#GoaDiaries: In Search of The Banyan Tree Baba

Late night beach parties. Bikini clad Russians. Cheaper than water alcohol. Yes, I am talking about Goa. But no, its not about those crazy Goa stories which you would have heard and read several times. Its about a baba- The banyan tree baba and his peace garden. Its the same baba who has been referred in the song ‘Babaji ki booti‘ from movie ‘Go Goa Gone’.

One of our friend had told us about a baba situated near the Arambol beach. Not that we were any religious bunch, but what all we had heard about that baba was exciting enough to give him a try. We were told that we had to take some fruit for the baba and in returns he gives a magical booti as prasaad. We were also told that we can have a mud bath at baba’s ashram and umpteen foreigners visit baba’s peace garden.

So the five of us enquired about that baba on the beach and took the way towards him. We were shown a small hill, at some 500 metres distance, covered with thick green cover and told that baba stays on it. The hill was beside a sweet water lake. While some said its a 10-15mins walk to baba, others warned us that it may take an hour. Not the distance, our worry was time. It was already 6 and sun was touching the Arabian sea.

We were at the footsteps of hill and we could see the beach at some distance now. There was not any way visible which could take us to this mystic baba. It was starting to turn dark. As we were about to turn back, three foreigners came and took a way in the hills. Only then, did we realize that there actually was a trek to climb the hill, going through the forest, which may take us to the baba. It wasn’t a laid down trek. Less than a metre in width, it was rocky, muddy, slippery with sweet water lake on one side. And it was all dark. And we had no idea if baba will still be available. Not so apprehended, still we decided to take the road less taken.

The trek was taking us up. It was taking turns every few metres and we could not see anything ahead. Five minutes in the walk, there were just five of us. In the middle of a jungle, walking a path in total darkness, not knowing where it may take us and for how long do we need to continue our walk. One wrong step and it could be the end. Needless to mention, there were no mobile signal either.No practical reason could define why we were still going ahead. But we continued.

Forest trail leading to Babaji (Image courtesy: sulekha.com)

It could have well been a scene from a horror or suspense movie. We were all scared by now. Few foreigners crossed us as they were heading down. And trust me, none of them could help in settling our nerves. The way they were dressed up and their body language, it was only adding to the screenplay of this thriller.

15-20 minutes. We were still walking to meet that baba, with our mobile torches on. Some of us, now wanted to go back. But the others continued to walk. At one point we reached a juction, with two ways heading towards right amd left. There was a board indicating peace garden towards right. We turned and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, in the middle of a jungle, there was this man. With the built of a bouncer, that Russian guy scared off whatsoever the shit was left in us. We asked him the way to baba and he told us to take the other way. It was very much clear now that we were at a wrong place at the wrong time. But we continued to walk.

10-15 mins further. Another junction. But both right and left seems to be bringing us to a dead end. Then we realize, there was an arrow heading right towards peace garden. We could also hear some voices now. And that’s it, we knew that we were that close to our destination. Before we could move further, one of us backed off. Scared, he gave up and started walking back. Being so close and after so much of the efforts, we couldn’t have missed the chance to meet baba and neither  could we allow our friend to go back on that dangerous path alone.

“Come back yaar!” “We have reached our destination.” “You can’t go like this” The remaining four of us were shouting. He had already made his mind. He was gone and we could only hear him refusing to come back. And you really can’t blame him for this, because we all knew that what we were doing was stupidity. But going back alone in pitch darkness was idiocy. And when I add that his cell phone was switch off and he had no torch light, his decision becomes insane. Not to forget that his panic button was on.

The four of us were looking at each other’s face. What to do now? After so much trouble, when our destination was right in front of our eyes, we couldn’t give up. So we shouted and asked him to wait as we were coming back. Meanwhile we decided to just go and rush through our meeting with babaji, expecting/ hoping that he would wait for us. There were some rocks over which we had to move and move carefully because had we lose our balance there, it could mean disaster as a small stream of water (that hill’s natural drainage system) was flowing beneath. Few steps towards left, a turn on the right and we were at our destination.

