Jaffa: Peeling the Big Orange

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Tel Aviv’s twin city Jaffa or Yafo is not just its oldest part dotted with historic relics; it is also its hippest quarter with cool cafes, boutiques and vibrant nightlife, discovers ANURAG MALLICK on a trip to Israel

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Listening to English cricket commentary on TV, I always wondered about the origin of the phrase “He has bowled a Jaffa”. It was a trip to Israel that finally cleared the mystery! But what in the world does an unplayable delivery have to do with a port town in a country that’s not a cricket-playing nation? The answer, is oranges…

Like the historic city it comes from, Jaffa’s famed fruit is a culmination of cultures – developed by Palestinian farmers from a Chinese strain brought by the Portuguese! Locally known as Shamouti, it evolved in mid-19th century from the sweet orange, introduced from China to the Mediterranean by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Unlike ordinary oranges, the Jaffa orange is sweet, practically seedless, with a thick skin that made it perfect for export. As crates of the fruit were shipped to Europe, Jaffa became synonymous with oranges. But what’s the cricket connection?

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After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the British were stationed in Ottoman Syria to administer undivided Palestine. During the Mandate that lasted till 1948, the cricket-crazy British were based in Jaffa where they picked up the orange reference. Theory goes, if the line and length of a delivery was good, then even if the bowler had bowled a Jaffa (orange) it would have beaten the batsman. By the 1960s, Jaffa oranges became Israel’s emblem. If New York is the Big Apple, Old Jaffa is nicknamed Big Orange.

Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew) is not just the oldest part of Tel Aviv; it is older than history itself. Supposedly named after Noah’s son Japheth who founded the settlement after the Great Flood, Jaffa is linked with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter. Long before the Bible was written, a fishing village existed at this spot.

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Straddling the crossroads of religion, culture, commerce and politics, it is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. In Greek mythology, Andromeda was chained to a rocky outcrop near Jaffa’s harbour as a sacrifice to appease the sea god Poseidon before being rescued by Perseus. It is called Andromeda Rocks in her memory.

Jaffa’s history is like a flipbook through the greatest empires of the world and legendary conquerors, from Ramses, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Herod and Saladin to Napoleon. Every civilization worth its sea salt colonized the region’s sole port – ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Ottomans and the Arabs. Jaffa survived everything from the Crusades, two World Wars and British intervention!

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Savouring spectacular coastal views from Hapisga Garden, we walked up Jaffa Hill, which has yielded archeological finds dating back to 3500 years. One of the monumental gates discovered here dates to 13th century BC when Jaffa was an Egyptian garrison under Ramses II. An older gate found underneath was destroyed during the conquest of Jaffa; an event retold at the Visitor Centre in Qedumim Square. The cast iron cannons were imported in early 18th century by the Ottomans to protect Jaffa from Bedouin raids by land and pirate attacks by sea.

Parts of the Old City have been renovated and the suburb is crammed with restored stone buildings, art galleries, souvenir shops, hip restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The Zodiac alleys are a maze of lanes leading to the harbour where the British-built Jaffa Lighthouse stands defunct. Overlooking the seafront, the minaret of Al-Bahr (Sea) Mosque, depicted in a 1675 painting by Dutch painter Lebrun, is Jaffa’s oldest existing mosque. According to folklore, the wives of local sailors and fishermen prayed here for their safe return.

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Located on the collision course of history, Jaffa has seen monuments built by one pulled down by the other and rebuilt or repurposed by yet another. St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan Roman-Catholic basilica and hospice built in 1654 on the remains of a Crusader fortress, commemorates St Peter, who brought the disciple Tabitha back from the dead. On his 1799 military campaign of the Middle East, Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here during the siege of Jaffa.

The Jaffa Museum of Antiquities is located in an 18th century Ottoman building constructed on the remains of another Crusader fortress. Beit Zunana, an old mansion named after an 18th century Jewish landlord, was revamped into a hotel and later converted into a Libyan Synagogue. Famed Israeli artist Ilana Goor restored a 270-year-old building into a unique museum brimming with artefacts and antique vessels; its sculpture garden on the terrace offers terrific sea views. The Market House Hotel’s glass-floored lobby reveals the fascinating archeological ruins of a Byzantine Chapel below.

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Thanks to 400 years of Ottoman rule (1515-1917), several monuments are of Turkish origin. The majestic clock tower built in 1906 to honor Sultan Abdul Hamid II marks the city’s northern entrance. Mahmoudiya Mosque, the largest in Jaffa, was built by Abu Nabbut, Governor of Jaffa (1810-1820) and has a charming sabil (water fountain) for pilgrims. The Saraya (Turkish Governor’s Palace) built for Mohammed Agha in the 1890s was used as a post office and jail before becoming a soap factory. The New Saraya inaugurated in 1897 was bombed and only the facade and Romanesque columns survive.

Yet, for all the histories that Jaffa holds, it lies on the cutting edge of art and design. Walls are awash with street art while charming nooks have quirky boutiques and cafés. The best place to experience Jaffa’s bohemian flair is Shuk HaPishpeshim or Jaffa Flea Market. By evening, tables and chairs dot the pavements, transforming the whole area into a vibrant outdoor dining space. The stylish Puaa restaurant has furniture sourced from the flea market and every item is for sale!

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Despite the clash of civilizations, one thing that unifies everybody is food. Locals throng Abu Hassan for creamy hummus and msabbaha (hummus with chickpeas). Legendary sweet shop Abouelafia dishes out bourekas (stuffed pastries) proudly sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ t-shirts ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.

Strolling down Jaffa’s cobbled pathways, I came across Ran Morin’s enigmatic sculpture ‘Oranger Suspendu’ where an orange tree grew out of an artificial stone suspended by steel wires. The Hovering Orange Tree is seen not just a metaphor for Israel’s prosperity, but the fate of its people, hanging between heaven and earth.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier El Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv-Yafo in 8 hrs while Air India takes 7hr 15 min from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa.

Stay
Market House Hotel www.atlas.co.il
Margosa Hotel www.margosa-hotel.com
Old Jaffa Hostel www.telaviv-hostel.com

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Eat
Café Puaa
Bourekas and sweets at Abouelafia Bakery
Hummus at Abu Hassan/Ali Karawan
The Old Man and the Sea
Aladin Restaurant

Local guide
Ofer Moghadam Tours
Ph +972 587833799
www.ofermog.com

For more info, visit http://www.goisrael.in/

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 14 July 2018 in HT City Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.  

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On a Shoestring: The Art of Budget Travel

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Travel need not be an expensive affair, say ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY as they decode the art of travelling on a shoestring

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Having attended two Maha Kumbh Melas, walked with kanwariyas during the Shravana Mela and hitchhiked from Ladakh to Manali in a truck after staying at a Buddhist monastery for months, we do know a thing or two about budget travel. Exploring South India on a bike while setting up Drifter, a channel on budget travel for Oyeindia.com gave us the perfect opportunity to do things on a shoestring.

We have slept in cars during offbeat festivities like Kenduli Baul Mela and Baithurappa Festival, stayed in Tibetan monasteries from Ladakh to Bylakuppe, a Jain dharamsala in Kaushambi, a church in Kodaikanal, ashrams in Haridwar and Uttarkashi and religiously survived on gurudwara langar in Manikaran. Based on our varied experiences, we’ve put together the essentials for budget travel.

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Planning
Whether backpacking across Europe or a long haul across Asia, travel research and planning is critical. Be it cheap tickets, late night flights or last-minute deals, scour the Internet for distress sales. Bargain for better rates for longer stints; staying in a villa in Bali or Goa for a week or month is cheaper than a per day rate. Avoid peak season and weekends to save big, as many lodges lower tariff for weekdays and lean season.

Often, a destination is not only more economical but also less crowded then, like Kerala or Goa in the rains. Several museums and attractions, especially abroad, are free. Avail student discounts wherever you can. Cut guide fees by downloading maps and do-it-yourself trails. Pack less. Travelling lean means your bag can be easily lugged around or shoved onto a shared vehicle. Follow a simple rule – take only as much luggage as you can carry on your own!

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Transport
Hiring a cab (Rs.3500/day) burns a big hole in your pocket, so take public transport. Overnight buses help save a night’s room rent, as we discovered on sleeper buses to Goa, Kerala, Coorg and Pondicherry. In Uttarakhand and the North East, shared jeeps cost more than a bus, but save time. Despite revamped fares and new baggage restrictions, we love rail journeys! If on a budget, a day train with second sitting is more economical than sleeper class. And if the weather is okay, why pay extra for air-conditioning? The cheapest option is a chalu (running) ticket from the counter instead of a reserved ticket.

A ship to the Andamans from Kolkata and Chennai may take 3 days but if you’re in no hurry, it is not as expensive as a flight to Port Blair. In places like Pondy, Hampi, Khajuraho and Kochi, you can easily hire bicycles for Rs.10 or 20/hour rather than scooties, which may cost Rs.300-500/day. Of course, there’s the good ol’ thumb if you want to hitchhike. Walk around instead of taking a rickshaw and you’ll discover more on foot.

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Stay smart
Bid goodbye to fancy hotels and say hello to youth hostels, lodges, BnB’s (Bed & Breakfast) and homestays. Owner-run properties have hosts who are usually well informed to help with local tips, critical to your holiday experience. Avoid prime haunts or locations and you’ll save more. If you plan to spend most of the day out exploring, shack up in dormitories instead of AC rooms. You don’t always have to scrimp.

Often the cheapest places to stay (and yet, the best in terms of location and view) are Forest Rest Houses, PWD guesthouses and Inspection Bungalows, which usually require a letter from the DFO (District Forest Officer), Electrical Engineer or DC (District Commissioner) from the nearest hub. When in the hills, carry a sleeping bag or tent as you can set yourself up anywhere.

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In God we Trust
While travelling, we have always found new meaning in religion. Our transformation from agnostic to die-hard believer is swift, if it can wrangle us a stay in an ashram, dharamshala, church, monastery or gurudwara. They usually have simple rules like no smoking, liquor, meat or loud behaviour and restricted entry/exit timings. But mostly you stay for free, with a discretionary donation expected of you.

Attending a discourse, meditation, bhajan or satsang will earn you some brownie points. The other plus is food. All gurudwaras run a langar (free community kitchen) so a visit around lunchtime is good timing; likewise for annadana (free meal) at places like Udupi Sri Krishna temple, Horanadu Annapoorneshwari temple and Padi Igguthappa temple in Coorg.

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Eats shoots and leaves
Street food is the ultimate money-saver as food on the go saves you service taxes at a fancy restaurant with seating and air-conditioning. Eat local at dhabas and eateries. Being a veggie helps as non-veg dishes are costlier. A set thali meal is good value for money and you often get refills. Eat plenty of fruits especially bananas – fresh, cheap and filling! Don’t buy mineral water, carry a bottle instead and fill it wherever you go (most establishments now have RO water). If your hotel tariff has breakfast included, make sure you don’t miss it!

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Volunteering
A great way to offset holiday expenses is voluntourism like farming, teaching, home-build projects or charity. Organic farms like Rainforest Retreat in Coorg offer internship (minimum 3-6 months) while backpackers can stay in their remote self-service Farway Cottage at just Rs.7000/week. Spiti Ecosphere offers programs like the weeklong ‘Backpacking with a Purpose’ or the 2-week ‘Greening the Deserts: Building in the Himalayas’ and help build greenhouses for village communities. Useful for longer stays, in many cases it not only takes care of your food and stay, you might also earn some stipend on the side.

No matter what your reason for travel, a budget holiday often takes you to places that are more secluded and offbeat, offering real experiences, thrilling adventures and a chance to meet interesting, like-minded people who share travel, rooms and resources.

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FACT FILE

Top Tips
Avoid peak season and weekends
Take public/shared transport
Walk or hire cycles for local sightseeing
Get better room rates in off-season
Look out for museums/sights with free entry
Eat at dhabas/street food instead of restaurants
Carry a sleeping bag and a water bottle
Talk to locals for info/tips
Try Voluntourism

Popular backpacker haunts
Paharganj (Delhi), Pushkar, Rishikesh, McLeodganj, Kasol, Varanasi, Hampi, Gokarna, Goa, Manali, Spiti

Budget experiences
Kanwar yatra in Shravana Mela
Narmada Pradakshina
Kenduli Baul Mela
Goa in the rains

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 28 July 2018 as the cover story in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Germany’s Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Christmas markets of Germany, counted amonthe oldest in the world 

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Christmas is the most awaited season for millions around the globe but Germany turns into a winter wonderland with its ancient Advent traditions and Christmas Markets dating back to 1393. Each city and town reinterprets the traditional Advent Calendar, opening up surprises and treats 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 3-D designs.

