Maldives: Romancing the Blues

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY fly GoAir to Malé and discover an isle of bliss in the Indian Ocean – Mövenpick Resort Kuredhivaru at Noonu Atoll in the Maldives

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Who could have imagined that in under two hours, a direct GoAir flight from Bengaluru would literally deposit us on a dreamy island cluster in the middle of the Indian Ocean? We were on the seasonal winter flight (return fares to Malé from Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai start at just Rs.9,999, available till January end). According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, GoAir topped the On-Time-Performance Chart for 15 months in a row till November last year! However, December was festive season and Malé sure had a lot of air traffic. The captain’s voice crackled on the PA system “I expect to be floating around for another 35 minutes until I receive air clearance to land. Sincere apologies for the inconvenience… but this situation is beyond our control.”

So we hovered over the clouds, taking in the spectacular birds’ eye view. Malé, the island capital looked like a long strip of land, populated by mosques, markets and colourful clusters of tall buildings neatly arranged like a LEGO set. The bustling mercantile city is ringed by a coral reef and waters spangled with boats. The urban mood here contrasts the laidback setting of the islets and atolls around.

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It was pretty apparent why Maldives remains one of the top honeymoon destinations in the world – it fits every definition of a tropical paradise with crystal clear waters in every shade of blue, hotels and resorts to suit every budget and private island resorts luring one to venture further to the faraway atolls for privacy, comfort and the perfect ambience for romance. Its proximity made it a top choice for Indians in particular. Many on the flight were newlyweds; the fresh mehendi, sindoor and lac bangles on the young girls were a dead giveaway.

Travelling Business Class on GoAir brought all the perks of seat choice with more leg room, pillows and blankets for a restful ride. With friendly staff, hot meals and priority baggage, the on-board experience and landing procedure was literally a breeze. After immigration check at Velana International airport, we collected our bags and were whisked to the Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) VIP lounge for coffee and snacks where we awaited our seaplane to Kuredhivaru.

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With just 10-12 seats, these were the most convenient modes of transport to access the luxury resorts set on remote islands and atolls. The nearby islands had ferries and motorboats and we noticed several folks queuing up outside the airport. Our address, the Mövenpick Resort Kuredhivaru was located in the tranquil northern part of Maldives in Noonu Atoll, a 55-minute flight away.

Being a hopping flight, we watched guests disembark onto a deck mid-ocean – not your everyday landing spot! Their motorboat was on its way but they looked positively marooned as we took off. A while later, we were in for the same adventure! At dusk we landed by a bobbing deck, disembarked and clung to the railings as waves and gusty winds bounced all around us. In the distance, the yellow lights of Movenpick Kuredhivaru, our address for a few days, glimmered seductively as we heard the whirr of a speedboat coming towards us.

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Greeted by the staff at the end of a long jetty that snaked like a ramp towards the hotel reception and lobby, we cat-walked down its lit-up length, cautiously glancing at the waters below. Downing the welcome drink and after a brief check-in, we were carted off to our exclusive Overwater Pool Villa. Designed to floor guests the moment they enter, each villa has a glass-floored foyer. The thrill of watching parrot fish and manta rays swimming right under our feet is inexplicable.

Our bedroom had a spacious dresser on one side and a plushy bath on the other, fitted with a gorgeous bathtub overlooking the sea, separate shower and WC cubicles, twin wash basins and driftwood framed mirrors besides large outdoor tanning decks with a plunge pool. The minimalist décor lauds the unspoiled splendor of uninterrupted ocean views with large ceiling to floor glass doors. Another wow factor was the creative use of 3.5 million coconut shell tips, cut into small neat squares that cladded the sliding doors, headboards and amenities’ counters in the rooms.

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Dinner was an elaborate affair at Onu Marché, the main waterfront all-day dining restaurant serving global cuisine and international buffets. Set on the beach overlooking the Dive Centre, it flaunted a high, acutely sloped bamboo roof with indoor and outdoor seating. Onu Marché translates to ‘bamboo marketplace’ in Divehi, the Maldivian language. With signature chef specialties for a Mediterranean themed night, a laden buffet counter and tapas section besides live cooking stations, we were spoilt for choice.

Sipping tropical cocktails and wine, we sampled amazing seafood paella besides wholesome slices of cheesy grilled pizza topped with aubergine and peppers and Swiss-style gourmet grilled cheese raclette, enjoying live music under its breezy market-style setting. The dessert counter at the far end, rounded off the evening with delectable double scoops of Mövenpick ice-cream and chocolate. Needless to say we were back here for a beachside breakfast the next morning.

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The following day way we took a tour around the resort, exploring its sun-dappled pathways and spacious villas and suites nestled in the woods with easy access to the beach. The 3-bedroom Beach Spa Pool Residence was a luxurious option, ideal for a large group or family of six adults or four adults with kids. Packed with amenities, a lavish living and dining area, spacious baths, even a private double spa treatment room with a 1-hr daily massage thrown in, it wore the perfect vibe for a private beach party with no one else around!

Lunch at Latitude 5.5 was an Asian experience with delicious prawn laksa and Singapore noodles tossed with stir fried pork and prawns. The beach and dazzling blue waters by the restaurant was gorgeous, enticing several guests to take a dip, float in the sea or lounge on their beach towels for a mandatory tan; though some were sunburnt to a lobster red!

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After we turned a happy umber, we lumbered back to soak ourselves in our plunge pool over the house reef. Being a family friendly resort, we watched parents encouraging their kids to indulge in water sports activities. The Little Birds Club was a convenient addition with engaging activities for kids – arts and crafts, nature walks, outdoor games and storytelling, dance, music, a kid’s pool, etc.

The two days went by in a blur – borrowing fins and equipment from the Dive Centre for some self guided exploration of the house reef, snorkeling and turtle spotting at Kendhikulhudhoo Island – a 30-minute boat ride away, luxuriating in the signature Raahlu (literally ‘ocean wave’) therapy at Sun Spa by Esthederm, the daily ritual of the Chocolate Hour at 4:30pm and dining on the day’s catch at Bodumas, the overwater seafood restaurant. Soon, it was time to say goodbye…

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Our last dinner with the wonderful Mövenpick team (James Kiragu, Vaibhav, Jamila with Beral, Mohit and Khae attending to us) was truly special – a jungle theme dining experience by the beach with fire torches and lanterns featuring delicious traditional Indian cuisine. Led from the front by their General Manager Maciej Gruszecki (Matt), the whole team epitomized what Swiss precision and warm Maldivian hospitality was all about. Their personal attention ensured that all their guests have a memorable holiday and often return. A big thank to you all and Ankita and Shirali from GoAir and Amisha of Accor Hotels for a beautiful Maldivian experience.

On the flight back from Malé to Bangalore, we met Capt. Anup Ghosh and the GoAir team whose impeccable onboard service guaranteed a comfortable and restful business-class experience. Getting to Maldives has never been easier. However, saying Dhanee (‘goodbye’ in Dhivehi) was probably the hardest thing to do.

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FACT FILE

Getting there:
Fly direct to Velana International Airport, Malé from Bangalore, Mumbai or Delhi (2 hrs). Choose from national carriers Air India or Air Maldives, or low cost airlines like GoAir. www.goair.com

Getting around:
Head to the Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) lounge from where seaplanes fly you to your island resort (20 mins to 1 hr). www.transmaldivian.com

Where to Stay:
Mövenpick Kuredhivaru Resort
Ph +960 656 3000
www.movenpick.com

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Theme Dinners at Onu Marché
Monday – Barbeque
Tuesday – International
Wednesday – Maharaja
Thursday – Spanish
Friday – Arabic
Saturday – Fisherman Night with local cuisine
Sunday – Mediterranean

For more info, www.visitmaldives.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was written exclusively for the blog, courtesy GoAir and Mövenpick Kuredhivaru Resort Maldives/Accor Hotels.

‘Tis the Season: Europe’s Best Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take in the colours, aroma and treats of the merriest Christmas markets in Europe  

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Christmas is easily the most eagerly anticipated season for millions around the world. Come December and you cannot escape the refrain of Christmas carols, the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts on the streets and the wintry air scented with the spicy aroma of cinnamon and warm mulled wine. Dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees shimmer like towers of light, angels and elves grace rooftops and shop windows, streams of light rain down old timbered homes, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Christmas markets.

Every town interprets the traditional Advent Calendar, with surprises and treats unveiled each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with three-dimensional designs. Local craftsmen set up stalls around medieval Town Halls selling knitted woollen clothes, nutcrackers, stars, bells, candles, toys, besides objects made of wood, glass, stone and ceramic. The festive season is at its glorious best all across Europe and here’s a guide to the very best.

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Germany
When it comes to Christmas markets, Germany truly takes the stollen (cake). With a tradition dating back to 1393, every city has multiple markets, each with a particular theme and special local treats. In the Harz region at Wernigerode a quaint medieval town of half-timbered houses near Hannover, the Mayor cuts a giant stollen to declare the market open. Known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling), a special Christmas train chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is named after hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as Dresden Christstollen (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market around the Old City Hall of Cologne ladles out traditional gluhwein (mulled wine) and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near the Cathedral with hundreds of stage performances throughout the festival. Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt is lined with Bavarian stalls that dish out Nuremberger sausages, lebkuchen and zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped plum treats!

The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a medieval market, a fairytale forest and the largest freestanding Advent calendar in the world. Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt and Christkindlmarkt. With the stunning Gendarmenmarkt Square and WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus witnesses Christmas-themed parades and circus performers every Saturday. Hundreds of decorated stalls at Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt compete to win the award for the ‘most beautiful stall’.

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Zurich, Switzerland
At Basel, the Christmas market is split into two sections – Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. But if you can’t get there, central Zurich is a good place to catch the Yuletide spirit. The Hauptbahnhof or Main Train Station hosts the Christkindlimarkt with a 49 ft tall Christmas tree sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lined with stalls, it is one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe.

Wienachtsdorf, Zurich’s oldest and largest Christmas market is held in front of the Opera House in the picturesque Old Town. The whole season is packed with events – Advent concerts, Lichterschwimmen or candle-floating event and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display hosted by Zurich hoteliers. Don’t forget to grab Swiss delights like raclette and fondue.

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Budapest, Hungary
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is the oldest market in the Hungarian capital and takes place at Vörösmarty Square. The city center wears a festive air with light shows, folk dancing, live music and over a hundred stalls selling Christmas gifts, traditional Hungarian food and freshly grilled flódni, the Hungarian chimney cake. The exterior of the famous Gerbeaud Coffee House is converted into a giant advent calendar, with a new window display opening every day.

The Advent Feast, the open-air festive-season market, takes place in Szent István Square at St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s largest church dedicated to Stephen, the country’s first king. Lined with vendors and an ice skating rink for children, it has folk dance shows on weekends. Try lencseleves or lentil soup, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.

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Belgrade, Serbia
Serbia is Orthodox Christian and Christmas is aligned to the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one, so festivities are centered around 7 January rather than 25 December. However, celebrations are in full swing for a month. Belgrade’s main square, Trg Republike, is transformed into the Open Heart Street with colourful wooden huts selling Christmas delicacies and drinks. The two-week long New Year fair features an indoor amusement park, a skating rink, concerts and shows, a beer festival and souvenir stalls.

At the annual Santa Race thousands dress up as Deda Mraz (literally ‘Grandpa Frost’ as Santa is known as Serbia) or Mrs Claus, and run through the capital for charity. As per Serbian tradition, badnjak or an oak branch is symbolically burned in homes on Christmas Eve and a public lighting is held at St Sava Temple. The centrepiece of the feast is pecenica (roast pork), typical winter treats like sarma, mince and rice wrapped and slow cooked in cabbage leaves besides cesnica, a bread with a coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the portion with the coin will receive good fortune in the year ahead.

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Krakow, Poland
During Christmas, the old Polish capital of Krakow (Cracow) in the south comes alive and the tantalizing smoky aroma of grilled meat and cheese hangs heavy in the winter air. The city’s main Christmas market is held in Rynek Glowny, the huge main square in the middle of the Old Town. With a stunning backdrop of the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, rows of wooden stalls sell hand-painted Christmas baubles, spiced nuts, boiled candies and Christmas goodies.

Taste traditional Polish dishes on a Krakow Christmas Market Food Tour – Polish dumplings, special sausages, oscypek (smoked cheese) served with cranberry jelly and smalec, a traditional spicy spread made of lard and served over hot slices of bread. Don’t miss the procession of the Krakow Christmas Crib Contest.

