Garut: Sweet Taste of Indonesia

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Blessed with a serene natural ambience, Garut, the Switzerland of Indonesia, holds the charm of a land meant for indolent lotus eaters, says PRIYA GANAPATHY

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With Javanese love songs lulling us to sleep on the drive from Bandung to Garut, we reached the gorgeous Kampung Sumber Alam, an exclusive hot springs spa resort. The ‘Garden of Water’ was a virtual floating island of wooden cottages in a lotus-riddled aquatic Eden. A fine example of Sundanese architecture, the roofing was done with the hairy aren palm and shaped like a birdwing! Under a moonlit starry night, it didn’t take us long to immerse ourselves in the thermal swimming pool partly covered by a large sail-like marquee.

Garut’s high altitude ensures year-round cold weather and its gorgeous misty natural surroundings have earned it the tag ‘Switzerland of Java’. The presence of healing thermal baths offering rejuvenative spa treatments give it the air of a European spa town. The chill weather contrasts the novelty of the pools that remain permanently hot with water channelled directly from the volcanic Mount Guntur nearby.

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The thermal waters are also piped directly to your bathtub, so you can soak in the personal comfort of your own room. At the private deck I put my feet up, watching lotuses bloom and river reeds sway in the breeze. Blessed with a serene natural ambience, Garut holds the charm of a land meant for indolent lotus-eaters.

There’s much to see and do here. Our young guide Dede Sunandar recounted how the Papandayan volcano was West Java’s biggest draw besides the Cipanas hot springs and the 8th century Shaivite shrine of Candi Cangkuan. Adventure seekers head to the mountainous tracts of Papandayan, Haruman and Guntur for trekking trails.

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The Papandayan volcano has the largest caldera in South East Asia after Bromo, which along with Tangkuban Perahu are counted amont the most famous volcanoes in Java. The numerous craters in Papandayan are fascinating. Some spit out hot mud, some are hissing noisy gas craters, there are golden craters that resemble gold… its rocks covered in golden yellow sulphurous emissions.

With a population of almost 3 million, most people in Garut Regency practice farming. “People say that the population is high because the weather is so cold. Couples are forced to keep themselves warm in this climate, hence the baby boom,” Dede winked.

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Jawa Barat (West Java) was once a Portuguese trading outpost and Garut has a charming colonial legacy called Delman. The quaint horse wagons, locally called dokarandong or sado, are named after a Dutchman called Dellemann, who introduced this cart to the people. Over time, his name got corrupted to Delman and became a popular, fun means of transport!

We drove past the river Chi Aren which empties into the sea. Our guide revealed that another popular local tradition is ram fights, organised in the villages on holidays. “So popular is this sport, you think the men look after their rams better than their wives and children,” he quipped.

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Beautiful batik

Batik is an Indonesian heritage, designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. And Garut is a great place to learn more about it. Garut’s batik has been world famous since the time of Dutch rule. Characterized by earthy hues like white in combination with purple, dark blue, brown and other colors, the technique of resist painting uses wax on the fabric.

Part of the fabric is covered with malam (beeswax) and a bamboo spout or nib called canting is used to ‘paint’ hot wax with lines or dots onto the cloth which creates a resist pattern. The other method is to use a designed copper block or dye stamp called “cap” and “print” the resist on the fabric. The fabric is then coloured in various shades using this method and the portions with the wax can be melted off by dipping in hot water.

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At Pajagan Rasya Batik Garutan, a batik expert was busy at work, dipping her bamboo canting, blowing it gently and drawing flawless designs on a large ream of cloth. Inside the workshop, we saw them dunk and dye the cloth and boil it to melt the wax before letting it dry in the open. At the shop, we all ended up buying the lovely batik items on display – shawls and stoles, shirts and tunics, even fabric to stitch later! The hand-painted ones were pricier but the printed ones were very reasonable. 

The Batik Museum in Yogyakarta outlines how various cultures have influenced Batik designs. The status of batik grew in 17th century when Sultan Agung of Mataram chose to dress in batik clothes and accorded it importance in ceremonial use. Traditional batik used a lot of browns, yellows and reds or dark earthy hues. Whereas, batik in the coast especially North Java has more vibrant, brighter, tropical colours. A framed panel displayed how every design motif and colour was attributed to a distinct region or theme!

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Leather is the other trademark in Garut, and Sukaregang is the place to pick up the finest leather products. Rows of shops and boutiques display a wide range of leather goods made from the soft hide of local sheep.

From wallets and bracelets to handbags, satchels and jackets in every shade, the exclusive designs sell at outrageous prices in fashion capitals. A prominent silk-producing area, Garut is also known for traditional Ikat weaving where strands of dyed weft and warp threads are handwoven on a loom. 

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Garut’s Good ol’ Dodol

Indonesians have a sweet tooth and you get a taste of it at the sprawling Picnic factory in Garut. Dodol, a brown chewy caramel sweet, is Indonesia’s signature confection, and the brand Picnic has been synonymous with it for decades. For generations, dodol was prepared in homes, but Iton Damiri began manufacturing Dodol in 1949 on a commercial scale.

When Damiri tried to sell his homemade dodol under its original name Halima and later Fatimah at a popular elite store named Picnic in Bandung, the owner wasn’t interested. Damiri rebranded his product as Picnic to woo the shop owner and the rest is history! In 1979, the Picnic Dodol factory was established with only five people. Right now, they have 250 workers who churn out four to six tons of Dodol per day! 

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The main ingredient is sticky or glutinous rice (badvas katang) or rice powder which is used in combination with brown sugar, coconut milk and grated coconut. It takes 9-10 hours to cook with constant stirring before it is cooled and allowed to set for a couple of hours. Initially, dodol had only one flavour, but market innovation and the need to keep up with changing trends, has seen dodol acquire a range of assorted flavours. Today there are fruit-based and nut-based dodol along with flavours like chocolate or coffee, garnishes like sesame and dodol brownies, pies and cookies. 

After a quick guided tour around the factory and a short historical film on Dodol, we headed straight to the shop to tuck in, literally like kids in a candy store! They don’t export it… so we picked up assorted flavours as sweet Indonesian food souvenirs called ‘olah oleh’! We returned to Bandung and picked up some bamboo souvenirs and angklungs, the sweet taste of dodol still on our lips.

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Fly from Bangalore via Kuala Lumpur to Bandung on Malindo Air. From Bandung, drive 130km south/4hrs to Garut.

Where to Stay
Sumber Alam, Garden of Water
Jln. Raya Cipanas 122 Garut, Jawa Barat, Indonesia
Ph: +0262 237700 W: www.sumberalamresort.com 

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What to buy

Batik – Rasya Batik in Garut
JI, Otto Iskandardinata, Komplek PLN No. 1, Garut, Jawa Barat
Ph: 0262 232824 email: rasya.batik@yahoo.com

Dodol – Picnic Dodol Garut Factory
JI, Pasundan 102, Garut 1, Garut Kota, Jawa Barat
Ph: 0262 240717 W: www.picnicdodolgarut.com

Bamboo souvenirs & angklungs – Saung Angklung Udjo
Jl. Padasuka No.118, Cibeunying Kidul, Kota Bandung, Jawa Barat, Indonesia
Ph: 0262 227271714 W: http://www.angklung-udjo.co.id

For more info, visit https://www.indonesia.travel/

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 4 January, 2019 in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Thrissur: Gold’s Own Country

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PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Kerala’s cultural capital Thrissur to understand the Malayali fascination for gold

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Gold is extraterrestrial. How it came to our earth’s crust is itself a miracle. It was created in space by cataclysmic stellar explosions or supernova that rained on earth as meteorites! So, gold is literally born out of dead stars. According to the journal Nature, a meteor bombardment 4 billion years ago brought 20 billion billion tons of ‘gold and precious metal-rich space rock’ to Earth. So predicting when our love affair with gold began might be tough, though excavations in Egypt peg it to 3000 BC.

While the affinity to gold is universal, the people of Kerala possess an unabashed love for it. Keralites buy nearly a third of the overall gold imported into India. From Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s buried vaults spilling with gold worth hundreds of billions of dollars, to glinting nettipattams (forehead adornments) of caparisoned temple elephants during the renowned Thrissur Pooram, traditional ivory-hued kasavu saris woven with gold threads and giant hoardings with models weighed down with ornaments – the proof is out there.

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In God’s Own Country, there’s ‘Gold’s Own Country’ Thrissur, an unassuming cultural district that is the epicentre of the gold industry. Nearly 70% of all the gold sold in the state everyday is handcrafted in Thrissur. People in Kerala love their gold. When asked why, college girls, mothers, husbands, salesmen, artisans, traders, each had a view.

“It’s in our culture.” “Gold is a deposit.” “We can easily liquidate it in an emergency.” “Unlike land, gold is a guaranteed investment.” Saji, a cab driver joked, “In Kerala, ladies love gold more than their husbands! Attend a rich family’s wedding and you won’t see the girl’s face or sari, only gold.” Those WhatsApp forwards on Malayali brides laden from head to toe in gold are true!

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TS Kalyanaraman, Chairman & Managing Director of Thrissur-based Kalyan Jewellers says, “Kerala has always celebrated this precious yellow metal. Ayurveda has extensive references on the therapeutic nature of gold. In rituals, gold and ghee are considered two of the purest elements.”

In Kerala, gold plays its part through rites and rituals of life’s significant events – from the birth of a child, educational initiation, puberty, communion ceremony, graduation to wedding, the cycle continues. The gold connect begins rather early. Newborns are given honey and vayambu (sweet flag plant) mixed with 24-carat gold. During the Vidyaarambham ceremony elders use a gold ring to write on the child’s tongue, marking the entry into the world of knowledge and learning. We reckon, once Malayalis get the first (and second) taste of gold, they develop a healthy palate for it!

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The Thrissur connection

Every state has its own unique style and creative renditions. Kerala’s traditional jewellery designs borrow heavily from nature. A visit to the Kalyan showroom presented the full range of designs, each with evocative names. Mulla Mottu Mala is shaped like a string of jasmine buds, Naaga Padam resembles a hooded cobra and Maangamala is inspired by the paisley shape of mangoes. Manimala was a string of gold beads, Poothali was embellished with intricate flower (poo) patterns, Pulinakha mala was shaped like a tiger claw, Kaasu mala was a chain of gold coins (kaas), while Elakkathali was a choker named after the quivering movement (elakku) of its tiny free-hanging gold leaflets.

Palakka, a chain with a repeated heart-shaped pattern, mimicked the palakka fruit that tribals strung together into long chains. The classy kasavumala, a broad band of gold, was recently invented to match the gold border of the traditional kasavu mundu or two-piece sari. Non-traditional names – like Sachin, Seema Tara and Savitham – are design identities named after celebrities, actor or movies for the karigar’s convenience!

