West Java: Bandung & beyond

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Bali remains a favourite holiday destination in Indonesia, but the erstwhile Dutch outpost of Bandung, capital of West Java, offers its own singular pleasures, writes PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Thick plumes of grey clouds shrouded Bandung, forcing the Malindo Airlines pilot to land in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. One more place to see from the window thanks to stormy weather, I mused, before landing in Bandung four hours later. The first discovery to hit me in Indonesia was my name emblazoned on the men’s washroom! Nelson, my guide chuckled, “Pria means Gentleman in Indonesian! We say, “Pria dan Wanita” for ‘Gentleman and Ladies’.” Nice shocker to kick-start my week-long trip in the world’s largest archipelago.

While Bali remains a favoured holiday destination, I was thrilled to begin in the erstwhile Dutch outpost of Bandung, capital of West Java. I walked in the drizzle from Gino Feruci, a hotel in the heart of town to the popular Braga Permai, earlier Maison Bogerijen, a historic 1923 restaurant for dinner. As the only Indian travel writer in a large blogger group from Kuala Lumpur and Java, I was welcomed with a gusty round of applause for my long voyage to the East Indies.

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Mas Aan, my new Indonesian friend elaborated, “Travelling across Indonesia, you discover a variety of cultures. There are 17,000 islands, each with its own unique traditions! We have 800 native languages and almost 1000 different tribes!” The western part is very popular, mainly because of food. The ancient flourishing trade that Sumatra enjoyed with Arabia and India ensured that many flavours and spices perked up their cuisine.

I had “Bandrek” the traditional drink served in a tall glass as an alternative to soup. This Sundanese beverage is a delightful concoction of water, jahe (ginger), gula merah (palm sugar) and kayu manis (cinnamon) and a perfect highland drink to warm you on a cold night. Indonesians enjoy a wide range of “Jamu” or local herbal beverages prepared at home or sold at street corners.

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I tried “bajigur”, popular in central and east Java, made of coconut milk, brown sugar, ginger and salt. Each drink has unique benefits and is a panacea for beauty or health. Bounded by the sea, there was plenty of seafood and we gleefully gave in to crab and egg fried rice with Puyung hi – a thick omelette laden with vegetables.

Visitors can hop onto Street Gourmet Bandung, the first Indonesian Resto Bus that gives a City Tour with a choice of Sundanese meals. In the morning, Bandung’s distinctly Dutch touch was apparent in its heritage architecture and European-style buildings, cafes and boutiques lining Braga Street. Nicknamed Paris van Java or ‘Paris of Java’ in its heyday, the tag holds true till date. Bandung’s glut of factory outlets has morphed the town into a crowded shopping and fashion capital where traders and tourists buy branded goods at throwaway prices! Cihampelas Street has been dubbed as ‘Jeans Street.’ Yet, under its cloak of urbanity, Bandung hides a lot of history.

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The Bandung Conference

From the Dutch colonial era to Indonesian Independence in 1945, Bandung witnessed several tumultuous events. The Dutch considered a strategic shift of their capital Batavia (Jakarta) to Bandung but the move was foiled by World War II. In April 1955, Bandung shot to fame as the venue for the first Asia-Africa or Bandung Conference, when President Soekarno invited heads of state from 29 countries, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru from India, to join hands for world peace and fight oppression.

Nehru stayed at the heritage Grand Savoy Homann Hotel, which preserves suites of its high-profile guests like President Soekarno and Nehru, besides relics and pictures of the event. From here he made the ‘Historical Walk’ with other world leaders to Gedung Merdeka, a monument and museum that preserves the memories and policies of visionary leaders who continue to inspire future generations.

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Located on Jalan Asia-Afrika between the city’s most famous landmarks – Savoy Homann Hotel and Gedung Merdeka – stands Warenhuis de Vries building. The oldest department store in Bandung and a fine example of Dutch architecture, its quaint tower on the right corner is a major landmark.

Built in mid 19th century, it saw a few style changes in the early 1900s but after years of neglect, a superb restoration process by present owners Bank NISP OSBC has transformed it into a iconic symbol of Bandung’s cultural heritage. The distinct decorative street lampposts add a gorgeous touch of old world elegance to the road.

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The historic Gedung Sate (Governor’s Residence), designed by Dutch architect J Gerber, was once the stronghold of the Dutch. The terrace overlooks manicured gardens, the city and distant hills. Traditional Indonesians believe that a home or edifice built facing a volcano will gain power and fortune.

True enough, in the horizon, the legendary volcanic mountain Tangkuban Perahu (‘overturned boat’ in Sundanese) makes its looming presence felt. Tourists often hike to its crater to witness the constantly bubbling hot springs and sulphur fumes – it last erupted in 2013! The Geological Museum in town is a great place to know more about the volcanic craters the region is famous for.

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Clomping around in keloms

Traditional handicrafts thrive in Indonesia. At Kelom Geulis Sagitria Tasikmalaya, a Sundanese clog-making workshop, special wooden shoes called kelom or kelompen popularised by Dutch settlers, are crafted. Worn especially by women, the shoes became famous as Kelom Geulis meaning “beautiful clogs”. The owner, Rana and his son Kilan, outlined the process of how mahogany wood was fashioned into “kelompen”.

A craftsman deftly carved out a freehand design on leather with a sharp tool as another sprayed colour and livened up a sandal. A lady hammered a stud to fix a strap to wood while another inked a motif using a batik style bamboo spout called “canting”. We stood transfixed as plain wood pieces evolved into ‘designer footwear’.

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Today, kelom guelis is a signature traditional Indonesian handicraft promoted by the government as formal footwear for women. Men have it good too with Sagitria’s Kelom Kasep, an exclusive range for men! ‘Kasep’ in Sundanese means ‘handsome’! They also craft the famous Mizutori ‘Geta’ sandals for the Japanese market. Wearing wooden shoes is said to be healthy as its shape and leather straps stimulate acupressure points. They are easy to wear, fashionable, durable and suitable for casual or dressy affairs.

Here’s the fun part. Visitors can try their hand at batik on clogs and return with a souvenir! I was already imagining myself clomping around the streets in my own “klompen”! At IDR 75,000 (₹360) a pair and an entire showroom of eye-catching designs, it didn’t get any better!

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It was strange walking into a large strawberry doorway…but the cheery strawberry-themed Rumah Makan (restaurant) Liwet Pak Asep Stroberi at Tasikmalaya, is a standout for exotic local food. Sitting cross-legged in the traditional lunch hall surrounded by a tropical garden with lotus pools, we devoured a luscious spread of traditional Javanese and Sundanese food on a low long table.

Aromatic Nasi liwet (rice, oil, salt and red onion), Nasi tutug oncom (rice with fermented soya bean and coconut), the delicious Otak-Otak (grilled mackerel in banana leaf), assorted Gorengan (fries of tempe, tofu, banana, cassava), ikan asin (salted fish), Ayam bakar (Soya grilled chicken) and fried fish. The taste and presentation were outstanding. A cup of the infamous kopi luwak or civet cat coffee followed. Touted as the world’s most expensive coffee, this black velvety brew is made using the choicest cherries consumed and excreted by the civet cat!