“Christmas markets are a lovely ancient tradition,” said our guide Jens Becker in Wernigerode, a quaint medieval town high up in the Harz region, 2½ hours from Hannover. With painted half-timbered houses and the spectacular 15th century RatHaus (Town Hall) in the cobbled Marktplaz, it’s at its loveliest in the festive weeks running up to Christmas with a 10m tall Christmas tree. One of the most spectacular Christmas Markets in the region, the Mayor cuts the gigantic stollen (cake) and declares the market open. Wernigerode is known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling).

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Local craftsmen and artists set up stalls around the Townhall and Nicolaiplatz to showcase their splendid offerings in wood, glass, wool and ceramic, besides incense burners, nutcrackers, painted sun-catchers, knitwear, stone sculptures, nativity scenes, stars and bells in every shape and size. The stunning 12th Century castle forms the perfect backdrop to the weeklong Castle Wernigerode Winter Market. There’s fairy visits, Nikolaus distributing gifts in the inner courtyard, a children’s train and a special Christmas train that chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken.

Dresden is a beautiful city famous for its 600-year-old Christmas markets,” Becker continued excitedly. “I was there for the 579th market. They make amazing pastries and pies like Dresdner handbrot and have bakeries where children make their own confections. They also have the best mulled wine.” Dresden has a dozen Christmas Markets, each with a different theme or tradition. Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is counted among the oldest in Germany. Its name derives from hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as “Dresden Christstollen” (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker.

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The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a fairytale forest, a medieval market and the world’s largest freestanding Advent calendar. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market surrounding the Old City Hall in Cologne offers travellers a taste of hot gluhwein or traditional mulled wine and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near Cologne Cathedral. At the Elves Christmas market, zip around in the specially created ice-skating rink, enjoy German beer or bite into a hearty bratwurst (sausage). At Rudolfplatz, step into a magical world at the Fairytale Market.

Bustling Berlin turns into a dreamland, ushering in the festive spirit with its sixty odd Christmas markets, besides concerts, performances and shopping bonanzas. With the tunning Gendarmenmarkt Square amplifying the beauty of the WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus sees days and nights of endless merrymaking with food ranging from hearty meats to crepes, seafood and cinnamon rolls. Every Saturday Christmas-themed parades and circus performers enliven the main market during season.

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Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt. Every day at 5.30 pm at Christkindlmarkt, traditional Christmas music from the balcony of the Town Hall greets revelers while in Frankfurt, trumpets blaring from the St Nicholas Church balcony herald the festivities. Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt is counted among the oldest and largest in Europe and each of the 300 decorated stalls vie for the coveted ‘most beautiful stall’ award. Another beautiful Christmas market is Heidelberg, an old city snuggled amidst hills and forests with a gorgeous view of the River Neckar from its castle.

Between the North Sea and the Harz mountains, experience a range of Christmas themes and settings. Emden has the only floating Christmas market in the freezing north while Wilhelmshaven turns into a romantic beach setting with splendid views of the winter sea. Osnabruck woos visitors to see its massive 6m high Nutcracker figure while the Oldenburg Lambertimarkt transforms into a gigantic Advent Calendar. In Stade near Hamburg, Santa’s helper Lucia, the Swedish Queen of Light wears a wreath of candles. In Bremen, Weinachtsmarkt whips up wonderful white mulled wine while newer Christmas markets showcase pirate ships, music concerts and niche artisan products by the River Weser with wellness and vegan fare at Findorffer’s Winterdorf.

Essen/Ruhr area: Christmas market

Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt entertains over two million visitors in December alone. These Bavarian markets lined with neat stalls dressed with signature red-and-white awnings, sell handicrafts, candles, whiskered smoker dolls, handmade muppets and soft toys, music boxes and porcelain. Dig into delicious gingerbread, juicy Nuremberger sausages, iced lebkuchen and the yummy zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped treats made of plums.

On the streets, you cannot escape the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts. With carols in the air and shimmering streams of light raining down old timbered homes, with towns dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees gleaming like towers of light, elves and angels gracing the streets and shop windows, you almost see Nicholaus and his reindeer dancing through the skies to drop gifts down every chimney hole, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Germany’s Christmas markets.

Authors: This article appeared on 24 December 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

Adrift on the Danube: Sketches of Serbia

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A former settlement of gypsies turned into a hip bohemian quarters, a pottery village, an Ethno Park, vineyards, lavish spreads against an idyllic countryside and a gorgeous sunset cruise, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY experience the best that Serbia has to offer

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“Going to Serbia? Must be cold!” remarked a well-meaning friend. “No, that’s Siberia! This is Serbia. Novak Djokovic… Ana Ivanovic… Jelena Janković… Serbia?” we shot back. Until recently, our knowledge of all things Serbian was limited to its most famous tennis personalities. But thanks to the Serbian government’s visa waiver scheme launched in September 2017, we were among its first beneficiaries and got to know the Southeast European country a little better.

Of course, we knew Tito. We have a Josip Broz Tito Marg in Delhi, named after the Yugoslav communist statesman and founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nehru, Nasser and Sukarno. Even back then, Yugoslavia had a liberal travel policy that allowed foreigners to freely explore the country and its citizens to travel worldwide.

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Despite Marshal Tito’s efforts, in 1991 a decade after his death, the unified country of jugo-slavia or ‘southern Slavic’ ethnic states splintered into Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

We flew in via Moscow to the capital Belgrade and landed at Nikola Tesla airport, named after another famous son – the noted physicist and inventor. The quirky baggage carousel emerged from the boot of FIAT cars installed in the wall with the poster ‘Welcome to Belgrade, FIAT – Proudly made in Serbia.’

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“So how’s Slobodan Milosevic?” we asked our driver as a conversation starter. Met with a frosty stare, we knew we didn’t mean the controversial president. “The tennis player…?” “Oh, that’s Slobodan Živojinović! You know ‘Boba’ eh?” he said with renewed respect. “He’s retired now. All our names end with -ić (ich). Can be confusing.” He switched tracks on the car audio and a lady’s wailing voice greeted us. “That’s his wife – Serbian pop singer Lepa Brena.” He sighed and shrugged, as if it explained everything.

That evening, we walked down Belgrade’s buzzing pedestrian street Knez Mihailova, named after national hero Prince Mihailo, who expelled the Turks from the country. His bronze statue astride a horse dominates Republic Square. On the far end, Skadarlija was once a settlement of Gypsies in the abandoned trenches opposite the ramparts of Belgrade’s fortress Kalemegdan.

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Today, it’s a hip Bohemian quarter full of kafanas (coffee houses), breweries and traditional restaurants like Dva Jelena, where musicians play starogradska (Old Town Music). Over coffee, we sat with Alex from Balkan Adriatic, to tailor our Serbia itinerary. We set off early morning for Zlatibor in western Serbia, stopping at a bakery for some börek (baked filled pastries), the most popular Serbian breakfast, paired with yoghurt.

The signboards whizzed by as we tried to read them, in vain. It looked uncannily like the restaurant signs one finds in Goa these days… “Is it Russian?” we enquired. “No, it’s Cyrillic”, said Alex. “H is N, П is P, P is R, C is S, 3 is Z!” The script seemed as if the Underground was sending coded messages (‘Ha! Read this, Herr Goebbels’) or perhaps someone had too much rakija (local plum brandy) and jumbled up the letters. One thing was clear – mastering Cyrillic wasn’t happening on this trip.

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Driving past stunning lakes, forests and monasteries at Ovčar-Kablar Gorge, we reached the pottery village of Zlakusa. Mixing powdered flintstones with local clay, potters slowly turn the wheel by hand to create masterpieces. Seventeen local families have been practicing this art for generations. Each piece had two seals – the letter ‘3’ or Z to denote the village Zlakusa and the family’s name, in this case, Pottery Tesić. With amazing precision and practiced ease, Zarko Tesić shaped a large earthen dish with a lid, used traditionally to cook meat.

Terzića avlija is a charming Ethno Park at Zlakusa that served as the first school in town. A few houses in a pretty garden bedecked with flowers double up as museums with relics from the Balkan War besides photos, utensils and Partisan memorabilia. Shell casings had been modified into beautiful coffee filters. Guests can taste home made juices and traditional Serbian dishes prepared in the well-known crockery of Zlakusa, learn pottery or take courses in folklore dancing and stitching. There’s a strong tradition of wood carving too, on display at workshops along the way.

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For insights into Serbian craftsmanship and countryside life in a 19th century mountain village we visited Sirogojno where 50 wooden houses had been transplanted from surrounding villages. Each was meant for a certain purpose and equipped with tools of the trade – blacksmith workshop, barn, chicken coop, corn crib, bakery, tobacco store, tavern with cauldrons for making rakija, a wooden church and the oldest house with roof crosses (erected to prevent premature deaths), dating back to 1845.

The only open-air museum in Serbia, Staro Selo (Old village) also has a store selling locally made jams, preserves and Serbian dolls. Outside, local ladies knitted Sirogojno style sweaters, caps and scarves. One beckoned us to her handmade tapestry and treats of dried apples and apricots on strings.

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It was evening when we reached Hotel Mir Zlatibor. At Grand Restaurant Jezero, Alex swatted away the menu as one would a pesky fly, giving us a reassuring nod that supposedly meant, “I got this!” He ordered a typical Serbian mezze platter, a mixed meat pile-up, Escalope Karadjordje (pork escalope stuffed with kajmak or clotted cream) and Princess Donuts. Sips of vodnjika, a traditional brew, revived us from food coma. A word of caution: portions in Serbia are humongous, though you can order half portions!

Our food intake was an imminent threat to our wellbeing; ironical considering Zlatibor was a wellness destination. In 1893, on the insistence of local hosts, King of Serbia Aleksandar Obrenović established it as a health resort. In his honour, a fountain was erected at the spot where he had lunch and a small lake Kraljeva Voda, literally King’s Water, was built.

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The picturesque hotels and restaurants look lovely in the reflection of Zlatibor Lake. In summer, tourists take a stroll around it or go hiking, while in winter the lake freezes over and people come to ski on the slopes of Tornik. The local market is a great place to pick up honey, rakija, cheese and smoked meats.

At Drvengrad between Mount Tara and Zlatibor, we stumbled upon an ethno village so pretty it could pass off as a movie set. We discovered it actually was one, built by Serbian director Emir Kusturica for filming his movie “Life is a Miracle.” The village set-up had quaint wooden houses with streets named after eminent personalities like Djokovic and Ivo Andrić, Nobel-prize winning author of Bridge on the Drina. We took a guided tour of the art gallery, library, the ‘Underground’ cinema, the church of St. Sava and a souvenir shop. Visitors stay in log cabins, sold out during the annual Kustendorf Film Festival.

Drvengrad modified Trabbant IMG_9371_Anurag Mallick

At Mokra Gora we saw the famous narrow gauge heritage railway Šargan Eight that once ran from Belgrade to Sarajevo but was closed in 1974. Between 1999 and 2003 the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and Serbian railways rebuilt the section over the Šargan Pass with Kusturica’s help. Popularly named Ćira or Nostalgy, the train runs on the Mokra Gora-Šargan Vitasi route with the tracks forming a figure ‘8’.

We made our own figure 8 back to Belgrade after some wine tasting at Aleksandrovic winery and the mausoleum of Serbian kings at Topola Oplenac with a crypt covered in mind-numbing mosaic. Soon, it was Alex (meal) time again and his order at Knežev Han restaurant matched the grandeur of the Serbian sunset.

Topola Oplenac crypt IMG_9569_Anurag Mallick

We bid goodbye to our rallyist friend as archaeologist Luka Relic guided us through the remainder of our trip – from Nikola Tesla Museum, Tito’s memorial House of Flowers, Cathedral of St Sava and Belgrade Fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

We explored the fort and museums of university town Novi Sad, medieval churches and Krusedol monastery in the Fruska Gora mountains and family-run wineries like Bajilo Cellar at Sremski Karlovci. In the old town of Zemun we took a sunset cruise down the Danube – the longest stretch of the river lies in Serbia – before wrapping up with delightful seafood at Šaran restaurant!