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Copenhagen, Denmark
In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, all the Yuletide action revolves around the Tivoli Gardens, which is bedecked with more than 500,000 fairy lights. Three different light shows are held in the park, a traditional Pixie Band plays festive songs at various points and firework displays dazzle the skies on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Don’t miss Danish treats like aebleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar or honninghjerter, dense honey cake often filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze.

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Tallinn, Estonia
In a recent poll, Tallinn the beautiful Estonian capital was chosen as the #1 European Christmas Destination 2019. Beautiful location by the Baltic Sea, a well-preserved walled, cobblestoned Old Town and a rich Christmas tradition give medieval Tallinn an unbeatable appeal. The Town Hall Square Christmas tree, which has been set up since 1441 and was one of the first to be displayed in Europe. There’s also a winter grotto, performances by choirs, poets and dance troupes. rows of huts, where you can pick up traditional handmade gifts and try out Estonian cuisine like black pudding and sour cabbage.

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Strasbourg, France
The Strasbourg Christkindelsmärik is the oldest Christmas market in France, dating back to 1570. Set up in the heart of the UNESCO world heritage site Grande Île, the market radiates from the city centre around Cathedral square and Place Broglie. At Place Kleber, you’ll find the Grand Sapin (Great Christmas Tree) lit up with 7km of lights. Earlier, people used to put presents for the poor under the tree. Today, it hosts the ‘Village of Sharing’ where charity stalls sell souvenirs and food for a cause.

There are numerous markets all over Strasbourg’s beautiful squares reachable through quaint narrow alleyways. For Alsatian tastes and flavours visit the stalls by local growers at Place des Meuniers while Place du Marché-aux-poissons, around the Palais Rohan has a Christmas treats market with beer, wine, vin chaud (mulled wine) and local eats like bretzel (French version of the German pretzel) and choucroute or grated cabbage pickled in wine, accompanied by sausages and slow-cooked pork.

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Zagreb, Croatia
Having been voted the best Christmas Market in Europe three years in a row means that Zagreb can no longer compete but that takes away little of its charm. In the Croatian capital, all the action takes place around Jelačić Square, which dons the air of a carnival. An ice park at King Tomislav Square, live Nativity scene at Zagreb Cathedral, ice sculpture carvings, pop-up bars, street food stands, outdoor music stages; there’s even an area dedicated to fuliranje (fooling around) at Strossmayer where revelers can dance in the street and eat and drink to their heart’s content. Try local fare like orahnjača (walnut roll) and kiflice (vanilla half moon biscuits). Ride the Jolly Christmas Tram through the city center accompanied by Santa and his elves.

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Vienna, Austria
The first Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) was held in 1298 and today the Austrian capital has over 20 events to choose from – from the Museums Quarter to Belvedere Palace, an Art & Craft market at Karlsplatz in front of the Karlskirche or even a Vegan Advent Market! For the perfect introduction, head straight to the Viennese Christmas Market at Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.

Nearly 150 stalls dish out sausages, kiachl (doughnuts from Tyrol served with cranberry jam), Schilcher glühwein (mulled wine from Styria) and Raclette Brot (bread with warm Alps cheese). The highlight is the huge ice skating rink, reindeer rides for kids and a classic nativity scene. Vienna is good to visit all year round but in Christmas it becomes a winter wonderland with video projections on facades of historic buildings.

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Prague, Czech Republic
The two main Christmas markets in Prague are held at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, literally a five minute walk from each other! Catch the day’s festivities at Wenceslas with some Czech beers like Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and Staropramen in the afternoon, then hang around the Old Town Square for the main tree to be lit up. For a truly local experience head to Peace Square in Vinohrady! Wooden huts dish out Christmas treats like svarák (Czech mulled wine), vanočka (braided cake), klobása (Czech sausage) and trdelník, barbecued pork pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.

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Brussels, Belgium
Brussels’s Winter Wonders is more a party than a Christmas Market, with over 200 wooden chalets serving glühwein, Belgian beers and waffles. The event is spread out across multiple locations – the Bourse (stock exchange), Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte Catherine, Marche aux Poissons and Grand-Place with a light and sound show projected onto it. Other attractions include a covered ice rink, a huge Christmas tree and a giant Ferris wheel.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 December, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.  

 

Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary: A river runs through

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the once dreaded Chambal ravines to see how conservation has transformed its wild past to unparalleled wildlife and a river teeming with crocs, skimmers and other secrets

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Carved by the river and eroded by flood and rain, the Chambal ravines run in a 2-6 km wide network of mud cliffs and scrub forest on either side of the Chambal River. For centuries, Chambal’s beehad (wilderness) has been the perfect hideout for those wanting to go off the grid – Rajput soldiers escaping Muslim persecution after the fall of Kannauj and Delhi, freedom fighters and rebel sepoys during the 1857 war of independence, villagers absconding after property and caste disputes to renegades, castaways and bandits. Could there be a better hiding spot for those on the run than this riverine maze at the tri-junction of three states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh?

The Mahabharata and Kalidasa’s Meghadootam identify the ancient Chambal river as Charmanyavati or the ‘River of Hides’ (çarman in Sanskrit means ‘hide’), on whose banks leather was dried. According to legend, the river allegedly originated from the blood of thousands of animals sacrificed by Aryan king Rantideva of Dasapura (now Mandsaur). It was on the banks of the Chambal, believed to be part of Shakuni’s kingdom, that the infamous game of dice between the Kauravas and Pandavas took place. When Draupadi was nearly disrobed after being wagered in the game of dice, she cursed the river for silently witnessing her humiliation and cried “Henceforth, anyone who drinks from its waters would be filled with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.”

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The legend seemed to ring true as long as bands of dacoits roamed the ravines seeking retribution. After most of them were killed and the others surrendered or joined politics, the pristine riverine tract was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 to help revive populations of gharial and marsh crocodiles. It was time for muggers of another kind to take over… The Chambal is one of the few large unpolluted rivers in North India before it meets the Yamuna, which drains into the Ganga.

Spread over 5400 sq km, the reserve is jointly administered by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The sanctuary begins downstream of the Kota barrage in Rajasthan with its lower boundary near Panchnada, 5km after its confluence with the Yamuna at Bhareh. National Chambal Sanctuary is among the last surviving habitats of the highly endangered Gangetic River Dolphin (75 as per last census) and harbours over 1255 endemic fish-eating gharials (Gavialis gangeticus), 562 muggers or marsh crocodiles, eight species of turtles, smooth-coated otters and nearly 330 bird species at last count.

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From our base, Chambal Safari Lodge, we set off on a jeep ride past Bah to Nadgavan Ghat boat jetty. We watched in amazement as camel herders guided a retinue of camels loaded with firewood across the Chambal. One could go on camel safaris along the ravines, but we opted for a boat cruise down the river. Turtles basked on the edge, large open jawed crocs sunned themselves and baby gharials peeped from tiny burrows in the river bank. The distinct ghara or pot-shaped snouts gives them the name gharial. Nearly 200-300 nests are produced each year, resulting in around 8000 hatchlings, of which only 2-3% survive!

Chambal is one of the best places to see large populations of Indian Skimmers, besides Black-bellied Tern, Thickknee and Pratincole. We spotted a large flock of skimmers, their curved orange beaks gleaming in the sun. As our boat approached they took off in their signature lop-sided flight, putting on a synchronized airshow with their wings literally skimming the water’s edge. Our naturalist trained his binocs to spot Black Ibis, Black-necked Storks, shags and Greater cormorants on sandy islets or the odd Gangetic dolphin breaking the surface. A sudden movement in the dry scrub shifted our focus to a lone wild fox, camouflaged perfectly; he stared at us warily before skulking away.

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Across the northern bank, a 2km hike led us to the fort of Ater, earlier known as Devagiri (Mountain of the Gods). Overlooking a key spot over the ravines, its lonely turrets and bastions are a great perch for raptors, especially Cinerous Vultures. Built in mid 17th century by Bhadoria Rajput chiefs Badan Singh Judeo and Maha Singh, the fort is accessed from the western gate with the entrance bearing traces of wall art, floral motifs and geometric designs. There are seventeen bastions and four entrances including Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate) and Hathiaphor and remnants of palace complexes with pavilions and balconies offering great views.

We returned to Chambal Safari Lodge at Jarar, set in a 120-acre farm run by Ram Pratap Singh and his wife Anu, an environment scientist. Jarar was the main seat of RP’s family since 1472 and the 1890s lodge served as a field camp for the mela (cattle fair) held twice a year, hence the name Mela Kothi. Ethnic cottages were set in blocks among thickets of vibrant bougainvillea and named after local trees and birds – Gharial was a heritage room in Mela Kothi, Dolphin and Sarus in the guest wing Imli Serai, Hans and Surkhab in Bougan Serai, Koel, Thickknee, Hornbill and Spoonbill in Neem Serai and Ibis, Tern, Skimmer and Barbet in Shisham Serai.

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Thanks to its low carbon footprint, the eco-lodge was voted among the world’s Top 10 eco lodges in 2010 and won the INTACH Heritage Tourism Award in 2011, besides a clutch of responsible tourism awards. Camel rides, jeep safaris, village walks, river cruises; all activities involve the local community including camel herders, woodcutters and boatmen. Much of the kitchen produce and milk is sourced from the farm or local farmers and we enjoyed the fresh home-cooked buffets in the renovated late 18th century stable, surrounded by old trees and gardens.

After a jeep safari around the countryside to spot blackbuck, Indian coursers and the Sarus crane, we drove to Bateshwar, 9km away. As part of an eco-tourism project undertaken by the Chambal Conservation Foundation, Chambal Safari Lodge has renovated the family’s riverside retreat The Kunj. Located on a scenic curve of the Yamuna River with a private jetty and ghat, we admired the sweeping crescent of Bateshwar’s temples from the rooftop.

Bateshwar Ghats

Perched on a raised platform with ghats leading down to the river, the complex once had 108 Shiva temples built by kings, traders and devotees. Sadly, only 40 remain, thanks to the Yamuna’s shifting course. From The Kunj, one can take boat rides and a guided tour of the temples, ending with a brief prayer performed by the priest.

The name Bateshwar is derived from the main shrine of Bateshwarnath Mahadev, dedicated to Batuknath, Lord Shiva’s young ascetic form as he rested under a vat or bat vriksh; an old banyan tree still shelters the shrine. The whitewashed temples are dedicated to various forms of Shiva – the five-faced Sri Panchmukheshwar Mahadev, the underground Pataleshwar temple and Gowrishankar or Lord Shiva with his family. Just across the temple complex are mud caves and teelas (hillocks) inhabited by sadhus.

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Every purnima (full moon night), Bateshwar’s ghats come alive in a grand maha aarti. Thousands congregate on Karthik Purnima for a cleansing dip in the river. Around Diwali a big month-long cattle fair is held on the floodplains of the Yamuna. Believed to be the oldest mela in the country, the Bateshwar Fair is the second largest animal fair in India after Sonepur Mela in Bihar.

After 10 days of hectic animal trading – camels, horses, elephants, donkeys, oxen, cows and goats – there’s a brief lull of a few days before the religious fair kicks in, bringing on a colourful pageantry of rural India. And then, just like that, the riverbed empties and the river flows through silently, the stillness occasionally broken by the gentle ‘plop’ of a turtle diving in…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
By Road: Access points are Bah (65 km from Agra via Fatehabad) and Dholpur (46km from Agra/Gwalior, 252 km from Delhi via NH3).
By Air: The nearest airport is Agra (63km).
By Train: The nearest railhead Bah has limited connectivity. The nearest major railway stations are Etawah 50km away or Agra, 65km away.

Where to Stay
Chambal Safari Lodge
Mela Kothi, Village Jarar, Tehsil Bah, District Agra, Uttar Pradesh 238104
Ph +91-9997066002, 9837415512, 9719501517 www.chambalsafari.com
Tariff Rs.6,000-9,500+tax

What to do
River Safari (3hr) from boat jetty at Nadgavan Ghat, 25km/35 min from the lodge via Jarar, Badagaon and Jaitpur. Jeep safaris (Blackbuck and Sarus Trails) and Camel Rides to Ater Fort (Rs.2,500/person) also arranged, besides Guided Walking Tour (Rs.1500/person) at Bateshwar.
Ph 9997066002, 9837415512 www.bateshwar.co.uk

MP eco-tourism boating on Chambal at Dholpur Bridge
Indians, Rs.1500/boat, Foreigners Rs.3000/boat (1 hr, max 6 people), Rs.150 guide, Rs.25/person Forest Dept entry fee, Camera Rs.50.