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Playing the anklung in Bandung

Back in Bandung the following day, a lovely surprise awaited us – a full-blown gamelan and angklung ensemble at Saung Angklung Udjo, a cultural centre that organises workshops where you learn how the angklung is made and how to play it. Children of all ages are trained by maestros to stage world-class performances of traditional music in a grand display of Indonesia’s traditional dances – with elaborate make-up and resplendent costumes.

Udjo is a perfect window to Indonesian culture. After an utterly engrossing presentation of Wayang Golek (puppet theatre) another emblematic Indonesian artform, the show began. In a space designed for audience participation, we were all soon playing Indonesia’s iconic instrument – the angklung! But the genius of maestro Daing Udjo and his live demo made us fall in love with Javanese music. The angklung orchestra even performed jazz standards and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody!

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Born in Indonesia, the angklung is handcrafted out of simple bamboo and produces an inherently appealing wooden tinkle reminiscent of wind chimes. Its very name is an onomatopic derivation of the klung-klung sound it produces! The Udjo souvenir shop is a treasure of Indonesian handicrafts and goodies – fashion, fridge magnets, batik, bamboo crafts, woven baskets, clogs, besides a range of angklungs. I picked a chain with a tiny bamboo anklung pendant as a reminder of this beautiful country and its glorious cultural heritage.

FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly from Bangalore via Kuala Lumpur to Bandung on Malindo Air. From Bandung, Tasikmalaya is 116km southeast/3hr 30 min by road.

Note
Visa on arrival $35. Currency Exchange 1 INR = 207.41 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah). Don’t let the zeroes bother you. India invented the zero, but Indonesia idolizes it, especially in its currency!

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Where to Stay
Gino Feruci
Jl. Braga 67, Bandung
Ph +262 224200099 W: www.ginoferuci.com

Hotel Bidakara Grand Savoy Homann
Jl. Asia Afrika No 112 Bandung
Ph +262 2242332244, W: www.savoyhomann-hotel.com

Where to Eat
Braga Permai
Jl. Braga 58, Bandung
Ph +62 22 4233 778 www.bragapermai.com

Liwet Pak Asep Stroberi
www.asepstroberi.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper on 18 Aug, 2017. Here’s the original link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/life-style/travel/2017/aug/18/west-java-bandung–beyond-3158.html

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Down the cobbled streets of Copenhagen

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PRIYA GANAPATHY takes a heritage walk down the old cobbled paths of Copenhagen to historic city landmarks, where bits of Denmark’s colourful history and culture come alive with a dollop of humour

DSC03034 The painted houses of Nyhavn, a fairytale setting by day or twilight

High above the Richs building at the corner of Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen, I spotted the gilded Weather Girl sculptures. The rotating ladies atop a tower warn Danes about rain and shine! One rides a bicycle and sticks out of the tower when it is sunny. And if it rains, the sculpture swivels to let the other lady out who carries an umbrella and walks her dog! Created by Einar Utzon-Frank in 1936, the artwork summed up a typical scene in Copenhagen – omnipresent bicycles and rain! There’s an inside joke among men in Copenhagen who swear that “these are the only two women you could trust!”

The Hans Christian Andersen heritage walk is a wonderful way to unearth the city’s hidden stories in buildings and landmarks often ignored in everyday urban tedium. We followed our guide Richard Karpen to where the Old City began, past a straggle of tourists posing near the Bull and Dragon Fountain to cut across the massive courtyard fronting the century-old City Hall. At the doorway, above the balcony was the gilded statue of the city’s founder Absalon, the Catholic Bishop who fortified the castle near the harbour in 1167. The Clock Tower rose 105.6m, making it one of the tallest buildings in town, with the Jensen Olsen astronomical world clock on the ground floor.

Bridge of Sighs view in the Old City Quarter

Copenhagen’s emblem or Coat of Arms – a shield with three towers – rests at the base of the flag pole. Six statues at the top represent the nightwatchmen, the police force and the fire department. The polar bears in the corners represent Greenland and the 32 Faroe Islands which are part of Denmark’s territory. The sea faring nation actually comprises 400 islands and is about the size of Switzerland with a population of 5.6 million Danes.

Inside City Hall, we found ourselves in the august company of Denmark’s most famous luminaries. Four wonderful marble busts decorate the vast hall – Martin Nyrop, the architect of the building, Bertel Thorvaldsen one of the greatest sculptors of early 19th century, Nobel prize-winning physicist and atomic researcher Niels Bohr, and story-teller extraordinaire Hans Christian Andersen.

DSC03130-Wall murals at the University Law Faculty on mythical themes

After signing marriage contracts inside, newly married couples often clink champagne flutes and pose for a picture against City Hall’s stunning backdrop! Some grooms even cart their brides in Copenhagen’s iconic quirky Christiania cargo bikes! The large hall exemplified Danish pride with its simple walls displaying the Danish flag. It is the oldest flag continually in use since the 1300s and Danes consider its signature Crusader’s Cross a symbol of joy. It is perfectly normal in Danish culture to find these flags decorating Christmas trees, birthday cakes, or being propped around picnic blankets… Danes even carry them to greet someone at the airport!

Thorvaldsen’s exquisite statue of Jason and the Golden Fleece is displayed in one section. Initially following the Classical style, he sculpted statues of Greek and Roman Gods before taking inspiration from Nordic deities like Odin, the king of the Gods who gave us Odin’s Day (Wednesday). Here you discover how days of the week are dedicated to gods featured in Norse mythology – Thor the Destroyer with his thunderbolt gave us Thor’s Day (Thursday), Fria is the Goddess of Fertility to whom Fridays are dedicated and Tuesday is named after Tyr, the God of Combat.

DSC03724-Stroget, shopping mecca and one of the Europe's longest shopping streets

Try saying Strøget in Danish and you’ll confess that Danish is indeed a difficult language. “Everyone here will speak English except your bus driver and the one you’re asking for directions!” Richard joked as we checked out the shopping precinct of Strøget, one of Europe’s longest car-free pedestrian streets. Chockful with global brands and souvenir shops, you will also find upscale shops selling Danish amber, crystal, fur and fashion further down.

A towering bronze Lur Blowers, a pair of Vikings caught in a musical moment nearby paid tribute to the notorious sea-faring Vikings, who were raiders, traders and settlers. For centuries, they struck fear in the hearts of the rest of the world. The sculpture was gifted to the city during the centenary birthday celebration of Denmark’s most famous brewer JC Jacobsen’s who founded Carlsberg. Vikings trace their origins to Danish, Swedish and Nordic tribes who flourished a thousand years ago. Their common language – old Nordic, gave us words like ‘berserk’, ‘kill’, ‘thrust’ and ‘wife’!

IMG_0458-Lurs Blowers statue, a tribute to the Viking legacy of Denmark

We strolled to the old bridge connecting the Court house to the old Debtor’s prison, surrounded by Neo Classical architecture. It was nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs in a nod to the famous one in Venice, which also spans a canal between a Court House and a prison! The spectacular view of the pastel-coloured buildings through the archway was a picturesque angle chosen by Danish painters since early 19th century!