Krusedol monastery frescoes IMG_1964_Anurag Mallick

Back in Belgrade, after checking out the local craft beer scene with Luka we all met up for a farewell dinner at Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant. A lavish Serbian spread and enough rounds of rakija and dunia (quince brandy) later, Zoran the dashing owner of Balkan Adriatic decided it was time to experience Belgrade’s legendary nightlife.

What followed was a blur of music, lights and faces, as we dove in and out of clubs and splavs (party barges), barely in time for our return flight. But there was enough reason to come back – the legendary Iron Gates on the Danube, the Guča trumpet festival and of course Alex’s off-road trips and his goulash!

Aleksandrovic Winery IMG_9481_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Turkish Airlines via Istanbul or Aeroflot via Moscow, and Air Serbia to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade. Pottery village Zlakusa and “Terzića Avlija” ethno village are 185 km from Belgrade. Zlatibor is another 38 km away with Sirogojno and Mokra Gora nearby. Novi Sad is 94km/1 hr northwest of Belgrade. www.airserbia

When to go
The Kustendorf Film & Music Festival is held in January. Exit, an award-winning summer music festival is held at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, the famous trumpet festival is held at Guča in August and a Rakija Fest in September in Belgrade.

Where to Stay
Hotel Moskva
Terazije 20, Belgrade
Ph +381 113642069
http://www.hotelmoskva.rs

Hotel Mir Zlatibor
Jovanke Jeftanović 125, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 31845151
http://www.hotelmirzlatibor.com

Sirogojno village meal IMG_9164_Anurag Mallick

Where to Eat
Dva Jelena
Skadarska, Belgrade
Ph +381 11 7234885
http://www.dvajelena.rs

Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant
Gavrila Principa 77, Belgrade
Ph +381 63 369670

Knežev Han
Karađorđeva 4, Topola
Ph +381 34 6814411
http://www.knezevhantopola.rs

Grand Restaurant Jezero
Kraljevi Konaci bb, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 66415415
http://www.grandrestoranjezero.com

Winery Aleksandrovic
Vinca, Topola-Oplenac
Ph +381 34 826555
http://www.vinarijaaleksandrovic.rs

Local tours
Balkan Adriatic DMC
Parmak Zoran
Ph +381 11 3625036
http://www.balkan-adriatic.com

Tour Guide: Luka Relic
Ph +381 65 9890305
relic.luka@gmail.com

For more info, visit http://www.serbia.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 July 2018 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Burhanpur: Diamond in the Dust

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Mosques with inscriptions in Farsi and Sanskrit, Mumtaz Mahal’s hamam and the Black ‘Taj Mahal’; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Burhanpur, the gateway to the Deccan and cultural capital of the Mughals in southern Madhya Pradesh

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A tad weary from our journeys across Central India, we disembarked for a brief stopover at Burhanpur. Hoshang Havaldar, the portly 60-something owner of Hotel Ambar, greeted us with roses and scented cotton yarns. “This ordinary‘sut ka haar’ commemorates Burhanpur’s glorious past as a trading centre of cotton. The fragrance of khus, kewda and gulab represent the three ponds of itr (perfumes) in which Mumtaz Begum took a daily dip in Burhanpur’s Shahi hamam. She gifted a rose to Shah Jahan everyday and we greet our guests with a rose as well.”

Thus, a routine hotel welcome transformed into a history lesson laden with meaning. Local INTACH convener Havaldar took immense pride in his illustrious city. “Without Burhanpur, India’s chronicles are incomplete. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and learning centre for princes and princesses, who imbibed tehzeeb (etiquette)-tameez (manners)-taakat (power)-tareeka-e-ilmaat (life lessons). Akbar spent 40 years in Burhanpur, Shah Jahan 44, Aurangzeb 30, while Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana governed for 37 years. Whoever was appointed a sipahsalar (governor) here was destined for greatness.”

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But what was a Parsi doing in southern Madhya Pradesh? Havaldar’s great grandfather came from Navsari in 1904 to work at the Burhanpur Tapti Cotton Mill. The hotel has been around since 1985 and its foyer is lined with info panels and antiquities. At Heena Garden restaurant, Havaldar explained how Burhanpur’s architecture inspired the hotel’s décor – haveli styled rooms with jalis, arches and lotus patterns. The food was Mughlai but completely vegetarian – from Jalal-e-Akbari to Paneer Mumtaz…

Over a leisurely meal, he elaborated how the Shruti and Smriti puranas refer to Burhanpur as Bhrignapur, the tapobhumi (place of penance) of Bhrigu rishi, who wrote the Bhrigu Samhita on the banks of the Tapti river. Legends recount how Surya the sun god, unable to bear the heat of his own body, created the river from his being. Hence Tapti is worshipped as Surya-putri.“Taap haran karne wali shakti, Tapti.”

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To believers, the mere thought of Tapti or the sight of Narmada is equivalent to a dip in the Ganga. Tapti Mahapuran records how the west-flowing rivers Narmada, Tapti and Poorna predated Ganga’s descent on earth and Ganga undertook a penance to appease the older rivers at Navatha, 40km away. Tapti’s placid flow is attributed to this lore.

That evening we drove around the city noticing its architectural wealth flash amidst its crowded, soiled streets like rubies in the rubble. Burhanpur seemed burdened by its own history. It has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. With the weakening of the Delhi Sultanate, Malik Nasir Khan claimed independence from Mandu’s Sultan, conquered Asirgarh Fort and renamed his capital in 1427 after Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din.

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Burhanpur served as the capital of Khandesh where eleven Farooki kings ruled for two centuries, creating a ‘secular’ state where Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic and Farsi. Adil Shah’s inscription can be seen at the two Jama Masjids in Burhanpur and Asirgarh. “To this day, Hindu-Muslims are like tanabana (warp and weft) of one weave,” quipped Havaldar. We reached the riverside palace complex Mughalbagh or Shahi Kila, constructed by Adil Shah Farooki II between 1457 and 1503.

The best-preserved structure is the zenana bath, built in 1612 with facilities that outshone modern spas – pleasure fountains, aquatic massage, hot and cold running water, showers and channels to route perfumes into tanks. The bathroom was lit up by eight diamonds studded in the ceiling to multiply the reflection of a lone flame from an oil lamp. Today, only intriguing holes remain.

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During Shah Jahan’s reign, frescoes graced the honeycombed ceiling to delight Mumtaz. Guided by Havaldar’s torch, we gasped at geometric patterns and Iranian designs – stars, lattices, arches, flowers, Shah Jahan’s ruby-studded turban, Mumtaz Begum’s sapphire-studded crescent turban, even an image of the Taj Mahal! Everything about the hamam was so dear to Mumtaz, that it became the inspiration for her tomb.

“Xerox kahoon, photocopy boloon, every aspect has been copied,” Havaldar’s voice resonated in the dark chamber. “Each of the four unique arches feature in the Taj, allowing light to fall on her grave at sunrise, sunset and full moon. The fourth hexagonal arch can be seen in Agra’s Moti Masjid. The blue bands and guldaan (vase) on Mumtaz’s grave are borrowed too, while Burhanpur’s Diwan-e-Aam inspired the public audience hall at Delhi’s Red Fort.” The bedroom where Mumtaz passed away while giving birth to her fourteenth child, Gauhara Begum, was in ruins with a tank on the terrace that kept it cool.

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The architectural genius was admirable. The palace complex, closed from three sides and open to the river, had 140 rooms and housed 400 people. In the cross-section of the false ceiling, we saw three earthen pipes – for fresh water, sludge water and 8 inch pipes for air vents! Alcoves and niches in the courtyard served as Meena Bazaar, a makeshift market for the queens. Shah Jahan built a rampart called Hathiya Chadhao for Mumtaz to descend from her chamber and mount an elephant for a ride to the city. A Pigeon Tower was built by Aurangzeb to ferry messages within the vast Mughal Empire. A few cannons from his time were strewn around; one bore a Farsi inscription: ‘When I open my mouth and belch fire, enemies’ hearts tremble’. Two beautiful mosques the Longi Masjid and Ilaichi Masjid, were named after their clove and cardamom-shaped domes.

Today, 1.75 lakh inhabitants stay within the 4km by 1km fort walls, making it one of India’s largest living forts. Asaf Jah renovated the parkota or circumference during Nizam rule (1720-1760). To him, Burhanpur was heaven for reasons more than its aab-o-hawa (atmosphere). The city had eight darwaaze (gates) and four khidkiyan (windows), as per the Quranic description of bahisht (heaven). Havaldar explained that a gate through which an elephant rider could enter was a darwaza while the smaller khidki allowed horse riders to pass through.

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The three-storeyed Shaniwara Gate served as the city’s main entrance. A blend of Hindu-Muslim motifs, its arch with lotus flowers hark to Akbar’s time, the next level with jharokhe, pipal toranas and kalgi design on the dome are Jahangiri while the two minarets were Shah Jahan’s contribution.

Another unique feature was the nine signs carved on it – ducks, fountains and insignia of the Mughal regiment stationed in Burhanpur. Like the Shaniwara gate, the Itwara and Budhwara gates were named after the local weekly markets. Lohar Mandi Gate was where ironsmiths set up shop while Shikarpura gate, was the hunting route of Akbar’s son Prince Daniyal.

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The following day, we toured with Professor Ghanshyam Malviya alias ‘Guruji’, who was persuaded by Havaldar to lead tours, a decade ago. He showed us how the Jama Masjid, with its 130 ft minars, was built in a way that its 15 arches intersected to form a ‘roofless masjid’. Each arch was unique, decorated with lotus flowers and toranas.

He pointed out a small stone wedged into the structure that conveyed the architect’s illustration of a deeper concept – every stone, big or small played a part in the building, the same way all men were equal in front of god.

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For six centuries, traders flocked to Burhanpur’s cotton market Tana Gujri mandi, which had a serai, hamam and masjid for visitors. Serais were traveller’s inns, kothaar were mid-budget lodges and huzoore were plush stays for respectable dignitaries. Under Noor Jehan’s counsel, Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time.

Built underground to conceal bare bodied males from women passing by, it lay hidden under a mound of earth until 25 years ago. Khan-i-khana’s Akbari Saray where Sir Thomas Roe, emissary of King James I halted, was in shambles, but we peeked into the 1780 Zakvi Haveli built by Zakvi-ud-din, 41st Syedna of the Dawoodi Bohra faith.

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Narrow bylanes took us to the first ever Swaminarayan Temple in India, the Maratha-era Bombaywalon ki kothi and the Nathdwara-inspired Bahuji Maharaj ka Mandir. Its 2-inch idol of Lord Krishna needed a telescope for a clear darshan! Bibi ki Masjid, the city’s oldest mosque, was styled on one in Ahmedabad. We stumbled upon the century old wooden house of the Hathiwala family whose ancestors maintained elephants for Maratha and Mughal armies.

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. Built out of black stone, it is the lament of a father’s anguish. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, has exquisite murals, kept under lock and key. Some say the structure was originally a Jain temple dedicated to 24 tirthankaras.

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The soul of Burhanpur is deeply entrenched in spirituality. Once a flourishing Jain settlement, the city is the revered seat of the Nath sampradaya, Dadu panth, Kabir panth and many religious denominations. The very name Burhanpur is derived from Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din Garib, Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia’s disciple. Nearly 4000 Sufi saints came here to spread Islam. “Yahan teen Chishti araam farma rahe hain…”(Here, three Chishti saints are at rest)

Shah Bahauddin Bajan came to Burhanpur as a young tutor to the children of Farooqi kings. Revered for his intellect, he was nicknamed ‘Chup’ Shah as he spoke very little. He died at the age of 120 and many visit his makbara (tomb). Nearby, on the banks of the Utawali, rests Hazrat Shah Bhikhari. “Utawali? Strange name for a river!” we remarked. Guru ji smiled, “She is quick to flood and quick to dry up. She comes in a hurry and disappears as hurriedly, hence ‘utawali’ or eager”.

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Nearly 2 lakh devotees offer namaaz on Shah Bhikhari’s urs. Saint Syed Mohammad Hashmi Kashmi lived in Burhanpur for 12 years. Two hundred years after his death, when the changing course of the Tapti river threatened to submerge his grave, it was shifted to a safer place. Surprisingly, his body was found intact!