When to go
The best time to go is October to April. The month-long Bateshwar fair is held in Oct-Nov. Autumn and winter are ideal for birdwatching, when altitude migrants from the upper Himalayas and the Arctic are present.

Contact
DCF National Chambal Sanctuary, Mau Road, Agra, UP Ph 0562 2530091
DFO Morena, Madhya Pradesh, Ph 07532-234742
CCF Gwalior Ph 0751-2340050

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in May 2019 in Shubh Yatra magazine. 

Offbeat Heritage: It’s Monumental

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On the occasion of The International Day for Monuments and Sites (18 April) or World Heritage Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover lesser known places of heritage in India

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We stared wide-eyed at Mahabat Maqbara. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined stumbling upon a monument as grand as this in dusty Junagadh. Built in 1892 for Nawab Mahabat Khan II (1851-1882), the mausoleum was a unique blend of European and Indo-Islamic architecture.

French windows stretched from floor to lintel and Gothic columns shared space alongside Islamic arches and ornate flourishes. Adjacent, and similar in grandeur, stood the florid mausoleum of the Vizier Sheikh Mohamed Bahauddinbhai Hasambhai surrounded by four minarets with elaborate spiral stairways.

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The historic town in southern Gujarat had its share of monuments – from Ashokan edicts to Buddhist caves of Uperkot Fort, the sacred Girnar Hill dotted with shrines and mind numbing murals of the Darbargadh at the old capital of Sihor. It’s hard to stand out in a country with a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage heavyweights…

The Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, the monuments of Delhi, forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Khajuraho-Orchha, Buddhist caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the Kailasanatha temple, the Sanchi stupa, churches of Old Goa, ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, stunning Hoysala temples at Belur-Halebid to Chalukyan architecture at Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal and the Great Living Chola temples of Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram…

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Yet, on our journeys through Gujarat, we came across a wealth of lesser-known treasures – from stepwells, gateways to monuments. UNESCO World Heritage site Champaner-Pavagadh is a vast archeological park near Baroda spread over 2500 acres with monuments stretching from Pavagadh Hill, an early Hindu citadel extending to Champaner, the 15th century capital of Sultan Mahmud Begda (1458-1511) of Gujarat.

Now reclaimed by bramble, the old mosques flanked by minarets with arched entrances and jharokhas take the breath away of any visitor. Shaher ki Masjid was built for the royal family and nobles, the Nagina, Khajuri and Kevda Masjids were named after the shape of the dome and the Jami Masjid was counted among the finest mosques in Gujarat.

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A drive to the Statue of Unity from Baroda, passes through Dabhoi, an ancient fortified town known for its old fort and exquisitely carved gateways. The main entrance is the intricate Hira Bhagol (Gate), extending to the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. The spectacular gateway harks to the legend of its architect Hiradhar, who was buried here alive because the king feared that he would replicate a similar masterpiece for someone else. Some say Hira ran short of stones, thereby incurring the king’s wrath.

A hidden gem and one of Surat’s most important historical monuments are the European tombs of merchants and functionaries of the East India Company who worked in the factories at Surat. The English Cemetery has the impressive grave of the Oxenden brothers while the most majestic structure in the Dutch cemetery is the octagonal tomb of Baron Hendrik Adrian van Rheede. The adjacent Armenian cemetery has no superstructure, only elaborately inscribed tombstones.

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In neighbouring Rajasthan, an oft-overlooked destination is Bikaner, with its Rampuria havelis, Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace and Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of Bikaner’s last maharaja which has been recently renovated with rooms and décor inspired by his life and times.

Stay at Bhanwar Nivas or Gaj Kesri while going on tonga rides through the Old City or do the specially curated Merchants Trail. Mandawa in Shekhawati used to be an important stopover en route to Bikaner but the region is worthy of deeper exploration.

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In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), scion of the Shekhawat clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast area north of Amber. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms), raising new villages, forts and palaces, which attracted Marwari traders.

Using riches amassed through trade, the merchants built flamboyant painted havelis, often vying to outdo the other. Located at the junction of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu the 13,784 sq km area called Shekhawati is thus described as ‘the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan’.

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Nawalgarh, founded by Thakur Nawal Singh, has stunning mansions like the late 18th century Morarka Haveli and Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. The Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawal Singh ji for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati with the biggest mansion being Sawalka Haveli. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town.

In Himachal, we found another heritage town called Garli. It is said that the 52 clans of the hill Sood community were driven out of Rajasthan by marauding Mughals and came to the Kangra Valley. Here, they became treasurers of the Kangra royals and as contractors, helped the British built Shimla. Settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away, they used their riches to set up palatial homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Many are crumbling but few like Chateau Garli and Naurang Yatri Nivas have been painstakingly restored and thrown open to visitors.

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A heritage walk through the cobbled meandering alleys is the best way to explore the town. The Spiti Left Bank Trek takes you to high altitude villages like Komic, the highest in Asia with a stunning old monastery, and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling gompa that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall.

Another relatively undiscovered architectural treasure is Burhanpur in Central India. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and finishing centre where princes and princesses were groomed. Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana all served as governors for over three decades each. Burhanpur has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. Here, Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic in Adil Shah’s two mosques Jama Masjid in Burhanpur and the lofty citadel of Asirgarh.

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The riverside palace complex Shahi Kila was expanded into Mughalbagh by the Mughals who overthrew the Farookis. Here, Shah Jahan built a grand hamam for Mumtaz Mahal suffused with paintings and inlaid with precious stones to reflect the lamp light. The entire ceiling is redolent with intricate paintings and a closer look reveals how some of the iconic motifs seem to be inspired by royal turbans and accessories worn by Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Begum.

Not many know that Mumtaz died in Burhanpur while giving birth to her fourteenth child and was laid to rest at her beloved Ahukhana, a hunting ground turned rose garden. Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana underground Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time; it lay hidden under a mound of earth until excavated 25 years ago.

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There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvelous monument with exquisite murals that is kept under lock and key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, thankfully still intact in portions.

Some sites remain imprinted in our minds vividly because of the sheer impact, be it the massive rock cut Jain statues on Gopachal Parvat while climbing up to Gwalior Fort or the gigantic Buddhist figurines of Kanheri caves in Borivali, Mumbai. From the blue and gold motifs of Raja Man Singh’s fort in Gwalior to the sight of the tomb of Bahmani sultans at Ashtur struck by lightning or the soaring madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi)…

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Be it the glazed finesse of the pillars and carvings at the Madhukeshwara temple in Banavasi, the old capital of the Kadambas or the symmetry of the twin temples of Mosale near Hassan; we tried to go beyond the known to the lesser known. If the terracotta temples of Bishnupur and West Bengal are overdone, try the terracotta temple complex of Maluti in Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, the ruins at Tala on the banks of the Maniari river is a fascinating site. Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the twin Shiva shrines of Devrani (Young Sister-in-law)-Jethani (Elder Sister-in-law). Exquisite carvings lie strewn like a jigsaw puzzle – remains of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads and outré bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles).

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Beside an ornate doorway, the 8.8 ft tall sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed figure of Daksha bowed in reverence. The statue of Mahakal Rudra weighs 9 tonnes and is intriguing as it’s believed to represent the signs of the zodiac – coiled snakes for matted locks, two fish instead of a moustache, round chin shaped like a crab, stomach in the form of a kumbh (pot), two lion heads for knee caps and waist marked by the faces of four maidens. In the past, Tala was a prominent seat of Tantric worship.

There are many places in India that bear traces of colonial trade. While Pondicherry (Puducherry) is well known for its French heritage, Chandannagar further up the East coast 37km from Kolkata is relatively undiscovered French outpost. Taking the Grand Trunk Road to the Liberty gate emblazoned with the French motto, you are drawn into an old world of French colonialism and Bengali aristocracy.

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Mansions like Nundy-bari, Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Patal Bari and Sri Nandadulal temple coexist alongside St Joseph’s Convent, the 1878 Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court), 1887 Thai Shola hotel (presently Chandannagar college) and erstwhile residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, now the Institut de Chandernagor museum.

‘Trankebar’ on the Coromandel Coast was the only Danish outpost in India. The Danes leased the coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) from the Maharaja of Thanjavur, fortified it and after 250 years of trade, eventually sold it to the British. The arched Landsporten or Town Gate beckons you in like a portal as you walk down Kongensgade or King’s Street lined by stately buildings.

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Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, New Jerusalem Church of 1718, a fusion of Indo-German architecture, the Governor’s Bungalow, now a museum, Commander’s House and Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach – it’s like a walk through time as you reach Dansborg Fort, a rare specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture in India.

While in Tamil Nadu, a state weighed down by enviable temples and the architectural treasure of Chettinad, lesser known sights still manage to startle you. Narthamalai is a cluster of nine hills with the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India. At the hillock of Melamalai, we were drawn by the spire of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple.

IMG_8642 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

Built by Vijayalaya Chola, it served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Much smaller, the likeness was uncanny! Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants, makaras and yalis, held a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guarded a massive linga.

At the quiet hillock of Kadambarmalai, rainwater had collected in natural stone cavities and the 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock had inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II etched on the hillside. There was not a soul in sight as we watched wild birds hop around, sipping and bathing undisturbed in the natural tank, where ancient boulders scripted stories of a past we knew little about. No matter how far or offbeat we ventured into this vast country of ours, we were humbly reminded how we were only scratching the surface…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 April 2019 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Sweet taste of India: Traditional desserts

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY traverse the length and breadth of the country to decode the wonderful world of traditional Indian sweets and the stories behind them  

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The story of Indian sweets is as old as its gods. In the Dwapara yuga, the people of Brajbhoomi offered lavish meals to appease Lord Indra for good rainfall. Deeming it a burden on poor farmers, a skeptical Lord Krishna convinced people to stop the practice. This angered Lord Indra who wreaked heavy rains and threatened to destroy the village.

Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain on his finger for seven days and provided safe shelter to the villagers. Since Krishna used to eat 8 meals a day and this incident left him hungry for a week, as a token of gratitude the villagers prepared 56 types of food (8 for each of the 7 days) for Lord Krishna. Thus the concept of ‘Chappan Bhog’ (56 special items) emerged.

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If chhappan bhog is loved by Lord Krishna, the modak is dear to Lord Ganesha. During Ganesh Chaturthi it is a staple in Maharashtrian households along with puran poli or holige (sweet flatbread with filling of coconut or lentil). Each festival has its typical sweetmeats – kheer during Diwali, gujiya and malpua in Holi, til (sesame) and gud (jaggery) sweets during Sankranti, the disc-shaped ghevar during Teej, thekua for Chhatth puja, kalkals and plum cake during Christmas and sevai and phirni for Eid.

At home, mothers would deftly rustle up sweets during festivals or for sudden guests. Laddus in the north or unde down south, depending on which side of the Vindhyas you stayed, would be fashioned out of besan (gram flour), rava (semolina), ragi (finger millet), peanuts, pori or murmura (puffed rice) and coconut. Halvas would be made out of gajar, moong or suji while kheer or payasa would be stirred out of rice, vermicelli or makhana (puffed lotus seeds). The joy of pilfering sweets on the sly was undeniable, especially during weddings, when sweets were mass-produced in-house.

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India has always been the proverbial land of milk and honey where milk is painstakingly reduced to khoa/mawa or curdled into chhena, the base for most Indian sweets. Whether simmered as rabri or basundi, scraped off in layers as khurchan, shaped into barfis and pedas, frozen as kulfi or made into rasmalai, milk is the bedrock of Indian sweets.

Every season brings to the table its own flavours – from gajak, pinni and hot gajar (carrot) or moong dal halwa in winter across North India to patali gur rosogolla and nolen gur’er sandesh in East India made from palm jaggery. From Mathura and Banaras ka peda to Agra ka petha (made of white pumpkin), each region has its own typical sweets.

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Eastern delights

At Puri’s Jagannath temple in Odisha an elaborate mahaprasad of 56 food items is offered to the Lord. Every day, six sets of offerings are made, spanning different meal hours, including several sukhila (dry sweets). Perhaps Odisha’s most famous export is the rasgulla, with a 700-year-old tradition of being served as bhog to Lakshmi at the Jagannath temple.