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CS Ajay Kumar ‘Chitti Kappil,’ a fourth generation goldsmith, says his ancestors moved from a village near Kochi and settled at Cherpu in Thrissur’s suburbs when King Rama Varma IX or Sakthan Thampuran (1751-1805) invited professionals to populate his newly founded capital. His family specialized in making the unique jewel Chittum Kaapum used in the past by Nambuthiri Brahmin women.

He discloses that his family name ‘Chitti Kappil’ is attributed to the jewel rather than the ‘tharavad’ or ‘ancestral place’ as is the norm. His son, Hari Krishnan says, “The unusual earring is not worn anymore as the earlobe hole had to be widened to insert and lock the stud. One would probably find it as a family heirloom or some elderly lady’s ear.”

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Ajay narrates how until the 1930s, thatans (traditional goldsmiths) would visit homes six months prior to a wedding to take orders for customized jewellery. Easwar Warrier, belonging to a community of temple treasurers, opened the first gold workshop in 1935 near Paramekkavu Devaswom at Thrissur Round with 10-15 talented goldsmiths. As business grew, the workers roped in their skilled cousins and craftsmen from Palakkad, Thiruvallamala and Chenganassery.

Warrier encouraged them to settle down with their families, triggering an influx of master craftsmen and talented goldsmiths. This was the beginning of Thrissur as a gold hub. Families from across the state would travel to Thrissur to buy ornaments. The steady growth spawned more retailers and the advent of readymade jewellery.

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Behind the Scenes

“In our culture women look more beautiful in gold,” said young Ans. His father Anto, a gold trader in the busy Puthanpally Church area since 40 years remembers it as the main gold hub. Some traders melted as much as 10-20kg gold every day; its purity checked by placing it on a ‘purity analyzer’ for 30 seconds. “The purity of gold in Thrissur is excellent so people love to hoard gold.” Ans continued, “Local lore says if there is an earthquake in Thrissur, they’ll find cities of gold underground!” “It’s a fixed asset that can be exchanged anywhere at the day’s rate”, sums Anto. “Today’s is Rs.2960/g.”

In sweaty workshops artisans deftly twisted, beat and blew fire on gold bits and wire, transforming them into wondrous adornments, which make their way to showrooms of India’s biggest brands and gold retailers. To Manikandan a craftsman from Palakkad, “This is good work and good pay.” Hammering a tiny bit of gold into a pathalachi – a pockmarked cube used in jewellery making, he says, “It’s been 35 years. I learnt the skill from my father when I was 10.” Thrissur has the most skilled and gifted craftsmen.

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Another feature that sets Thrissur jewellery apart is its lightness – a skill that makes gold purchases affordable without sacrificing aesthetics or design. The astuteness of Thrissur’s craftsmen makes them an asset in every gold jewellery unit. The labour-intensive nature and migration to other cities led to a decline in craftsmen; a gap filled by migrant workers from Kolkata. Nearly 10,000 Bengali craftsmen work in Thrissur.

Demand for Thrissur-trained workers everywhere and the skills acquired here helps them earn better back home. This cultural cross-pollination has also impacted jewellery design. Customers now have additional choices of Bengali filigree designs and nakkaash or hand-embossed ornate designs from Karnataka and Chettinad.

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Back at Kalyan Jewellers, Anjana, a shy bride-to-be eyed a tray of gold bangles quietly. Her mother, sister and grandparents hovered over her along with a small platoon from the groom’s side. The mother-in-law to be, her four co-sisters and a few nieces pored over the choices, mumbling about weight and patterns. Shelba, one of the nieces confessed that her pre-wedding gold shopping fourteen years ago was exactly the same.

“This is the tradition. Even after shopping, all the neighbours and relatives will come over on the wedding eve to scrutinize the purchases, comment and probe into all the details.” In contrast, at another counter Jibin and Vaishnavi, a young couple shopped independently for their upcoming wedding. Vaishnavi says, “This piece is my choice, the rest of the shopping like rings, mangalsutra and wedding pieces will be a family affair.”

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“Jewellery shopping continues to be an emotional exercise that involves families or couples coming together to pick the right pieces,” says Kalyanaraman. “Thrissur is where brand Kalyan is from – and for that very reason, it is one of our most important markets, despite 18 showrooms across the state. When I started my business, I knew every customer by face and name. Today, their children are our customers, and for many in Thrissur, Kalyan is their family jeweller.”

They undertake surveys and study every market beforehand as jewellery tastes vary from city to city. Thrissur’s buyers prefer traditional designs – the shinier the better – and nearly 96% go for yellow gold rather than pink and brushed gold, platinum or diamonds. Thrissur also has a strong culture of exchanging old jewellery for newer pieces because there is 100% exchange on gold value.

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Digging into the past

“It is the innate curiosity of women to enter a shop when they see a new product on display. If women were happy with whatever they had, shops would shut down”, quipped Mohan, a tour guide and history buff from Calicut. “The fashion-minded ladies in Kerala have perhaps motivated artisans to produce newer products, thus fueling the gold industry.”

Mohan explained, “The Greeks and Romans settled around Kodungullur in 300 BC. There was rich cultural exchange through trade as pepper, ivory, spices and diamonds were bartered for gold. When the Jews and Christians arrived, there was demand for skilled artisans to craft gold crowns and ornamented vestments for bishops.

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Excavation findings between 2007-2014 at Pattanam point to a flourishing tradition of glass and bead-making in the region but little gold.” Historian TR Venugopalan too confirmed that Thrissur’s tag as a gold capital was a recent phenomenon.

Stories of excavated gold coins took us to Thrissur’s Sakthan Thampuran Palace, now a museum. The Numismatic gallery revealed 5th BCE Roman dinari found in the Eyyal hoards of Thrissur, which also included Veerarayans (gold coins) circulated around Kochi. Museum Curator Srinath said, “In 1341, when the great flood in the Periyar River swallowed Muziris, Kochi was created (derived from Kochch-azhi literally ‘new port’).”

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At Kodungallur, Nawshad PM, Managing Director of the Muziris Heritage Project and archaeological expert Dr Midhun showed us around Kottapuram Fort. Pattanam, the excavation site, broadly corresponds to the ancient port of Muziris, hailed by ancient chroniclers like Pliny as ‘the first emporium of India’. However, gold findings were limited to a small axe-like pendant, a tiny gold bead and some Roman gold coins kept at Koyikkal Palace Nedumangad Museum in Trivandrum.

The temple of Augustus, testimony to the prosperous trade with the Red Sea, has long gone. It was evening and the sky was ablaze as families sat scrutinizing ornaments in bright-lit stores. The Latin word for gold is ‘aurum’, meaning ‘shining dawn’. Clearly, the name holds true in Kerala, where the sun will never go down on their love for gold.

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Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

The Colossus: Statue of Unity

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A trip to Gujarat is now incomplete without seeing the world’s tallest statue, say ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Fine. The Diwali weekend may not have been the best time to set out to see the Statue of Unity. We left Baroda on a Saturday morning, naively calculating that we’d drive two hours to the statue, spend an hour or two there and head to Surat. The roads were lined with congratulatory signboards – ‘the world’s tallest statue, built by L&T in just 33 months, a world record’.

Comparative posters showed how other iconic statues measured up… or didn’t. Christ the Redeemer in Brazil 38m, Statue of Liberty 93m, Ushiku Daibutsu in Japan 120m, Spring Temple Buddha in China 153 m; the 182m tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel dwarfed them all.

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Thinking we had left early, we turned off the highway into Dabhoi to check out its old southern gateway Nandodi Gate. The once fortified town had four gateways and the main one Hira Bhagol (Gate) was suffused with intricate carvings and pillared arches. One side extended as the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. Local legends recount how Hiradhar, the architect was buried here alive!

Some claim it was because the king did not want him to replicate a similar masterpiece for anyone else. Others say Hira ran short of stones as he pilfered them to create a tank for his lover, thereby incurring the king’s wrath. Whatever the story, death was a heavy price to pay for a skilled architect. Yet, Hira’s name lives on…

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Soon, we were back on the highway towards Kevadiya. We had a sinking feeling as every vehicle seemed headed that way, but it was too late to turn back. Whenever any car halted for tea or snacks, we rejoiced as it meant lesser people to deal with. Eventually, we joined a slow moving traffic jam.

After an eternity we were directed to a massive makeshift parking lot. We shuffled out and joined a large mass of people on the road. It seemed like we were trapped in the Maha Kumbh mela or the mass migration of wildebeests.

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Ten minutes later, we noticed people cross to the left and join a serpentine queue leading to the ticket area. To our horror, the counter was like an octopus with multiple queues. Further away, a long line of buses trailed with more queues. Every face was writ with grim determination – “I am going to see this statue today, no matter what!”

Ashen, we approached some security personnel who directed us to an office. We were told, “It is an impossible situation. Such crowds had not been anticipated. One lift has packed up. Those waiting might get a chance in a few hours, maybe evening…” There was no shame in cutting losses; we would live to fight another day.

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One of Sardar Patel’s lasting legacies was the peaceful accession of over 560 princely states into the Union of India. We dropped by at one such erstwhile kingdom nearby – Rajpipla. Some unsuccessful castaways from the statue expedition were trying to derive some pleasure or meaning from the dreary museum at Rajvant Palace, which had clearly seen better days. Kids ran with glee in the odd shaped dry swimming pool at the back. We returned for another attempt after our weeklong south Gujarat tour.

The long drive from the Dangs of Saputara back to Baroda barely left us enough time to cover the statue en route before we flew out the next morning. It was now or never. How could we possibly go back not having seen “The Statue”? The one the whole world was talking about – of how much it cost (2,989 crore rupees) and whether it was needed? We imagined the incredulous inquisition that would follow. “You couldn’t see it?” “What do you mean there was a crowd?” Fearing public ridicule, we drove into Kevadiya by late afternoon with iron will and steely resolve to meet India’s Iron Man.

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It wasn’t as bad as Diwali but crowds were still lining up. Luckily, a chance to check out the new Tent City on the banks of the Sardar Sarovar Dam gave us a back-route access in our own vehicle rather than the public shuttle. Driving past Zero Point to the main canal of the Narmada, we stopped at Dyke IV, where 55 tents of Tent City 1 overlooked the scenic backwaters.

Further along the reservoir at Dyke III, Tent City 2’s 188 tents stretched out like a mini city. Gujarat Tourism offered all-inclusive multi-day packages with excursions to the dam-site, Valley of Flowers, Shoolpaneshwar Temple and Rajvant Palace & Museum at Rajpipla.

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Our heart skipped a beat when we finally saw the statue outlined in the afternoon haze. Constructed on Sadhu Bet, a river island, it was accessible by a wide walkway lined with travelators on either side. On the opposite side of the river, the words ‘Statue of Unity’ screamed from the hillside in Hollywood-esque fashion. Looming high, Sardar seemed to watch the people scurrying below.