Burhanpur is home to the biggest Shia monument in India. 17th-century Bohra saint Maulana Sayyedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin Saheb lived here and his tomb Dargah-e-Hakimi is much revered. It is believed a trip to Mecca-Medina is incomplete unless ziyarat is offered at Burhanpur. Spread over 125 acres amid immaculate gardens, the pristine dargah glistens like a fresh lotus in the muck and grime of Burhanpur.

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Syed Hakimuddin’s miraculous powers and the marble mausoleums of the 26th and 42nd Syednas draw many devotees. The old Mughal tradition of the tonga, known in Shah Jahan’s time as shahi sawari, is still alive among the Bohri Muslims who love taking horse-drawn carriages to Dargah-e-Hakimi.

Burhanpur is sacred to the Sikhs too as Guru Nanak stopped here in 1511-12 on his way to Omkareshwar and Guru Gobind Singh halted in 1708 en route to Nanded. Gurudwara Badi Sangat marks the spot where the latter camped and gave satsang. He stayed for 6 months, 9 days at Nivas Asthan Patshahi, which houses his weapons. It was here that Gobind Singh ji decreed that there would be no more gurus after him and the holy book shall be the sole guide. He compiled the Guru Granth Sahib and marked it with his seal. The Gurudwara has the carefully preserved tome with his golden signature and exquisite miniature paintings on each page, locked inside.

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One question nagged us. If Mumtaz Mahal died in Burhanpur, why was her tomb in Agra? Back in the day, Burhanpur had excellent medical facilities and was home to renowned hakims. After Mumtaz died during childbirth, she was embalmed and laid to rest for 6 months at her beloved Ahukhana, the shikargah (hunting lodge) built by Akbar’s son Daniyal, which had been restored by her into a rose garden.

Shah Jahan wished to build a memorial on Tapti’s riverbank so he could see its reflection in the waters. The bank was 80 ft high and required a larger plinth and a taller structure. However, the loamy black cotton soil wouldn’t withstand the weight of such a large edifice. The logistics of transporting marble from Makrana in Rajasthan tilted it in Agra’s favour. The rest is history. We drove out via the historic Dilli Darwaza, along the route of Mumtaz Begum’s final journey in a golden casket in 1631, accompanied by her son Shah Shuja to Agra.

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On Burhanpur’s outskirts, Asirgarh’s distinct form could be seen from afar. Perched at 259m, “it is the highest, oldest and most protected fort of India,” claimed Guruji. Havaldar ranked it among the 7 unconquered forts of India. Overlooking a pass over the Satpuras, Asirgarh lay on a key trade route between North India and the Deccan. It was the strategic Dakkani Darwaza or Doorway to the Deccan.

Nasir Khan Farooki murdered local raja Asa Ahir and captured the fort. Despite a matrimonial alliance with the Farookis, Akbar besieged Asirgarh for six months with a 32,000 strong army in 1600. Mounting cannons atop a hill – named ‘Akbar topi’ for its uncanny resemblance to the Mughal emperor’s headgear – he bombarded the fort in vain. Eventually, he too resorted to deceit. Under the pretext of the zenana wanting to see the fort, Mughal troops emerged from palanquins in Trojanesque fashion to end Farooki rule in Khandesh.

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In January, 1601 Akbar finally offered namaz at the Jama Masjid in Asirgarh. Stone inscriptions record Shah Jahan’s revolt against Jahangir as governor of Burhanpur and Aurangzeb’s overthrow of Shah Jahan. The British paid Rs.7 lakh to acquire the fort from the Marathas. After the 1819 treaty, Asirgarh was the last major fort to come under British control. Such was its import that a message was dispatched to the British viceroy that India had finally been conquered!

Yet, no one ever captured Asirgarh in battle. A formidable chain of seven gateways rose from the abyss, overrun by foliage. We wisely chose the winding mud road off the highway that ended abruptly against 120 ft high walls. Spread over 60 acres, the complex has three fortifications – Malaygarh the lowermost, Kamargarh the middle one built by Aurangzeb and Asirgarh, the highest and oldest part. Steep stairs led to a plateau at the summit where the Jama Masjid stood.

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Legend has it that the mountain was once Ashwathamagiri, the haunt of Drona’s son who hid here after abandoning the Kurukshetra battlefield. Another lore hails how after his ritual bath in the Tapti, Ashwathama does puja at Burhanpur’s Gupteshwar temple and takes a bilva marg (subterranean path) to perform a puja at Asireshwar Mahadev, which gave the fort its name. Till today, a single wild flower mysteriously appears on the linga as proof of his secret ritual.

Scattered around were remains of Rani Mahal, barracks, Phansi Ghar (gallows), prison, cemetery and an erstwhile British cantonment. Veer Surendra Sai, legendary freedom fighter from Sambalpur was imprisoned here for 19 years and died in 1884. From the summit, we spotted Moti Mahal, the palace and mausoleum of Shah Jahan’s third wife Moti Begum at the foothills of Asirgarh. While the whole world flocks to the monument of eternal love at Agra, Burhanpur lies discarded like a concubine, in the dusty wayside of history.

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Burhanpur is 181 km south of Indore (4 hrs) via SH-27. The citadel of Asirgarh lies 20km from town and 5km off the highway.

Stay
Hotel Ambar & Holiday Resort
NH-27, Rastipura Colony, Opp. Bus Stand, Burhanpur
Ph 07325-251197, 94240 24949
http://hotelambarburhanpur.com

Shop
Buy cotton clothes at Tana Gujri Mandi, locally made country cheroots or some daraba (sweet) and Burhanpur jalebi to take home.

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Eat
In the Khandesh region, poha, jalebi, samosa, kachori and khaman are commonly eaten for breakfast, besides chiwda, lasaniya sev, maand (roomali roti) and regional dishes like kala masaichi (curry of over-roasted black masala) and makai ki kachori. Try Burhanpur’s thick mawa jalebis at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre, Subhash Chowk (Ph 98262 72490).

For non-veg Mughlai cuisine head to Rahmania Restaurant at Jaistambh Chauraha (Ph 07325-257291) and for veg Mughlai delights like Nargisi kofta, Paneer angara, Jalal-e-Akbari and Kebab Palak, head to Heena Garden at Hotel Ambar Palace. For the signature sweet daraba (semolina, sugar and ghee whisked to a fine fluffy dessert), try Kundan and Geeta in the morning, Subhash bhai halwayi or Milan Mithai at Gandhi Chowk (Ph 07325-252315, 252295).

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5 Things to Do in the Region
Explore India’s highest fort Asirgarh
Try local treats like Burhanpur jalebis, maande and daraba
Take a ride in a tonga or horse-drawn carriage to Dargah-e-Hakimi
Attend Balaji ka Mela (Nov) on the banks of the Tapti river
Do an architecture tour – frescoes at Begum Shah Shuja’s makbara to Shahi Hamam

Discover This
Located 7km from town, Kundi Bhandara or Neher-e-khair zaari (literally, channel that flows regularly and safely) is Burhanpur’s wondrous water system built by Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana. Water is channeled from the base of mountains at a depth of 80 ft to the surface by 3km long tunnels, using a capillary system. It is supported by a network of 8 gidgidi (points for drawing water), 44 karanje (ponds) and 105 kundi (wells).

It also has the popular misnomer Khooni Bhandara. One morbid story narrates how dacoits often looted and killed merchants who halted at Burhanpur’s serais, and dumped their bodies in a well where the water turned bloody. Local guide Guru ji scoffs at the tall tales – “Ek billi ka bachcha bhi nahi mara 75 saal mein!” (Not even a kitten has died Dargah-i-Hakimi,here in the last 75 years).

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.

 

 

Salt, Sand & Spice: The Thar therapy

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The desert sand heals those that dare to tread it. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover an oasis of wellness amid the dunes of Rajasthan.

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One look at the harsh unforgiving landscape of the Thar and you wonder what rejuvenation a desert could possibly offer? As we drove in to Jaisalmer, there was no palm-fringed oasis in sight and the barren land with hardy kikar and khejri trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Unlike Kerala or Bali, the Thar didn’t possess the healing touch of green that soothes the soul, the crisp mountain air of British sanatoriums of yore or the relaxing soak of hot water springs in the fabled spa towns of Europe.

The Great Indian Desert yawned endlessly over 200,000 sq km covering 60% of the state of Rajasthan. However, all apprehensions about a wellness holiday in an arid desolate tract prone to extremes of temperatures dissipated, as a flagged convoy waiting on the town’s outskirts led us with much pomp to Suryagarh. From the main gate, two camels ushered us up the slope to the resort’s entrance where floral showers, drummers and a traditional welcome swept us off our feet…

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Founded by Maharawal Jaisal in 12th century, Jaisalmer lay on the southern strand of the Silk Route. Between 16th and 18th century, the city thrived on taxes collected from the caravans from Central Asia passing through the desert en route to Osian and China. Its caravanserais teemed with traders plying exotic goods.

Inspired by this indigenous desert culture and its ancient healing traditions, Suryagarh’s Rait Spa was named after the sea of rait (sand) it was set in. Drawing on the essence of delicate aromas of fine oils, elixirs and spices, its signature thermal therapies were based on sand, salt and stone. But Suryagarh’s legendary hospitality spearheaded by our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat was not to be taken lightly.

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The Halwayi breakfast of traditional snacks and sweets was so heavy we could barely make it to our first spa session. Trudging with heavy steps from our opulent Haveli Residence, we secretly hoped that the short walk to the spa was enough digestive exercise.

The illustration of mustachioed wrestlers dominated the Akhara or gym while yellow lights contrasted against the deep blue of Neel, the indoor pool. The flicker of oil lamps and flower petals announced Rait Spa, enveloped in an air of calm. Ambient eastern music played in the background and it was like being in a medieval oasis in the desert.

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We tried the Sand Ritual, an age-old treatment handed down centuries based on the natural healing potential of heat. After a fragrant spice scrub, we surrendered to a massage using heated potlis (bundles) of Jaisalmer rait (sand), which helped relieve the tautness of our muscles. We felt knots of pain slowly melt away into nothingness.

The soft tinkle of a bell announced the end of the session. We couldn’t believe that only an hour had passed; it felt like eternity. After we cooled off in henna and aromatic vetiver (camel grass or khus), the therapist explained how heat aided the body to release toxins naturally and regain natural rhythms, enabling better metabolism.

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‘Better metabolism’, just the words we wanted to hear! For the days that followed, we needed every ounce of metabolic willpower to take on the specially curated culinary experiences at diverse venues – breakfast with peacocks in the bush at dawn, specialty cuisine at Legends of Marwar, Jaisalmer kebabs and biryani at the Lake Gardens, Thar dinner at Celebration Gardens, Signature Thali dinner at The Courtyard that came veiled or the magical Dinner on the Dunes under the stars – a recreation of the nomadic hunt menu. Mehboob Khan and the troupe of manganiyars (traditional musicians) formed a continuous musical backdrop.

The days were spent exploring the Thar on bespoke trails through shifting sands and thorny scrub. We scoured dhanis (small settlements), learnt about govardhans or carved pillar markers that pointed out water sources, tasted fresh water at sweet water wells, marveled at Phoenician-like figures of traders on tombstones in the cemeteries of Paliwal Brahmins and went on the spooky midnight Chudail Trail to the abandoned village of Kuldhara.

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Overlooking the ruins of homes and serais, stood the 13th century Khaba Fort. Info panels explained how 60 million years ago, the Arabian Sea stretched beyond Gujarat to present-day Rajasthan and this vast wasteland was once a flourishing tract through which the Saraswati and its tributaries coursed.

Tectonic shifts caused the river to dry up, leaving behind little rivulets and isolated saltwater lakes. One such surviving river is the Luni, known in Sanskrit as Lavanavati, or ‘salt river’, due to its high salinity. Incidentally, the desert too is referred to as Lavana Sagara (Sea of Salt). Even today, the sandy bed throws up whorled fossils of ammonites and petrified trees.

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For centuries, these salt-water lakes and streams in the Thar Desert have been used to manufacture sodium chloride salt. On our return, we noticed the motifs of jalis, stonework and roof patterns of the ruins finding recurrence in Suryagarh’s architecture but we didn’t expect the salt to be used for our spa therapies!

Rait’s unique salt therapy sources salt from the Luni riverbed handpicked by the staff. It is fused with IMRS (Intelligent Magnetic Resonance System), a health care system developed in Germany to balance the body’s magnetic field and subtly adjust bodily cadences. Adhering to the salt theme, Himalayan rock salts were used to light the room to cleanse and align the energies.