Many of the buildings were designed by the Dutch during the Renaissance in the 1600s like the Rosenborg Castle housing the crown jewels and royal regalia. The elaborate ornamentation of French or Rococo and Baroque architecture emerged in the 1700s. In the 1800s, as artists and architects visited Rome and Greece where great monuments were being unveiled, and often imitated such great works while rebuilding cities across Europe. The antique became the ideal as most cities copied Greek and Roman designs, which spawned the simple and symmetrical Neo Classic architecture in the region. The Danes did not develop their own style of architecture until much later.

DSC03104-Cafe Nytorv, a pitstop for great food and schnapps

We halted at Cafe Nytorv, a small restaurant at the square, run by Dennis and Charlotte that specialises in Danish cuisine. The yellow corner building dated 1792, is a century and a half old and one of Copenhagen’s oldest inns. They welcomed us with a shot of traditional Danish Schnapps or akvavit, a sweet alcoholic drink flavoured with herbs and spices. “It’s designed to make men feel strong and women feel weak,” quipped Richard as we learnt the nuances of its drinking protocol. Our hosts raised a toast and we all uttered the Danish greeting ‘Skål’ (pronounced skol)! The guest could propose another toast and this ceremony could go on “until everyone at the table begins to look good!” If we knocked a couple more, he confirmed that “Dennis will look like Brad Pitt and I will look like George Clooney!”

Today skål’ means hello, cheers, good health or ‘bowl’. But the word holds more history. During Viking times, it was a tradition for the victorious to drink from the skull of the slain opponent or leader after war, which was scooped out to a bowl. It became a warcry and later evolved into a salute to good health. Nytorv stands right near an ancient whipping post. It was hard to imagine how this cheerful café-lined area was a market square where public humiliation was common in the old days. Women brought their children to witness it for it was somewhat ‘educational’ and taught them the consequences of a life of crime!

Caritas Well or Fountain of Charity at the Old Market Square

At the heart of Old Copenhagen was Gammel Torv, the Old Christmas Market Square, the oldest in the city. The marvellous Fountain of Charity of a nude woman with a child at her breast and one at her feet occupied pride of place. It was part of the water system erected in the 1600s by king Christian IV who built Rosenborg Castle and the old Stock Exchange. Two major fires during the 1700s destroyed much of Old Copenhagen. Oddly, most buildings were about the same height; there’s an unwritten law that you’re not supposed to block your neighbour’s sunlight!

We saw a gabled roof carved with Neptune or Poseidon, the God of the Sea holding a trident on one side representing navigation and Hermes or Mercury, the messenger God with wings on his helmet, holding a staff and bag of money, signifying commerce, on the other. An arty sign to inform people that the owner was probably a ship merchant. At the University premises, we admired the Library’s brickwork and stained windows and the vibrant wall frescoes inside the Law Faculty.

DSC03058-Ornate entry of City Hall

Our walk ended at the carved doorway of city’s famous 17th century Round Tower or Rundetarn. It is the oldest observatory in Europe and only 36m tall, yet visitors take a cobbled spiral walk of 209m to reach the lookout for a view of the old city. Apparently, HC Andersen often visited its library hall for inspiration. In about an hour, we had covered entire centuries to witness the evolution of this fairytale city.

FACT FILE

Getting there:
Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways and other airlines have daily flights to Copenhagen from major Indian cities via Dubai, Frankfurt or London. The journey time varies from 11 hour 45min to 12 hours 15min. Air India will soon launch direct flights to Copenhagen from Delhi thrice a week initially, starting September.

DSC03178 A blend of old and new architecture, Axel Towers near the 1886 circular Circus Building and Tivoli

Where to Stay:

Avenue Hotel
Ph: 0045 35373111
Award-winning boutique hotel with cosy simple stylish Danish design rooms in the heart of Norrebro, close to the metro with organic breakfast and signature wine hour at the bar.

Hotel Danmark
Ph: 0045 33114806
Brand new upscale boutique hotel in a historic neighbourhood close to City Hall Square and Tivoli. Has a rooftop bar and terrace with great views, fab indoor and outdoor dining options. www.brochner-hotels.com/hotel-danmark

DSC03232-Grilled avacados at Gemyse, Nimb's latest gourmet restaurant focusing on vegetarian cuisine

Where to Eat:
Copenhagen Street Food is a harbourside hangout on Papiroen Island with foodtruck style local, artisanal and global fare. Gemyse at the historic Tivoli Gardens is legendary Nimb’s newest addition serving gourmet, healthy veg fare with a few meat and seafood options. (www.nimb.dk/en/gemyse)

At Guldbergsgade in Norrebro, taste Danish food with Italian produce at Bæst, a restaurant known for organic food, woodfired sourdough pizzas and handstretched cheese. Its adjoining Mirabelle bakery is famous for naturally fermented fresh bread, house made pasta, Baest charcuterie and adventurous flavoured icecreams outside.

DSC03218-Glasshouse at Tivoli Gardens

What to do:

Visit Tivoli Gardens www.tivoligardens.com
Discover Copenhagen from the water on a GoBoat www.goboat.dk/en
Hans Christian Andersen Heritage Walk www.copenhagenwalks.com
Bicycle Tours with Cycling Copenhagen www.cycling-copenhagen.dk
Aquatic adventure along the canals with Kayak Republic www.kayakrepublic.dk
Savour a community Danish dinner at Absalon www.absaloncph.dk

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper on 21 July, 2017. Here’s the original link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/life-style/travel/2017/jul/24/danes-of-delight-down-the-cobbled-streets-of-copenhagen-2811.html

So long and thanks for all the Hummus: Notes from Israel

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In trademark lightning swiftness, Israel has made the evolutionary leap from the Land of Creation to the Land of Recreation, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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As Narendra Modi touched down at Ben Gurion airport at Tel Aviv amidst unprecedented excitement, I couldn’t help thinking about my own trip to Israel just a few weeks before his. Modi is the first Indian PM to ever visit Israel and its geopolitical importance is undeniable. But I am just an ordinary traveler – definitely not the first from India to visit Israel and surely not the last – but memories of my warm welcome with open arms everywhere are still fresh.

India enjoys unbelievable popularity and equity across Israel. Unlike other countries, the reason is not Bollywood or cricket, but pure unbridled, unabashed love for India and all things Indian – be it yoga, food, culture, history or hashish. Much of this stems from the three years compulsory combat training in Israel that is usually followed by a ‘mandatory’ (sic!) yearlong holiday in India!

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“You from India?”, they enquired effusively wherever I went. Waitresses, restaurant owners, bartenders, DJs, drivers, in hipster bars and sandy beaches, all welcoming me with the warmth of a long-lost relative bringing tidings from their homeland. They showed the same excitement with which we spot Indian names in the end credits of a Hollywood flick!

“I went many years ago… Beautiful country, beautiful people! It’s been too long!,” sighed Inbara the naturalist at Agmon Hula Birdwatching center as we leisurely explored the park in golf carts. At a candle shop in the town of Safed (Tzfat), former center of Cabalistic learning and one of the four holy cities in Israel, Gabriela reminisced about her trip as a teenager and was looking forward to taking her teenage daughter to India on her maiden visit.