As per legend, when Lord Jagannath goes on his annual 9-day sojourn Rath Yatra without her consent, Lakshmi locks the temple gate Jai Vijay Dwar and prevents his convoy from re-entering the sanctum sanctorum. To appease Lakshmi, Jagannath offers her khira mohana, a precursor to the rasgulla.

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At Pahala, a stretch of around 50 shops midway between Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar you find stacks of containers full of cream-hued rasgullas and chhena gaja or deep-fried cottage cheese squares soaked in sugar syrup. Chhena poda, literally ‘burnt cottage cheese’ is a classic Odiya sweet from Nayagarh. It is made of soft chhena with dry fruits dipped in sugar syrup and baked till brown. The chhena jhili from Nimapada is a delightful version of the gulab jamun, Sambalpur’s kalakand is legendary and so is Bikalananda Kar’s rasgulla at Salepur near Cuttack.

Odiya cooks from Puri were much sought after all over East India for their ability to cook food as per Hindu scriptures and norms of purity. Many were employed in Bengal during 19th century and as a result took several dishes with them, including the rasgulla and eventually its Bengali appropriation. The spongy white rasgulla was popularized in present-day West Bengal in 1868 by Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das. In 1930, his son Krishna Chandra Das introduced vacuum packing and canned rasgullas, which took it beyond Kolkata and India. Variants include the slightly larger rajbhog (kesar rasgulla with stuffing of dry fruits and khoa) and kamalabhog (orange flavoured rasgulla).

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In Bengal, mishti or sweets were traditionally prepared by confectioner families called Modaks or Moiras who received wide patronage from zamindars and aristocrats. Often, news of good tidings were accompanied by a platter of sweets, hence the origin of the sandesh, literally ‘message’. Pantua, a Bengali variant of the gulab jamun, was reincarnated by master confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag to commemorate the birthday of Countess Charlotte Canning, wife of Governor-General Charles Canning. It was thus after ‘Lady Canning’ that the ‘ledikeni’ (sic) was named. Many sweets have fascinating origins.

Local folklore contends that a princess from the Krishnanagar royal family was married to a scion of the Burdwan royal family. When she became pregnant, she lost her appetite and refused to eat any food, craving for a particular sweet made in her maternal home instead. She didn’t know its name except that it was made by a lyangcha or ‘lame’ confectioner!

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The said sweet maker was located and sent from Krishnanagar to Burdwan, where he was given lands and settled so he could prepare delicacies for the royal family happily ever after. And thus Saktigarh in Burdwan district emerged as the hub for the lyangcha, an elongated gulab jamun. Another story credits a lame gora sahib who fell in love with the fried sweet of Khudiram Dutta, who named his shop ‘Lyangcha’ Mahal in his honour.

Once a daughter of the prominent Banerjee family of Telenipara in Bhadreswar was married into another zamindar family of Baidyabati. After a month of marriage, it was customary for the groom to visit his in-laws. Wanting to pull his leg, the zamindar called upon famous confectioner Surya Kumar Modak to create a sweetmeat that would befool the groom.

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Modak filled a talsansh (common Bengali dry sweet) with rosewater. When the unsuspecting groom took a bite believing it to be a dry sweet, the rose water dribbled onto his kurta. The ecstatic zamindar named this new sweet jolbhora or ‘filled with water’. Even today, Surya Kumar Modak’s shop in Chandannagar serves the iconic sweet but in delicious variants like choco jolbhora.

In another incident the zamindar told his Moira to create a special sweet. The sweetmaker created a sandesh with rose water and cardamom. When his master did not return by the appointed hour, to prevent the sandesh from getting spoilt, he dunked it in sugar syrup. When the zamindar came back and tried it, he loved the sweet and dubbed it monohora or ‘one that captures the heart’.

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Bihar too has its share of iconic sweets – the peda of Kopariya Ghat, the tilkut from Devghar made of hand-pounded til (sesame), jaggery and khoa, the khaja from Rajgir to balushahi and lavanglata (stapled with a lavanga or clove). Anarsa, made of soaked rice paste and sesame, has regional variations from the arasu pitha of Odisha to the kajaya of Karnataka.

What is gujiya or pidukiya to Biharis is karjikayi to the Kannadigas. In what seems a case of misheard lyrics, balushahi is known down south as badushah and shakarpare as shankar palya. Imarti, the jalebi’s fatter cousin, is locally called Jahangir.

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Northern frontiers

Delhi is the perfect place in North India to set off on a sweet tooth tour through its galis (alleys) – from Old Famous Jalebiwala at Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk to Hazarilal Jain Khurchan wale, moong dal halwa at Chaina Ram at Fatehpuri Chowk, the softest gulab jamuns at Kanwarji’s in Parathewale gali and shahi tukda, kheer, phirni and rabri at Kallan Sweets near Jama Masjid. In winter, trays of pinni or atta laddus and gond ke laddu made of edible gum provide delicious fortification against cold weather.

A traditional Punjabi winter delicacy is panjri or dabra, made of dry fruits, whole wheat flour, sugar, edible gum, poppy seeds and fennel. Amritsar’s makhkhan te pede di lassi is no less than a dessert, enriched with pedas of white butter, topped with a crust of malai and served in tall tumblers at Ahuja Milk Bhandaar at Lohagadh Gate and Gyan di lassi near Regent Cinema. Kanhaiya Sweets at Phullonwala Chowk is known for its halwa-pinni and Gurdas Ram Jalebiyan-wale serves the most scrumptious jalebis at Katra Ahluwalia.

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Kashmir has its modur polav or sweet Kashmiri pulao with fried dry fruits and nuts, bakerkhani (layered sweet bread) and gigantic maida puri served with halwa. While driving to the hills of Uttarakhand, travelers stop at Gajraula for ‘thandi kheer’ at Bhajan Tadka dhaba. Further up, Almora is famous for its unusual bal mithai, a brown chocolate-like fudge, made with roasted khoa, coated with white sugar balls. Another Kumaoni delicacy is the singori or singauri, sweetened khoa served in leaf cones of the Malu creeper (Bauhinia vahlii).

In Rajasthan, if Alwar is known for its milk cake and Jodhpur for mawa kachori and makhaniya lassi (best at Mishrilal at Ghanta Ghar), then Jaisalmer is synonymous with Dhanraj Ranmal Bhatia’s panchdhari laddu. Yet, most food discoveries begin in Jaipur – from boondi laddus at Nathulal Mahaveer Prashad to rabdi at Ramchandra Kulfi Bhandar and lassis at Lassiwala and Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar (LMB). Go on a Bazaar & Food Trail with Virasat Experiences to savour the city’s delights like ghewar and imarti. Jaipur Ramdev Restaurant run by Brijmohan serves mithais like rajbhog and kesar bati to disco jamun/rasgulla!

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The churma laddu is a shared legacy with adjoining Gujarat whose signature sweet is the mohanthal (granular besan fudge), a must on all Gujarati thalis. Surati ghari, made of mawa, ghee, sugar, refined flour, gram flour and enriched with dry fruits, is said to have been invented by Devshankar Shukla for Tatya Tope during the 1857 mutiny to energise Indian mutineers. In Kutch, the mawa of Bhirandiyara is made from the milk of buffalos that graze in the Banni grasslands.

In the Hindi heartland of Allahabad and Varanasi, locals love their kalakand and lal peda. Like most pedas, it is made from reduced milk but allowed to brown, giving it its trademark reddish appearance. Loaded with ghee, shaped by hand and dusted with castor sugar and pistachios, it is best enjoyed at Rajbandhu in Kachori gali or near Sankatmochan Temple. Lucknow’s Awadhi cuisine boasts exquisite desserts like nimish (light set cream pudding) and makkhan malai.

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In Madhya Pradesh, the foodie city of Indore has a unique dessert drink called shikanji, a sweet milkshake concocted by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa and popularized by Madhuram Sweets. Since it’s a blend of various ingredients – reduced milk and mattha (buttermilk) enriched with dry fruits and spices like saffron, cardamom, mace and nutmeg, it’s called shikanji (literally, mixture). In Gwalior, Bahadura at Naya Bazar is the place for jalebi and gulab jamun while Shankerlal Halwai’s laddus were made famous by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Gajak (sesame brittle) is a winter specialty from Morena made of roasted sesame or sometimes peanuts and cashew, with jaggery and ghee. Pick up a pack or two from Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar. Badkul, Jabalpur’s version of a jalebi, is made of khoya and arrowroot batter. The dark coloured sweet with a spongy texture was invented in 1889 by Harprasad Badkul, after whom it’s named.

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Similar in texture is the thick and chewy Burhanpur jalebi, made of mawa, sometimes bulked up with arrowroot, served hot at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre. Another delicacy from Burhanpur is daraba, made of sugar, semolina and ghee whipped into a fluffy sweet. Sold at Milan Sweets, it is relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela held on the banks of the Tapti.

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Down south

Migration was a key reason behind the dispersal of many sweets across India. In Tamil Nadu, the Tirunelveli Halwa was first prepared by Rajput cooks hired by the zamindar of Chokkampatti, who had tasted something similar in Kashi. Jegan Singh moved to Tirunelveli where he opened a shop and named it Lakshmi Vilas after a relative who sold the halwa on the town’s streets.

Made from wheat milk, sugar and ghee, the halwa has a translucent, light brown appearance. Santhi Sweets at the Central Bus Stand is the best place to buy it. Nearby, a dozen shops bear the same name, but the time-tested way to recognize it is by the crowds! Another local legend is iruttu kadai or ‘dark shop’, named after its dark interiors because of no electricity.

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In early 19th century, when Uttar Pradesh was under the grips of a deadly plague, a few Thakur families moved in search of better prospects from Unnao to Dharwad in North Karnataka. To make ends meet, Ram Ratan Singh Thakur started making pedhas. His grandson Babu Singh Thakur opened a shop that attracted such queues that the area was called ‘Line Bazaar’. Unlike its flat cousins from the north, the Dharwad peda is an irregular round with a grainy texture and a veneer of castor sugar.

While Thakur Peda gave it name, Mishra Peda gave it fame by branching out of Dharwad and making it a household commodity. Belgaum kunda, made from milk, sugar and khowa, was introduced by purohits (Rajasthani cooks) who had migrated from Marwar. Once Gajanan Mithaiwala, better known as Jakku Marwadi, was boiling milk in his kitchen but forgot to switch off the stove. When he returned, the milk had coagulated to which he added khoa and created Belgaum Kunda. Buy this treat from his old shop in Vitthal Dev Galli or Camp Purohit.

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Karnataka has a wealth of signature sweets – the iconic Mysore Pak, Bellary’s ‘cycle’ khova, Gulbarga’s malpuri, karadantu (dry fruit snack enriched with edible gum) from Amingad and Gokak besides godi (wheat) halwa from Bhatkal. Chiroti or peni, a crisp flaky layered puri dusted with castor sugar, is eaten with badam milk.

Belgaum or Belagavi is also known for its mandige or mande, a flaky crepe with a thin filling of ghee, castor sugar and khoa, prepared on an upturned tava and folded like a dosa. Krishnamurti Saralaya in Konwal Gali carries on the legacy of this rare delicacy. Another crepe like sweet dish is the pootharekulu, a traditional sweet from Atreyapuram in East Godavari district. Pootha is ‘coating’ in Telugu and rekulu means ‘sheets’. Wafer thin rice crepes are cooked with ghee, liberally dusted with castor sugar, folded and cut into delectable pieces.

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Neighbouring Kerala is famous for Kozhikode Halwa, a glutinous sweet made of flour, molasses and oil. SM Street is lined with shops selling large multi-coloured stacks with flavours ranging from fig and date to banana. On the streets one also finds dweep unde from Lakshadweep, made from coconut and jaggery and wrapped in leaf. Kerala’s most popular dessert is the rich and caramelized ada pradhaman made from rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Chakka pradhaman is a jackfruit variant while mola ari payasam is a sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk.

Kerala’s northern tract of Malabar has it own set of sweets, mostly fashioned out of locally available bananas and coconut. Pazham nerchadu are ripe bananas stuffed with coconut and jaggery and fried while the spindle-shaped unnakaya, named after the similar looking silk cotton pod, is mashed bananas with a stuffing of coconut, sugar and raisin, deep-fried till golden brown. Mutta mala (egg garland) is a unique Moplah egg dessert where the whites are steamed into a cardamom-scented cake and the yolk is drizzled into sugar syrup to form lacy necklaces!