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For better efficacy and absorption by the skin, oils were charged with bio disks, technically engineered using over 100 natural minerals bonded in glass using molecular level fusion at high heat. The therapist slowly wrapped us in soft muslin drenched in salt and we lay mummified, experiencing heavenly realms of peace. The salts were rich in potassium, magnesium and other minerals, ideal for deep cellular-level cleansing. An hour later, we emerged like lithe spirits.

Another signature therapy was Stone using the healing properties of tiger-striped seashells from the Philippine islands with volcanic stones. These unique, specially sourced seashells, enclosed with a gel rich in lava powder, emit heat due to a natural chemical reaction. The shells, rich in calcium carbonate and trace elements, help nourish bones and tissues. The coarse texture of the shells made a natural scrub and we yielded to the long strokes and deep-kneading massage that boosted vascular circulation, drained toxins and improved metabolism.

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Back in our room, a secret bedside platter of assorted traditional sweets awaited us. This daily treat was the creation of resident halwayi Chef Gatta Ram who would set them with little scrolls tied with silken strings, explaining each item. Tearing ourselves away from the pleasure palace that’s Suryagarh was near impossible but the task of continuing our Thar wellness tour to their property in Bikaner goaded us on.

Narendra Bhawan, the revamped residence of Narendra Singh ji, the last Maharaja of Bikaner is the most idiosyncratic address in the region. Renouncing the comforts of the palace, he created his own residence where he stayed with his family, 86 dogs and 500 cows (he used to call each by name)! Long before bovine love was fashionable in India, he was given a Gauratna for his service to cows. Legend goes that he never ate a meal till his animals were fed.

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Today, his goshala (cowshed) is an alfresco bar where we downed Negronis and evening snacks on a fiery onyx tabletop. We were led us past the typical Bikaneri façade, for which red sandstone was brought from Dhulmera 80km away. Step inside, and it was anything but Bikaner.

It took architect Ravi Gupta and interior designer Ayush Kasliwal six years to reinterpret Narendra Bhawan as a tribute to the man and his travels. Manvendra explained, “We imagined it as the house of a mad uncle we all love – nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Like a residence, it’s not themed”.

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Bright walls, framed Banarasi textiles, Ming vases, crystals, porcelain figurines from Dresden, Richmond patterned chequered floors, Art Deco lights, framed photos of the Narendra Singh ji’s royal lineage and dogs, old Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin classics, usta gold painting, a red piano; everything was an ode to the maharaja’s eccentric nature and eclectic tastes.

The rooms transcend his phases in life – flamboyant Prince rooms, leather-panelled Regimental rooms flagging his military lineage, India rooms reflecting Gandhian ethos and Republic rooms showcasing works of Le Corbusier in a post-independent India. “It’s not really a hotel but a landscape of memories – life’s passage through time,” added Manvendra.

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The same vein of creativity ran through the spa. Inspired by the great sanitariums of Europe, Clinic – The Spa was a novel concept based on holistic healing through flowers and plants. Between 1920-30, Dr Edward Bach developed a set of 38 floral remedies catering to a particular emotional state.

Using concepts from the Bach Flower Therapy, Narendra Bhawan’s Flower Essences are specially designed to soothe one’s senses, instill harmony and bring balance. Aided with Bemer technology for Physical Vascular Therapy, it promised improved microcirculation, enabling the body’s self-healing powers to promote inner and outer radiance. The spa’s clean sharp décor bestows a sense of calm.

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The food carried the irreverence forward, fusing disparate themes like the banquets of kings at P&C (Pearls & Chiffon), colonial era bakeries at the Mad Hatter, poolside Muslim feasts served in crescent platters, Jain thalis in a haveli’s rooftop on the Merchant Trail, Reveille at Ratadi Talai that recreated cavalier grills to smart English menus with a Bikaneri touch.

Listening to jazz while eating dahi wale aloo, murgh sabja, kachre ki sabji (variety of wild melon) and angoor ki sabzi was quite an experience. Inventiveness was its peak with arrancini biryani, wild mushroom gujiya and seb ki kheer. At open pastures beyond Bikaner, we enjoyed sundowners and char-grilled kebabs as folk musicians played the ravan hattha (stringed instrument) by the dancing light of lanterns and the setting sun. Life was good in the Thar.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The nearest airport is Jodhpur, from where Jaisalmer is 300km (5 hrs) and Bikaner 249km (4 hrs). Jaisalmer and Bikaner are 312 km apart.

What to See
Jaisalmer: Fort, Patwon ki Haveli, Museums, Kuldhara & Khaba ruins, Desert National Park, Sam & Khuri Dunes
Bikaner: Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace, Rampuria Havelis, Bhandasar Jain temple, Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke

What to Eat
Mirchi bada, Bhikaji’s Bikaneri bhujiya & namkeen, Mawa Kachori, local dishes like ker-sangri, kachra, gatte ki sabzi with bajre ki roti.

Infinity Swimming Pool

Where to Stay

Suryagarh
Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Ph +91-02992-269269 www.suryagarh.com
Rait Spa Therapies: Salt 1hr 45 min Rs.5900/person upwards, Sand 2 hrs. Rs.7000/person, Rs.12,000/couple, Stone 1hr 30 min Rs.4400/person, Rs.7500/couple

Narendra Bhawan
Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner
Ph +91-0151-2252500, 7827151151
www.narendrabhawan.com

For more info, visit http://rajasthan-tourism.org/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Travel+Leisure India magazine.

Addis Ababa: The New Flower of Ethiopia

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Churches, museums, markets, coffee shacks and the legacy of Emperor Haile Selassie, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Addis, the bustling capital of Ethiopia 

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Addis Ababa. The very name triggered memories of playing countries and capitals at school, conjuring images of exotica – Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, legends of Queen Sheba, the Rastafarian cult of Haile Selassie and smoky jazz bars. So it was no surprise that a routine transit at Addis turned into an extended stopover.

A quick online visa and we were soon flying in on the award-winning Ethiopian Airlines, collecting our ‘Sheba Miles’. Perhaps the first thing we learnt that we had been saying it wrong all these years; it wasn’t a-baba, but a-bay-ba!

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It was Menelik I, legendary son of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba and the first Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia who brought home a copy of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem. Around 19-20th century, his descendant Menelik II transformed the country with a wave of modernization.

At first glance, Addis Ababa seems like a busy chaotic capital full of urban squalor. Yet, as we drove up to the northern nook of Entoto, past roadside stalls selling traditional Ethiopian clothes and retro blue vans, we saw wooded hills full of juniper and eucalyptus. This is where the story of Addis Ababa began…

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During the early reign of Menelik II, Ethiopia had no permanent capital and the royal encampment served as the roving headquarters. It was atop Mount Entoto that Menelik based himself. In 1886, while he was on campaign in Harar, Empress Taitu Betul camped at a hot spring to its south.

She built a home and named it Addis Ababa (New Flower). Over time, a palace and soldier’s lodgings were added and a city developed. Most of the eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia, planted in late 19th century to supply firewood and timber to the newly founded capital.

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Today, the Maryam (St Mary) Church, Memorial Museum and Menelik’s Palace at Entoto draw only intrepid travelers with time on hand. In 1896, during the First Italo-Ethiopian War, Menelik led his troops against Italy’s invading forces from their colony in Eritrea and scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Adwa.

However, the Italians did invade Ethiopia in 1936. The Piazza district in the city center is the most evident Italian influence with Italian architecture and European-style shopping centers, restaurants and cafes. Here one can find Itegue Taitu Hotel, Ethiopia’s first hotel and the Hager Fikir Theatre, the oldest theater in the country.

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Addis Ababa is an imperial city suffused with churches, palaces and magnificent edifices. While returning from Entoto, we stopped by at the Gannata Le’ul Palace (Paradise of Princes) built by Haile Selassie in 1930, when he was anointed as Ethiopia’s emperor from its regent. He took on the name ‘Ras Tafari’, triggering the Rastafarian cult in Jamaica that believed in pan-Africanism. They regarded him as a messianic ruler, an incarnation of Jah (short for Jehovah or God) and the second coming of Christ.

This palace served as the main royal residence, while the seat of government remained at Menelik’s old Imperial Palace, also the current seat of government. Set amidst landscaped gardens beyond a majestic gate with twin statues of the Lion of Judah, we marveled at Haile Selassie’s opulent bedroom, study, Italian marble bathroom and the fascinating Ethnography Museum showcasing various tribes and their culture.

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Outside stood a Megalithic burial marker from the World Heritage Site of Tiya. After the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and the Italian occupation, the palace became the residence of the Italian viceroy who handed it to the Haile Selassie University (renamed Addis Ababa University in 1974).

In 1955, the National Palace (also called Jubilee Palace) was built to mark Emperor Haile Selassie’s Silver Jubilee. Modeled after the Buckingham Palace in London, it is the current residence of the President of Ethiopia. Located across Menelik II Avenue is the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

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The headquarters of the African Union is located in Addis as well and our local cabbie took us to the Chinese-built 200 million dollar AU Conference Center and Office Complex. The shiny chrome and glass building is treated like a tourist spot and proof of Ethiopia’s rapidly growing economy.

We visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral, once the largest Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral where Haile Selassie and his family are buried, besides those who fought the Italians during World War II. Nearby is the Art Deco Parliament building with its clock tower and the world’s largest pre-fabricated building Shengo Hall – a parliament hall and convention centre constructed in Finland and assembled in Addis Ababa!

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Merkato, the largest market in Africa, was a bedlam of shops, vehicles being loaded and unloaded, goods being hauled and pavement stalls selling everything from spices, metal parts, automotive spares, clothes, shoes to plastic. While here, we visited Ethiopia’s biggest mosque, the Grand Anwar Mosque built during Italian occupation.

After the fall of monarchy in 1974, Ethiopia saw a period of military rule and communism and has monuments linked to them, besides a wealth of repositories – Ethiopian Natural History Museum, Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum and a museum at St George’s Cathedral, founded in 1896.

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At the National Museum of Ethiopia, we headed straight for Lucy, past the statues, helmets, coins and pottery. She wasn’t the way we imagined her… not half astride, ready in welcome, but supine, neatly arranged in a glass case like a broken bone necklace that she perhaps once wore. Discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy is a 3.2 million year old female fossil and the world’s oldest hominid species Australopithecus afarensis.

Locally known as Dinkinesh or ‘you are beautiful’ in Amharic, she was named after The Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ which was playing at the excavation camp all evening after her find. What we saw was only a plaster replica; Lucy’s actual skeleton lay hidden in a special vault. It was a lot like the soul of Addis. The flower may have withered and turned not so redolent any more, but still remained a thing of beauty…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Ethiopian Airlines and Air India fly direct to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa from Mumbai (5 hr 10 min) and Delhi (6 hr 50 min) www.ethiopianairlines.com

When to Go
Meskel is a 1700-year-old Orthodox festival marked by lighting a bonfire and processions at Meskel Square in September

Stay
Sheraton Addis, a Luxury Collection Hotel www.sheratonaddis.com
Radisson Blu Hotel, Addis Ababa www.radissonblu.com
Best Western Plus Bole www.bestwestern.com
Caravan Hotel www.caravanaddis.com

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For local travel
Ethio Travel & Tours (ETT)
Email ethiopiatravel@gmail.com
http://www.ethiotravelandtours.com

Eat Local
Injera (spongy sourdough flatbread) made of local super grain teff
Tibs (sautéed seasoned beef strips)
Shiro (powdered chickpea or broad bean stew)
Kitfo (raw minced beef mixed with spices and butter)
Ethiopian coffee, Tej (honey wine) and local beers like Dashen, Habesha and St George

Don’t miss
Highest viewpoint Entoto
‘Lucy’ at the National Museum
Ethnography Museum at Addis Ababa University
St George’s Cathedral & Haile Selassie’s tomb at Holy Trinity Church
Africa’s largest open market Mercato

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article originally appeared in the HT City supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper on 2 July 2018.

 

Finding Rastapopoulos: Scouring Sarawak for the Proboscis Monkey

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From proboscis monkeys to Irrawaddy dolphins, Sarawak in Borneo is a paradise for lovers of wildlife, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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It was a Tintin comic set on a volcanic island in the Far East that introduced us to the proboscis monkey. In ‘Flight 714,’ its bizarre pendulous nose reminded henchman Allan of his mobster boss Rastapopoulos. As we flew in from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, we were excited to encounter the fascinating creature in flesh and blood.