Have you seen in any of of the movie where a tantrik would be doing some kind of pooja in the middle of a jungle at night. It was something like that. There was fire in the middle and the baba was sitting across it. There was a guy lying on the left side and 2-3 others, probably his chelas. We took our floaters off and stood on the right side of fire. The baba was having a chat with his chelas. If I remember it correctly, he was dressed the way a baba is supposed to be i.e. in a saffron dress. But he was not your ordinary baba. He was speaking Punjabi and using all sorts of cuss words involving mothers and sisters.

We had no idea what to do now. We were just standing trying to figure out what were we doing there. Meanwhile, the baba offered us to have a seat. We politely refused. “Baba ko kabhi na nhi bolte! (No one dares to say no to baba)” came a voice amongst his chelas with an intimidating undertone. We sat on the mattress spread beside the fire. Obviously, we were hell scared. So much that, none of us had the courage to present to the baba the gift we had brought for him. Twice did the baba’s chelas prompted us to offer gift by asking babaji to accept gift from us. We were just sitting, looking at each other’s face with the question that should we move now. Meanwhile, in background, we could hear the voice of our friend, “Where are you guys?” “Are you guys coming back?” But we could not shout back at that moment. I don’t think so it was more than 5 minutes that we spent there. Without uttering any words, we made an exit.

Before we could analyse what was that, we had to find Saurabh. He was not at the place where we had left him. We kept walking and after every few seconds, were yelling his name, but in vain.  “He is not a kid. He must have gone back”- was one set of thoughts, but it was such a dangerous path to walk alone at night without any light. We were obviously, very concerned.

Meanwhile, we reached the beach and tried calling him. His phone was obviously switched off. Where could he go? We kept trying him phone and finally, we could go through the call. He was at the parking lot safe. He then told us how he was standing alone petrified and was in tears when none of us was replying to his calls. It was at that time a foreign couple crossed him and helped him to reach the beach safely. At the end, we all were safe.

This crazy little adventure ended without any harm being done. Or probably, it wasn’t any kind of adventure, just the fear of our minds. In the midst of all lunatic things we did at Goa, this crazy experience will stand apart. But I will have to admit, it was by no means a wise thing to do. There could have been much better ways to celebrate Valentines Day (Yes, it was 14th Feb!) then visiting an unknown baba on top of a hill in the darkness of night.

Keeping all this aside, we then visited the Saturday night market, followed by the famous Curlies shack at Anjuna beach and enjoyed Goa the way it is more traditionally supposed to be enjoyed.

An image of Banyan Tree baba as found through Google

Sikkim- The Unblemished Beauty!

You will have to visit it once, to realize why its called Nye-mae-el. This second smallest and the least populated state in the country has everthing to offer you- the lively city of Gangtok, one of the highest lakes in the world- Gurudongmar Lake, casinos- a rarity in India, the historic Nathu La pass of the Old Silk route, breathtaking landscapes and astonishing waterfalls. But most importantly its the beautiful people of this state, which makes it a must visit for any traveller.

The post can go endless if start giving details of my week long experience in Sikkim during June 2014. I will try to keep it short.

Beautiful, peaceful and they don’t have arranged marriages

The second thing we noticed about this city of Gangtok was cleanliness. Its an aberration to an otherwise filthy image that we have for India and an example for rest of the nation, that a clean city is possible in India. As we entered the city, we were warned by our taxi driver not to smoke in public as it may attract hefty fine of Rs. 5000. The plastic bags are completely banned. And the best part is that these rules are implemented strictly. But the first thing that beheld our attention were the beautiful women of Sikkim. They have this default smile on their faces and I must say, they have amazing fashion sense.

