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After 22 years, India mulling resuming sea route option for Haj



Haj via Sea Route

Mumbai, April 14 : Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on Friday said the Centre is “actively considering” a plan to resume — after 22 years — the use of the Arabian Sea route to ferry Haj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and consultations with the Shipping Ministry are already on.

He said the “revolutionary and pilgrim-friendly decision” of sea travel will cut down travel expenses by nearly half compared with air fares. The use of the sea route between Mumbai and Jeddah for Haj was discontinued in 1995.

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“A high-level committee, formed by the government to frame the Haj Policy 2018 as per the Supreme Court’s 2012 order, is exploring the issue for sending pilgrims via the sea route to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia,” the Minister of State for Minority Affairs said at a training programme at the Haj House here.

The committee will soon submit its report to the government.

At present, Haj pilgrims travel by air from 21 points across the country.

The minister said another advantage was that ships nowadays are modern and well equipped to ferry 4,000 to 5,000 persons at one go.

“They can cover the 2,300-odd nautical miles between Mumbai and Jeddah in just two-three days. Earlier, ships used to take 12 to 15 days to cover this distance,” he said.

He said the new Haj policy is aimed at making the entire pilgrimage process easier and transparent. Facilities for pilgrims will be the focus of the new policy.

In 2016, as many as 99,903 pilgrims went to Jeddah for Haj through the Haj Committee of India, besides nearly 36,000 persons who went through private tour operators.

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In 2017, a total of 1,70,025 persons will go for Haj from India, including 1,25,025 through the Haj Committee and 45,000 others through private operators.

This year, he said, 129,196 applications were received online.

The Ministry of Minority Affairs along with other agencies has started preparations for the biggest annual pilgrimage very early in coordination with various agencies, he added. The aim is to provide world class facilities to Haj pilgrims.

With an increase of 34,005 in India’s annual Haj quota by host country Saudi Arabia, announced last year, all Indian states will benefit for this year’s pilgrimage, Naqvi said.

“The decision was taken during the signing of a bilateral annual Haj agreement between the two countries at Jeddah on January 11. It is the biggest increase in the Haj quota for India after many years,” the Minister said.

More than 500 trainers from different states are participating in the three-day training programme that deals with various dos and don’ts to be adhered to during the pilgrimage. They are enlightened about transport, accommodation and laws in Saudi Arabia, among other things.

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Officials from the Haj Committee of India, Saudi Arabia Consulate, BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation, Saudi Airlines, Air India, customs and immigration departments and doctors are involved in the endeavour.

These trainers will further train prospective pilgrims at different camps across the country.


Delhi Ring Railway to soon see steam-hauled service to attract tourists

Two options are being considered: A round trip or a hop-on-hop-off ticket.



Steam locomotives will be chugging along on all hill railways across the country — besides charting out a new course on the Delhi Ring Railway — as the Railways pushes the idea of reviving the glory of its steam heritage.

With the successful operation of a steam-hauled train on the Palanpur-Jogindernagar section of Kangra Valley Railway, all five hill railways now have steam loco services to attract tourists.

Kangra Valley Railway, which is on the tentative list of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites, witnessed the revived steam loco operation recently after more than 20 years. The regular steam loco operation is expected to boost tourism in Himachal Pradesh.

While Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and Nilgiri Mountain Railway have regular steam locos services, the Kalka-Shimla Railway and Matheran Hill Railway are equipped to conduct chartered services on tourist demand.

But the big thrust will be seen in the capital’s long-neglected — and once-popular — Ring Railway, that has fallen by the wayside as the city expanded rapidly.

“It is a big revival of steam locomotives in Indian Railways, and our aim is to have regular steam loco operations in all hill railways — and also in the long-awaited Delhi Ring Railway route,” said a senior Railway Ministry official involved with rail heritage.

With the advent of diesel and electric locomotives, steam engines were phased out in 1995 by the Railways.

Ring Rail Delhi

Though there was a move to run a steam locomotive on the Delhi Ring Railway during the Commonwealth Games in 2010, this did not materialise for various reasons.

However, the state-run transporter is now actively working on reviving the service to showcase its heritage, bring back the romance of steam engines and promote tourism. The task has been assigned to Northern Railway.

The existing 34 km-long ring railway, which runs parallel to the Ring Road, passes through several prominent places of Delhi like Chanakyapuri, Safdarjung and Sarojini Nagar and is expected to attract large numbers of tourists and rail enthusiasts interested in steam locos.

As per the plan, the train, comprising four heritage coaches with a steam locomotive, would start from Safdarjung station and travel to Anand Vihar, Old Yamuna Bridge, Old Delhi, New Delhi and Nizamuddin station before returning to Safdarjung.