A series of escalators transported visitors up to his feet. We seemed like two stitches in his sandal strap! Built out of steel framing, reinforced concrete and bronze cladding (incidentally, made in China), the statue was designed to withstand earthquakes and wind velocities of 60 m/s.

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The mandatory selfie over, we ambled down to the hi-tech Exhibition Hall and Gallery below. As part of an outreach drive and a symbolic gesture, farmers across India had donated their old farming implements. By 2016, 135 metric tonnes of scrap iron had been collected as part of the Loha and Mitti campaigns. After due processing, 109 tonnes was used for the foundation. One section of the gallery was devoted to the making of the statue and how 3500 workmen toiled night and day for three years. The statue was finally unveiled on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary.

Dominating the hall was the face of Sardar Patel, an exact replica of the main statue in a proportion of 1:5. It was designed by Padma Bhushan awardee Shri Ram V Sutar. Similar scale models of the statue have been installed elsewhere – a 30 ft statue in Gandhinagar and a 21 ft statue at Bardoli, where Patel led a satyagraha and gained the title ‘Sardar’. The museum catalogued his life and contribution while an adjoining audio-visual gallery screened a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal culture.

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Two high-speed elevators zipped up and down the concrete towers that form the statue’s legs. In just 30 seconds, 26 visitors are transported to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery, which can accommodate 200 people. As luck would have it, one of the lifts had conked. The security guys looked dazed like club bouncers at dawn after a Saturday night party. Irate people hung around the elevator doors in uncertainty, as we wondered if the maintenance guy would suffer the fate of Hira the architect at the hands of the king.

Surely, logistics and infrastructure issues will be smoothened out. Meanwhile, the food court is being populated, the sound and light show is getting its final touches and the road to Kevadiya has been made into a four-lane highway. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat, tourism is all set to prosper in a quiet nook that was not even a destination. Ironically (no pun intended), the Sardar Patel statue has been as controversial as the Sardar Sarovar Dam it calmly surveys. But TV debates aside, by sheer numbers it was turning out to be the hottest tourist attraction of the year.

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Fact File 

Getting there
Fly to Baroda and drive 95km/2 hrs to the Statue of Unity at Kevadiya. It is 154km/3 hr 30 min from Surat and 200km/4 hrs from Ahmedabad. Visitors must leave all private vehicles at the parking lot from where buses ferry you to/from the statue.

Entry
Statue of Unity Ticket Centres at Kevadiya: Shrestha Bharat Bhavan, Swagat Sthal, Hotel Pratima
Timings: 9am-5pm, closed on Monday for maintenance.
Viewing Gallery: Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30.
Book tickets for a 2-hr slot online at www.soutickets.in

Where to Eat
There’s a food court at the Statue of Unity, though Hotel Narmada on the highway at Rajpipla is a good place for a bite.

Also visit
Crocodile spotting at Sardar Sarovar Dam
Shoolpaneshwar Mahadev Temple (13km)
Rajvant Palace & Museum, Rajpipla (28km)
Nilakanth Dham, Swami Narayan Temple, Poicha (45km)
Kalika temple & Hira Gate, Dabhoi (56km)

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Where to Stay

Narmada Tent City 1 & 2
Sardar Sarovar dam site, Kevadiya
Ph 079-27454646, 9797949494
www.tentcitynarmada.com
Tariff 1 night/2 day package Rs.6,000 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.4500 deluxe AC, Rs.3000 standard non AC, 2 night/3 day package Rs.10,500 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.9000 deluxe AC, Rs.6000 standard non AC

Rajvant Palace Resort
Vijay Palace, Palace Road, Rajpipla
Ph 8469137327
www.rajvantpalace.com

Grand Mercure Vadodara Surya Palace
Sayajigunj, Opp Parsi Agiary, Baroda
Ph 0265-2363265
www.accorhotels.com

Four Points by Sheraton Baroda 
1275 Ward, No. 7, Fatehgunj, Baroda
Ph 0265-6160000
www.marriott.com

Arudh Mahal homestay
B/S Shree Residency Apartments, Lulla Classes lane, Piramittar Road, Dandia Bazaar, Baroda
Ph 9998034545
Email arudhmahal@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.1700

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Jan 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

A Slice of Adventure

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase the coolest adventure sports and the best places in India to experience an adrenaline rush

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Snowboarding, ziplining, surfing, caving, paragliding to hot air ballooning, India’s diverse terrain offers something to every adventure junkie. Push your limits with the coolest adventure sports on offer. Take on the elements as you ski down the slopes of Kufri, Auli and Gulmarg, go kiteboarding at Rameshwaram, zip down Neemrana fort, over the Ganga, at old hunting lodges and abandoned stone quarries, surf along the country’s west coast, glide across the skies in hot air balloons or scour the bowels of the earth with caving in the north east… this is a must-do guide for every adventure seeker!

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Skiing in the Himalayas
You don’t have to go all the way to St Moritz for some snowplay. Come winter and heavy snowfall transforms the Himalayas into vast outdoor playgrounds perfect for snow adventures across Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir. Learn the basics at Auli (1917-3027m), with 3m snow carpeting the slopes, the longest cable car ride (4km to Rajju) and the backdrop of Nanda Devi, Kamet and Dunagiri peaks. At Manali, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports offers skiing courses and facilities at Solang Valley with lessons on offer at Himachal’s first advanced amusement park at Kufri.

In Kashmir, at 13,780 ft, Kongdoori on the shoulder of Mount Affarwat is the highest skiing point in the Himalayas. Little wonder CNN has ranked Gulmarg as the 7th best ski destination in Asia. The world’s highest ski lift whisks you to the upper slopes from where you ski or snowboard down freshly powdered slopes. The Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM) has certified instructors, quality skiing equipment, snow gear and modest shared rooms. For more luxury, stay at the plush Khyber, one of the few resorts where you can literally ‘ski-in, ski-out’!

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Srinagar, from where Gulmarg is a 45 min drive.
When to go: December to March
Cost: Around Rs.40,000/person (minimum group of 8), includes stay, food, training and equipment

Contact
Mercury Himalayan Explorations
Ph +91 11 4356 5425
http://www.mheadventures.com

Ski & Snowboard School
Auli, Garhwal Himalayas
Ph 9837937948, 9837685986
www.auliskiing.in

Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports
High Altitude Trekking & Skiing Center, Narkanda Ph: 01782-242406
Incharge, Skiing Center, Solang Nalla, PO Palhan, Manali Ph: 01902-256011
www.adventurehimalaya.org

Kitesurfing near Rameshwaram C55A9949

Kiteboarding near Rameshwaram
Kiteboarding is a surface water sport that harnesses the power of wind on water. Combining multiple disciplines like surfing, windsurfing, paragliding, wakeboarding and gymnastics into one extreme sport, the surfer is propelled on a kiteboard by a large controllable power kite. Southern Tamil Nadu, with a large stretch of sea, steady wind speed and dry weather, provides the perfect conditions for kiteboarding. India’s only female kitesurfer Charmaine and Govinda, who trained under the legendary Ines Correa, provide certification courses. Learn jumps and wave-style riding from IKO (International Kiteboarding Organisation) certified instructors at Fisherman’s Cove, Lands End lagoon and Swami’s Bay. Learn all about tea-bagging – popping in and out of water intermittently due to light or gusty wind, poor skills or twisted lines. Stay in rustic beach huts for around Rs.1,400 per person per night, inclusive of meals and transfers to kite spots. Also learn snorkelling, kayaking and stand up paddleboard while you’re at it.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Chennai and Madurai, a 3 hr drive away. Or take an overnight bus or train to Rameshwaram, with Rs.400 auto fare to the location.
When to go: Oct–Mar (Winter North Winds), Apr–Sep (Summer South Winds)
Cost: Private or shared lessons of 6-10 hours between Rs.15,000-30,000 (1-2 days).  

Contact
Quest Expeditions
Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409
Email booking@quest-asia.com
thekitesurfingholiday.com

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Surfing in South India
With a 7,000 km coastline, India is just discovering the thrills of surfing. At Mulki, Kaliya Mardana Krishna Ashram (or ‘Ashram Surf Retreat’ as it’s better known) is run by Krishna devotees who impart surfing lessons besides yoga and mantra meditation. With no smoking/alcohol allowed on the premises and healthy veg fare, it’s the perfect place to detox and learn to ride the waves! Ride the Zodiac boat to local surf breaks like Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s and Water Tank. Ganpatipule near Ratnagiri is home to Maharashtra’s only surf school run by Ocean Adventures while Kallialay Surf Club at Mamallapuram south of Chennai provides surfing lessons with wakeboards and equipment on hire.

Getting there: Mulki is 30 km north of Mangalore, Ganpatipule is 300 km south of Mumbai, Mamallapuram is 56 km south of Chennai.
When to go: Good all year round, with Summer South Winds blowing between Apr–Sep and Winter North Winds between Oct–Mar 

Contact
India Surf Club, Mulki
Ph +91 9880659130
Email gauranataraj@gmail.com http://www.surfingindia.net
Cost Rs.3,500-4,500 (double occupancy), surfing lessons Rs.1,500/p/day

Kallialay Surf Club, Mamallapuram
Ph +91 9442992874, 9787306376
Email kallialaysurfschool@hotmail.com

Ocean Adventures, Ganpatipule
Ph +91-99755 53617
http://www.oceanadventures.in
Cost: Rs.2,500 (4 hrs) or Rs.5,000 (3 days)

Caving in Meghalaya Kipepo

Caving in the North East
Call it spelunking (American) or potholing (British version), caving is the hot new adventure trend. It’s dark and grimy, but the descent into the subterranean realm offers a chance to see the beautiful world of stalagmites, stalactites, candles, cave curtains and cave pearls, formed over thousands of years. The presence of limestone hills, heavy rains and high humidity are ideal conditions for cave formation, best exhibited in India’s North East. With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and the largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Little wonder it ranks among the world’s Top 10 caving destinations.

For tourists, Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills is a decent primer, though for less touristy stuff, head to Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills, riddled with cave passages like Krem Tynghen, Krem Umthloo, Krem Chympe and Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India. In neighbouring Manipur, Khangkhui Mangsor (cave system) near Ukhrul is a top draw with the village’s Tangkhul Naga inhabitants doubling up as guides. Each of the pits and caves has interesting legends of kings and demons attached to them.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Guwahati from where Shillong is a 3 hr drive.
When to go: November to March

Contact
Kipepeo
Ph +91 9930002412
http://www.kipepeo.in

For more on Meghalaya’s caves, http://megtourism.gov.in/caves.html

Bir Billing Paragliding

Paragliding in Kamshet & Bir-Billing
A good place to get initiated into paragliding is Kamshet in Maharashtra. Its mild altitude, dynamic wind, moderate weather, profusion of flying institutes and proximity to Mumbai and Pune, make it ideal for beginners. All year round access means you clock more air miles here. Basic and advanced courses like EP (Elementary Pilot) and CP (Club Pilot) are offered, but for serious stuff like XC (Cross Country), head to Bir-Billing in Himachal Pradesh. The 2400 m high meadow at Billing, 14 km north of Bir, is the launch site with the landing site and tourist accommodations in Chowgan.