During our stay, we had this habit of having small chit-chats with locals. Like, one of those nights in Gangtok, we stayed in the market a little longer as all the shops were closed down. There were 3-4 policemen who joined us as we were sitting on a bench. For next hour or so, they shared their experiences, about the culture of city, crime scene and also asked our whereabouts. Unlike the image of police we have in other parts of India, they were very polite. One of them was, in fact, NSG trained commander.  We got to know that Sikkim is a very peaceful place, partly due to the fact that with such a small population, a criminal does not have many options to hide. Also, its a zero-corruption state. As I googled, I got to know that it was once on the list of Guinness for being a ‘zero-crime state’.

As we had chats with more people, we also realized that its a very different culture. Like in Sikkim, they do not have this concept of arranged marriages. Its love all. Also there, women are not only safe, but equal too.  You can trust the people of Sikkim. But they are also quite adamant and you can’t argue a lot with them. Like once, we had an argument with our taxi driver as he was not allowing us to stay longer at one of the place. But later on we realized that it was for our own safety sake as we had a long way to travel that day and the skies turn darker very soon in that part of the nation. And yes, like other north-eastern states, its football crazy.

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Welcome Back to the Medieval Age

It was a blessing in disguise. No mobile networks for 2 days!

The journey to the real Sikkim began beyond Gangtok into the higher altitudes. Its a military controlled area and only authorized vehicles are allowed there. You have to take permission a day in advance before going. It was 2 nights and 3 days journey mostly involving travel into the mountains of Himalayas. There were beautiful waterfalls in the route and we took stop at few of them. There were times when we were actually passing in between the waterfalls. 4-5 hours into the drive, the mobile networks disappeared. And trust me, there can not be anything more peaceful in life than this. For next 2 days, we were safe from all those cancer causing rays. No whatsapp or facebook! We learnt that only BSNL network is available in the region that too on alternate days only.

By the time we reached Lachen, our first stop, a small, lazy town, it was already dark.  Stay was already included in package. We were provided with candles and matchsticks as after 7 PM the generators would stop and there would not be any electricity.

The wooden finishing of the hotel only substantiated our belief that we were teleported to medieval age.

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Gurudongmar Lake- Breathtaking, literally!

From Bagdogra, place from where mountains start, its a 4-5 hours drive to Gangtok. From Gangtok, its another 7-8 hours drive to Lachen. And from Lachen, it further takes 5-6 hours to reach Gurudongmar Lake, situated at the height of 17,100 metres, the highest accessible lake in India. Its, actually, second highest, but Cholamu lake, 5 kms from there, is restricted for access for being in a sensitive area near Indo-China border.

First the journey from Lachen to Gurudongmar. We were instructed by our taxi driver to be ready by 4AM in the near freezing temperature. Though, not on time, but leaving by 5AM was an achievement for us. It was about to dawn. Not the best of the roads, and neither did we expect it to be, it was just sufficient for tyres of car to fit in. One wrong move and we would have been experiencing a free fall. Also, hardly, there were any other vehicles visible in route. Sometimes scary, it was adventurous.  The terrain outside was captivating, mountains capped with snow, deep trenches and then there was this sight. Water was flowing few hundred meters below us and there was this mountain on the other side of it. There was vegetation on its slope, but in between it was appearing as if a razor has been used to cut out all the vegetation. The driver informed us that it was the result of 2010 earthquake. One could imagine what kind of landslide would have occurred at that time and it was enough to give goosebumps.

As we moved further, vegetation disappeared and it was all rocky- a vast plain of rocks with only mountain peaks visible. We were told that this whole area remains covered in snow in winters. Since, it was June, there was not much of it, but whatever little snow was there, with sun rays falling on it, it was shining like diamond. We were very near to the Chinese border and the tanks of Indian army were visible. En-route, we took a short break at “World’s Highest Cafe” at 15000 feet. It was run by the military and they even gifted us chocolates.