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Ramzan feast

In Mumbai, the mile-long stretch of Mohammed Ali Road from Bohri Mohalla to Minara Masjid teems with food stalls during Ramzan selling malpua, phirni, bhandoli (a yellowish malpua with egg) and special sweets. Sutarfeni from Gujarat is a thread-like sweet mixed with milk and eaten at sehri, the pre-dawn meal.

The steamed Kutchi Memon sweet saandal, made of fermented rice, sugar, coconut milk and mawa, looks like sanas and is as soft as cotton. At JJ Jalebi, started in 1947 by Haji Chhote Khan of Kanpur at the JJ Hospital corner, attendants squeeze out dough from a muslin cloth like calligraphy artists to fry dark brown mawa jalebis.

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The whole precinct is dotted with famous sweet shops. Fakhri Sweets was started 75 years ago by Mansoor Ali Dosaji Mithaiwala, who invented the salam pak, a sweet made of gond (gum), mawa and ghee. The shop is still famous for mawa samosa and malai khaja, available in fruit flavours. Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala, who started Zam Zam Sweets as a bakery in 1936, invented the aflatoon with mawa and other secret ingredients. Today his fourth generation has diversified into barfis made of fig, apricot and dry fruits.

Tawakkal Sweets, another fourth-gen shop started by Ismailji Alibhai Mithaiwala has expanded its repertoire beyond boondi and jalebi to contemporary sweets like mango malai and black currant mithai. Maharashtra is also known for orange barfi from Nagpur, mango-flavoured amba barfi and kandi peda from Satara. Modi Sweets and Ladkar’s, started by Mohan Babu Rao Ladkar in 1940, have both been awarded the President’s Medal.

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Inventiveness and adaptability have been twin mantras for any confectioner. And India has readily absorbed all foreign flavours – the ghee-laden sohan halwa made its way across the northwest frontier courtesy the Mughals. Shahi tukda too is Mughal in origin. With the availability of double roti (bread) from bakeries, it evolved into the Hyderabadi double ka meetha.

The ubiquitous kaju katli was created only after the Portuguese introduced the cashew to India, as was the bebinca in Goa. Chettiar traders picked up kavuni arisi from the sticky rice pudding in Myanmar (Burma). Yet, all these flavours have melded into the cultural cauldron to create the sweet taste of India!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story on 17 March, 2019 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Bera: Leopard Country

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Bera, a remote boulder-strewn habitat in Rajasthan that boasts one of the densest leopard populations in India

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For a place not notified as a national park or sanctuary, there’s surely a lot of wildlife action in Bera. Located at the foothills of the Aravalli range near Jawai baandh (dam) in Rajasthan, Bera is a rocky tract surrounded by villages, scrub forests and privately owned agricultural fields, making it a challenge to be earmarked as a wildlife reserve. Yet, this boulder-ridden landscape is a unique habitat that is one of the finest bastions of the leopard in India.

Almost equidistant from Udaipur and Jodhpur, Bera lies an hour’s drive from the Jain temple at Ranakpur and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kumbhalgarh Fort. As we drove in, Bera’s pastoral charm was evident – the fields were full of lacy fennel and maize, white tufts of cotton, golden ears of wheat and pink-stemmed castor.

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Our base was Varawal Leopard Camp, a clutch of six Swiss tents and a cottage run by Pushpendra Singh Ranawat and his sprightly sister Rajeshwari. Over lunch, we learnt that the Ranawats claim descent from Maharana Pratap; Pushpendra represented the 17th generation after the legendary Rajput ruler and retraced the origins of Bera…

Back then, this tract of southwest Rajasthan bordering Gujarat was called Gorwar or Godwad. Since it lay on the lucrative trade route from Jodhpur to Mewar and Ahmedabad, there was regular traffic of traders, and hence dacoits. Once, Maharana Pratap’s fourth son Rana Shekhaji was accompanying his mother on a pilgrimage to her isht devi (family deity) in Mt Abu.

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While conversing with the general of the small batch of accompanying troops, they rode ahead of the royal entourage. The queen’s palanquin was waylaid by dacoits and she had to hand over her paayal (anklet) for safe passage. She didn’t mention a word about the incident but when they returned, Maharana Pratap enquired about the trip. In reply, she displayed her bare leg. For his negligence, Shekhaji was exiled from Mewar and he set out with a band of men to carve out his own fiefdom.

Returning to these badlands, Shekhaji killed the dacoits and captured the area from the local Chauhan king Munja Balia. The Ranawats set up their first dera (base) at Juna (Old) Bera at the foot of the Aravallis under a banyan tree, finally moving their thikana to its present location 3km west.

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Not many know that this small principality hosted several royalty who came here to hunt leopards. The maharajas of Mewar, Marwar, Indore, Rajkot and Bhavnagar all shot their first leopards at Bera. After hunting was banned and the Land Ceiling Act took away their lands, Bera’s erstwhile royal families turned into conservationists, helping wildlife enthusiasts and photographers track leopards using the knowledge of their ancestors passed down over generations.

In 1957, Umaid Singh ji of Jodhpur built a dam on the Jawai river, creating one of the largest manmade reservoirs in western Rajasthan. It became a haven for flamingos, geese, cranes and aquatic birds. We were visiting at a time when most of the water had been drained for agriculture and dark streaks on boulders marked the level when the dam was full… Wildlife trails reveal hyena, wolf, desert foxes, sloth bear, jungle cat, mongoose, antelope and smaller game though we spotted owls and the Isabelline and Bayback shrikes. However, the apex species is undoubtedly the leopard.

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Over 64 leopards can be found in a radius of just 25 km, the highest leopard density in India. The reason was the inter-connected cave systems, an excellent spot for leopards to seek respite from the hot sun before they stir out to hunt. Leopards only choose caves that have cross-ventilation and an emergency exit. Being a hot-blooded animal, such an air-cooled habitat helps them maintain their body temperature. Pushpendra admitted that he learnt the ropes as a kid while holding the spotlight for his uncles on night drives. “My teachers were Neelam, Nagini, Ziya and I learnt all about leopards while observing their behaviour,” he says.

Bera’s tryst with leopard spotting began with Ziya’s grandmother and Zara’s mother Mangoli. Devi Singh ji’s pioneering resort Leopard’s Lair opened in 1997 and soon other brothers followed suit. Thakur Baljeet Singh started a heritage hotel at Castle Bera. Shatrunjay Singh Pratap and Katyaini run Bera Safari Lodge with stone cottages under the theme ‘leopards and shepherds’ – how wild creatures and pastoral Rabari herdsmen have coexisted for centuries.

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Sujan’s Jawai, designed by owners Anjali and Jaisal Singh, takes luxury camping to another level with 1930’s industrial style tubular brushed steel furniture. Varawal Leopard Camp was started as recently as 2013, but still manages to holds its own thanks to Pushpendra’s keen wildlife knowledge and on-ground experience.

All the lodges are virtually enclosed by leopard country. Private decks offer uninterrupted views of the wilderness and the dramatic landscape of granite formations, scrub and sandy riverbeds. Experienced guides help track the elusive big cats in open jeeps.

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Pushpendra drove us to Devgiri Mataji temple, accessible by an arched entrance and a long flight of steps leading up to the cave shrine. The idol is believed to have manifested itself on its own and the cave split to reveal it. The shrine is guarded by an idol of Bhairon and rock bees who are considered as the devi’s army. Leopards stir out moments after the priest leaves after performing his daily puja!

The oldest leopard in the area is Nagini’s father Daata. The leopards were named after their distinguishing attributes or habitats. Taking inspiration from the Nag Bavci Mandir or temple of the snake god where they were frequently sighted, the female leopard was named Nagini and her mating partner was called Nagvasi. Marshall was so named because he strutted around like one and was very strong.

MOWGLI with Temple

Shadewood loved sitting in the shade of trees to make himself near invisible. Neelam was always spotted against a backdrop of ‘blue’ skies. She was challenged by her offspring for territory, who was thus called Baghi (rebel). Neelam’s range spanned 67 caves and 40 acres of boulders and we were lucky to spot a male from her current litter of three at Jag Talao.

Sighting is not easy as one must scour the hills with binoculars. Don’t even attempt photography if you don’t have a tele zoom. While leopards in other areas and forested tracts have more yellow to merge with the foliage, the ones at Bera were a little grayish and muted for better camouflage against the lava rocks or grey granite.

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Trackers spread out in the surrounding villages of Kothar, Siyana and Batu and the three hills Liloda, Badala and Pola to track their movement. The next morning, our pointsman Govind confirmed some activity at Kothar, where we spotted one of Nagini’s three cubs.

“Undoubtedly, females like Ruby, Ziya, Neelam and Baghini have given better sighting,” remarked Pushpendra as his 4X4 negotiated the treacherous incline of the granite hills with practiced ease. All around was an endless lair of boulders and rock, surrounded by a patchwork of fields and the Jawai reservoir shimmering in the distance. One of the caves Bhadreshwar Mahadev is believed to have a Shiva linga installed by the Pandavas.

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Back at Varawal, we watched fascinating leopard videos and were treated to delicious home cooked fare personally supervised by Pushpendra’s mother. Their 120-acre farm has horses and cattle with fresh butter, ghee and chhaas available. Many of the local Rabaris serve as drivers, trackers or attendants at the resorts.

Our ‘man Friday’ Motiram Devasi looked magnificent in his traditional attire – gamchha, baudiya, dhoti, chain, kada and a bright red saafa (turban) that doubled up as a wallet to store things, a tiffin box to stash away a snack and a rope in emergencies, measuring up to 9m! He bid us a cheery goodbye and as we drove out, we saw locals busy in their fields. In a time of frequent man-animal conflicts, Bera was a shining example of conservation and peaceful co-existence…

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Fact File

Getting there
Fly to Jodhpur (160 km) or Udaipur (150 km) and drive 3½ hrs to Bera. Jawai Bandh (12 km) and Falna (30 km) are the nearest railheads. Ranakpur is 60km away while Kumbhalgarh is 85km.

When to go
Bera is great all year round. Winters are most comfortable though summers give the best sightings. By July, the rains arrive and the Jawai river gurgles to life and the reservoir fills up, with water lasting till December, a good time for birding.

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Where to Stay

Varawal Leopard Camp
Ph 9694889207, 7742133581
www.varawalleopard.com

Bera Safari Lodge
Ph 9413312133
www.berasafarilodge.com

Castle Bera
Ph 02933-243186, 9829877787
www.castlebera.com

Sujan’s Jawai Leopard Camp
Ph 011 4617 2700
www.sujanluxury.com

Leopard’s Lair
Ph 8239365771
www.leopardlairresort.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Shubh Yatra magazine.

Singapore: Bicentennial Fun

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY give a round up of this year’s Bicentennial celebrations in Singapore for Explorers, Foodies, Socialisers and Action Seekers 

Sentosa-Shrek & other theme rides IMG_1296_Anurag Mallick

In India’s Best Awards 2018, readers of T+L India & South Asia voted in big numbers for Singapore and its attractions. Not only did the country clinch the title of the Best International Family Destination, but Changi Airport also won the Best International Airport, Singapore Airlines was adjudged Best International Airline and Universal Studios Singapore and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) grabbed trophies for the best Amusement Park and Integrated Resort respectively.

Long favoured by travellers from India, Singapore constantly evolves and reinvents itself for travellers of all ages and tastes. So whether you are an explorer or a foodie, an action seeker or a social butterfly, 2019 is the year to visit Singapore with mega events lined up to commemorate its bicentennial milestone.

Jurong Bird Park-The High Flyers show IMG_9865_Anurag Mallick

Explorers

Despite its diminutive size, there’s lots to explore in Singapore. Navigate through Changi Airport and discover why it is repeatedly voted the world’s best airport, with its delightful zones, Butterfly Garden, Orchid Garden and Cactus Garden. Feel like an adventurer at the Botanical Gardens, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, River Safari (Asia’s first river-themed wildlife park) as you go on the world’s first Night Safari.

Take a heritage walk of Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and Fort Canning or hike off the beaten path and do a canopy walk above trees at MacRitchie Reservoir. Discover hidden gems and vibrant street art as you explore charming neighbourhoods – Bugis-Bras Basah, the colourful shophouses in Haji Lane and Peranakan houses. At the Indian Heritage Centre trace the cultural transfusion in Southeast Asia through waves of migration between 1st-21st centuries.