Called bayou in Malaysia and bekantan in Indonesia, it is also nicknamed monyet belanda (Dutch monkey) or orang belanda (Dutchman), after Dutch colonisers who often had similar large noses and potbellies! Marooned in Borneo’s wilderness, creatures had evolved anatomical oddities to adapt to their environment – pygmy elephants, bearded pigs, finless porpoises, gliding lizards and swimming monkeys with webbed feet.

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The proboscis monkey is an endangered Old World Monkey endemic to Borneo, Asia’s largest island whose 140 million year old rainforests are among the oldest in the world. The flagship species was present in all three nations that shared the island –Indonesia to the south, besides Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to the north. Little wonder that the monkey was chosen as the mascot for South Kalimantan and Visit Malaysia Year 2014 and Malaysia’s Year of Festivals 2015.

The drive from the airport to Kuching’s historic riverfront was short and our room at Hilton Kuching overlooked the Sarawak River, Fort Margherita and the Legislative Building. We gorged on local fare like beef rendang, kari ikan (fish curry), nasi lemak (coconut rice) at live laksa counters, ahead of our wild adventure.

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Borneo’s jungles are home to just 6000 proboscis monkeys and the best place to see them in Sarawak is the coastal area and riverine stretches of Bako National Park, home to troupes of 275 or more. The park’s location at the tip of the Muara Tebas peninsula at the mouth of the Bako and Kuching rivers made it the ideal habitat.

We drove past the legendary Mount Santubong shaped like a reclining lady to the fishing village of Kampung Bako. Over a cup of local coffee we watched tiny blue mangrove crabs flit about in the mud, and took a 20-minute boat ride to Telok Assam beach, which fronts the park. We disembarked to a jaw-dropping landscape of dramatic cliffs and marbled sandstone formations.

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Nearly 75 million years ago, this area was submerged under the sea. Tectonic movements led to the formation of sandstone hills which underwent erosion over millions of years, creating magnificent geological shapes along the rugged coastline – rocky headlands, white sandy bays and steep cliff faces with pink iron patterns, veins and honeycomb weathering. Wave erosion at the base of the cliffs had carved out fantastical sea arches and sea stacks. One looked like a gargoyle, another like a cobra’s head.

We waded through ankle high waters and reached the Park Headquarters after a short walk. Established in 1957, Bako is Sarawak’s oldest national park. At 27 sq km it is also one of the smallest parks in Sarawak, yet packs a lot for its size – jungle streams, waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, secluded beaches, nature trails and varied biodiversity.

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Almost every type of vegetation in Borneo can be found here – rainforests, mangroves, padang (grasslands) and peat swamps. In the forested patch around the park headquarters we spotted silvered langur, long-tailed macaques, Bornean bearded pigs and Grass green whip snake.

Bako has a network of 18 walking trails marked out for visitors – ranging from 700m/30 min to 12.8km/6-7 hours. Teluk Delima and Teluk Paku are the best trails to spot the proboscis monkey. Their 3.5 to 5.5 inch long nose helps them attract suitable mates! When threatened, blood rushes to their nose, causing it to swell into a resonating chamber that amplifies warning calls. We spotted our first proboscis monkey with great difficulty on a treetop; its appendage silhouetted against the sky.

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Our guide Sam also pointed out a ball-like creature hanging upside down from a branch. Soon, a baby emerged from the mother’s shroud-like sac. This was the Sunda colugo or Malayan Flying Lemur. Being shy, nocturnal and solitary creatures, colugos spend most of the day curled up in tree hollows or hanging inconspicuously under branches. To reach distant food sources without encountering terrestrial or arboreal predators, it can glide up to 100m over the rainforest canopy using its patagium or expandable membranous skin!

Besides plantain squirrels, monitor lizards, otters, Bornean Terrapin and nocturnal creatures like pangolin, tarsier, slow loris and palm civet, Bako has over 150 bird species including endemics like Bornean Bristlehead and Bornean Peacock Pheasant. Though a popular day-trip from Kuching, visitors can stay overnight in forest bungalows. The area also has estuarine crocodiles which feature prominently in the culture and beliefs of the Sarawak people.

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Sarawak Cultural Village, site of the Rainforest Music Festival since 1998, is a unique award-winning ‘living’ museum that offers an insight into local culture. Stretching around a lake in a sprawling 17-acre site, replica buildings represented every major ethnic group in Sarawak – Bidayuh and Iban longhouses, sword-making shed of the Orang Ulu, Penan jungle settlement, Melanau tall-house, Malay town house and Chinese farmhouse.

In each dwelling, costumed tribesmen carried out traditional activities. We crossed a Bidayuh bamboo bridge, watched the vibrant 45-min cultural performance at the theatre and sampled ethnic Sarawak cuisine at Restaurant Budaya. A small souvenir shop stocked masks, instruments, clothes, collectibles and sapé (Bornean lute) music CDs.

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From Damai Beach Resort we left on a boat cruise around Mount Santubong to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and more proboscis monkeys, their orange fur glinting in the afternoon sun. After exploring typical kampungs or Malay coastal villages, we drove to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

For over two decades, young orphaned orangutans and those rescued from captivity, have been rehabilitated here and now survive and breed in the wild. We watched them trapeze and spar in the branches as their whoops and calls echoed through the forest. Sarawak was alive…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Malaysia Airlines flies via Kuala Lumpur to Kuching International Airport, Sarawak. From Kuching, drive 37 km to Kampung Bako, from where the park entrance is 20 minutes by boat. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is 24 km from Kuching.
www.malaysiaairlines.com

When to visit
May to September is peak season at Bako. The Rainforest Fringe Festival (6-15 July 2018), which started last year, is a 10-day spectacle of art, craft, music and design. www.rainforestfringe.com The famous Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival is being held on 13-15 July, 2018 http://rwmf.net

Tip
Wear long pants, hiking shoes or sandals. Carry a bug spray and a light rainproof jacket for the rainforest microclimate.

What to Do
Bako National Park
Ph 082-370434, 082-248088
www.sarawakforestry.com.my

Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV)
Daily cultural performance: 11:30am, 4pm
Ph +60 82-846 108, 846 078
www.scv.com.my

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
Ph +6082 618324/5
Timings 8am-5pm

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Where to stay

Hilton Kuching
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak
Ph +60 82-223 888 www.hilton.com

Hotel Pullman Kuching
1a Jalan Mathies, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak
Ph +60 82-222 888 www.pullmankuching.com

Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites
Ph +60 82-258 000 www.merdekapalace.com

Damai Beach Resort
Teluk Bandung, Santubong
Ph +60 82-846999 www.damaibeachresort.com

Damai Puri Resort & Spa
Teluk Penyu, Santubong
Ph +60 82-846900, www.damaipuriresort.com

For more info, visit www.tourism.gov.my and www.sarawaktourism.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 18 June 2018 in the HT Cafe supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

30 unique dishes from Karnataka (How many have you tried?)

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There’s more to Karnataka cuisine than Bisi Bele Bath. On Rajyotsava Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a culinary tour across the state to pick 30 unique dishes from its 30 districts and various communities.

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Like political leaders and psephologists criss-crossing the state, we had trailblazed across Karnataka on a 2-year long research project to document the state’s cuisine for Oota, a restaurant in Whitefield. Travelling with two chefs and a video crew, we ate in iconic eateries, discovered fantastic food folklore and cooked with nearly 25 communities in homes, roadside stalls and temple kitchens.

From the ghats of Coorg and Malnad to the Karavali coast, ragi fields of South Karnataka to the jola (jowar) and rice fields in the north and the Hyderabad-Karnataka region to the Maharashtra border, we traversed nearly 30 districts and 20,000km. Here’s a sample from an astonishingly diverse cuisine that goes beyond the ordinary…

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Chigli Chutney
The hilly region of Malnad is known for the unique chigli chutney made of kempu iruve or red fire ants (Ecophila Smoragdina). The ants have a vicious sting and the sour ooze from the swollen larvae gives the typical tang and bite to the chutney. The leafy nests must be harvested before sunrise and the ants are roasted along with salt, pounded and stored for future use. Ground with garlic, birds’ eye chili, onion, coconut and spices, and eaten with rice rotis, the protein-rich chutney is a winter delicacy (Nov-March). Its medicinal properties help prevent cough, cold, flu and pneumonia.

Where to Eat: Not feature on regular menus, but hotels serving Gowda fare like Flameback Lodges (Ph 9242714197, 9448379748, www.flameback.in) near Mudigere and Black Pepperz Gardenia (Ph 9242144019) at Daradahalli might serve it on request

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Rakti
Saujis or Savajis are a martial community of the SSK (Somavamsha Sahasrarjun Kshatriya) Samaj who migrated from Central India to Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra. As kshatriyas, meat, blood and chili dominate their cuisine and Sauji restaurants are popular among meat lovers. During Dussehra, they offer laal-pani (liquor), edimi (wheat-gram flour dumplings) and arithi (wheat flour diyas) to Goddess Bhavani. A unique dish from their repertoire is Rakti, made from rakt (coagulated blood), reduced into a spicy thick paste and eaten with jolada (jowar) rotis.

Where to Eat: Hamsini Hotel on Shamanur Road in Davanagere (Ph 9886792331), Hotel Milan Savaji (Ph 0836-2435450, 9341998875) at Jubilee Circle on PB Road and Kathare’s Savaji Hotel (Ph 0836-2441956, 2435450) at Line Bazaar in Dharwad, Bhavani Sauji Hotel in Rattihalli near Shimoga and Hotel Chetak in Kalaburagi.

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Batti Chutney
Originally from Andhra Pradesh, the Idugas have been in Karnataka’s border regions for centuries. They are known for their meat heavy cuisine with a liberal use of chillis, a typical Andhra influence. Every part of the goat – trotters, intestine, brain, blood and spleen – is used for dishes like poondi palya mutton, taley mamsa, boti and nalla vanta. Batti Chutney is made of spleen, liver and hand-pounded red chillies and garlic; rolled into gummy meatballs, it makes an excellent spicy bar snack with a taste profile akin to paté!

Where to Eat: Eateries at D Hirehalu and Ballari

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Appekayi Trrroin
Haviyak or Havyaka Brahmins came to Malnad from Ahichhatra in Central India for the completion of havans (hence their name) and the recitation of Yajur Veda at yagnas. Their scientific approach to food gives great importance to medicinal plants and various concoctions called tambulli made from arshina (raw turmeric), nellikayi (gooseberry) or doddapatre (carom leaf). Most feasts begin with a digestive drink strangely called Appekayi Trrroin, made from appekayi (raw mangoes). As for the ‘trrroin’, it’s most probably from downing it one gulp!

Where to Eat: Havyaka homestays like Gundi Mane near Jog Falls (Ph 9900956760, 9980100975 www.gundimane.com) or Vihar Homestay (Ph 08389-249437, 9449192329 https://viharhomestay.in) near Sirsi

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Sungta Song
It’s not really a song but you’ll surely dance to the tune of this classic prawn curry from the GSB or Gaud Saraswat Brahmin kitchen. A coastal preparation of prawns in thick tangy onion and tomato masala, it is finished with lemon juice and freshly chopped coriander.

Where to Eat: Shwetaa Lunch Home (Ph 99866 75726, 95918 41334) at Ananda Arcade, Green Street and Hotel Amrut in Karwar (Ph 08382-226609, 645562 www.hotelamrut.com)

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Halasina Yele Chilmi
The unique steamed dish from the Canara coast is as exotic as it sounds! First halasina yele (jackfruit leaves) are shaped into cones, rice paste is smeared on the insides before a mix of coconut and jaggery is poured in and sealed with rice paste. Placed inside a steamer, it is left to cook. The leaf is carefully peeled to reveal a marbled conical dessert.

Where to Eat: Blue Waters Resort (Ph 08254-230093, 9844065100, www.bluewatersindia.com) in Kundapura and their hinterland resort Green Woods in Senapura

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Kalees Ankiti
While leitão (whole roast pigling), a Portuguese tradition is popular among Catholics of Mangalore, the rest of the pig’s ‘spare parts’ go into an offal curry known by the intriguing name kalees-ankiti (literally ‘liver-intestines’). Cooking it is laborious and the intestines must be rubbed and boiled with cinnamon leaves to remove the smell. After adding spices, onions, tamarind, vinegar and local baffath powder, it is finished with pig’s blood and eaten with sannas. Surely not for the faint-hearted!

