photography yourself, while teach children the same basic of concepts drawing straight lines/curves to draw masterpieces.

So this summer will you take out the time to do this and more, recalling the times when we ourselves were kids once?

WISH YOU ALL A VERY HAPPY FAMILY SUMMER VACATION!!!

Chhadeeyon ka Mela

Guest Post by Ankita Goel

Delhi is vast. It is a vibrant city, always on the move, thousands of people flocking to it daily. A mega-city surrounded by ‘bustling-at-their-seams’ suburbs. And amidst all the chaos, the teeming millions and the thousands visiting the city daily, the events creating political upheavals in our capital city we tend to miss events of a very unique nature, events that for centuries have held true to their traditions and faith.

Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (r.a.)
Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (r.a.)

One such special event takes place in Dilli every year yet is not known to many, except by the residents of the labyrinthine maze of Mehrauli, while the rest of the city does not even hear or read any news about it. Not one, not two, but for three days the event graces the oldest village of Delhi as we know it, but the city doesn’t pause to take a moment and give a glance to what is happening. Sad. But a fact.

We at DBF have been a regular for many years to this unique event, but this year that few of our avid followers and friends also joined us to enjoy the experience of this unique mela, popularly called ‘Chhadeeyon ka Mela’ alternatively spelt ‘Chhadiyon ka Mela’. (Chhadee or Chhadi literally meaning in Hindi a stick in this case a ‘walking stick’)

A tradition which started almost 700 years ago, this event heralds the beginning of the annual ‘Urs’ festival (anniversary of attaining union with the Almighty) at the Dargah Ajmer Sharif of Gharīb Nawāz Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. Like all Islamic occasions, the actual date of the ‘Urs’ is decided on the actual sighting of the moon yet about 15-20 days before the ‘Urs’, fakirs and devotees from all over India start assembling at the Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (r.a.)  in Mehrauli.

The traditional belief is that a visit to Dargah Ajmer Sharif is considered incomplete if the devotee has not visited the Dargah of Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (r.a.) before going to Ajmer. Hence fakirs, soofis and devotees from all over the country start pouring into this Dargah at Mehrauli. They arrive on foot, by cycles or by other means of transport. The assembly starts at a small park near ‘Gandhak ki Baoli’ also known as the Tikona Park or the ‘Chhadiyon ka Mela’ Park. As the number of fakirs and devotees increases, small make-shift camps sprawl all over the neighbourhood of Mehrauli. These people assemble for about 2-3 days and on the 3rd day’s evening, the procession normally starts on foot for Ajmer. Yes, a distance of almost 400Kms from Delhi to Ajmer, all on foot! Normally a few members of the Dargah management also travel with them. This procession is a visual delight as all the members carry an ‘Alam’ which is a small Chhadi (walking stick) carrying a Sufi flag on the top. Hence the name of the Mela.

Halwa & Paratha at Chhadiyon Ka Mela, Mehrauli
Halwa & Paratha at Chhadiyon Ka Mela, Mehrauli

The entire atmosphere is festive, with stalls springing up across the area selling goodies to eat like ‘Halwa-Parantha’, ‘Lassi & Sherbet’. It is an interesting sight where you see the fakirs dressed up in all kinds of attires. We came across one who was wearing multiple iron rings in his neck. Interestingly, you also come across some women fakirs in this mela.

During their stay at Mehrauli and before the procession begins, the fakirs often do ‘Mehfil-e-Sama’ in the evenings, where devotional songs, qawwalis, nazms etc are sung. At times, there are multiple mehfils happenings in the same vicinity.

Wandering bards & fakirs congregate and sing through the nights
Wandering bards & fakirs congregate and sing through the nights

The local resident-fakirs of Delhi who normally stay at other Chisti Silsila/order Dargahs in Delhi also join these travellers. The ‘Sajjad Nasheen’ (Head) of the Mehrauli Dargah blesses all of them and ID cards are issued to each and every fakir.

This year the dates of the 3-day celebration are from 25th – 27th April, but it is the ‘khaadims’ and the senior priests of the Mehrauli Dargah who stipulate when the procession may begin, either on 27th April midday or may even start early on 28th April morning.

PS: We will keep updating new pictures on each of these 3 days, so keep watching this space!

Mehrauli - Chhadiyon Ka Mela
Mehrauli – Chhadiyon Ka Mela

Celebrating Womanhood: Kanjake Puja then and now in Delhi

Guest Post & Pic by Shweta Luthra                 Additional Pic by Priyanka Bhaskar

Kanjake Prashaad Thaali
My mother’s Puja Thali this year in Canada

My childhood memories of Kanjake Puja (celebrated on Ashtmi or Navami Puja during Navratras as per beliefs of a particular family) are of getting up early morning to the smell of Suji being roasted in desi ghee for making Halwa. It used to be one of the very few days when my 2 brothers and I would wake up early, take a shower and get all ready before 8 am on a school holiday.