Street Art-Haji Lane IMG_4281_Anurag Mallick

A new experiential showcase at Fort Canning tells the stories of Singapore’s early settlers and communities through historic trails with projection installations at Telok Ayer Street and augmented reality trails of the Singapore River and Fort Canning Park. Take a Battlebox tour of the 1930s underground bombproof chamber, the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II.

On 15 February, 1942 the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was taken here by the British. Continue on the history trail to Fort Siloso, Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. A lift rises 36.3m high to a viewing deck and the 200m long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea, ending at gun placements and the WWII Surrender Chamber.

Sentosa-Fort Siloso SkyWalk view IMG_1455_Anurag Mallick

For the explorer in you, Singapore has several museums –Philately Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum, Asian Civilizations Museum, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore City Gallery and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Trace the history of life on earth across 500,000 animal and plant specimens ranging from the world’s largest crab (Japanese Spider Crab) to the smallest (Coral Spider Crab), three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale ‘Jubi Lee’ that washed ashore in Singapore in 2015. The dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half-hour all day. And something new to look forward to each month…

Garden City-Gardens by the Bay Supertree Grove IMG_0931_Anurag Mallick

i Light Singapore – March
The bright lights of Singapore get brighter with the bicentennial edition of the sustainable light art festival and the theme ‘Bridges of Time’. Every evening in March, stroll down Singapore’s iconic riverfront, Marina Bay, the Civic District and Fort Canning to appreciate interactive installations by local and international artists.

Singapore Festival of Fun – 8-18 March
10-day festival with dining and entertainment experiences, besides stand up acts at the old bustling port Clarke Quay, now a hip lifestyle district

Indian Culture Fiesta – April
Celebrate the diversity of Indian culture at Indian Cultural Fiesta – a showcase of traditions, rituals and arts of 16 ethnic associations from different parts of India.

Hari Raya light up – June
Marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan is the festival of Eid or Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Watch the streets of Geylang Serai, Singapore’s largest Malay enclave light up with displays inspired by Malay art and cultural icons.

Rainforest Lumina – June-Dec
As part of Singapore Zoo’s 45th anniversary celebrations, take a walk on the wild side. Uncover stories and sensory treasures of nature with a first-of-its-kind show in Southeast Asia – audio-visual experience at 10 interactive zones, 7:30 pm onwards.

Singapore Night Festival – Aug
For two weekends in August, SNF transforms the Bugis-Bras Basah heritage precinct into a themed midsummer celebration with interactive light installations and events at art and cultural institutions.

Mid-Autumn Light up – Sep
Marking the end of the autumn harvest, the thanksgiving festival sees beautiful lanterns bedecking Chinatown. Sample mooncakes and teas at the street bazaars, watch night performances and take part in lantern-painting competitions.

Deepavali – Nov
A major cultural highlight, join the Silver Chariot Procession held twice in the lead-up to Diwali from Chinatown to Little India. Visit the Indian Heritage Centre building inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) where tabs and Augmented Reality take story-telling to another level. Choose a pagri/topi for a selfie at the headgear section.

Christmas on a Great Street – Dec
The annual Christmas Wonderland at Gardens by the Bay is a highlight of Singapore’s exciting year-end celebrations, with carnival games and rides. Go shopping at Orchard Road, skate under the stars and watch gardens come alive with large-scale illuminations at night.

Garden City-Gardens by the Bay Cloud Forest IMG_0806_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

What to Explore

The Original Singapore Walks
Ph +65 6325 1631 www.journeys.com.sg
Timings 9:30am, 2:30pm Guided tour S$38 Adults, S$18 children

National Gallery Singapore
Ph +65 6271 7000 www.nationalgallery.sg
Timings 10am-7pm (till 10 pm on Fri/Sat) Entry S$20 adults, S$15 children
Daily free guided art/architecture tours (20 slots) in English from Visitor Services Counter.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)
Ph +65 6601 3333 nhmvisit@nus.edu.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$21 adults, S$13 children 

Indian Heritage Centre, Little India
Ph +65 6291 1601 www.indianheritage.org.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Monday closed Entry S$4

Fort Siloso, Sentosa
Ph 1800 736 8672 www.sentosa.com.sg
Timings 10am-6pm Entry free, 90 min Guided Tour S$20 adults, S$14 children
Stay at the beach-facing Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and get a complimentary coupon!

The Battlebox, Fort Canning
Ph +65 6338 6133 www.battlebox.com.sg
Timings 9:45am-5pm Entry S$18-32

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Foodies

For the serious foodie, there’s no better place than Singapore! Ten of the Top 50 restaurants in Asia can be found here. This is the birthplace of the Singapore chilli crab and the iconic Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail infused with Grenadine invented in 1912 at the Raffles Hotel. When the Americans came here after World War II, someone stuffed country sandwich bread with meat and eggs to create an Asian version of the Philly Cheese Steak sandwich – called Roti John! Ingenuity is in Singapore’s genes. Here, temperamental celebrity chefs meet their match with ordinary vendors in Street Food Challenges.

With limited space available, Singapore loves to repurpose the old and reinvent itself. Lau Pa Sat, once a Victorian era wet market, transforms into a pedestrian-only street food centre by evening. The erstwhile British cantonment Dempsey Hill is now a plush entertainment and F&B quarter. Ann Siang Hill, earlier a nutmeg and mace plantation, is now a vibrant precinct with rooftop bars and restaurants. CHIJMES, the 1841 Church of Infant Jesus was renovated from a religious complex to a modern restaurant complex and renamed after the peal of the church bells.

Reinterpreted Spaces-Lau Pa Sat open air food stalls IMG_7256_Anurag Mallick

From legendary hawker centres to Michelin star restaurants, the sheer diversity of dining locations in Singapore is tantalizing. Discover the ‘City in a Garden’ as you dine at IndoChine in a SuperTree at Gardens by the Bay, enjoy the breezy outdoors at Satay by the Bay or opt for a 7-course degustation menu at Pollen inside the Flower Dome in a plush indoor setting. The 34-seater Gourmet Bus combines gourmet dining with sightseeing.

Changi ranks second after Hong Kong as the world’s best airport for dining with Singapore’s top street food icons found right inside. Straits Food Village, a 24 hr food court awarded Airport Food Court of the Year at the Airport Food and Beverage (FAB) Awards 2016 captures the classic hawker experience. This year, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, hailed as ‘the Oscars of global gastronomy’ will be held in Singapore in a year packed with events.

Long Bar Raffles Hotel-Singapore Sling IMG_7657_Anurag Mallick

World Gourmet Summit (WGS) – 2-4 April
Gourmet fare, fine wines and wonderful dining experiences mark Asia’s premier haute cuisine festival. The 23rd edition features top masterchefs and local culinary talents serving dinners, brunches, masterclasses and more.

Asia’s 50 Best Bars – May
An exciting showcase of the superlative and most innovative in the drinks industry, where foodies can sample bold award-winning concoctions and bar food. Check out cutting edge bars like Operation Dagger and Oxwell and Co at Ann Siang Hill, Dempsey Hill and Holland village.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – June
Hosted in Asia for the first time, the gala awards celebrate culinary innovation and diversity through bespoke dinners, interactive masterclasses and live discussions. Breeze through restaurants at Clarke Quay, CHJIMES and Orchard.

Hari Raya Light up – June
Spectacular light installations with traditional Malay icons all month long as a lead up to Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The atmospheric Geylang Serai bazaar is lined with hundreds of shops selling decorations, clothing and food, ranging from traditional to modern Muslim cuisine, cookies, cakes, deep-fried snacks and spicy meals.

Singapore Food Festival – July
The best of local cuisine and live music, explore the city through its traditional and contemporary food, with cultural tours, workshops and events across the island. SFF’s signature event STREAT is a weekend pop-up restaurant with Singapore’s top chefs serving a specially curated menu of modern Singaporean cuisine.

Deepavali – Oct
The annual Hindu festival of light is a good time to head to Little India to see locals dress up in new clothes to enjoy the bright lights. Foodies can try festive delicacies like murukku (savoury twists), athirasam (sweet doughnuts), laddus and Diwali sweets at the Deepavali Festival Village.

Wine Fiesta 2019 – Oct
Pair wine tasting with gourmet treats prepared by renowned chefs while sampling top wines from across the world in different styles, with expert classes by winemakers.

Singapore River Festival – Nov
A two-day extravaganza across Boat Quay, Robertson Quay and Clarke Quay; dine at discounted prices at eateries along the riverside. From smoky tandoori meats to seafood and funked up local fare like Chicken Rice Arancini with Sambal Aioli, nibble around in a festive atmosphere with lights, outdoor dance floors and art installations.

Christmas – Dec
All the action moves to Orchard Road with Yuletide delicacies at the Christmas Village, food pop-ups and seasonal Christmas delights.

National Gallery-Posing with 3D masterpieces_Anurag Mallick

Socialisers

Singapore’s heady world of bars, clubs and galleries is just the place for people who love to socialize. Brush shoulders with celebrity figures at Madame Tussauds and pop by at the National Gallery, the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks spread over 6,90,000 sq ft, it is the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world.

It is housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall where Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on 12 September 1945. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass-metal façade, explore its prison cells and Rotunda (round library) and survey the cityscape and historic padang (ground) from the terrace deck.

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Rooftop bars, underground clubs, whiskey bars, hip speakeasies; you’ll find them all in Singapore at vibrant nightlife hotspots like Ann Siang Hill, Orchard, Dempsey Hill, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Try out cutting edge cocktails and ingenuity in mixology as you go club hopping from Attica to Altitude, the world’s highest alfresco bar on the 63rd floor of 1 Raffles Place.

At Bar Stories in Haji Lane, try Miss Joaquim, a cocktail inspired by Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, made from ingredients of Chinatown where the flower was first propagated. At Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, relish cocktails using distinctly Singaporean and Asian ingredients such as laksa leaves (savoury herb), coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar).

Reinterpreted Spaces-Underground bunker now hip bar Operation Dropout-IMG_0628-Anurag Mallick

Live it up while staying at the most iconic hotels from Chinatown to Downtown – soak in the old world heritage of Fullerton or Raffles Hotel and relax in the world’s largest rooftop pool while looking over Singapore’s skyline at Marina Bay Sands.

From beach parties, outdoor concerts to festivals that celebrate diverse genres like club culture, Formula 1 racing, mixed martial arts, e-sports to Japanese anime, it’s a dizzying calendar building up to a crescendo in December.

Reinterpreted Spaces-Ann Siang Hill IMG_0623-Anurag Mallick

Singapore International Jazz Festival – March
The perfect venue to immerse in a music-filled weekend with world-class music from classical jazz to legendary blues performances.

Singapore Cocktail Festival – May
Asia’s largest celebration of cocktails and an opportunity to interact with an international line-up of mixologists and savour artisanal spirits.

The Asia’s 50 Best Bars – May
Showcases and honours the best and most innovative talents in the drinks industry with a chance to sample their award-winning concoctions.

Ultra Singapore – June
An EDM festival over two days featuring top electronic, house and techno acts. Buzzing festival atmosphere, unparalleled stage design, top-notch production and a tribe of partygoers ready to groove from dusk to dawn.

The F1 Singapore Grand Prix – 13-22 Sep
Undoubtedly, the crown jewel of Singapore’s event calendar, the iconic FORMULA 1 night race revs up for its twelfth edition in 2019. Catch the best of Singapore’s vibrant lifestyle experiences – bigger parties, special menus and exciting retail promotions.

Wine Fiesta – Oct
Taste fine wines from across the world, expert-led classes and knowledge sharing by winemakers. Wine tastings are paired with specially curated gourmet fare.

Singapore River Festival – Oct
An immersive extravaganza along Boat Quay, Robertson Quay and Clarke Quay, appreciate numerous light and art installations, go party hopping while enjoying F&B promotions and outdoor discotheques.

C3 Anime Festival Asia – Dec
The eleventh edition promises to be the biggest, boldest Japanese pop culture event showcasing exciting Japanese anime, iconic characters, interesting comics, games and more. Dress up as your favourite anime character and mingle with fellow otakus (anime and manga geeks)

Zouk Out – 1-2 Dec
With 16 hours of epic EDM tunes, 30,000 guests and the world’s tops DJs, Asia’s largest dance music festival is back at Siloso beach. Organised by homegrown club Zouk, the 19th edition boasts international DJs as stages, bars and food stalls spread across the sprawling festival grounds. Get wowed by laser shows, pyrotechnics, back-to-back DJ sets and a cool Mambo Jambo beach party.