There are a host of paragliding schools like Paragliding Guru run by BHPA certified paragliding instructor Gurpreet Dhindsa or Hi-Fly run by Debu Choudhury from Manali, the only Indian pilot to be in the Top 50 of Paragliding World Cup Association and India No.1 several times. Manoj Roy, founder and president of Paragliding Association of India, explains that the sport is catching on at Panchgani, Sikkim, Vagamon and Varkala (Kerala), Yelagiri (Tamil Nadu) and Goa. An annual paragliding tournament is conducted in Bir in Oct.

Getting there: Kamshet is 110 km from Mumbai and 45 km from Pune. Bir is 65 km from Dharamsala.
When to go: October to May (avoid rainy season and peak snowfall period in the Himalayas between Dec-Feb)
Cost: Around Rs.18,000 for 3-4 day course, includes stay, food, travel to the hill and equipment 

Contact
Hi Fly, Bir
Ph +91 9805208052
http://www.hi-fly.in

Paragliding Guru, Bir
http://www.paragliding.guru

Indus Paragliding, Karla
Ph +91 7798111000, 9869083838
http://www.indusparagliding.in

Nirvana Adventures, Kamshet
Ph +91 93237 08809
http://www.flynirvana.com
 

Temple Pilots, Kamshet
Ph +91 9970053359, 9920120243
http://www.templepilots.com
 

For more info, visit http://www.pgaoi.org, http://www.appifly.org and http://www.paraglidingforum.in

The Quarry Adventures-DSCN1404 (2)

Ziplining in North India & Coorg
Ziplining in the country started when Flying Fox founder Jono Walter met Neemrana Hotel’s Aman Nath and remarked “I want to fly you over your fort like a vulture.” Aman retorted, “No, no. I want to fly like a god!” And thus Flying Fox, India’s zipline pioneers, started South Asia’s first zipline in 2007. Ziplining at Neemrana promises a heady buzz of history and adrenaline as you zip over battle-scarred ramparts of a 15th century fort. Zipline five sections over the Aravali countryside – from the 330m Qila Slammer launched from an old lookout to the 400m ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or the Bond-inspired Pussy Galore and Goodbye Mr Bond, ending at Big B, named after Amitabh Bachhan who zipped from that very spot into the fort in the movie ‘Major Saheb’.

At Jodhpur, launch from ridges and battlements of the historic Mehrangarh Fort accessed through secret tunnels as you tackle Chokelao Challenge, Ranisar Rollercoaster and Magnificent Marwar, a 300m flight over two lakes landing on the tip of a fortified tower. In Punjab, Flying Fox Kikar set up the longest zip-line tour in South Asia and the first forest-based zip-line adventure in India at an old hunting lodge. Upstream of Rishikesh at Shivpuri, zipline over forests in the Himalayan foothills and raging rapids 230 ft below as you span 400 m stretches of High Times and White Water Flyer.

Down south, Siddhartha Somana (Sidd) repurposed a 35-year-old abandoned stone quarry near Madikeri into an offbeat adventure spot. Set in an 18-acre patch at Madenad in a 250m long horseshoe arc, take a guided Rainforest Walk, go rock climbing, rappel down a 50 ft natural rock wall and try 5 Treetop Adventures above the forest floor, eventually flopping into a Giant Hammock. The ziplining is done in two stretches – 400 ft and 600 ft, about 100-150 ft high. The all-inclusive ‘Full Dosage’ costs 1,999/person for all activities with food arranged on request.

Getting there: Neemrana and Kikar are 2 hr drives from Delhi while Shivpuri is a 15 min drive upstream of Rishikesh. Jodhpur Airport is well connected by flights from Delhi and Jaipur. Quarry Adventures is 8km from Madikeri.
When to go: All year round
Cost: Rs.1,399-2,299/person 

Contact
Flying Fox

Ph +91 9810999390, 011-66487678
http://www.flyingfox.asia

Quarry Adventures
Ph 9880651619, 9482575820
http://www.thequarryadventures.com
Timings: 9am-6pm

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Hot Air Ballooning across India
A hot air balloon is indeed a strange aerial vehicle that has no brakes or steering wheel with only the fair winds to guide you! Commercial hot air ballooning in India finally took off on 1 Jan 2009 with pioneers SkyWaltz waltzing into the skies. The tourism hub of Rajasthan, with its forts, palaces and rugged Aravallis was the perfect place to start. Headquartered in Jaipur, the action spread to Ranthambhore, Pushkar camel fair, a permanent operation at Lonavala, besides tethered flights at festivals like Taj Mahotsav, Hampi Festival, Amaravati Festival and Araku Balloon Festival. SkyWaltz has flown over 35,000 happy customers in the last nine years. With the trend catching on, the fifth edition of the Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival is back this January with tethered flights and night glow at Chennai and Pollachi.

Getting there: Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam.
When to go: All year round except peak summer and rains. Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival takes place 4-6 Jan 2019 in Chennai and 13-15 Jan at Pollachi.

Contact
Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Email tnballoonfestival@gmail.com
http://www.tnibf.com

SkyWaltz/E-Factor
Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222
Email goballooning@skywaltz.com
http://www.skywaltz.com

Pushkar Fair
Ph +91 8130925252
http://www.pushkarmela.org

Araku Balloon Festival
http://www.arakuballoonfestival.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in the January 2019 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

 

Kurumgad: Turtle Recall

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go island hopping off the Karwar coast in Karnataka discovering lonely lighthouses and turtle-shaped islands

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If you really want to know what island life is all about, ask someone who mans a lighthouse on a remote island and gets to visit the mainland only once a month for supplies. For romanticists like us, an island quest is all about marine adventure and lost treasures.

For Govind, the caretaker at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad, it is a lonely vigil shared by another attendant (currently on leave). Their sole responsibility is the daily maintenance of the lighthouse – from the upkeep of the solar powered system and digital control room to flicking the generator that flashes the light, pulsing from dusk to dawn to help vessels navigate the high seas every night.

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We were on an island trail off the scenic coast of Karwar. Within a radius of 5-10 miles from the mainland, this was the only such cluster of islands along the 5700 km coastline of India. The five islands – Kurumgad, Devgad (Oyster Rock), Madhyalingad (Sanyasi Island), Puttadweepa and Anjediva – located on the approach to the harbour shelter the coast from winds, cyclones and storms, making Karwar an all-season harbour. Seafarers from Arabia called Karwar’s port Baithkol (Bait-e-kol, Arabic for ‘Bay of Safety’).

It is claimed to be one of three natural ports of the world and the safest. In 150 AD, Greek mathematician and geographer Ptolemy was astute enough to mark the position of Anjediva off Karwar on a cartograph. Great powers vied to control this strategic nook – from Arab sailors, the Sultans of Bijapur, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Sonda dynasty, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, to the Portuguese and the British.

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Like the weathered shoreline, the island that was once Devaragudda or ‘god’s hillock’ became Devgad over time. When the British discovered it, they found its rocky fringes full of oysters and named it Oyster Rock. After years of rich harvest, not much of the oysters remained but what survived are a cannon and the 1864 British lighthouse. Built by Chance Brothers from Birmingham, ironically the equipment was French, made in Paris by ‘Ingenieurs and Constructeurs Barbier, Bernad & Turenne’ in 1933. The stone masonry lighthouse loomed 66 ft high and its beam could be seen from 20 nautical miles or 37km away.

Govind took great care of the polished antique lights, gleaming copper oil cans and spectacular mirrored discs. Until recently, the lighthouse used to be manually operated. Govind led us up the smooth teakwood steps out onto the slim balcony and we understood when he said, “It’s peaceful here. There’s no din of the city to deal with.” All around us the waves swirled in an incessant dance with a few boats silhouetted against the horizon as fishing eagles pirouetted over their eyries.

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The sun was about to set. We left Govind to his daily duties and hiked down to our boat. The crystal clear water around the island seemed ideal for snorkeling but we had to return to our base, Kurumgad, literally the ‘tortoise-shaped’ island. Afloat like a carapace, its form is discernible from afar as you arrive by boat from mainland Karwar.

Adjacent, lies the small Madhyalingad or Madyagad, locally known as Sanyasi Island. Folklore recounts how the island was named after a sage who sought refuge here. It is difficult to dock on this uninhabited island and local fishermen swear that the sage’s presence is perceptible.

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We were happy to gaze at it from the comfort of Cintacor Island Resort on Kurumgad. In 1498, as Vasco da Gama led the first Portuguese ships down India’s west coast, they discovered the natural harbour formed by the islands off Karwar and called it Cintacora. Whether the name is derived from cinta or sash, after the wide shoreline or a mispronunciation of Chitakula, the old name for Karwar, remains unclear. What is known is that Anjediva Island was the first place the Portuguese conquered in India; it was also the last place they left after 450 odd years of colonial rule.

As Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva steered the last Portuguese ships out in 1961, Kurumgad Island ended up with the Coelho family. It served as a rustic island getaway called The Great Outdoors, until The Little Earth Group (of Destiny Farms, Sherlock and King’s Cliff fame in Ooty) took over and transformed it into a plush island getaway a year ago.

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Our sea-facing cottage Seasponge, one of the five S type cabins, was the most lavish on the island with large balconies overlooking the seascape. The marine inspired décor ran through the other rooms Scallop, Seagull, Swordfish and Salmon. The vegetation outside which had been deliberately left untrimmed, presented a natural view rather than a manicured one. Bunched together in the shade of trees were the compact O cabins – Orca, Otter, Oyster and Osprey. A little further away, en route to the beach, were the medium-sized H Cabins – Herring, Hake, Halibut, Hoki, Hawk and Haddock.

Jolly Roger’s Club, the lounge bar, overlooked the sea access from Karwar. The Hub, marked by its co-ordinates ‘14o 84’ N, 74o 09’ E’ served as the reception area where the sprightly Seraphin from Sikkim would greet us with welcome drinks. Occupying the highest spot on the island was the restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck. Canary yellow nautical meters, gauges and pipes radiated from the centre adding a contemporary flair.

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On the walls were portraits of diving legend Jean Jacques Cousteau and references to Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s character in ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ and ‘The Mysterious Island.’ Chefs Sundar and Senthil stirred up delicious grilled kingfish and butter garlic prawns. Food was a blend of Konkani dishes, ‘Journeys along the coast’ and recipes from the world over, ‘Across the Seven Seas.’