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Tzefat is also the highest city in Israel and offers a close look into Jewish culture and traditions. “So, your PM is coming! You the advance party, eh?”, joked an art shop owner in the Artist Quarter. Some rattled off names of places they visited in India. “One time in Dehli, you know…” Everyone had a favourite India story he or she was dying to narrate…

And the love is being well reciprocated. Since 2015, the number of Indian tourists visiting Israel has seen a jump of 49%. In 2016, it touched 45,000. The numbers were only rising each year… Our amazing guide Ofer Moghadam who specializes in Holy Land tours and often caters to German and American tourists mentioned that he too had seen a rise in Indian arrivals in recent times. What started off as a trickle of pilgrim tours to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, was now a flood that went beyond the holy trail to more offbeat locations.

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The recent bonhomie seems like some strange fairytale love of species as disproportionate as the Ant and the Elephant. India is massive, like a lumbering pachyderm; Israel is tiny in comparison, but swift like a bee. India has the highest mountain ranges in the world in the Himalayas while Israel has the lowest point on earth’s surface – the Dead Sea. Yet, there were uncanny similarities. Ancient lands of spirituality and enlightenment, both India and Israel were birthed in violence, mid-wifed by the British. Both countries run on organized chaos, a concept Ofer explained as balagan, Hebrew for ‘bedlam’ or ‘absolute pandemonium’!

Tel Aviv is the main international port of entry and many assume the vibrant city to be the capital of Israel (which actually happens to be Jerusalem!) But Tel Aviv was conceived as a secular anti-thesis of overtly religious Jerusalem and Tel Avivians are often blamed for being on a different planet. From the time we landed at the Ben Gurion Airport, named after Israel’s first Prime Minister, any place seemed just a short drive away.

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You could have lunch at Israel’s northern tip at the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra that has a cable car descent into sea grottos carved out by seawater into limestone cliffs. And be in time for dinner at Eilat in the south on the Red Sea. One could drive from north to south and be out of the country in a matter of hours. At one moment we are at the border with Jordan, the other instant with Lebanon and Syria.

Haifa, Israel’s third largest city and a port town in the north, shares an interesting Indian connection. During World War I, lancers of the Jodhpur and Mysore cavalry regiment overran Turkish Ottoman and German machine-gun positions in a dramatic horseback charge to win the Battle of Haifa for the British. Many Indian soldiers who valorously took part in WWI in Egypt and Mesopotamia lie buried at the Haifa cemetery, their sacrifice not forgotten.

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Today the same hillside of Mount Carmel is covered with landscaped gardens of the Baha’i world centre, a UNESCO world heritage site. Haifa is proud of its Jewish-Arab coexistence, best exemplified in Douzan restaurant in the old German Colony, renovated into an avenue of bars and restaurants. Owner Fadi explained that douzan was the term for the tuning of the oud, a stringed instrument. The alfresco restaurant with a convivial air was where he fine-tuned people so that they remained in harmony.

All the furniture at Douzan was sourced from Italy, Germany, Lebanon and Syria and no two tables were alike. Each piece, like an individual, was special and unique. The food is hybrid – a shared Mediterranean legacy of Palestinian, Arab and Lebanese dishes with a smattering of French and Italian cuisine. Its friendly vibe recreated what is called the ‘Haifa atmosphere.’

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Our hunt for the best hummus took us from Café Ziad in Jerusalem to Abu Hassan in Jaffa and Osul Restaurant (literally ‘Genuine’) at Yesud HaMa’ala to Magdalena, voted as the Best Arab restaurant in Israel, which serves fresh Tilapia from the Sea of Galilee. Puaa, whose furniture is sourced from the Jaffa flea market and every item is for sale, has been wowing gourmands for 16 years in a country where trends don’t last 16 months.

In Jerusalem, Chef Moshe Basson of Eucalyptus restaurant, who fondly remembers his encounter with Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, dishes out meticulously researched Jewish Biblical cuisine. The chef harvests his own herbs like sage, rosemary, mint, using them in dishes like fish falafel, figs stuffed with chicken, eggplant and cream, pate macaroon and maklubah – like a potato and chicken biryani!

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For me, Israel was a childhood dream come true – reading a book while afloat in the Dead Sea, visiting Jerusalem, walking in the footsteps of Jesus, the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea Scrolls, sailing on the Sea of Galilee, eating a ‘Jaffa’ orange! And yet, there was so much more Israel offers… from the Negev desert to the beaches of Eilat, old Crusader towns of Akko (Acre) and Sfad, erstwhile Roman outpost of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, Segway rides down Tel Aviv’s Sea Shore Promenade to food tours through Carmel shuk – the only authentic Arabian style market.

There’s craft beer on offer at Israel’s first microbrewery The Dancing Camel or Beer Bazaar, architecture tours in the Bauhaus district or White City, a Tel Aviv Port Tour, a street art tour in Florentin and night tours through the hip quarter of Rothschild to hipster clubs like Kuli Alma, Sputnik and everything in between. In trademark lightning swiftness, Israel has made the evolutionary leap from the Land of Creation to the Land of Recreation. So long and thanks for all the hummus!

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Israel’s national carrier El-Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv thrice a week and takes less than 8 hrs. Turkish Airlines has daily flights to Tel Aviv via Istanbul – a journey of 11 hr 45 min while Ethiopian Air flies via Addis Ababa (12 hrs). Haifa is just over 90km north of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem 72 km SE.

Shalom-NaMoste: Modi’s pitstops
Ben Gurion International Airport
Danziger Dan Flower Farm
Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
King David Hotel
Synagogue Route at Israel Museum
Indian War Memorial, Haifa
Water Desalination Unit, Olga Beach

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Where to Stay

Carlton Hotel, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 3 5201818 www.carlton.co.il

Dan Panorama Hotel, Haifa
Ph +972 4 8352222 www.danhotels.com

Prima-Royale Hotel, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 5607111
http://prima-royale-jerusalem.hotel-rn.com

Rimonim Galei Kinneret Hotel, Tiberias
Ph +972 4 6728555 www.rimonimhotels.com

The Scots Hotel, Tiberias
Ph +972 4 6710710 www.scotshotels.co.il

Where to Eat

Douzan Restaurant, Haifa
Ph +972 539443301

The Eucalyptus Restaurant, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 6244331 www.the-eucalyptus.com

Magdalena Restaurant, Magdala
Ph +972 4 6730064 magdalenarest@gmail.com

Puaa Restaurant, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 3 6823821

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What to Do

Holy Land/Tel Aviv/Dead Sea tours
Ofer Moghadam Tours
Ph +972 587833799 www.ofermog.com

SEGO Segway Tours, Tel Aviv
Ph +972 528551932 www.sego.co.il

Tel Aviv Night Tour & Graffiti Tours
Dror Shoresh Ph +972 507814575
GetRealTLV@gmail.com

Cable Car Ride, Rosh Hanikra
Ph +972 732710100 www.rosh-hanikra.com

Ancient Galilee Boat & Museum
Nofalon Tourist Centre, Ginosar
Ph +972 4 9119585 www.thegalileeboat.com

Galilee Sailing, Tiberias
Ph +972 509397000

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Agmon Hula birdwatching centre
Ph +972 4 6817137 www.agamon-hula.co.il