Marina Bay Singapore Countdown – Dec
Ring in the New Year at the iconic carnival in the heart of the city from early evening into the night. The Countdown party has an electric atmosphere with stunning visual displays and fireworks. Catch light projection shows at The Merlion statue, Fullerton Hotel and ArtScience Museum besides a Food Truck Fest.

IMG_7299_The Club Hotel Singapore-Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE
Where to Stay

Marina Bay Sands Hotel
Ph +65 6688 8888 www.marinabaysands.com

Oasia Hotel Downtown
Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa
Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com

Crowne Plaza Changi
Ph +65 6823 5300 www.ihg.com

Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, Orchard Road
Ph +65 6735 5800 www.marriott.com

Raffles Hotel
Ph +65 6337 1886 www.rafflessingapore.com/

The Fullerton Hotel Singapore
Ph +65 6733 8388 www.fullertonhotels.com

Sofitel So Singapore
Ph +65 6701 6800 www.sofitel-so-singapore.com/

Swissôtel Merchant Court
Ph +65 6239 1848 www.swissotel.com

Night life-Fire dancers at Night Safari IMG_9674_Anurag Mallick

Action-seekers

Singapore is a small dynamo buzzing with activities and adventures for any action seeker. Right at Changi Airport, whizz down 4 storeys of The Slide@T3, Singapore’s tallest slide and the world’s tallest slide in an airport. At Universal Studios, scream your lungs out and feel the rush of adrenalin at the hair-raising 4D Transformer, Battlestar Galactica and movie-inspired rides and roller coasters.

Get splashed at Adventure Cove waterpark, go on Segway rides, get face to face with marine creatures at S.E.A. Aquarium – the largest in the world, take the Skyline Luge – the first in South East Asia, tackle obstacle courses at Mega Adventure and zip down a 450m long zipline, experience the rush of indoor skydiving in the world’s first themed wind tunnel at i -Fly, try wave riding at Wave House Sentosa, brave spills and thrills at Sentosa 4D Adventureland, go gaming at Resorts World and enjoy the view from the revolving Tiger Sky Tower. Pause to catch your breath, for this is just Sentosa!

Sentosa-Luge IMG_1212_Anurag Mallick

A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at 165m was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014. It’s still the largest observation wheel in Asia! While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take-off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and aircraft controls. At the Flyer you could also reserve a pod for a private 3-course dinner.

Action seekers will love the various laser shows in Singapore – from Wings of Time (S$18, 7:40pm, 8:40pm) at Sentosa, WonderFull (8pm, 9:30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (7:45pm, 8:45pm) at the SuperTree grove in Gardens by the Bay; the latter two being free to public. From top-notch rugby and football to UFC fight nights and Grand Prix races, each event comes with its own entertainment package. So no matter when you choose to visit Singapore, there’s always some action at hand…

Night life-Clarke Quay IMG_7888-Anurag Mallick

HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens – 13-14 April
Watch the world’s best rugby teams tackle each other in an adrenalin-pumping encounter and a non-stop carnival atmosphere at Singapore Sports Hub

JSSL Singapore Professional Academy 7s 2019 – 19-21 April
Showcases top level football with football experts offering insights at the JSSL Singapore Football Coaching Convention.

UFC Fight Night Singapore – June
Witness top mixed martial arts athletes compete in the world’s most intimidating arena, the Octagon©. In the lead up to UFC Fight Night, activities like Open Workout will be held for the growing MMA fan base in the region.

International Champions Cup – July
A golden opportunity for football fans to catch their favourite clubs and players in action. Top teams from around the world play against each another in Singapore during the pre-season resulting in world-class football matches.

2019 Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix – 20-22 Sep
Experience full-throttle high adrenaline action that comes in a gust of wind and speed. The twelfth edition of the iconic FORMULA 1 night race brings out the best of Singapore’s vibrant lifestyle experiences – wilder parties, special menus, retail discounts and performances by Fatboy Slim and Toots & the Maytals.

PVP eSports Championship – Oct
Online gaming fans and action seekers will enjoy the thrilling e-sports competition as teams from Singapore and the region compete for a prize pool of US$300,000.

Standard Chartered Marathon – Dec
The marquee running event on Singapore’s sporting calendar where thousands run past iconic landmarks. Explore the city and its pretty landscape while testing your endurance in a tropical climate.

Reinterpreted Spaces-Ann Siang Hill once a spice plantation IMG_0636_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there:
Singapore Airlines flies direct (around 4 hrs) from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities to Changi Airport www.singaporeair.com

Changi Airport
https://in.changiairport.com

Flight Experience, Singapore Flyer
Ph +65 6339 2737, 1800 737 0800 www.flightexperience.com.sg
Timings 10am-10pm Entry S$175

Universal Studios, Sentosa
Ph +65 6577 8888 www.rwsentosa.com
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$74 adults, S$56 children, VIP Tour Unlimited Access S$298

Singapore Grand Prix
Ph +65 6738 6738 www.singaporegp.sg

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of a special feature in the March 2019 issue of Travel + Leisure India magazine.

Thun: A Swiss love affair

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Thun, one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Switzerland and the gateway to the scenic Bernese Oberland

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Switzerland… the very name invokes images of romantic holidays in cozy wooden chalets and ski resorts, wildflowers bobbing in alpine meadows, warm fondue and raclette on wintry evenings and cows grazing in idyllic pastures, their bells tinkling softly, as farm fresh milk is crafted into fine chocolate and 450 varieties of cheese.

For years, Switzerland has been the gold standard for what a mountain destination should be, with hill stations around the world claiming the epithet ‘The Switzerland of ___’. Only when you visit Switzerland do you realize that every cliché – picture postcard homes, snowy peaks and placid lakes the colour of copper sulphate – is actually true…

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It’s not hard to see why artists, poets and writers have always been enchanted by Switzerland. Johanna Spyri set the tales of Heidi in the Swiss countryside. The glaciers, lakes and mountains inspired Swiss painters like Caspar Wolf, Ferdinanad Hodler and Giovanni Giacometti, poet Lord Byron and writers like Mark Twain. Composer Goethe wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters” after seeing the Staubbach Falls in 1779 while JRR Tolkein based his Lord of the Rings saga of ‘Rivendell’ after a trip to Lauterbrunnen Valley.

India’s love affair with Switzerland is largely credited to director Yash Chopra who spent his honeymoon there in 1970. Captivated by the heavenly natural beauty, he featured the Swiss meadows and mountains for the first time in his 1985 film Faasle. The saga continued with his 1989 film Chandni and DDLJ in 1995. Millions were captivated by the landscapes, cobbled streets and pretty bridges of the Swiss countryside, a signature backdrop for Yash Raj Films. Lauenensee, a lake in Canton Bern that served as a prominent locale, was dubbed ‘Yash Chopra Lake’.

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For promoting Brand Switzerland, Chopra was given the honorary title ‘Ambassador of Interlaken’ on 8 April 2011 and in May 2016, a bronze statue was installed off Interlaken’s main street Hoheweg near Casino Kursal with a silver plaque dedicated to him. Jungfrau Railways named a train after him; the only other person to share this honour is the man who founded Jungfraubahn railway, Adolf Guyer-Zeller himself (Train 211)! The Victoria Jungfrau hotel in Interlaken has a special deluxe cinema-themed suite named after him (CHF 2250) decorated with Veer Zaara posters.

While Jungfraujoch continues to be the top Swiss destination, there are several pretty nooks overlooked by most vacationers. One such place is the medieval town of Thun. Located on the western edge of Thunersee (Lake Thun) where the Aare river flows out, it was the traditional gateway to the Bernese Alps. With the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau gleaming with eternal snow across the lake, the picturesque town is crisscrossed with bridges where couples walk hand in hand past pretty hanging flower baskets as weeping willows cascade into crystal clear waters.

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“Thun is to the Jungfrau region what the overture is to the opera,” exclaimed our guide Elisabeth Mettler at the Bahnhof (train station). “We open the door to the Bernese Oberland and one can reach the best places to ski and hike – Wengen, Murren and Grindelwald – in just an hour.” Unlike the financial capital Zurich, the Canton of Bern is known for its unhurried approach to life. People love to take things slow and enjoy a small coffee or beer at the cafes by the Aare. Stores in the old town often close for lunch and a leisurely heritage walk is the best way to explore town.

We walked from the station down Othmar-Schoeck Weg, named after a Swiss composer; just across the riverbank lay Brahms Quay, named after another famous composer. Many roads and alleys are named after eminent personalities who spent weeks holidaying in Thun. Constant floods led the city folk to divert the river through a dry moat creating the island of Bälliz, today the main shopping district.

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Five bridges connect Bälliz to the medieval city center and we took the quaint Untere Schleuse (upper flood gate), a covered wooden bridge originally built in 1724. Together with the lower sluice, they regulate the water flow of the Aare river. If all 20 gates are opened, it will lower the lake’s level by 20 cm in a day, explained our guide.

The spot where the water gushed out of the sluices was the city’s Surf Point where surfboarders practiced against roiling waves. In July-Aug, the city’s youngsters line the riverfront in beachwear, often jumping into the waters to cool off and Thun resembles Rio or Hawaii than a typical Swiss town.

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Around the scenic lake you’ll find the oldest sailing school of Switzerland and the largest garrison. In the 1830s, the Knechtenhofer brothers laid the foundation for boat excursions on Lake Thun. They ordered an iron steamboat ‘Bellevue’ from Paris for their hotel De Bains le Vielle Viel, the first in Thun with tapped water in the rooms. The steamer had an organ that played God Save the Queen!

Grand Hotel Thunerhof, built in 1875, was once the most luxurious address in the Bernese Oberland that hosted kings, emperors and czars. Now converted into town offices, the ground floor houses the Kunstmuseum dedicated to contemporary art with a small coffee shop next door.

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Our hotel Freienhof was one of the earliest inns in Thun overlooking the Sinnebrucke Bridge, the oldest river crossing between Bern and Interlaken. Another former hotel Beau Rivage today has the best Italian restaurant in town, Da Domenico Beau Rivage. Thun is a beautiful old town with charming monuments.

We walked past a reddish building – the narrowest in Switzerland, and the Knechtenhofer House where Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte stayed. At the heart of town is Mill Square where yellow outlines mark the spot where the mill once stood. Now it’s a leisure spot perfect in summer to quaff beer; in winter time, the chairs are draped in wool, fur and blankets for people to snugly enjoy coffee and hot chocolate.

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Thun’s town square is one of the most beautiful in Switzerland. The Rathaus (Town Hall) dates back to 1500. Back then, there were no banks and money was kept in the stadt kirche (city church). A theft led to a treasury tower being added in 1585. Former guild houses of bakers and butchers now double up as hotels and restaurants.

Walking down Obere Hauptgasse (Upper Main Street), we marveled at the boutiques along the unique raised pavements in Altstadt (Old Town), peculiar to Thun. Be it herb shops like Secret Nature or Catlovers, the only dedicated cat shop in Switzerland, there’s a surprise lurking at every corner. At the east end of the cobbled street, a long flight of stairs called Kirchtreppe led up to Thun Schloss (castle).

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Lording over town on Castle Hill, the medieval Thun Schloss was built around 1190 by Duke Bertold V of Zähringen. We trudged up, pausing for a breath at a pavilion with lovely murals on the ceiling. This ‘fortified hill’, dunum in Celtic, gave the town its name. The majestic donjon or keep capping the citadel is the city’s famous landmark and the knight’s hall, one of the best preserved and largest surviving Swiss banquet halls of the High Middle Ages.

In 1888, a Historical Museum was opened in the castle and for a while the jailer was also the ticket seller and guard for the museum! The medieval castle also houses a restaurant, prison, court and well with the corner turrets offering 360-degree views over town.

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Staying at Hotel Freienhof entitled us to the PanoramaCard (similar to the Zurich Card). Besides the free Thun city tour, we got complimentary bus rides. At Oberhofen, the lakeside Schloss (castle) was set in a landscaped park with its picturesque lake turret jutting out of the waters. Our visit coincided with the annual Castle Day and locals in period costumes livened up the proceedings.

A hat rack had various period headgear for visitors to try on! A tour of the castle, plush chambers and 19th century servants’ quarters revealed how nobility and their domestic staff lived. The medieval keep with an oriental smoking lounge was stunning. We headed next to Spiez, with its scenic marina, vineyards and castle with a Romanesque church on a beautiful peninsula by the lake.