Next morning, over breakfast from our perch above the infinity pool, we watched in delight, glistening pods of dolphins leap and cavort in the sea. The water was a fascinating shade of labradorite, grey-green with flashes of rainbows in its mysterious depths. Naturalist Roshna accompanied us on a circumnavigation of the island. We took the West Mile Way, walking through dense foliage.

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Nearly 80% of the island was wooded and a grove called Victor Woods was dedicated to the original owner Victor Coelho. Roshna pointed out Macaranga peltata or the Pencil Tree; its wood is used in the pencil and plywood industry while its kenda leaves are used to wrap jaggery and sweetmeats.

Sanyasi Island looked forlorn and undisturbed to our west. A signboard indicated a mysterious deep fissure at the base of Kurumgad. Folklore attributes it to Lord Narasimha who apparently swam into the island creating the long creek, before he emerged near a cave at the top. Geologists theorize that the fissure was formed by an earthquake in the Carboniferous Period over 300 million years ago.

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Continuing along the West Mile Way where it joined the Temple Trail, we sprinted up the rock steps to Narasimha Temple built on a flat patch atop the island. Every year in January thousands of devotees come for a pilgrimage on Pushya poornima. The island resort remains shut on those two days. The simple shrine had a painting of Narasimha slaying the demon Hiranyakashipu. Interestingly, both kuruma the tortoise and narasimha, half-man, half-lion are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. To complete the mythological drama, a fishing eagle swooped down dramatically – the eagle being the vahana (mount) of Lord Vishnu!

The mystery creek and rocky islets around the island are good places to spot shy otters or watch sea eagles and Brahminy kites soar in the skies. We saw paradise flycatchers, orioles and sunbirds flitting about the bushes. The island is also home to several species of butterflies, including the Crimson Rose, Blue Tiger and Southern Birdwing, the largest in India.

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Down the slope along East Mile Way, we stopped at a small rocky pool, home to terrapins. A little detour to the rocky shore led to the Tidal Pool, a natural hollow by the edge of the sea, best enjoyed at low tide. The island was under the control of various kingdoms, but it was Basalinga Nayak of the Sonda dynasty who fortified Kurumgad for a battle against the British. The ruins of the bastion were barely discernible through the overgrowth.

Like Kurumgad, Anjediv Island too, is historically significant. Theories abound whether Anjediva was so named because it was the anj dweep ‘fifth island’ or in honour of the island deity Aryadurgadevi, whose idol was shifted to safer shores at Ankola after the Portuguese settled here. In 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque launched his conquest of Goa from this island.

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It remained unoccupied till 1661 when the British were forced to seek shelter there, awaiting the handover of Bombay as dowry after the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. The island has the 18th century Our Lady of Brotas Church named after the brotas or perennial sweet water spring on the island. Handed over to the Indian Navy for its Seabird project, Anjediv is no longer open to the public.

We retired to Kurumasana Spa on Kurumgad for a relaxing Stress Buster massage before strolling to the Cozy Canopy, formed naturally by ancient roots and branches, en route to the beach. A little ahead was a secret cove, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, kayaking and fishing. We took a spin around the island on jet skies, spraying through the surf. With the sun going down over the Arabian Sea we headed back to the beach bar On the Rocks. It was 6 pm and the beam from Devgad Lighthouse began to wink in the distance, every ten seconds. Govind was diligently on duty at Oyster Rock while we guiltily sipped martinis, slinking into our shells at Kurumgad as the silvery moon took over the sea. After weeks of hectic travel, we were happy to drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.

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THE INFORMATION 

Getting there
Kurumgad is 7km into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karwar off an estuary of the Kali river. Fly to Dabolim airport and drive 2 hrs to Karwar. Cross the Kali river bridge and take the privately arranged boat from Kodibagh for the 30-minute ride to Kurumgad.

Cintacor Island Resort
Kurumgad, Karwar
Ph 9487533640
www.cintacorislandresort.com
Tariff O Cabin Rs.11,500 + 28% tax, H Cabin Rs.12,500 + 28% tax, S Cabin Rs.15,000 + 28% tax (breakfast included), Rs.3000 hike in tariff on weekends (Fri-Sun)

What to Eat
The restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck serves fresh seafood besides Konkan, Continental and Indian cuisine. On mainland Karwar, try Hotel Amrut (Main Road, near Syndicate Bank Ph 9845201215) and Swetha Lunch Home (Ananda Arcade, Green Street Ph 9986675726)

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What to See & Do
Nature Trails on Kurumgad – East & West Mile Way, Temple Trail, Half Mile Trail
Sunrise cruise (6:30 am), Sunset cruise (5:30 pm), Dolphin cruise (9am-6pm)
Lighthouse Tour (3pm) with boat cruise & picnic at Oyster Rock Lighthouse, Devgad
River Cruise (9am-6pm) upstream along the river Kali
Water sports like jet skiing, kayaking, tubing and banana boat rides
Fishing, Snorkelling & Stargazing
Swedish & Thai massages, wraps and therapies at Kurumasana Spa (11am-9pm)

Safety tips
While on the boat, wear life jacket at all times. Do not lean over the side, stand suddenly or crowd to one side of the boat.
Watch your step on island hikes as the walkways run along the edge of the cliff with steep drops in some places.
Be cautious while swimming in the sea as there are rocky areas. Always check with the lifeguard and avoid the beach if the red flag is up.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of an Islands Special cover story in the December 2018 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Inspired Heritage: Reclaiming the Past

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‘Inspired Heritage’, that’s the buzz at luxury hotels across the country, as they pick out elements from history to spruce up their interior decor, while curating new menus and experiences, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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A turbaned doorkeeper sounded the gong marking our arrival outside the gates of Kamalapura Palace, alerting the front desk about our impending check in. The car rattled along the stone pathway, deliberately rough hewn like in the past, the way a ratha or chariot would have clattered in bygone Hampi. The main building and villas came to view, their turrets and domes so reminiscent of Hampi’s monuments. There were shades of Anegundi’s Kamalapura Palace and the angular roofs echoed the temples near Virupaksha…

Greeted with a cool sandalwood tika, flower garland and a welcome drink, we were ushered to a foyer. In place of the reception was a recreation of Hampi’s iconic landmark Sister Stones, two sisters who complained about the tedious exploration of Hampi on foot and were magically turned into stone! The beautiful arches seemed right out of the Octagonal Bath.

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We were led to our Jal Mahal villa styled after the zenana or Queen’s Quarters and their water palaces. While Evolve Back (formerly Orange County) had styled its pioneering resort at Chikkana Halli Estate in Siddapur, Coorg on the lines of a plantation resort and its Kabini resort as a thatched Kuruba hadi (settlement), their latest offering in Hampi was a celebration of the architectural glory of the Vijayanagar Empire.

In what’s emerging as a new trend, hotels in India are now seeking inspiration from their immediate environment not just for design and architecture, but also for cuisine and thematic curated experiences. After working up an appetite in our private pool, we relished local Vijayanagara cuisine at Tuluva, the restaurant named after the most prominent of the three dynasties that ruled Hampi. Bidri showcased the Dakkani flavours of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. The lofty Elephant Stables inspired the design of the Howdah bar.

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Our guide Venkatesh took us on specially curated itineraries – the Raya Trail, the Virupaksha Trail, the Pattabhirama temple adopted by Evolve Back and the Tungabhadra Trek, along the banks of the river past Courtesan Street, Achyutharaya Temple, Sugreeva’s Cave and the fascinating Koti Linga carved on a sheet of rock, just in time for sunset.

After wowing everyone with Grand Chola in Chennai with its Chola inspired architecture, the latest addition to ITC’s luxury portfolio is ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad, the first luxury business hotel in the heart of Hi-tech City. In keeping with their Responsible Luxury theme, it mirrors the culture and ethos of the destination, inspired by the world’s most famed jewel – the rare priceless diamond from Golconda.

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Its unique angular architecture is a reflection of the facets of the famed diamond with crystal clear glass façade. Like the Kohenur (Persian for ‘Mountain of Light’), the hotel is bright and full of light by day. By evening, it lights up like a gem, rising majestically above the lake Durgam Cheruvu that it overlooks.

The jali (lattice) pattern and marble inlay floors are a recurrent motif with an installation of Hyderabad’s local craft bangles hanging from the ceiling at the reception. The Peacock Bar, a tribute to Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne where the Kohinoor diamond was once mounted, had a bas relief plaster peacock on the ceiling glittering with colourful tekri (glass) work. The Golconda Pavilion with design motifs from the 14th century Bidri metal craft, Persian zardozi and pearls, showcases local culinary favourites from the region.

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The restaurant Dum Pukht Begum’s has arches, columns and chandeliers reminiscent of palaces like Falaknuma and Chowmahalla. Its rich interiors reflect another famous diamond from the region the Noor-ul-ain (Light of the Eye), a tribute to the royal ladies who brought refinement and appreciation of fine things. The food too balances the flavours of Awadhi cuisine from the Dum Pukht brand with local Nizami touches.

At 4000 sq ft, the Grand Presidential Suite Koh-i-Noor is the largest in the Hi-Tech area. Even the Executive Room is more spacious than the other base category rooms in the city. Given its location in Hi-Tech City, the hotel comes with snazzy features – entertainment and room automation app on an i-Pad and a unique automated laundry system that can be accessed without entering the room. In between meals at the creative Chinese restaurant Yi Jing and authentic Italian Ottimo, we found time and space to rejuvenate ourselves at Kaya Kalp Spa.

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In Kochi, CGH Earth Hotels achieved the impossible. Inspired by the shipping legacy of India’s busiest harbour town, they transformed an old Victorian shipbuilding yard into a waterfront colonial-style hotel called Brunton Boatyard. One look at its lofty ceiling and large pillars and one imagines it’s a restored heritage mansion that dates back a few centuries; yet it’s just over a decade old!

Enjoy the day’s catch at the alfresco Terrace Grill or sample Kochi’s multi-cultural cuisine at History Restaurant – the Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish Chuttulli Meen, Ceylonese idiappam (string hoppers) with fish curry and the now iconic First Class Railway Mutton Curry.

IMG_9340 East Indies_Cheenavala, a trio of fish, calamari and tiger prawn_Anurag Mallick

CGH’s other hotel Eighth Bastion is a tribute to the historic port town’s Dutch legacy and is named after Fort Kochi’s ‘eighth bastion’ – no longer there. Their restaurant East Indies presents a specially prepared menu called the ‘Dutch Route’, featuring dishes collected from former Dutch colonies. Expect everything from Dutch Bruder bread to Indonesian satays, rendang (Sumatran caramelized curry) and lamprais, a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish of aubergine, frikkadel (Afrikaans meatball), sambal (spicy relish) and balchao (shrimp pickle) wrapped in a leaf with rice, hence its derived name ‘lump rice’.