The Night Spectacular Sound & Light show
The Citadel, Tower of David, Jerusalem
Ph +972 2 6265333 www.tod.org.il

Wine tasting at Adir Winery & Dairy
Ph +972 4 6991039 www.adir-visit.com

Ilana Goor Museum Tour, Old Jaffa
Ph +972 3 6837676 www.ilanagoormuseum.org 

For more info, visit www.goisrael.in, www.tel-aviv.gov.il

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 14 July 2017 in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express. Here’s the link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/life-style/travel/2017/jul/15/notes-from-israel-so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-hummus-2694.html

Changi Airport: Check in and never leave

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Singapore Changi Airport was voted the world’s best airport fifth year in a row at the 2017 Skytrax World Airport Awards. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover why it is the global favourite…

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After downing our Singapore Slings and Ruchi thali, a ‘Best of India’ menu curated by Chef Sanjeev Kapoor for business class, our Singapore Airlines flight was about to touch down at Changi. The flight from Bangalore was too short to fully maximize the Kris World in-flight entertainment but we managed a few reruns of Game of Thrones. In all our travels and transits through Singapore, this was the first time we would not stir out of the airport. It was a challenge thrown at us by Changi Airport and by the end of three days, we hoped to know the airport inside out, much like Tom Hanks in The Terminal

As we breezed past immigration at Terminal 3, we didn’t even need to step out of the airport or take a cab to reach our hotel. A short walk to the left in the arrival hall led us to Crowne Plaza Changi, voted again as the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2017. Our stunning room overlooked the runway with flights taxiing by. The toughened glass blanked out the noise but not the view. Changi has hotels in each terminal. Aerotel boasts the only outdoor swimming pool at Changi (SGD 17) while Ambassador Transit Lounge offered deals like unlimited alcohol for 5 hrs SGD 58.85.

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After a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we set off on our tour. Changi is more than an airport or transit point; it’s a destination by itself! Amazing art exhibits, spectacular gardens, duty free shopping, themed decor and the world’s tallest slide in an airport; there are many things make Changi the world’s most loved airport.

Massage chairs are free, not coin-operated. Dedicated Snooze Zones underline why Changi is repeatedly voted as ‘the best airport to sleep in’. But its biggest USP is the ability to take away the stress of travel. Uniformed volunteers rove the arrival areas as ‘Changi Service Ambassadors’ to intuitively help passengers who seem lost or stranded. We noticed each terminal was conveniently coded with a different carpet theme for a sense of bearing!

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Mirroring Singapore’s tag as a Garden City, the airport is full of vertical topiaries and greenery, giving it an air of a tropical garden rather than a busy travel hub. The Enchanted Garden in T3 showcases nearly 1000 types of exotic flora landscaped around four floral glass sculptures with stained glass mosaic. Hidden sensors triggered natural rainforest sounds and blooming of flowers!

Each terminal has something unique for everybody. T1 has an open air Cactus Garden with The Traveller’s Cactus Pub, a favourite beer n’ smokes hangout for Australians flying to/from Australia via Singapore. T2 is packed with attractions. The Sunflower Garden has 500 plants happily soaking up the tropical sun. The Orchid Garden has a thousand orchids from 30 species grouped according to hue, form and the four elements – air, earth, water and fire.

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The Butterfly Garden on Level 3 is a magical space home to 47 species. A clear favourite with every visitor, it offers a chance to closely observe the entire life cycle of a butterfly – from the laying of eggs at the Breeding Corner, to becoming a caterpillar and finally metamorphosing from a pupa at the Emergence Cage. Butterfly-shaped Feeding Corners have nectar containers and if you dab some on your fingers, the winged beauties gently perch on your hand for a photo-op.

We headed to the Duty Free Store (DFS), a duplex wonderland of spirits. The Wine Reserve, the Cigar Room and The Whiskey House encourage travellers to sample and experience the products before their final buy. The Changi DFS has the largest selection of Blended Whisky with a ‘Lowest Price in Asia Pacific airports’ guarantee. You can even scan a bottle to compare prices elsewhere! After a whiskey tasting session, we sauntered to the iconic Raffles Long Bar for a complimentary Singapore Sling.

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There’s plenty of entertainment –TV Lounges, Entertainment Decks with Xbox 360, MTV booths and a Movie Theatre at every terminal with free screenings all day, all night. At The Social Tree, Changi’s largest interactive installation, passengers can click selfies, choose a theme and upload their picture on a circular video wall or social media. Interactive installations tell you where to go in the city.

We flipped the ‘Make it Your Singapore’ info-discs to discover interesting factoids and quirky aspects about the island nation. Kids went crazy at the Motion Silhouette Wall and LED Dots Portrait Wall which used motion-sensing technology, allowing passengers to take self-portraits against famous Singapore landmarks!

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Young ones can try their hand at woodblock prints with icons inspired by popular culture, designed by Singapore artist Justin Lee. Changi truly celebrates art with stunning installations. Kinetic Rain features 1216 polished copper raindrops dancing rhythmically. The giant Daisy shaped like a propeller represents Singapore’s importance in air and sea travel. Baet Yeok Kuan’s Birds in Flight is inspired by the migration of the Artic Tern while Jorge Marin’s jaw-dropping Wings of Mexico gives travellers a chance to pose as angels.

By the second day, we were smiling at attendants with the familiarity of being on a neighbourhood walk. It was 9 am, time to be at the serene Koi Pond, where we watched the feeding of the fish (they are fed again at 4 pm, on all days except Sundays). At every step, we discovered a facet we had missed earlier. Recycle bins were shaped like a Plastic Bottle, Drink Can and Newspaper to help segregate plastic, metal and paper waste.

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If you are a foodie, Changi ranks second after Hong Kong as the world’s best airport for dining. The best part is that Singapore’s top street food icons can be found right inside the airport. Straits Food Village, a 24 hr food court was awarded Airport Food Court of the Year at the Airport Food and Beverage (FAB) Awards 2016. It captures the hawker experience, with delicious Bak Kut Teh (pork broth and ribs) and Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with anchovies).

From Vietnamese style food at Pho Street, Cantonese cuisine at Imperial Treasure to Hello Kitty-themed orchid garden restaurant, there’s every kind of flavour on offer – even Indian food at Kaveri vegetarian restaurant! There’s Killiney Kopitiam, which started in 1919 as a little Hainanese coffee joint on Killiney Road serving Kaya toast and freshly brewed kopi.

Food-Hello Kitty theme restaurant IMG_4192_Anurag Mallick

Curry Times, Singapore’s best curry restaurant, started in 1956 as Old Chang Kee on Mackenzie Road near Rex Cinema. Their curry puffs with potatoes, chicken and egg in crispy fried pastry puffs gained famed as Rex curry puffs. Tip Top, another classic curry puff icon since 1979, makes great sardine and beef rendang puffs as well.

Since 1969, Fragrance has been serving traditional Bak Kwa (Chinese pork jerky) blended with spices and 18 Chinese herbs like ginseng, danggui and wolfberry. Bengawan Solo serves a range of cakes like Orange Chiffon and Pandan Chiffon, besides Kueh, Prune and Cranberry Lapis. With excellent take-aways and gift packs, they make great last minute buys.