The car stopped near a temple. We were finally at our destination. The water was cleaner than the mirror. It was reflecting the snow clad mountain peak without any distortion. It was Gurudongmar lake. The driver warned us not to stay for more than 15 minutes as low oxygen level can make it difficult to breath. But our breath was taken away, by the very first sight of this lake. Luckily, there was pleasant sunshine, otherwise the wind was bone-chilling. We tried to manage to stay as long as possible. 45 minutes, out of six, two were already on grounds and while the other two, including me, could barely walk. It was only after an hour’s sleep after coming back to Lachen that I could get rid of the headache. But the hangover of the mesmerizing view has stayed till date.

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Zero Point- Sliding in Snow

We left Lachen for Lachung and again it was dark by the time we reached. And it was raining lightly. A perfect setting to go out and have a walk. There was this small shop run by a lady where we had maggie. You could not have asked for anything better. The next day, again in early morning, we left for the zero point to have some fun in snow. On the way, we took the necessary gears- shoes, gloves, jacket- on rent. We also crossed the valley of flowers, but not being a season, there were not many flowers.

Probably in 3-4 hours we reached the zero point, having a slope of mountain covered with snow. We had to cross a small stream of water to reach that mountain. And then it was like a pig having a mud bath. It took some efforts to reach to the top of the slope, but for coming down, we preferred to just slide. As a result, all our clothes were wet and it was only after we reached back to hotel in Lachung that we stopped shivering.

Same day, we left for Gangtok to complete our North Sikkim tour.

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Nathu La- Welcome to China. International Roaming Charges will Apply

There was just this fence of four wires separating 1.2 billion people on one side, and 1.3 billion on the other. I even tried to shake hands with the Chinese soldier but of course he was not allowed. Though we could not cross the fence, we did manage to get ourselves clicked in China, as window of the building on the side was black and reflecting our images. If that proof wasn’t enough, we also did receive as SMS from Airtel welcoming us to China. Not just on land, there is Chinese intrusion in mobile network too.

Few kilo-meters off route, there is temple of Baba Harbhajan Singh, an army office who had died in 1960s but is considered to be still performing his duty. All army persons in that region have full faith on this. So much is the belief that the government of India also pays salary to Harbhajan Singh. Infact, in Indo-Chinese flag meetings a seat is always reserved for Baba Harjbharan Singh.

We also visited the Tsongma lake en route Nathu La. The lake has its cultural value and its water is considered very sacred. Not comparable to Gurudonmar, it was still a worth visiting place. We got ourselves clicked on a Yak and also enjoyed the momos and chinese near the lake. The food was perfect for a drizzling day.

The whole trip was completed in a day’s time from Gangtok.

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Some win. Some lose. The Casino always Wins

It might not be the best place to visit and though it was my first experience of a casino, I can say that casinos in other part of the country (called Goa!) would be better. But still, it was worth of an experience. We went to Mah-jong , the better of the two casinos in Sikkim, at 11 PM and came back at 5 in the morning, only to visit it again at night. There was a stage where dance performances were taking place and by what I have seen in movies, it was very much closer to a Mumbai dance bar. In the rest of the arena, it was all money!

We had got few chips with our entry passes and we tried our hands at Roulette.  Few of us, in fact, made good amount of money. But we were the small players. There were people who were dealing in 6 digit figures. Few lakhs here and there was not much of their concern, as long as they were having fun. Its these places which makes you realize that no value of money is too big.

Apart from Casino, Gangtok also has places like, Cafe Live n Loud and Lounge 31A, which can compete against any hangout place in Delhi.

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This week long trip made us realized that size always does not matter. Its such a small state but will leave you mesmerise for the whole life. Its very unique and its still very much untouched. If you want to have something more than just a weekend gateway, to experience the nature as it is, to have little adventure and at the same time, do not want to miss the fun part, then Sikkim is the place to visit! No matter why, the Lepchaas, the natives of Sikkim, has named it Nye-mai-el, meaning paradise.

Come Get Blessed Sikkim

P.S.: These many places should ideally be more than enough for a small state like Sikkim. But it does not stop here. You still have Pelling hill station, East sikkim, hot springs, Tibetian Museum, rope-ways, temples, monasteries, trekking! Just “Come, Get Blessed”.