When it comes to heritage, no one does it as well as Rajasthan. JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa is the first signature hotel under the Starwood banner in Rajasthan. An architectural gem set against the Aravalis, it is styled after the Amber Fort nearby. Musicians by the doorway welcome you to a mesmerizing world of intricate marble inlay, traditional jaali (lattice) and tikri (patterned mirror work), with ornate fountains and water bodies recreating the air of a pleasure palace.

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Each dining space had its own character – all-day dining at Sukh Mahal, the rooftop restaurant Hawa Mahal or the Indian specialty restaurant Mohan Mahal, inspired by the Sheesh Mahal at Amer Fort in Jaipur. A unique fine-dine experience, instead of electric lighting, light from candle flames are reflected in a stunning mosaic of mirrors in the ceiling and walls of the restaurant.

We savoured signature dishes such as laal maas, murgh makai ka soweta, dana methi ki sabzi and more. Tailor-made experiences included a walking tour of old Amer and a visit to Hathi Gaon, home to rehabilitated elephants that ply up the slope of Amer Fort ferrying tourists every day. The elephant interaction program includes a joyride, body painting with natural colours, bathing and feeding.

Magical clouds at Suryagarh Jaisalmer

As you drive past Jaisalmer, an open jeep convoy leads guests to the fort-like entrance of Suryagarh where a pair of camel riders usher you up the driveway. At the porch, a Manganiyar troupe welcomes you with song, Panditji applies a tilak and flower petals are showered from a jharokha above as you enter the foyer. An attendant hands a towel, another plies you with cool beverage and a musician seated in the central courtyard welcomes you to the magical world of Suryagarh.

An ode to the medieval Silk Route trade, Suryagarh is styled on the impressive ruins of Paliwal Brahmin settlements at Kuldhara and Khaba Fort. The hotel beautifully integrates design elements from its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard were inspired by Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara.

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The Residences, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel. Each handcrafted sandstone haveli was based on the community living concept and offered a sense of private luxury with a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exude sophisticated charm. Even its diverse dining experiences are beautifully curated – Breakfast with Peacocks, Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard or Dining on the Dunes.

Its bespoke Desert Remembers trails present the Thar desert’s lesser known history – a midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara, cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, ancient stepwells, ruins of caravanserais, rainwater harvesting techniques and the sweet water wells of Mundari, retracing old trade routes. Even the wellness therapies at Rait Spa were an ode to the region’s geography, using salt from the Luni river and potlis of rait (sand).

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Narendra Bhawan, a swanky boutique hotel in Bikaner has taken theme holidays to another level. It retells the story of Narendra Singh ji, the last reigning maharaja of Bikaner (1948-2003). Born at the cusp of India’s independence, Narendra Singh ji established a novel residence in keeping with his new tastes and vision and Narendra Bhawan celebrates his life’s passage through time – from his royal birth and patronage, military life, the makings of a global bon vivant to a socialist who embraced the idea of a new democratic India.

We viewed the recently launched premium Regimental Rooms, based on Narendra Singh ji’s time at the royal military academy. The canopied bed is styled like a field tent, while stern military stripes and miniature Spanish armada lanterns adorn the room. The starters were finger food you’d expect in an elite military club. We were led down to the foyer where a police band played outside to go with the theme, followed by a ‘mess lunch’ at the Gaushala.

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After a viewing of the India Room, we enjoyed a sundowner and dinner by the poolside and a viewing of the Republic Room ended in a brunch at the Indira Gandhi canal and an Imperial dinner at Laxmi Niwas Palace. Each category of room corresponded a particular stage of Narendra Singh ji’s life with a specially curated meal and experience, titled the Grand Essentials of Life.

The food at Narendra Bhawan is as eclectic in choice as its erstwhile owner. From smoked salmon, cured ham, assorted cheese and canapés to robust Rajasthani fare like kale chane ki kadhi, papad ki sabzi and aloe vera ki sabzi, it carries off its varied cuisine with élan. Thanks to the direct flight connectivity from Delhi to Bikaner, you can be here quicker than the waiting time on a weekend at a posh South Delhi restaurant.

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

In Leh, The Grand Dragon Ladakh draws from vernacular architecture of the region with ornate carved windows and intricate dragons blazing flames of colour around the pillars and wide open views overlooking the Stok Kangri range. Welcomed with silken scarves we are handed a pouch of camphor that helps acclimatize to the high altitude.

Going beyond the obvious sightseeing trails, the hotel highlights unique offbeat excursions like visiting the only potter in the monastery village of Likir, local oracles, tea and biscuits by the Indus and smithy workshops in Chilling to interact with metal craftsmen making bells and utensils for locals and Buddhist monasteries, including exquisite kettles. It’s heartening to see how hospitality brands in India are exploring new ways to recreate the glory of the days gone by in their architecture, cuisine and experiences.

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FACT FILE 

Where to Stay

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi
www.evolveback.com

ITC Kohenur, Hi-tech City, Hyderabad
www.itchotels.in

Brunton Boatyard/Eighth Bastion, Kochi
www.cghearth.com

JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa, Kukas, near Amer
www.jwmarriottjaipur.com

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
www.suryagarh.com

The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 Dec, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Chandernagore: Down Revolutionary Road

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A trading town older than Calcutta, the erstwhile French enclave by the banks of the Hooghly was a sanctuary for merchants, philanthropists, littérateurs and revolutionaries, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Without much fanfare, the Grand Trunk Road abruptly brought us to a halt in front of the Liberty Gate of Chandernagore. Built in 1937 to mark the fall of Bastille during the French revolution, the motto ‘Liberte Egalite Fraternite’ emblazoned on it seemed incongruous amidst a medley of billboards in Bengali and posters for circuses and magic shows. A traffic policeman tried in vain to make some order out of the snarl of rickshaws, pedestrians and vehicular traffic. It was a far cry from a few centuries ago when British soldiers had to seek permission to enter what was once French territory!

Much before Calcutta was carved out of Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindapur and Fort William was established in 1698, Chandernagore too was created out of three villages – Borokishanpur, Khalisani and Goldalpara. It emerged as the main center of European commerce in Bengal and became a key trade centre. Boats docked here for rice, wax, saltpeter, indigo, jute, rope, sugar, even slaves, as the town became home to seths, zamindars, Muslim and Armenian traders, besides men of enterprise – Louis Bonnaud, the first European to commercially cultivate indigo in India, Dinanath Chandra who ran the first European tincture factory in the area, Batakrishna Ghosh, the first Bengali owner of a cloth mill, and Indrakumar Chattopadhyay, first publisher of a map on Bengal.

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We entered through the Liberty Gate and scoured around for a map or some kind of guide on Chandannagore, which led us by sheer chance to Kumar & Company. On learning of our interest in the historic town, the shop owner Kalyan Chakravarty dropped everything mid-transaction, barked an order to an assistant to take over and quite graciously agreed to come along to guide us around the key sights. Passionate about conserving the heritage of his little town, Kalyan da was also involved with the local chapter of INTACH.

“At one time, Lakshmiganj Market used to be India’s largest rice mart and Chandannagore was hailed as the Granary of the East. Back then, the area was called Farasdanga (Land of the French). Urdi Bazaar is actually named after the vardi or khaki uniform of soldiers who stayed here during colonial times,” he explained. In 1730, Joseph Francois Dupleix was made governor of Chandarnagore while Indranarayan Chowdhury was appointed by the French Compagnie as Diwan. Chowdhury built the temple of Sri Nandadulal and a rest house and later received a gold medal for his philanthropy from Louis XV, the King of France.

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Kalyan da pointed out the marks of cannon fire on the exterior walls of the squat Nandadulal shrine during the sack of 1757. The temple is believed to have a secret chamber where Chowdhury stashed his wealth! We strode into St Joseph’s Convent, built in 1861, to the little chapel and stood at the historic door through which the British had marched into Chandernagore. Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson of the British army pounded Chandernagore and razed the French fortification of Fort d’Orleans to the ground.

The horseshoe shaped town was divided into the French Villé Blanche (White Quarter) and a native Villé Noire (Black Quarter) that lay inland. Located midstream between Murshidabad and Calcutta, Chandernagore was easily the most celebrated ghat on the 2500km stretch of the Ganga and the only part of Bengal outside British control. At its peak, the city’s population was over a lakh while Calcutta was at best a poorer country cousin. However, with the French loss, Chandernagore’s bustling trade was eclipsed by the emergence of British Calcutta.

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The town still has a wealth of beautiful colonial mansions. Kanhai Seth’er Bari, home to the Nandys, was a lovely edifice with the gatepost marked by ornamental urns. Further down the road Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir was a fusion of native and colonial styles where Corinthian columns shared space alongside ornate Hindu motifs. Built in 1860 by Sri Harihar Sett, it was donated to the people of Chandernagore as a theatre hall and library.

Past Hospital Mod (turn) was Nundy Bari, home of a rich Zamindar that now served as the Ruplal Nundy Memorial Cancer Research Centre. His great grandson Shashank Shekhar Nandy explained that the historic building was locally called Gala-Kuthi from the time it was a Portuguese warehouse of gala (shellac). In its heyday, it played host to eminent people of the time like Bengali poet Bharatchandra Ray and Maharaja Krishnachandra of Krishnanagar.

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After a quick stop at the Sacred Heart Church we reached the town’s crowning glory – The Strand. Reminiscent of Pondicherry’s Promenade, the 1km long 7m wide paved avenue was lined by historic buildings. The northern end was once marked by the 1878 built Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court) and Thai Shola hotel built in 1887 (presently Chandernagore College).

On the south end was Underground House (Patal Bari), its lowest level jutting into the river. Originally a rest house of the French navy, it later hosted social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, who even integrated Patal Bari into his stories.

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Also lining the Strand were Rabindra Bhavan, the Gendarmerie (police station), an 1845 Clocktower dedicated to Joseph Daumain S’Pourcain and Dupleix Palace. A former naval godown and residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, it was converted into Institut de Chandernagor, an Indo-French Cultural Centre housing one of the oldest museums in the region.

Its stunning collection included French exhibits like cannons used in the Anglo-French war, 18th century furniture, rare paintings, Shola craft of Bengal and memorabilia related to Dupleix and Tagore. We walked to Joraghat or Chandni, a decorated pavilion at the ferry point with a plaque dedicated to ‘Dourgachorone Roquitte’. Courtier of the French Government, Durgacharan Rakshit was the first Indian to be conferred with the Chevalier de legion d’Honour in 1896.

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From here, the river appeared to curve like a crescent moon (chandra) after which the town was presumably named. Some contend Chandannagar derives from the trade in chandan (sandalwood) or Chandi’r nagar after its presiding deity Boraichandi. Yet Kalyan da exhorted “The town is not as famous for its river or the French as for its revolutionaries!”