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Those looking for a makeover or relaxation may enter spa haven. Get a massage at Be Relax or a treatment at Shilla Beauty Loft featuring top brands like Chanel, Dior, La Prairie and SK-II. The SK-II Magic Ring predicts your skin in 10 years with prescriptions for suitable products while the Shilla Duty Free below, woos you with its range of cosmetics and perfumes.

For long layovers, take the free 2½ hour guided city tour, jointly organized by Singapore Airlines, Singapore Tourism Board and Changi Airport. The free shuttle leaves every 15 minutes. If your transit is 5.5 hours or more, take the Heritage Tour to Chinatown and Kampong Glam. If it’s 6 hours or more, enjoy the City Sights Tour, taking in Gardens by the Bay and the Merlion statue. Just register an hour before the tour at the Free Singapore Tour (FST) Registration Booth near Transfer Lounge F in T2 or Transfer Lounge A in T3.

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Those transiting on the national carrier Singapore Airlines or Silk Air, even get free Changi dollars to spend ($20/ticket)! By Day 3, we knew enough of the airport to max the quiz and win our share of Changi dollars! I Shop Changi lets passengers shop online 2 weeks in advance and up to 24 hours before their departure from Changi. Your shopping adds up to Changi Rewards, which can be redeemed later and a shot at being a ‘Changi Millionaire’ in the annual lucky draw.

Amid all the excitement, you could easily forget to catch your connecting flight! Weighed down by our buys at Zara and Discover Singapore, we barely made it to our Singapore Airlines gate by final call. Strapped into our seat, a warm towel and a cold welcome drink in our hands and we were ready to say goodbye to the iconic Changi Airport Tower. It oversees the movement of 700 flights a day; one every 90 seconds, catering to 380 destinations worldwide and 58.7 million satisfied passengers each year.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies direct (4 hrs) from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities to Changi Airport, in the eastern part of town. Singapore is a great stopover en route to Australia with attractive flight deals. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay

Crowne Plaza Changi
75 Airport Boulevard #01-01, Changi
Ph +65 6823 5300 www.ihg.com

Aerotel
Level 3, Departure Transit Lounge, Terminal 1 (above Gate D41)
Ph +65 6808 2388 www.myaerotel.com

Ambassador Transit Hotel
Departure, Level 3, Terminal 2 Ph +65 6542 8122
Departure, Mezzanine Level 3, Terminal 3 Ph +65 6507 9788
www.harilelahospitality.com

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Where to Eat

Hello Kitty
#01-22, Terminal 3, Arrival Meeting Hall (Central)
Ph +65 6241 6127 www.hellokittyorchidgarden.com

Straits Food Village
#60, Terminal 2, Level 3, Departure Lounge (Central)
Ph +65 6449 3688

Penang Culture
#036-087-01, Terminal 2, Level 3, Departure/Check-in Hall
Ph +65 6546 7793

Curry Times
#B2-51, Terminal 3
www.currytimes.com.sg

Killiney Kopitiam
#031-001A, Terminal 1, Mezzanine Level 3, Departure Transit Lounge East
Ph +65 6214 1387 www.killiney-kopitiam.com

Fragrance
#026-034, Terminal 2, Departure/Check-In Hall Central
Ph +65 6542 4294 www.fragrance.com.sg

Bengawan Solo
Terminals 1, 2, 3
Ph +65 6242 3072, 6546 9835
www.bengawansolo.com.sg

For more info, visit https://in.changiairport.com, www.yoursingapore.com and www.ishopchangi.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 12 May 2017 in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express. Here’s the link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/culture/cover-story/2017/may/12/singapores-changi-airport-check-in-and-never-leave-1473.html

Lofty heights: Tree houses in India

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY lead an arboreal existence as they pick out the best tree houses in the country

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We remember the first time we got onto a treehouse was sometime in 2001 when Green Magic in Wayanad had pioneered the concept of treehouses in Kerala. It was like a childhood fantasy come true as we imagined we’d be ushered like Phantom and Diana by Bandar into a counter-weighted basket that would magically zoom up in the air. We wondered if the jungle vine would snap or was it a ladder we had to climb? Walking through the lush plantation, we reached the edge of a ravine from where a gently sloping wooden ramp led to the thatched hut.

Gingerly walking up the ramp we reached the rustic hut with a small balcony and a low bed made of bamboo. We were above the tree line and the aerial perch afforded a birds’ eye view, literally. The sight of bright orange and black scarlet minivets flitting about the dense shrubbery was magical. The thrill of being up there and spending a night as the wind creaked the tree can never be forgotten.

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That was 16 years ago, when the concept of a tree house was quite novel and still taking root. Today, every nature resort or plantation stay worth its salt prides in having at least one tree house or machan. But gone are the days of rustic simplicity; today’s treehouses come equipped with all kinds of creature comforts.

The best place to experience tree houses in India is undoubtedly Wayanad. It is no coincidence that the hilly district, with its abundant nature, mountainous terrain and rich tribal knowledge, is a stronghold for tree houses. Many resorts have relied on the traditional knowhow of local tribes.

Tranquil Wayanad

Tranquil Resort at Kolagapara near Ambalavayal used to have a treehouse with an actual basket that transported you to the top. However, they have renovated their old perches into the Tranquilitree tree house, perched at 45 feet on a gulmohar tree. The rustic 572 sq ft living space comes with an en-suite bathroom, verandah, mini-fridge, LCD TV and coffee maker. However, kids below 8 are not allowed due to safety concerns.

High above the rainforest canopy, Vythiri Resort has five tree houses ranging from 35 ft to 80 ft off the ground, including a child friendly one! Natural spring water has been channeled from a high source so gravity takes care of water supply without using a motor for pumping water. The quaint thatch roof and bamboo walls have been built by members of the local tribal community using locally sourced materials. Plenty of precautions are taken – guests are asked to pack light with heavy luggage kept in a locker room and no food, liquor or smoking is allowed up there. It’s the perfect escape for couples or honeymooners.

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The newest entrant into Wayanad’s extended treehouse family is Pepper Trail near Sulthan Bathery. Lined by cheery orange and red heliconia, the driveway sliced through the expansive Mangalam Carp Estate, set up by pioneering planter Scotsman Colin Auley Mackenzie in the 1800s. At the tiled roof Pavilion deck, a refreshing drink of lime was served overlooking coffee shrubs interspersed with tall silver oak and 1,200 jackfruit trees.

On a sturdy jackfruit tree, a wooden walkway rose over the coffee bushes in a gentle ascent to a treehouse 40ft off the ground. The Woodpecker Treehouse was fitted with wood-panelled walls, fine décor and linen, a country style four-poster bed, dressing area, luxurious bathroom and a wide balcony with plantation chairs. Its counterpart, the Hornbill Treehouse was further away. Every morning or evening, we’d eyeball barbets, sunbirds, drongos and raucous Malabar Grey hornbills, sipping our cuppa.