I remember the morning was full of action. My mother doing a million things in the kitchen at the same time- making halwa, boiling Kala-chaana, heating oil for frying pooris. My elder brother would be sent off to invite minor girls or the Kanjakes to our homes. Kanjakes are minor girls who are seen as ‘swaroop’ or ‘incarnations’ of Ma Vaishno Devi and thus the Puja rituals are associated with worshipping the little girls as the ‘Devi Incarnate’. The Kanjakes or girls from around the neighbourhood are invited home and a ritualistic washing of their feet, applying tilak, garlanding them and after worshipping them, giving away gifts and Prashaad is the usual routine of the Kanjake Puja.

My father would get the house mandir ready. There will be Mata ke Bhajan playing on the tape-recorder (there were no CD-players in that era!) in the background. My grandmother doing her routine morning pooja (7 times Hanuman Chalisa, reading Sukhmani Saheb Jap) at home, which was always followed by a visit to the temple and gurudwara. As Punjabis we had never been taught to differentiate between Hindu and Sikh traditions

Kanjake, for us kids had another significance. It marked the end of 8 days of fasting and abstinence from non-vegetarian food. At that age, those 8 days of foregoing even our favourite egg omelette sprinkled liberally with onions & tomatoes seemed like an eternity! And not a day of the Navratris would pass by without my mother and grandmother having to answer each of the three of us queries of how many more days before we could eat normal food (read that as chicken, eggs and fish)!

Well, things haven’t changed much since then. We still celebrate the day with its trademark Kanjake Prashaad- Chhole, Poori and Halwa. I still play my favourite bhajans in the morning. It’s still a very happy day.

But some things have changed because of our new lifestyles in a urban city like Delhi. As a working woman, it has become difficult for me to manage all the rituals and thus I have cut down on the gamut of the activities involved. But the parts we loved then, I still do follow very rigorously and the special food of the day, the Kanjake Prashaad is a must-do for me! Alhough we get the prashaad ready, due to lack of time in the mornings we don’t invite the Kanjakes. We instead give away the prashaad and small gifts to the people who help us in our community and day-to-day life, like the local laundry/washerman bhaiya, or the didi who helps cook at my home or the lady that picks up the garbage etc.

Another change is that earlier we used to abstain from onions and garlic along with all types of non-vegetarian food during Navratras. But now since we spend most of our day in our offices, in meetings, travelling at odd hours out of the city on work and more, we have compromised on this to some extent. We for example don’t eat non-vegetarian foods, but don’t mind eating food that has the essential Indian garnishing of onion and garlic.

And bestest of all changes nowadays is the Special Navratra Feasts available in various restaurants. Be it the corner Food joint or a trendy chain of restaurants in malls, during these 8-9 days a variety of ‘Vrat Bhojan’ or ‘fasting foods’ are available widely. While traditionally it used to be Kuttu ke aate ki poori, potato curry and paneer. Now you get Kachche Kele ki subzi (Curry made of unripe Banana), Kadhi, different types of kheer, Khatte vrat wale chawal ki khichdi and what not! And all made with mouth-watering spices and recipes that just do not make you miss the onion/garlic or the non-vegetarian. Another funny thing is that for the last couple of years, it is my better half who has been keeping the Navratra fasts on all the 8 days, while I gorge on all the feasts at restaurants!

For me these Navratra rituals are some of the ties to my childhood. For me the joy of celebrating Kanjake lies in revisiting childhood memories by doing some of the many rituals and practices that my mother and grandmother used to do! By celebrating the girl child, by paying our respects to the ‘Goddess Shakti’ and by ‘initiating’ my Bengali better-half into some basic Punjabi culture, I feel I am still keeping my traditions alive. After all, I might have forgotten the religious aspects but I most certainly haven’t forgotten the happiness this day brings.

Let me share my easy-peasy-working-woman’s recipe for the Prashaad. It is a really simple and easy one that takes very less effort and time to get some steaming hot Halwa, Channa and Poori.

Halwa:

1 cup sooji

1 cup sugar

4 cups water

Roast Suji in desi ghee or vegetable oil (for the calorie conscious!) till its brown. Then add sugar and water while stirring. Bring it to a boil and then cook it well on low flame.

Chhole:

Soak kala chana overnight. In the morning boil till it i tender. In a Kadhai put 2 spoons of oil. When the oil heats up add half a teaspoon jeera. When jeera starts crackling, add little salt, lal mirch, dhania powder and haldi. Then add boiled chana without water. Cook for 5 minutes till its completely dry.

To serve to Kanjake and do the Puja in your home mandir, put 2 poories, a little bit of halwa and chhole. Keep some money and a chocolate handy as a gift, to give to the little girls that you can find in your family and your neighbourhood!

Happy Navratras & Kanjake Puja!

Kanjake Prashaad