Where to Eat: Pereira Hotel in Mangaluru (Ph 0824-2425430, 9480158112, 9611067783)

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Mandige
Besides the iconic Belgaum Kunda, Belagavi is known for another sweet – mande or mandige. A crepe with a thin filling of sugar, ghee and khoa, it is made like a roomali on an upturned tava and folded like a dosa. A fascinating legend explains its mythic origin. A devout Brahmin was in deep penance when the Lord appeared before him. Since he had nothing to offer, he rolled dough, sugar and ghee and baked it on his bent back with the heat of his penance. Thus the mandaka or mandige was born! It’s a must in Brahmin weddings and is often displayed in large baskets. Rumours abound how weddings have been called off because no mandige was served!

Where to Eat: Krishnamurthi Saralaya (Ph 0831-2452707/4208620, 9448231751) in Konwal Gali, Belagavi.

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Kalbutthi
The ancient capital of the Kadamba dynasty, Banavasi is famous for its pineapples and the 400-year-old Konkani community of Padkis. At the home of Mrs Indira Phadke, we picked up an unusual dish from Chitpawan Brahmin cuisine. Kalbutthi is like a curd rice sizzler using a piece of hot glowing flintstone (kal is stone). On the hot stone, some ghee, curry leaves and mustard seeds are used for tempering and covered with the curd rice to infuse the smoky aroma!

Where to Eat: Konkani Brahmin homestays

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Susheela
From Davanagere to Dharwad and Huballi to Bijapur, mandakki or puffed rice is a common snack, presented in assorted flavours like Girmit, Nargis or Khara Mandakki, often paired with mensinkayi bajji (chilli pakoda). For breakfast, puffed rice is lightly soaked and tossed with seasoning into a light fluffy poha called allu susla. However, in street parlance it is commonly mispronounced as ‘Susheela’.

Where to Eat: TS Manjunath Swamy’s Masala Mandakki Angadi (Ph 9902200924) on Lawyer Road at Jaydev Circle in Davangere and LEA Canteen at Dharwad (Ph 9448147157)

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Bellary Cycle Khova
If you thought Ballari’s only claim to (in)fame was the Reddy brothers, think again. Spread around two granite hills with a fort built by Hande Hanumappa Nayaka, Ballari (earlier Bellary) is famous for its cycle khova, sold on bicycles and dispensed from brass containers on eco-friendly sal leaf plates!

Where to Eat: Bombay Sweets (Ph 08392-272228, 9448056398) and Abid Cycle Khova Store (Ph 9901824292) on Bangalore Road, Bellary

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KT (Kalladka Tea)
Kalladka, a small town 30km from Mangaluru on the Bengaluru highway, is famous for its strong tea, perfect for truckers and travelers to stay awake on the treacherous ghat route. Locals called it Kalladka Tea or KT, for short. Step into the roadside hotel where it was invented and you can see it made and poured in layers inside the tiny kitchen.

Where to Eat: Laxmi Nivas Hotel (Ph 08255-275359, 9448545203) at Kalladka

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Malpuri
Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi) is known for its paan mithai and malpuri, which is like a malpua on steroids. Stuffed with khova and dry fruits like a gujiya, the sugar-syrup laden sweet was invented by Khasim Ali but immortalized by Mamu Jaan. Just utter the password ‘Mamu jaan ki malpuri’ and you will be guided to his little shop.

Where to Eat: Khasim Ali near the dargah and Mamu Jaan ki Malpuri in in Kalaburagi’s Chappal Bazaar

Bullet Idli

Bullet Idli
Mitra Samaj shares a wall with the Chandramouleshwara Temple in Udupi and started off as a temple kitchen. It serves excellent uppitu, Mangalore goli bajji, the gigantic Outlook dosa and an octet of miniature ‘bullet’ idlis in a plate of sambar. Till some years ago, a cow used to walk past the cramped tables to the kitchen where it would be fed reverentially. Only then would it step out!

Where to Eat: Mitra Samaj (Ph 9880199678) in Udupi

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Gadbad ice-cream
Invented at Diana Restaurant in Udupi but popularized by Ideal Ice-cream, the assorted ice-cream was invented in a gadibidi (hurry). Local folklore has it that one day a bunch of customers came late and since portions of one flavour weren’t enough, 3 assorted flavours were mixed and served with fruits, cherries and dry fruits. It became a hit. And the name stuck!

Where to Eat: Diana Restaurant (Ph 0820-2520505, 9448132202, 9743388718) in Udupi and Ideal Ice-cream (Ph 0824-2440396, 9448121673 www.idealicecream.com) in Mangaluru

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Mahabharata
Just when we thought we had seen and tasted it all, we encountered a tangy mango chutney at a Brahmin feast in Bengaluru. It was called Mahabharata! Even more shocking was the discovery that there was another chutney called Kurukshetra. Truly epic!

Where to Eat: Brahmin feasts

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Kardantu
Invented in Amingad, though popularized in Gokak, kardantu is a popular teatime snack and desi energy bar from rural Karnataka. It is often given to pregnant women, wrestlers and body builders. In 1907, Savaligappa Aiholi of Amingad mixed dry fruits like pistachio, almonds, cashew, dates, fig, kopra, jaggery and antu (edible gum) and fried them together to create karadi-antu (literally ‘fried gum’). When shaped into balls, it is called antin-unde.

Where to Eat: Vijaya Kardant (Ph 8123115005) on SH-20/Raichur Highway in Amingad and Amingad Cool Drink, Bijapur (Vijayapura).

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Karchikayi Palya
A small pod vegetable that grows in creepers infested by scorpions, karchikayi (Momordica cymbalaria), a relative of the bitter melon/gourd plant, is unique to the Hubli-Dharwad region. Another peculiarity is that the vegetable must be consumed the same day it is harvested, before the pods burst open! It is usually made into a palya or stir fried.

Where to Eat: Uramma Heritage, Anegundi (Ph 9448284658 www.urammaheritagehomes.com)

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Kannekudi Khatne
The hill region of Malnad is a treasure trove of medicinal plants that grow wild, whose leaves, roots, herbs and barks are used for indigenous cooking. The bushy Kannekudi or Soralekudi (Persicaria piripi) is one such plant, widely used by the Haviyak community to prepare a tangy chutney. Consumed during the rainy season, it protects you against cold and fever.

Where to Eat: Homestays like AjjanaMane at Talavata (Ph 9535693240, 9342253240, Email ajjanamane@gmail.com www.ajjanamane.com)

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Dapati to Uggi chapati
Karnataka has a wide variety of staples – besides jolada roti (sorghum flat bread) and akki otti (rice rotis), there’s berki roti made of mixed flours and pulses, dapati (multi-grain masala roti) and the uggi chapati which is steamed on tender cornhusk and served with spicy kempu (red) chili chutney and ghee!

Where to Eat: Kolavara Heritage near Tirthahalli (Ph 08181 254722, 202210, 9448639444 www.kolavaraheritage.com)

Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani

Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani
Once a flourishing port under the Vijaynagar Empire, Bhatkal attracted Arabian sailors and traders who intermingled with local Jains and GSBs to form a new community – Navayath or ‘newly arrived’. Their dialect borrows heavily from Konkani, while local tastes blend seamlessly with Arabia. Bhatkal is famous for its Godi Halwa, a glutinous sweet made of wheat extract and the exquisite Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani made of delicate vermicelli and prawns.

Where to Eat: Chillies Restaurant (Ph 99803 26265), NH-17, Bhatkal

Carrot Kismuri

Kismuri
Malnad is known for a variety of kismuri or delectable salads that can be made from carrot, beetroot, bale dindu (banana stem) or suvarnagadde (yam). Par-boiled juliennes of the vegetable are mixed with chopped onion, tempered with mustard, urad dal (split black gram), green chili, curry leaves and finished with yoghurt and a topping of crunchy papad.

Where to Eat: Surendra Mallya’s farm at Masigadde (Ph 94486 57245)

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Ameysoppu palya
Siddis are descendants of African slaves brought to India. Some escaped from the Portuguese in Goa and settled in the forested tracts of the Western Ghats. In Karnataka, they inhabit the stretch around Haliyal, Yellapur and Ramanguli. The Siddis eat river fish, rice and local greens – kesa (colocasia) and ferns like amey soppu, literally ‘turtle greens.’

Where to Eat: Coorg homestays like Gowri Nivas (Ph 08272-228597, 9448193822 www.gowrinivas.com) in Madikeri and Palace Estate (Ph 98804 47702, 94831 98446 www.palaceestate.co.in) in Kakkabe serve Kodava fare like kesa (colocasia) and termay (ferns), in monsoon.

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Dasola Yele Khotte
KP Shetty’s unique botanical-themed resort in the lush hinterland off Shiroor is home to over 5000 plants, many of which are used in its ‘health’ cuisine. Try chakramani soppu tambuli (better known as multi-vitamin curry), brahmi tambuli (Indian Pennywort cooler), sandhu balli chutney (cactus vine chutney) and the unique dasola yele khotte (steamed rice dumplings or kadabus infused with hibiscus leaf), served with a dollop of butter.

Where to Eat: Wild Woods Spa & Resort (Ph 7760976680 www.wildwoodsspa.com) at Toodalli village near Shiroor

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Elikivi Soppu Palya
Brahmi (Centella asiatica) or Indian pennywort is a wondrous leaf that aids intellect and sharpens memory. For centuries, Brahmins have consumed it to help them remember mantras. In ancient times, Sage Manduki noticed that wild animals that drank from a creek where the plant grew became calmer and were attracted to his discourses. In honor of his discovery, it was named mandukaparni (frog leaf) as it was shaped like a frog’s foot. In Kannada, it’s called ili kivi or mouse’s ear! Brahmi is usually stir fried into a palya with onions, mustard and grated coconut.

Where to Eat: Wild Woods Spa and Shanthi Kunnj (Ph 0824-2485180, 9632726888 www.shanthikunnj.com) near Kadabagere

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Soute beeja huggi
Believe or not, North Karnataka has rare indigenous pastas, often displayed as part of the Lingayat wedding trousseau! The process of rolling out little pellets of broken wheat dough is rather laborious. It is usually a summer activity, as the pellets can be sundried on the terrace. Using a paradi kaddi (basket stick), the dough is given different shapes – soute bija resembles tiny soute (cucumber) seeds, paradi is bowl or ear-shaped like orechiette while shankha is pressed against a comb and shaped like a conch akin to conchiglie. Once dried, it can be made as a savoury or a huggi (kheer).

Where to Eat: Vijaya Dry Fruits near Durgada Bail in New Hubli stocks a lot of these traditional pastas

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Madd thoppu
Literally ‘medicine leaf’, maddu thoppu (Justicia wynaadensis) grows wild in Coorg or Kodagu. It is harvested during the monsoon month of kakkada, the heaviest period of rain from mid-July to mid-August. On the eighteenth day of kakkada, its medicinal properties are at their peak and contain 18 benefits. The stems and leaves are boiled to make a deep purple extract used for madd puttu (steamed cakes) or madd kool payasa (sweet porridge). And, don’t faint in the bathroom if you notice a bright yellow to orange colour when your pee!

Where to Eat: Taj Madikeri (Ph 08272-665800 Email madikeri.coorg@tajhotels.com)

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Vonekk Yerchi
There’s more to Coorg than pandi curry as Kodavas have an array of pork dishes – from chutti, spicy fried bits of pork fat served at Kodava weddings to pork choodals, deep fried pork cubes tossed in green chili-ginger masala, a great accompaniment to drinks. However, the ultimate dish is vonekk yerchi or smoked pork, typically cured for months over the hearth, shredded and stir-fried.

Where to Eat: Cuisine Papera (Ph 08274-247247, 900887767 Email paperacaterers@gmail.com) at Gonikoppal

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Tindli Moi
From Konkani eateries to Catholic restaurants in Mangaluru-Udupi, tindli or manoli (ivy gourd) is a popular vegetable. In season, it is stir-fried with beeja (raw cashew) and topped with grated coconut. Tindli-Moi or Manoli Beeja Upkari is a great accompaniment for fish curry-rice meals.