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Lost in the cacophonic din of urban life, we discovered that silence in the remote rainforests sits on an underlay of crooning cicadas. Our arboreal existence drew the attention of a boisterous troop of macaques, who peered through our windows in the hope of some generosity of spirit. With no biscuits or bananas going their way, they’d romp on the railings in wild tantrum displays. Monkeys can be a menace, so catapults are kept handy with air guns to scare them away. We felt mildly annoyed about their infringement when ironically we had invaded their leafy domain!

With a live feed of Animal Planet outdoors, who would miss TV! Pepper Trail maintains a “No kids under 12” policy. While this may seem tough for families with kids, it underlines the resort’s stress on safety and concern for a guest’s need for peace and quiet. The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to see how coffee and tea are cultivated. Take a drive around the plantation in the open top jeep or go on short highway jaunts around Bandipur and Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuaries!

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At Rainforest Boutique Resort in Athirapally, as if the charm of viewing Kerala’s most magnificent waterfall from your room wasn’t enough, a Swiss architect was roped in to design a treehouse as dramatic as the view. Overlooking the Sholayar rainforests, the tree house is the ideal vantage point to gaze at the thundering Athirapally waterfalls. Equally dramatic is the Shola Periyar Tree House perched atop a banyan tree. Another region making a name for its treehouses is the wildlife zone of Masinagudi near Mudumalai with rustic perches at Safari Land, Forest Hills and The Wilds. However, the trend is not restricted to South India.

Tree House Hideaway is set in 21 acres of woodland adjacent to Bandhavgarh National Park. Combine the joy of staying in a tree house with the thrill of spotting tigers in the wild on jeep safaris through Bandhavgarh. Five exclusive tree houses are built on stilts on five different trees – Mahua, Tendu, Peepal, Banyan and Palash. Though grungy and wild from the outside, the rooms are posh. The dining hall is built across two levels around a century old Mahua tree with a dining hall on the ground level and The Watering Hole, a bar cum lounge on the upper floor.

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Pugdundee Safaris, the folks behind Treehouse Hideaway in Bandhavgarh, also run other treehouse getaways in the lesser known parks of Central India. They have six fabulous perches at Pench Tree Lodge at Pench National Park and two at Denwa Backwater Escape near Satpura Tiger Reserve.

Yet another luxurious romantic hideaway is The Machan near Lonavala. Perched at 3300 feet, the 25-acre patch is part of a tropical cloud forest with a choice of treehouses! The Heritage Machan is built across four levels around a wild fig tree, a spiral staircase leads up to the glass encased Canopy Machan, a wooden bridge connects up to the Forest Machan, the Jungle Machans are set amid a thicket of trees while an elevated wooden walkway through thick vegetation leads to the towering Sunset Machans, known for their magical sunset views. The Machan is completely off grid and generates all energy from renewable sources (solar and wind). There’s trekking, birding and local explorations to forts like Lohagad and Koraigad, besides Karla and Bhaja caves.

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Further north, 30 min from Jaipur at Nature Farms in Syari Valley is Tree House Resort. Perched atop keekar trees, the nests have several branches running through the rooms, blending nature with creature comforts. Each Tree House nest is named after a bird found in the area and the 5-room tree houses are counted among the largest in the world.

In Himachal too, the trend has caught on. At Manali Tree house cottages near Katrain, perch on an oak tree while at Himalayan Village Kasol, the tree houses are actually wooden structures called bhandars, representative of typical Himachali architecture. Gone are those days when you just thought of surviving the night on a rickety perch, here you can get out of the rain shower, grab a drink from the mini bar and plonk yourself on the sofa as if it were your own living room… there’s a whole new world up there!

Vythiri Tree House Interior

FACT FILE

Pepper Trail, Chulliyode
Ph +91 9562277000 www.peppertrail.in
Getting there: At Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode, 10 km from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, 100 km from Calicut International Airport and 250 km from Bangalore.

Tranquil Resort, Kolagapara
Ph +91 7053126407 www.tranquilresort.com
Getting there: At Kuppamudi Estate on Kolagappara-Ambalavayal Road, 7km from Sulthan Bathery and 105km from Calicut International Airport

Vythiri Resort, Lakkidi
Ph 0484 4055250 www.vythiriresort.com
Getting there: At Lakkidi, 18km from Kalpetta, district headquarters of Wayanad and 85km from Calicut International Airport

Rainforest Boutique Resort, Athirapally
Ph + 91 9995358888, 9539058888 www.avenuehotels.in
Getting there: 30km from Chalakudy, 55km from Cochin International Airport and 63km from Thrissur railway station.

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Treehouse Hideaway, Bandhavgarh
Ph +91 8800637711 www.treehousehideaway.com
Getting there: Bandhavgarh is 34 km/1 hr from Umaria, the nearest railhead and 22km/4hrs from Jabalpur, the nearest airport

Tree House Resort, Syari Valley
Ph +91 9001797422, 9799490390 www.treehouseresort.in
Getting there: Nature Farms, Syari vallry is 35km from Jaipur opposite Amity University on NH-8.

The Machan, Lonavala
Ph +91 7666622426 www.themachan.com
Getting there: Located at Atvan, 17km south of Lonavala and 100km from Mumbai.

Himalayan Village, Kasol
Ph 01902 276266, +91 9805072712 www.thehimalayanvillage.in
Getting there: Located between Jari and Kasol, 25 km from Kullu Airport Bhuntar and 10km before Manikaran.

Treehouse Cottages, Katrain
Ph 01902-240365, +91-98160-78765 www.manalitreehousecottages.com
Getting there: At Katrain, between Kullu and Manali, 32 km north of Kullu Airport Bhuntar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 March 2017 in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express. Here’s the link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/culture/cover-story/2017/mar/17/sample-a-slice-of-the-arboreal-life-at-some-of-the-best-tree-houses-across-india-387.html

Bali: Temple Run

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The temples of Bali share the top spot on the must-visit list besides its beaches. ANURAG MALLICK goes on a Balinese temple trail to uncover some of these architectural gems

Ubud-Gunung Lebah temple Campuhan IMG_4052_Anurag Mallick

The sun was about to set across the cliffs of Uluwatu, the stony headland that gave the place its name. Our guide Made explained that ulu is ‘land’s end’ or ‘head’ in Balinese, while watu is ‘stone’. Perched on a rock at the southwest tip of the peninsula, Pura Luhur Uluwatu was a pura segara (sea temple) and one of the nine directional temples of Bali protecting the island. We gaped at the waves crashing 230 ft below, unaware that the real spectacle was about to unfold elsewhere.

A short walk led us to an amphitheatre overlooking the dramatic seascape. In the middle, around a sacred lamp, fifty bare-chested performers sat in concentric rings, unperturbed by the hushed conversations of the packed audience. They sat in meditative repose, with cool sandal paste smeared on their temples and red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears. At sharp six, chants of ‘cak ke chak’ stirred the evening air. For the next one hour, we sat open-mouthed in awe at Bali’s most fascinating temple ritual.

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The kecak dance, filmed in movies like Samsara and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, was an animated retelling of the popular Hindu epic Ramayana. There were no instruments, yet the unbelievable cadence of intonations formed a musical underlay to the dance drama – Sita’s abduction by Ravana, Jatayu’s valiant aerial fight and Rama bringing Sita back with help of the vanara sena (monkey army). Dressed in white, a playful Hanuman posed for selfies before setting fire to ‘Lanka’. He kicked balls of hay with reckless abandon, drawing big gasps from the crowd. We had been warned about the notorious monkeys in temples, but this was something else!