The French enclave was the perfect refuge for freedom fighters escaping the clutches of the British Empire. Rashbehari Bose, founder of Azad Hind Fauj, revolutionary leader Kanailal Dutta and social reformer Sri Harihar Seth were all based here. A bust of Bose stood outside Chandernagore College. In 1910 Sri Aurobindo followed an adesa (divine command) and sailed from Calcutta to Chandernagore where he stayed in the house of Motilal Roy for 39 days before heading south to Pondicherry. Roy later established the Prabartak Sangha and launched a fiery Bengali literary magazine in 1915.

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“But of what use is a Bengali tale that does not end on a sweet note,” exhorted Kalyan da, as he brought us to Surjya Kumar Modak. Local lore has that in 1818 a zamindar asked the town’s leading confectioner to create a unique sweet for the new bridegroom. He came up with the jolbhora, literally ‘filled with water’ – a sandesh with a filling of rosewater syrup!

His creation (besides the motichur sandesh, aam sandesh and khirpully sandesh) became a sensation and attracted patrons ranging from Rabindranath Tagore to Sri Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of Jansangh. We bit into a variant, the chocolate jolbhora as its gooey center dribbled down our chins. Sure it was no éclair as Chandernagore was no Pondicherry; yet the town’s mix of French and Bengali flavours held a tantalizing charm that was entirely unique.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Chandernagore lies 37km north of Kolkata, upstream on the Hooghly.

What to See
Liberty Gate, St Joseph’s Convent, Sri Nandadulal Temple, Chandernagore College, Sub Divisional Court, Sacred Heart Church, The Strand, Chandni, Patal Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Nundy Bari, Rabindra Bhavan, Gendarmerie (police station), Clocktower, Dupleix Palace & Museum

Where to Eat
Hotel de Chandannagar, Barabazar, GT Road Ph 9051489311 www.hotelde.in
Surjya Kumar Modak, Barasat, GT Road Ph 9831178348 www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 Dec 2018 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Secret Seven: 7 hideaways in the North East

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten track in India’s North East to come up with some hidden gems

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So you’ve done the Tibetan monastery trail from Tawang to Gangtok, the train ride on the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), tea bungalow stays in Upper Assam, the orchids of Sikkim, wildlife safaris at Kaziranga, and now wonder if the Seven Sisters have anything else to offer. You’d be surprised that there are still a few secret nooks in India’s exotic North East that remain shy of the teeming masses.

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Mechuka
Tucked away in the upper mountain folds of Arunachal’s West Siang district, Mechuka lies closer to the Chinese border than any town in India. Named after the hot springs in the area (men means medicine, chu is water while kha literally means snow or mouth), Mechuka is reached after a circuitous drive from Aalo. The Siyom or Yargyap chu river snakes across the wide plateau surrounded by an amphitheater of hills with bamboo bridges lined with Tibetan prayer flags. Being an advanced landing ground (ALG) for the Indian Army, you wake up to the sound of bagpipes and military drills as wild horses neigh in the fields. Before the road was built, the airstrip was the only access to the village. Stay at Nehnang Guest House and visit Tibetan monasteries like Samden Yongjhar gompa and Dorjeling gompa; the latter has a mud statue spanning two floors, besides the cave where Guru Nanak is believed to have meditated 500 years ago on his journey to Tibet.

Getting there: 180 km from Aalong (Aalo)

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Damro
Located on the back road from Pasighat to Yingkiong, the tiny hamlet of Damro is home to the longest hanging bridge in Arunachal Pradesh swaying over the Yamne river. Surrounded by terraced fields is Yamne Eco Lodge, a cluster of thatched bamboo houses run by Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions. Hike 40 minutes to the bridge and encounter Adi Padam herders heading to the forests to tend to their mithun, a semi-domesticated bovine. Visit the original village of the Adi Padam tribe and get an insight into their unusual Donyi-Polo culture dictated by sun and moon worship. Watch sprightly men wield daos (machetes) with ease as women carry firewood or harvested crops in beyen (cane baskets). Try the local staple of smoked pork, lai (leafs), raja chili chutney, apong (rice beer) and if you are lucky, experience their local festivals like Sollung or Etor livened by song and dance.

Getting there: 74 km from Pasighat
Ph 9863553243 Email aborcountry@gmail.com www.aborcountrytravels.com

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Nongriat
While Mawlynnong has gained much acclaim for its tag as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’ and its pretty living root bridge Jing Kieng Jri, Meghalaya has a huge wealth of natural wonders. At Nongriat, a deep descent from Laitkynsew down 2500 steep steps, past aquamarine pools set in a boulderscape, lies a double-decker bridge. It was shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. Every local passerby would spontaneously twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones, in keeping with an unwritten ancient code of strengthening the natural latticed structure over time. Dangling above a pretty pool, like a tiered necklace swinging in the tree canopy, Umshiang, the double-decker living root bridge, never fails to leave any visitor awestruck. Dip your feet in the pool for a natural fish spa with butterflies wafting around. If you are up for another hour of trekking, you can catch the Rainbow Falls, another major highlight in Nongriat. While there are pocket-friendly community-run guesthouses in Nongriat, Cherrapunji Resort in Laitkynsew is a good base. Run by Dennis Rayen, an old-timer in hospitality, he’s well versed in birding, local excursions and meteorological data of the region, displayed on the walls.

Getting there: Cherrapunji (called Sohra locally) is a 56km drive from Shillong
Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew www.cherrapunjee.com

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Hoollongopar Gibbon Sanctuary
Named after the profusion of hoolong trees (Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) in the area, the Hoollongopar sanctuary is the only one in the country dedicated to the protection of India’s sole ape species, the Hoolock Gibbon. Surrounded by tea plantations and a railway line, this tiny pocket was once connected to larger tracts of forests in neighbouring Nagaland. Despite its shrinking habitat, the park is a good place to spot Hoolock Gibbons besides troupes of Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Pig-tailed Macaque, Capped Langur and Bengal Slow Loris. There’s also a Forest Rest House where visitors can stay overnight and set out for an early morning nature trail. For a more luxurious stay, try Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari on the outskirts of Jorhat.

Getting there: 27km from Jorhat
Heritage North East Ph 18001239801 www.heritagetourismindia.com

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Siiro
While Ziro has garnered much attention for its music festival, nearby Siiro leads a life of relative obscurity. The pretty little village is home to an organic farmstay called Abasa, run by a charming couple Kago Kampu and Kago Habung. Staying with an Apatani family helps guests gain insights into the centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, recognizable by their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. The facial mutilation was apparently done to deter raiding tribes from abducting the beautiful women! Stay on the 10-hectare farm growing kiwi, tomato, cabbage, babycorn and rice as you get a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming of the Apatanis. Fish and rice form the staple with unique dishes like suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots, pork and tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf which is their secret to being slim) besides the local brew apong, made of fermented millet and rice.

Getting there: Siiro is 3km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.
Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email abasahomestay@gmail.com

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Dzukou Valley
Cradled between the borders of Manipur and Nagaland above 2000m, Dzukou Valley is an ecological haven that is home to the endemic Dzukou lily. Named dzukou or ‘soul-less and dull’ by disillusioned Angami ancestors after a disappointing harvest; others contend it means ‘cold water’ in the local dialect, ascribing it to the icy streams that run through it. The beauty of Dzukou Valley is unsurpassed, earning its more popular tag as the Valley of Flowers of the North East. Accessed by a tough hike across the Japfu Peak from the heritage village of Khonoma in Nagaland, the valley is a pristine paradise that attracts birders and trekkers alike. En route stop at the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary, set up to protect the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan. Khonoma is incidentally the country’s first green village where hunting and tree logging are strictly banned. Other access points are the villages of Viswema and Jakhama. Entry to Dzukou valley (Rs 50 for Indians, Rs 100 for foreigners) is paid at the Rest House, which also offers basic accommodation for a reasonable fee. A better option is staying at Meru Homestay in Khonoma run by Angami couple Krieni and Megongui who happily rustle up traditional Naga cuisine. Go on heritage walks around the 700-year-old village and listen to stories of valour in the land of headhunters.

Getting there: Khonoma lies 20km south west of Kohima which can be reached via NH39 from Dimapur, 74km away.
Ph Meru’s Homestay Ph 0370-2340061, Baby’s Homestay Ph 9436071046, Michael Megorissa local co-ordinator and guide Ph 9856125553

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

Kewzing
Overlooking snowy peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, Kewzing is a scenic village in Sikkim perched at 1700m and surrounded by cardamom fields and forested tracts. Hike to hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla. The altitudinal variation between the Rangit river valley (350m) and the highest hill Maenam (3500m) harbours nearly 200 bird species, including the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis. Bon Farmhouse, a 6-acre family-run farm helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam Bonpo is the perfect roost where farm produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals. Fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and buttermilk from the farm’s Jersey cows also land up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), kew (mushrooms) and ningro (wild ferns). Try Sikkimese delicacies like kinama (fermented soyabean), gundruk (fermented spinach) and fisnu (stinking nettles). Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest.

Getting there: 127 km from Bagdogra Airport
Ph +91 9735900165, 9547667788, 9434318496 www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in The New Indian Express Indulge in December 2018. 

 

 

The Jungfrau region: An artistic refuge

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Few know how the epic landscapes of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region inspired the literary legacy of Goethe and Tolkien, besides the spirit of adventure, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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For a country of hills and vales typified through the folkloric tales of William Tell and Heidi, it might come as a surprise to many that Switzerland is also the inspiration behind JRR Tolkein’s ‘Rivendell’. While New Zealand may have served as the shooting locale for the Lord of the Rings saga, it was the Swiss Alps in the Bernese Oberland (highlands of Bern Canton) that provided literary stimulus. In a letter written to his son in the 1950’s, Tolkien acknowledged that the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the other side of the ‘Misty Mountains’ was based on his own Swiss adventures in 1911.

As part of a group of 12, with his brother Hillary and friends, a 19-year-old Tolkien travelled on foot from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by mountain paths to the head of the valley, eastward over the two high passes Kleine and Grosse Scheidegge to Grindelwald and eventually Merringen. They continued over the Grimsel Pass through Upper Valais to Brig, the Aletsch Glacier and finished up in Zermatt and the Matterhorn. A new walking tour ‘There and Back Again’, retraces the 290km walking route, though we were content to follow most of the journey by train.

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The Bernese Oberland was the first place of mass tourism in Switzerland. British schoolboys came here for a break in the 1830s after finishing school. Before getting the world to travel, the first trip Thomas Cook ever took was to Interlaken in 1863. German composers Wagner and Mendelssohn, Mark Twain, Ted Roosevelt and a host of climbers came here. In 1874, the Bodeli Railway carried the first travelers from across the world to the Custom House, as Interlaken Ost was then called. With the opening of the Bernese Oberland Railway in 1890 and a ship jetty in 1891, tourism boomed.