Delhi Ring Rail

Tourists will be able to visit the Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, National Rail Museum, the historic Old Yamuna Bridge, Humayun’s tomb and rail buildings such as Old Delhi station, Kashmere Gate and Baroda House by using the service.

“The landscape along the proposed route will be beautified, besides other necessary arrangements to make it operational. The fare structure and timings are yet to be decided,” the official said.

“Two options are being considered: A round trip or a hop-on-hop-off ticket,” the official added.

At present, there are very few steam locos across the world that are still in working condition.

By : Arun Kumar Das

(Arun Kumar Das is a senior Delhi-based freelance journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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62% prefer self planned trips over travel packages: Survey



travel packages

New Delhi, Feb 6: As many as 62 per cent people prefer self-planned trips over the packages provided by travel agencies, according to a survey carried out in six metro cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune and Bengaluru.

The survey, conducted by Chrome Data Analytics and Media, was conducted on 2,468 people in the age group of 35-54 years constituting 52 per cent males and 48 per cent females.

It said that 59 per cent of the respondents would prefer a nature-related destination for holidays. It also said that 48 per cent would prefer travelling with their friends.

According to the survey, US is the dream destination for 35 per cent of the respondents.

At least 60 per cent of the respondents “usually” holiday for less than seven days, it said

Around 33 per cent said that their travel plans got affected by the number of official leaves they got.


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Why a visit to the world’s largest river island is a must



Bamboo house of Mishing tribe

By Natalia Ningthoujam

Kamalabari (Majuli), Feb 5: Assam’s Majuli faces flood fury — and the threat of erosion — whenever the mighty Brahmaputra river swells. So take a break from your high-tech lifestyle and hop on that double decker boat to live the simple life in the world’s largest river island before it loses the title.

Cruises on luxury vessels can take you to your destination, but to understand the locals’ lives, it is best to travel like them on a rickety motor boat, which can also carry cars, bikes and anything that can’t swim, from Neemati ghat to Kamalabari ghat.

First timers might fear for their lives but for the frequent travellers, it’s like any other public transport. Some are so carefree that they even play cards.

After the half-hour ferry ride, you will reach the shrinking island, which is located over 300 km from Guwahati, Assam’s main city, and is home to approximately two lakh people consisting of Brahmins, Kalitas, Mishings, Deori and more.

Visitors can stay in various resorts, which might remind you of your hostel days due to availability of only basic amenities, or limited homestays.

While driving to your accommodation, you will see paddy and mustard fields, and bamboo plantations along the roads.

Out of the various house forms, the bamboo stilt houses — with an open fireplace in the middle — of the Mishing tribe, are quite unique, and you will see women working on looms made with bamboos and a cycle’s wheel.

Unlike the people of Sualkuchi, a silk-weaving village in Assam, Mishings here make “mekhela chador” and other traditional outfits only for their own use. And men use their physical strength to make beds out of bamboos or other furnitures, when they are not farming.

Majuli, a hub of the Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture, has many satras (religious and cultural institutions).

“Earlier, there were over 60 satras in Majuli but due to erosion, there are currently just 32 satras here. Auniati Satra is the biggest one in Assam. The land measures up to 500 bigha,” Anant Kalita, the satra’s museum guide, told this visiting IANS correspondent.

“We don’t call ourselves monks or pandits. The ones who stay in satras are called Vaishnavs. We worship lord Krishna. We dance, pray and do dramas, which were created by (saint-scholar) Sankardev,” he added.

The satra is open to all — Brahmins, Kalitas and people from other communities of Assam.

“Even Muslims can come. Ladies can come but can’t stay in the satra. After marriage, people need to stay out of the satra.

“There are 350 people in the satra. Vaishnavs and bhakhts stay in satras, the ones who are outside are called disciples,” said Kalita, who has been here for the past 18 years.

The Samaguri Satra, on the other hand, has kept alive the tradition of mask-making.

Its studio houses numerous masks, like those of Narasimha, Ram and Laxman that are used during festivals and Bhaona, which is a traditional form of entertainment through which religious messages are shared.

Explaining the process of mask-making, popular mask artiste Hem Chandra Goswami’s brother Tilak Goswami said: “The masks are made of mud, cotton cloth, cow dung and vegetable colours. One mask takes about 15 to 20 days to make.”

“Our entire family knows how to make masks. We have been making masks for the last six generations,” added the 65-year-old.

After learning the craft here, some even go to Dibrugarh or Guwahati.

It’s not just the people at satras who are warm and welcoming. Once the local children spot new faces, especially with DSLR cameras, they will happily follow you and strike a pose.

You might have to use a lot of hand gestures while communicating with the locals as they aren’t fluent in English or Hindi, but they will leave you overwhelmed — irrespective of their financial condition, they will not let you leave empty handed.

A cup of tea or a plate full of home-made sweets (rice flour pitha) is the least they can offer, and a request: “Please visit again.”


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