Where to Eat: Hotel Narayana’s (Ph 9448255025) fish meals and Pereira Hotel at Hampankatta in Mangaluru

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Pinyanappa
Bearys are a Muslim trading community in Mangaluru with a typical cuisine. Wedding feasts or ‘tala’ are opulent affairs with dishes like koli norchad (stuffed fried chicken), whole goat and goat head presented to the groom and his friends. There’s naeveri (stuffed prawn dumplings) and kalathappam (thick rice pancake topped with fried onions) and unique desserts like bonda payasa (tender coconut kheer) and pinyanappa. The rice, egg and coconut milk dessert gets its name from the pinyan (bowl) used to steam the dish.

Where to Eat: Many of these dishes can be savoured at Oota Bangalore (Ph 88802 33322 http://windmillscraftworks.com) in Whitefield

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Authors: This article first appeared on 14 May 2018 in Conde Nast Traveller India online. Read the original article here: https://www.cntraveller.in/story/30-dishes-try-30-districts-karnataka/ 

Maheshwar: Here lived a queen

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Once the capital of Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar, Maheshwar looms above the languid waters of the holy Narmada, enfolding within itself history, heritage and fascinating mythologies, explore ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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It was evening by the time we reached the pilgrim town of Maheshwar. At the banks of the sacred Narmada we watched the incessant flow of walkers, pilgrims, bathers, wrestlers and locals. The symmetrical steps of the Ahilyeshwar temple looked familiar – it had served as a scenic backdrop for movies like Padman and Yamla Pagla Deewana! The ghat was dotted with stone Shiva lingas and temples along the riverbank – Til Bhandeshwar, Kashi Vishwanath, Narmada Mata and the chhatri (samadhi) of Rani Ahilyabai.

Between 1766-95, Maheshwar served as the capital of Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar. Stopped from committing sati by her father-in-law, she ruled for nearly three decades from her royal seat until Malhar Rao Holkar III shifted the capital to Indore in 1818. High above the ghats, her 250-year-old Ahilya Fort loomed above the Narmada as we caught the last rays of a pink sunset on its languid waters. A yogi, his arms tucked behind his head and legs folded in padmasana, languidly drifted along the current.

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Time flowed unhurriedly like the placid Narmada. We witnessed the devout engrossed in evening rituals as the Kashi Vishwanath arti at 7:40pm was soon followed by the Narmada Maha Arti at 8pm. The priest of Narmada Mata Mandir narrated fascinating legends about the river and the city she coursed through. Born from the sweat of Shiva, Narmada is hailed as Shiv-putri or Shankar’s daughter Shankari.

Maheshwar is thus sacred to Shiva and his imprint can be seen everywhere. Pebbles on Narmada’s riverbed are shaped like a linga (called banalinga). Some say she is both nar (male) and mada (female); others believe she is called narmada because she is narm (soft), bestowing a feeling of peace on the beholder. Her popular name Rewa is derived from rewati or her leaping motion through the rocky bed.

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“Jagat janani, jeevan dayini, wo ajar-amar hai. Sansaar nasht ho jayega, magar Narmada hamesha behti rahegi…” “She is the fountainhead of the world, the giver of life, she is immortal. The world may come to an end, but Narmada shall continue to flow,” explained Pandit ji. “She has other names too”, piped in the others. “Sonsursa, Mahti, Krapa, Mandakini, Mahanawa, Vipapa, Vipasha, Vimala, Namrata, Karbha, Ranjana, Trikuta, Vayuvahini, Dakshinganga.”

Maheshwar was once Mahishmati, founded by king Mahishman and later the capital of thousand-armed king Sahasrarjun. One legend recounts how the king went to the river for a picnic with his 500 wives and blocked the mighty river with his arms so that his queens could frolic in the waters! Meanwhile, Ravana who was flying by in his Pushpak Vimana stopped at the dry riverbed downstream and fashioned a sand shivalinga for his daily worship.

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When Sahasrarjun finally lifted his arms, the gushing waters swept off Ravana’s shivalinga. Furious, he challenged Sahasrajuna to a duel but was pinned to the ground by his 1000 arms. Sahasrajuna placed 10 lamps on Ravana’s heads and one on his hand, bound him and dragged him to the palace and tied him to his son’s cradle, where Ravana remained a prisoner until his release. Even today, the Sahasrarjun temple at Maheshwar lights 11 lamps to commemorate the legend.

Our driver, who had been restlessly shadowing us, politely asked if now we would like to go to our hotel. We laughed and walked up the steps to Ahila Fort. Set amidst gnarled neem and frangipani trees, Ahilyabai’s rajwada (palace) had been beautifully restored into a fort hotel by her descendant Shivajirao or ‘Richard’ Holkar.

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Parisian online magazine ‘The Style Saloniste’ called it “The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown with a dash of Gandhi idealism”. We were chuffed to know that we would join an elite list of celebrities that had stayed at Fort Ahilya – Mick Jagger, Ralph Fiennes, Lord and Lady Cavendish and Prince Michael of Greece (and Denmark).

In the inner courtyard, Kuntabai, who has been with the royal family for over thirty years, led us to Kachnar, our room on the first floor. Interestingly, the rooms were named after the surrounding trees – Imli, Elaichi, Champa, Badam, Gulmohar, Haldi, Kesar. The best rooms were the lavish river-facing Narmada Suite done up in muted greys with tasteful colour accents and the Nagarkhana Suite, the old drumhouse in a gateway overlooking the Ahilyeshwar Temple.

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“Richard ji will see you for supper at 9pm sharp,” the instruction was as crisp as the linen. The stress on ‘sharp’ was enough to ensure we were well on time. Clad in a simple Maheshwari kurta pyjama and Nehru jacket, ‘Richard ji’ was disarmingly informal. We discussed our recent travels through Madhya Pradesh and talk drifted to local food – the succulent balam kakdi, the tangy khorasani imli and the black coloured country chicken Kadaknath.

Author of ‘Cooking of the Maharajas’ in 1975, Richard often joins guests for conversations over a drink or meals and personally curates the home-style food at Ahilya. Dinner was announced by the drumbeats of the dholak with customized printed menus – mushroom pulao, spiced tomato and green gourd, grilled mahi mahi, crispy okra, capsicum raita, chapattis and vermicelli kheer.

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The next morning, we woke up fashionably late, to the sound of the Lingarchan puja performed daily at 8:30 am at the royal family shrine just below the terrace. The sacred ritual was initiated by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1766 for the well being of her subjects and involved shaping river mud into 1300 miniature Shiva lingas on a wooden board, which was ritually immersed into the river.

An elaborate breakfast awaited us at the Poshak wada – bacon, sausages, baked beans, Maheshwari style scrambled eggs, walnut and sunflower seed bread, with the fort’s jams and citrus preserves made by Richard. We even got a taste of the legendary Batteesee Chatni, a secret recipe of 32 ingredients that Richard will never part with. Ambling around the sprawling hotel, we discovered charming nooks under bougainvillea creepers – a hidden turquoise pool, herb garden and the quirky ‘Le Loo’.

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Lined with wooden pillars, the hallways held a treasure of antiques besides sepia tinted photographs of the Indore royal family and their mansions. The walls exhibited ethereal paintings of Maheshwar by late artist-in-residence Harry Holcroft and riveting prints by photographer Ashish Dubey capturing the many moods of the Narmada. A portion of the sales went towards the Ahilya Fort Wall Project.

The Maheshwar Rajwada serves as a museum on the Holkar lineage and a map marks out the pious queen’s sacred deeds at India’s holiest sites – renovating temples, dharamsalas and ghats from the Himalayas to Mathura, Brindavan, Dwarka and Puri. Locals and the devout often walk into the fort to pay homage at the queen’s statue.

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We visited Rehwa Society, a weaver’s cooperative for local women. The clatter of looms mingled with the incessant hum and chatter of kids next door at Ahilya School, founded in 1979 for weavers’ children. Maheshwar’s weaving tradition goes way back to the 5th Century.

However, weaving as a large scale occupation gained prominence during the reign of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar (1767-1795) when she invited master weavers from Surat and South India to create traditional Navvari or Maharashtrian nine-yard saris and turbans as mementos for royal guests.

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The craft languished till the 1970s when Richard Holkar and his former partner revived the centuries-old tradition of Maheshwar weaving. Today, weaving is the mainstay for over 700 local families. At Rehwa Society alone, 70 ladies and a few men worked in shifts. They showed us the intricacies and typical designs that made Maheshwari weaves so popular.

“Weaving one sari could take 3-10 days, depending on its complexity. Some pallu designs could take 3-4 days,” they explained. The in-house store was a rainbow of colours. All around town the inner bylanes reverberated with the constant clack of looms as shops sold kurtas, shawls, saris and stoles.

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The town is dotted with temples. The Rajarajeshwar temple has a ceiling full of mirrors and coloured glass. Smaller shrines dotted the complex and the path continued to Gobar Ganesh temple displaying an idol made of gobar (cowdung). We completed a radial circuit back to Ahilyeshwar temple, with the chhatri of Vithoji facing the elevated Shiva shrine.

The inner courtyard had beautifully sculpted statues of musicians, dancers, apsaras and even two gentlemen in English costume! Marble slabs on the stone steps marked the water level during two big floods – 6 September 1944 and 17 September 1961.

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Boatmen of the Ma Rewa Nauka Vihar Kewat Samaj Samiti offer boat rides to Sahasradhara and Baneshwar. Gliding past the riverside temples and the fort, we took a leisurely ride to Baneshwar Mahadev, located on an islet midstream and returned by sunset.

That evening, we left the palatial Ahilya Fort for the humbler comforts of the renovated gatehouse – Labboo’z café and lodge. The odd name came from the family driver who initially ran it – Lakshman aka Lambu (the tall one), mispronounced as Labbu by Richard’s kids! Its five rooms were named after birds commonly seen around the lodge.

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We headed to the topmost room Bee Eater above the main fort doorway overlooking the ramparts and a private terrace. Inside, cute alcoves on either side served as luggage racks, seaters, wash, shower and a secret toilet behind a blue door! The blue-grey tiles and Kashmiri embroidered linen from Richard’s mother’s collection added a cozy touch. Large cement steps led to another terrace, perfect for stargazing. We sank into the cane chairs under trees with book-lined alcoves and sweet, ever-smiling staff.

Food was mostly vegetarian snacks, perfect for a short bite. But we had been spoiled silly with Ahilya Fort’s hospitality. Richard’s voice echoed in our ears “It’s called La-Booz, but there’s no booze there. For that, you have to come to the palace!” And so we returned for some more fried parval (pointed gourd), a sip of champagne and unhurried conversations in the history-scented fort. We could try the Maheshwari maalish (massage) tomorrow or perhaps take the boat ride from Mandleshwar to Maheshwar? Like the leisurely river cruise, life in Maheshwar drifted ‘slowly down the Narmada.’

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there:
Maheshwar is 95 km/2 hrs southwest of Indore. Mandu and Omkareshwar are just 1.5 hours away.

Stay:

Ahilya Fort
Ahilya Wada, Maheshwar
Ph 011-41551575
http://www.ahilyafort.com
Tariff ₹26,000 per night upwards; min stay 2 nights

Labboo’z Café & Lodge
The Gatehouse, Outside Ahilya Fort
Maheshwar
Ph 07771004818, 7771004811
Café 10am-8pm

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Eat
Besides specially curated home cooked meals at Ahilya Fort, Labboo’z Café offers vegetarian snacks in the shaded fort compound with a nice garden ambience – samosa, pakoda, grilled sandwich, poha and peanut chat, with chai, coffee and lassi.

Shop
Rehwa Society (Ph 81200 01388, 8424999225 http://www.rehwasociety.org) is open between 10 am–6pm and Saris are around Rs.3000, scarves Rs.700 and dupattas Rs.1200. Tana Bana Maheshwari Handloom (Ph 86026 27811) on Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Bazaar Chowk. Women Weave Gudi Mudi (Ph 88004 11898) on Mandleshwar Road, Gadi Khana.

Discover This: Maheshwari Saris
In Maheshwari saris, silk thread is used in the tana (warp) and cotton in the bana (weft), which imparts a silken sheen and a light, comfortable drape – ideal for the region’s hot climate. However, the uniqueness lies in its weave. The body is checked, striped or plain but the striped pallu and border designs are inspired by traditional or architectural temple motifs. Each design has a specific name – rui phool (cotton flower), diya (lamp), chameli (jasmine), hans (swan), aari (wood saw), jugnu (fireflies), baadal (clouds), jharoka (lattice windows), iint (brick), chatai (mat) and heera (diamond) A wavy border pattern is called ‘Narmada ji’ or leheriya inspired by the river’s ripples…


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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.