After watching Deep Purple and local hero Gola at the Snowpenair Concert at Kleine Scheidegg few years ago courtesy Jungfrau Railways, we were here for another spectacular event. Golfing sensation and Omega brand ambassador Rory McIlroy was teeing off at the 22 km long Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps which ran to a depth of one mile, at Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe.

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We reached Interlaken Ost and took a connecting train to our base Grindelwald where we checked into Sunstar Hotels. Cradled at the base of the jagged north face of the Eiger, it overlooked the Snowpark Grindelwald First. Gondolas transported tourists to Schreckfeld and First for the thrill of ziplining down the First Flyer and First Glider, the new Cliff Walk by Tissot and the hour’s hike to the pristine mountain lake Bachalpsee, besides other adventures like Mountain Cart and Trotti Bikes.

It was the annual festival day so Grindelwald’s main avenue had been blocked with makeshift stalls selling handicrafts, local wines, winter wear and food. We grabbed a bratwurst and some churros before boarding a train to Wilderswil, from where the Schynige Platte Bahn took us on a steep 7.2 km ride on a cogwheel-railway track climbing 1400m to the famous alpine wildflower gardens of Schynige Platte. Built in 1893, this mountain railway completed 125 years this year.

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Man and machine seemed in harmony with nature as the locomotives bore names of alpine flowers. We were riding No.19 ‘Fluhblume’. Visitors can see nearly 600 species of plants and two thirds of all the flowers in the Alps on a circuit that’s only a kilometer long. Sometimes jet-black, sometimes silver in the evening sun after a thunderstorm, the plates of slate gleam from afar, giving Schynige Platte its name.

The train halted at Breitlauenen and we admired the view at Ferdinand Hodler lookout point, where one of the best-known Swiss painters of the nineteenth century sat to paint. His piece ‘The Woodcutter’ featured on the 50 Swiss Franc note. We were lucky to get some fresh feathery snowfall on the train ride winding through tunnels and a landscape blanketed in white.

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Two huge picture frames encourage visitors to capture the trio of mountains but the clouds masked the majestic view of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch. At Berghotel Schynige Platte we enjoyed a typical Swiss meal of goulash, Wilderer rosti with venison and Alpler rosti or hash browns with pan fried sausage and onion sauce.

Over 200 years ago, as the first visitors travelled to the Bernese Oberland, the Schynige Platte was already a favourite among the wealthy upper class. People thronged grand hotels in Interlaken besides inns and guesthouses in villages and valleys, driven by the maxim ‘up into the mountains, to the summits’. The hike from Schynige Platte to the Faulhorn and Grosse Scheidegg was a classic, done by day or moonlight. Back then, the train ‘saved four to five hours of walk and a cost of 20 to 25 francs for beasts of burden.’

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Early travel journals noted how the Jungfrau always seemed inaccessible and untouchable, hence its name Jungfrau (the maiden or virgin). In 1811 Jungfrau was scaled and the golden age of Alpine mountaineering culminated in the ascent of Eiger’s north face in 1933. But like people, even the trains had learned to climb. Adolf Guyer-Zeller envisioned the historic Jungfrau Railways, tunneling 7.2km through the Eiger and Monch to reach Europe’s highest railway station Jungfraujoch.

In 2001, the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region became the first area of outstanding natural beauty in Switzerland together with the Alpine region to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Today, one million visitors flock to the Top of Europe to delight in its snowy pleasures.

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From Alpine Sensation, Ice Palace, Sphinx observatory (reached by the fastest lift in Switzerland) to Swiss Chocolate Heaven by chocolatier Lindt, there’s lots to explore. Braving winds for a selfie with the Swiss flag at the Plateau, tourists shriek in delight as they go sledding or whooshing down the 250-m long zipline. The year-round accessibility only adds to the destination’s popularity.

Yet, the Jungfrau region is dotted with smaller villages that retain their rustic charm. From Kleine Scheidegg, we took the Wengernalp Bahn past the ‘pedestrian only’ village of Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, dubbed as the Valley with 72 glacial waterfalls. Well-fed Swiss cows munched on sweet-smelling Alpine grass, their tinkling bells forming a constant soundtrack. As the train took the final turn across the bridge, we got a magical view of the church and Staubbach Falls.

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The earliest travel guide to the Lauterbrunnen valley was published in 1768 by Bernese publisher Abraham Wager featuring illustrations by Swiss painter Caspar Wolf. It was a 45min walk from the train station to the base of the fall past pretty chalets and Horner ‘the best pub in town because we are the only one’. The cataract plummeted from a lofty 297 m in a misty spray – it was first measured on 28 July 1776. Like us, many painters, writers and travelers were captivated by its beauty.

Poet and composer Johann Wolfgang Goethe toured the Lauterbrunnen valley in 1779 with Duke Karl August von Weimar. The sight of Staubbach Falls delighted him so much that he called it a ‘most wonderful thing’ and wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters”. In his travel diary dated Sep 1816, Lord Byron noted how the sun made a rainbow in the waterfall. “I have never seen anything like it. It looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit, and was so near that one could just step into it.”

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One look at the scenery and Tolkien’s description of Rivendell came to life. Cascading waterfalls and a loud river that overlooked the three ‘Misty Mountain Peaks’ were no doubt based on Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The mines of Moria were inspired by the construction of the Jungfraubahn, which was being finished when Tolkien visited in 1911.

We learnt ‘Orc’ is a local name for a demon and how a picture postcard of a painting Der Berggeist (the mountain spirit) by German artist J Madlener depicting an old man with a white flowing beard wearing a wide brimmed hat and a long cloak, was the origin of Gandalf. We couldn’t agree more with Tolkien’s words – “I left the view of the Jungfrau with great regret – eternal snow etched as it seems against eternal sunshine.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Swiss from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train to Bern (1 hr 20 min) and take the connecting train to Interlaken Ost (54 min). www.swiss.com www.SwissTravelSystem.com

Getting Around
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes. Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch

Where to Stay
Carlton Europa, Interlaken
Sunstar Hotels, Grindelwald
Berghotel Schynige Platte
Oberland, Lauterbrunnen

Things to Do
Jungfraubahn to Jungfraujoch Top of Europe
First Flyer, First Glider, Tissot Cliff Walk, Mountain Cart
Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte
Hike from First to Bachalpsee
Walk to Staubbach waterfall in Lauterbrunnen
Harderbahn Funicular from Interlaken to Harder Kulm
BLS boat cruise on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz

For more info, visit www.myswitzerland.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 Nov, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday lifestyle supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Kigali: In the Land of a Thousand Hills

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With direct flights by RwandAir from Mumbai to Kigali, Rwanda’s vibrant capital has never seemed so attractive; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a Go Kigali city tour to experience its local sights, markets and cuisine 

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We flew out on Rwand Air and discovered that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali from Mumbai than driving to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa.

Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official program. Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative greeted us warmly at the airport and highlighted the city’s landmarks en route to our hotel.

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“That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state.” When Indian PM Modi visited Rwanda in July this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour. Modi also donated 200 cows to villagers at Rweru under President Paul Kagame’s Girinka program (literally ‘May you have a cow’ in the local Kinyarwanda dialect) where every poor family receives one cow for sustenance. In a country where cows are held in high regard, this gesture won lots of Rwandan hearts.

We soon reached the swanky Kigali Marriott Hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Inside the massive executive suite, a personalized note, macaroons and a dry fruit platter awaited us. The view from the balcony was stupendous.

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A ‘no photography’ sign on the glass door was bewildering. The steward quickly explained that the hotel faced the high-security presidential quarters! On the other side were a line of embassies, leaving us chuffed to be staying in the posh diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the CBD (Central Business District).

Sauntering downstairs to Soko restaurant (literally ‘market’), we admired the entire wall decorated with traditional woven agasake baskets. Besides a massive spread we were intrigued to find faratas and chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner! Rwanda has many Indian settlers who influenced the local cuisine. We tried the local staple kaunga (steamed corn stew) and matoke (green banana and beef stew).

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It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

In the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907 Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first resident. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally ‘expansive’. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills!

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Kandt built the first brick house in town at Nyarugenge, which had great weather and afforded good views. It became a Museum of Natural History but all the exhibits had been moved out except the lone baby crocodile in a pool and a collection of snakes in a small enclosure at the back.

The building presently serves as the Kandt House Museum outlining Rwanda’s colonial history and culture. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908. During this period, Kigali had a population of 2000 with 420 foreigners, mostly Arabs and Indians, besides 9 Germans!

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During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide, where nearly a million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in premeditated attacks by the interim government.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a moving reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past, where locals often come to be reunited with their loved ones. Rwanda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 and April 7 is observed by the United Nations as the Day of Remembrance of the victims.

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We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda.

It was unbelievable that the country had emerged from the Dark Ages in the late-90s into what is its Golden Age of development. It is a gritty story of healing, forgiveness and coming to terms with their past to build a better future. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa and Kigali is so clean, you could literally eat off the wide pavement-lined avenues!

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The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Rwanda is also the safest country in Africa for women and the ease of doing business has been streamlined by merging all nodal agencies into RDB (Rwanda Development Board). You can open a business within 24 hours of landing here!

Back at Kigali Marriott we grabbed some ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative at the Iriba Bar & Terrace and fried sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in early 20th century and ibirayi is derived from uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’! After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa we whiled away the evening happy hours at the posh Executive Lounge.

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The hotel has special Indian, Asian and African theme nights, besides wine tastings and live jazz but we savoured some gnocchi and baked captain fish at their Italian restaurant Cucina. Our friend from an earlier trip to Zambia, Davidson Mugisha of Wildlife Tours Rwanda dropped by to show us a bit of Kigali’s legendary nightlife, as we barhopped from Riders at Kigali Heights to Fuchsia Lounge.

Kigali Marriott has an outlet of Go Kigali, which organizes local city tours and we set off on a half-day excursion the next day. The small boutique also stocks lovely handmade products sourced from all over Africa. Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys.

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Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. Southwest of CBD, the suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders.

Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s. With its busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is hailed as the coolest neighbourhood in Kigali.

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We trawled local milk bars, cafes, mural walks and markets like Kimironko where Colombe taught us how to eat tree tomato and passion fruit like locals as we marveled at the rows of baskets heaped with rainbow-hued beans. We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu – ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, goat curry, fish and aubergine curry, beef pilao, avocado and beans.

That evening we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some more agasake peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw/
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com/

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Must Do
City tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Pay your respect at Kigali Genocide Memorial
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga
Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant
Shop for agasake and souvenirs at Ikaze & Kimironko Market
Clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club, Bougainvilla
Gorilla trekking with Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 3 Nov, 2018 in HT City, Hindustan Times newspaper.