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But the highlight was the romantic boat cruise on Lake Thun with BLS Navigation. With special fondue dinners and wine sourced from the vineyards of Spiez, it was a lovely ride past little towns and mountains like the ‘Swiss Pyramid’ Mount Niesen and Stockhorn.

We clinked our glasses and gazed at the fiery sunset with the Swiss flag of our vessel ‘Stadt Thun’ fluttering the breeze. We half expected credits to roll or a director’s voice to shout ‘Cut’.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Swiss www.swiss.com from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train www.SwissTravelSystem.com via Bern (1hr 20 min) to Thun. BLS Navigation www.bls.ch runs nine boats on lakes Thun and Brienz.

Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes like Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to Grindelwald, 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

PanoramaCard
While staying overnight in one of the participating hotels in the Lake Thun region you receive a complimentary PanoramaCard that offers free rides on city buses and trams no matter where you stay between Thun and Interlaken, with discounted admission to public pools, castles, museums, nature parks and a free guided city tour in Thun.

When to Go
Every Wed and Sat, farmers markets are held in the Bälliz, flea markets on every first Sat of the month on Mühleplatz and an artisan market every fourth Sat of the month at Waisenhausplatz. Thunfest in early August is the largest city open-air festival in Switzerland. Thun’s Fulehung Folk festival is held on the last weekend in Sep and marked with colourful street parades. In Nov-Dec, the town centre is decked up with Advent and Christmas markets while local hunters sell their fox furs and showcase their trophies in the annual fur market (second Sat in Feb) near Hotel Freienhof.

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STAY

Thun
Hotel Freienhof
Freienhofgasse 3
Ph +41 33 2275050
www.freienhof.ch
After the original hotel was burnt down, a newer one was built in 1958 and renovated in 2006. Great location by the river in the city center close to the station with complimentary breakfast. You’ll find the room numbers on the ceiling!

Hotel Krone
Obere Hauptgasse 2
Ph +41 33 227 88 88
www.krone-thun.ch
Located in the main square, the 15th century guild house of the bakers became an inn in 1821 and has been privately owned since 1852. Today it’s a charming 4-star hotel on the historic Rathausplatz.

Interlaken
Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa
Höheweg 41
Ph +41 33 828 28 28
www.victoria-jungfrau.ch
Overlooking the large central park Höhematte and Jungfrau in the distance, it is easily the best address in town (doubles CHF 438-588) with a fine Italian restaurant and the award-winning Nescens spa.

Hotel Carlton-Europe
Höheweg 94
Ph +41 33 826 01 60
www.carltoneurope.ch
An Art Nouveau hotel with over a century of hospitality (doubles CHF 158); from 1 Jan 2019 it is the first Swiss ‘adults only hotel’ that accommodates only guests over 16 years.

Zurich
Hotel Ni-Mo
Seefeldstrasse 16
Ph +41 44 370 30 30
www.hotel-nimo.ch
Cool boutique hotel in downtown Zurich’s Seefeld district, walking distance from Lake Zurich’s promenade, Opera House and famous shopping mile Bahnhofstrasse. Rooms are named after the sights they overlook, with amazing self-service breakfast.

For more info, visit www.thunersee.ch and www.myswitzerland.com

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.

Rwanda: Planet of the Apes

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take part in Rwanda’s annual naming ceremony of young mountain gorillas and explore the wildlife reserves of this dime-sized country 

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Think Africa and herds of big game roaming the plains and grasslands of a vast continent come to mind. Wedged between mighty Kenya, Tanzania and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), one wonders what a dime-sized country like Rwanda can offer. Yet, it stands tall in wildlife circles as one of the few places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Thanks to an invite to attend the gorilla-naming ceremony Kwita Izina, we found ourselves on a direct Rwand Air flight from Mumbai to Kigali.

It was an early morning touchdown, yet Jullesse, the cheery representative from Rwanda Development Board was there to greet us and whisk us away to our hotel. En route we got a crash course on the cultural significance of Rwanda’s biggest wildlife and conservation event. Virunga Massif, a dramatic volcano-ridden landscape of 160 sq km at the tri-junction of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda is the last refuge of the mountain gorilla.

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Strife, poaching and encroachment in the region had led to a rapid decline in their population to an all-time low of 242 in 1981. Conservation efforts spearheaded by American primatologist Dian Fossey (‘Gorillas in the Mist’ fame) and tirelessly monitoring of gorilla families up the steep slopes all year round led to a slow revival.

For centuries, newborn children in Rwanda have been named in a ceremony called Kwita Izina. Taking the idea forward, Rwanda Development Board adopted a unique conservation initiative to celebrate the birth of baby mountain gorillas born in the wild. Since 2005, the annual naming ceremony has involved local communities and a galaxy of statesmen and conservationists from around the world chosen as celebrity namers. With few days to go for the official ceremony, we had the perfect opportunity to explore the capital city.

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Our base was the swish Kigali Marriott Hotel, one of the first international hotel chains to open in Rwanda. Located in the diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the posh CBD (Central Business District), it overlooked the high-security presidential quarters. We walked past the Gorilla Statue near the Town Hall to Kandt House Museum, the first brick building in town. It was the home of German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt, Kigali’s founder and the country’s first Resident.

His statue stood in the front of the building, which earlier housed the Museum of Natural History. A small collection of snakes like the Black Mamba and Gabon viper in a small enclosure at the back, a baby crocodile in a pond and a gorilla in a glass case are the only remnants of the former museum, which currently showcases Rwanda’s cultural, geographic and colonial past.

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Back at the hotel at Iriba Bar & Terrace, we grabbed some local ‘Question Coffee’ sourced from a women’s co-operative and fried sambaza (local fish) and brochettes or skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi (Irish potatoes). After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa and evening happy hours at the Executive Lounge, we dined at Soko restaurant, with traditional woven agasake baskets lining the walls. The hotel had a Go Kigali outlet where we booked a local city tour the next day.

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. We trawled local milk bars, mural walks, Gaddafi Mosque and the Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo, Kigali’s hip neighbourhood. At Kimironko market we marveled at the varieties of multi-hued beans and tasted Rwandan produce like tree tomato and passion fruit. Our tour ended at a local eatery Tamu Tamu where we tried the Rwandan staple ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, fried fish and goat curry.IMG_2518

The next morning we left early for Volcanoes National Park for our first brush with gorillas. Women dressed in colourful kitenge carried headloads of sweet potato, banana and cassava to reach local markets by dawn while men pedaled furiously balancing bundles of sugarcane or stacks of carrots and charcoal.

The mist covered volcanoes towered above the hilly landscape. Five of the eight volcanoes – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Bisoke and Karisimbi – were in Rwanda. Had we known that fifteen minutes later we would be assigned to Karisimbi, the tallest of them at 4500m, we wouldn’t have been smiling!

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Soon, we disembarked at the busy park headquarters at Kinigi near Musanze. Only twelve gorilla trekking routes were open to tourists and each trekking group had eight members. We got the tough Isimbi trail led by the petite young guide Jolie. Briefing us on gorilla behaviour and language, she explained the various grunts, calls and gestures, warning us to approach them submissively.

“Crouch low and repeat ‘Mae-mmhh’, which means ‘we come in peace.’ We practiced obediently like kindergarten children. Gaiters (leg guards), rain jackets and gloves were offered on hire, but we smugly looked at our Decathlon-acquired shoes and rain jackets and politely declined.

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Driving an hour past bustling markets, small villages and waving kids we reached the edge of a forest where porters in blue uniforms awaited us with walking sticks carved with gorilla figures. The wise among us took porters for their backpacks and camera equipment. Little did we know what awaited us on the Umusumba Trekking Trail.

The hike got progressively tougher as we started to climb – a slippery path of bamboo leaves, a tangle of vines to ensnare you, bamboo stumps waiting to trip you, squelchy pathways, dense undergrowth and steep inclines lined with stinging nettle. Ah, that’s why the gloves, we winced and cursed! After plodding for nearly two hours, we reached our trackers and made a final insane climb.

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Lolling on a bed of nettles in a clearing was the Isimbi family. Watching over the ten juveniles and eight females was mighty Muturengere, a 200 kg 1.9m tall Silverback – adult males get a distinct silvery band on the back on maturity. The furry little gorillas played around with wild fruits, before ambling towards us in curiosity.

We bleated our pacifist calls repeatedly until Muturengere grunted his approval. An hour elapsed in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, Muturengere got up, walked past us meters away, raised his head and disappeared into the bush. The mist rolled in and we descended the lower slopes of Karisimbi where we spotted a Golden Monkey.

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Rwanda is a small hilly country and it is easy to move around. We drove south on our primate tour to Nyungwe National Park to track Colobus monkeys. They get their names not after the explorer but from the Greek word kolobos, meaning handicapped as they do not have a thumb. Thanks to its long cloak of black hair with white shoulder streaks, it is also called Judge Monkey!

On the hike to the Kamiranzovu waterfall we spotted a dark coated L’Hoest Monkey or mountain monkey furtively scurry on all fours through the dense undergrowth. From Uwinka Overlook we took the Igishigishigi Trail, named after the giant tree fern, to the Canopy Walkway, the first in East Africa. Built in three sections with the longest one stretching 90m and 57m above the forest floor, it’s narrow and shaky but gives unmatched views.

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We didn’t have time for the longer Chimpanzee hike and returned to Kinigi in time for Kwita Izina 2018, where 23 gorillas born in the past year were being named. The massive gathering at the base of Volcanoes National Park wore a festive air with locals and volunteers waving Rwandan flags, dancing and cheering on.

Against a stunning backdrop of the volcanoes was a giant gorilla frame made of bamboo with an infant riding on its back. Headlining the event was South African pop duo Mafikizolo, who were also part of the celebrity namers that included sportsmen, ambassadors, businessmen and environmentalists.

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Life came full circle as the unnamed newborns from the Isimbi family we spotted earlier got beautiful names in the Kinyarwanda dialect – Umuseke (dawn) and Izahabu (gold), named by female Arsenal star Alexandra Virina Scott. Fellow Arsenal legend and Cameroonian footballer Laureno Bisan Etamé-Mayer named his li’l gorilla from the Kwitonda family Ikipe (team).

Pop icon Akon couldn’t make it but his business partner and Malian philanthropist Samba Bathily named his newborn gorilla from the Igisha family Ineza (mercy), which he believed was needed for Africa and the world. Senegalese NBA star Amadou Gallo Fall had launched junior NBA in Kigali and his focus was on using the power of sport and values of the game. He named his baby gorilla from Musilikare family Kwiyongera (to increase).

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Each namer had a personal angle. Dr Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisa, program chief at UNESCO, had been visiting Rwanda for the last 11 years and confessed each time she saw a new Rwanda because it was moving so fast! The geographic area of 686 biosphere reserves in 122 countries was home to over 256 million people, so her name for the Igisha family newborn was Imbaga (crowd). UN Special Envoy, President and CEO of the Asia Society and ex-Vice Chairman of the World Economic Forum Josette Sheeran named her baby gorilla from the Pablo family Umuryango (family).

English celebrity chef, food writer and eco campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, also VP of Flora & Fauna International UK had met the newborn of the Hirwa family just a week earlier and decided to name it Amatungo (plentiful livestock), the bedrock of Rwandan culture.

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Peter Riedel, President and COO of electronics group Rhode Schwarz International, on his first trip to Africa, named his newborn Umusaruro (harvest). The final namer Madame Graca Machel, former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique, named her Kwitonda newborn Urugori (crown).

The ceremony gave way to a moving environment-themed performance by a dance troupe. As world leaders applauded and the world cheered on, it was amazing to see how a tiny country was leading the way as a beacon for conservation. The genius of Rwanda was that it had created an international event out of a domestic population census! We headed to Serena Hotels at Lake Kivu for a lavish lakeside gala dinner with a private performance by Mafikizolo humming songs of Africa.

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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
Serena Hotel Kigali & Lake Kivu www.serenahotels.com
One & Only Nyungwe House www.oneandonlyresorts.com
Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, Ruhengeri

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Entry
Only 96 permits are issued per day with each permit costing $1500. Visa on arrival costs $30. An East African combined visa covering Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania costs $100.

Must Do
Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com
Gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com
Track Colobus, Golden and mountain monkeys at Nyungwe National Park
Spot the Big 5 at Akagera National Park
Kigali city tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea; eat local at Tamu Tamu
Shop for souvenirs like agasake (peace baskets)

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 January, 2019 in Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

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.