We filed out of the arena in a daze, a magical start to our Bali tour. Over dinner at the seaside Mata Hari restaurant at Jimbaran Beach, we enjoyed more performances with temple dancers and dragon dances. Tanah Lot, another sea shrine perched on a rocky outcrop amidst crashing waves, was a 45-minute drive from Kuta to Beraban on the west coast. It was late, so we retired to our hotel Mercure Legian Kuta, to continue our Balinese Temple Run the next morning.

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While Indonesia is largely Muslim, over 80% of Bali’s four million population is Hindu. The 5600 sq km island measures 90 km from north to south and 195 km west to east at its widest point. Yet, with over a thousand shrines dotting the island, one needs a plan to take on the Island of the Gods. After a hearty breakfast, our guide Made gave us a brief overview of Balinese Hinduism on the tour bus. The supreme all-in-one almighty god is Acintya (the inconceivable) or Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, composed of the trinity Brahma, Visnu and Siva.

There are four types of temples in Bali – public temples, village temples, family temples for ancestor spirits and functional temples based on profession. Farmers build a shrine of Devi Sri or goddess of grain in the fields; fishermen consecrate Deva Varuna by the sea. Every village has a pura desa for Brahma, pura puseh for Vishnu and pura dalem for Shiva. The Balinese hold sacred the philosophy of tri kaya parisuda – think positive, speak positive and act positive – to attain nirvana.

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From the bus, Made pointed out statues of Arjuna, Krishna and Ghatotkacha. Bhima’s son fought Karna in the Mahabharata war and is revered by the Balinese as a loyal, intelligent and powerful figure. As a flying knight, he was responsible for the air defense of the Pandavas and is thus believed to provide safe passage to all flights landing in and out of Bali! Driving past the roundabout dominated by the gigantic statue, we slowly climbed to the highlands of Ubud 400m above sea level.

Grabbing sarongs to be suitably attired for the 15th C Pura Desa Batuan, we learnt about the nuances of Balinese temple architecture. Temple layout is governed by the concept of tri mandala or three realms divided by walls – the Nista Mandala or outer courtyard reserved for waiting and performances, the Madya Mandala or middle realm for religious preparations with drum towers and gamelan pavilions and Utama Mandala, the sacred innermost realm.

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The main entrance or Candi bentar was split in two, as if hacked by an unseen giant cleaver. “That is the concept of Rwa bineda or maintaining balance between opposing forces. The left and right halves of the gate denote balance or harmony, a principle that governs our lives. Similarly, the guardian spirits or gatekeepers are clad in checkered black and white cloth,” explained our guide.

Kori agung, the gate between the madya mandala and the inner compound is an ornate roofed tower. Most puras (temples) have an aling aling or protective screen after the entrance to fend off negative spirits. It is believed that spirits travel only in straight lines, so are bounced off the protective wall. After exploring the temple and its various pavilions, we continued to Ubud.

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Centuries ago, Hinduism was brought to Bali by Sage Markandeya, who came from India with 800 followers via Borneo, Sumatra, Mount Demalung in Java to Gunung Agung (9944 ft), the highest mountain in Bali. Here, on the southern slopes, he established the mother temple Pura Besakih, the largest and holiest temple on the island.

Mount Agung is believed to be an embodiment of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe, whose fragment was brought to Bali by the first Hindus. Markandeya consecrated the pancha dhatu (five metals) and following the course of the Patanu river, he arrived at a confluence or ‘campuhan’ of the Pakerisan river.

Ubud-Gunung Lebah temple Campuhan IMG_4051_Anurag Mallick

Made continued the legend as we drove past the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud and stopped on Jalan Raya for a short walk to Pura Gunung Lebah, literally ‘temple on a mountain slope’. We halted at the temple steps near the spot where Markandeya supposedly sat in meditation, chanting mantras and asking the sick and diseased to jump into the river. Miraculously cured, they rejoiced and shouted “Ubad ubad” (medicine, medicine) and that’s how the place was named Ubud!

Even today, confluences are considered sacred by the Balinese who come here for purification ceremonies. Westerners come for yoga, Balinese massages, healing courses, rafting or hikes along Campuhan Ridge. At Ubud Palace, on the doorway of the royal shrine Puri Saren Agung, we saw Kala’s face as portal guardian. The serene lakeside Saraswati Temple was a short walk away.

Pura Taman Ayun IMG_4103_Anurag Mallick

We drove 8km southwest of Ubud, where one of Bali’s most beautiful temples Taman Ayun, literally ‘beautiful garden’ sits in a serene park of trees and ponds. It is a pura tirta (water temple) as well as a pura wawiten (family temple), built by the Rajas of Mengwi. Its pagoda-like multi-tiered roof or Meru, represents the sacred mountain. An ornate sculpture of Lord Vishnu’s vahana (vehicle) Garuda stands proud, a symbol of Indonesia’s emblem and national carrier. It is omnipresent – in shops, the airport and GWK (Garuda Wisnu Kencana) cultural park.

Bali comes alive during temple festivals, which are elaborate affairs with ritual baths in rivers or ponds, processions, ceremonies and cock sacrifices. Every day outside homes, shops and street corners we spotted locals making ritual offerings or Canang sari, a small palm-leaf basket with flowers, rice and incense. It’s mandatory to include a trio of objects to represent the Divine Trinity – gambier or catechu (kattha) for Brahma, betelnut for Vishnu and tobacco and lime for Shiva. In Bali, there is divinity at every doorstep…

Canang sari-daily ritual offering IMG_4079_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is at Denpasar, south of the tourist hotspot of Kuta. Flights from India take 8½–9½ hrs via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok by Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Garuda Indonesia. Ubud is 25km from Denpasar.

Temple etiquette & Tips
Wear modest clothing that covers your shoulders and legs; sarongs are available on hire outside most shrines. Do not enter the temple premises if you are bleeding or menstruating.

Where to stay
Mercure Legian Kuta
Centrally located and walking distance from bars, restaurants and Legian beach
Ph +62 361 9386100 www.mercure.com

Ubud-Pura Desa Batuan IMG_3974_Anurag Mallick

Where to Eat

Jendela Bali, GWK
Panoramic restaurant at Garuda Wishnu Kencana Cultural Park offering Balinese & Western fare with oceanic and mountain views to match. Ph +62 361 700 808 www.gwkbali.com

Sari Organik, Ubud
Organic café overlooking paddy fields with Balinese meals like nasi campur – rice, fried tofu, spinach, tempe (fermented soy cake), veg curry & chicken satay. Ph +62 361 972087

New Mata Hari Café, Jimbaran Beach
One of the many beachside restaurants at the popular Jimbaran stretch offering seafood, live entertainment and great views. +62 361 705 988

For more info, visit www.indonesia.travel

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of JetWings magazine.

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains

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Amid gabled roofs, Gothic windows and English weathervanes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go walkabout in the surreal heritage village of Garli in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh

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A Shiva Shambhu or wandering minstrel in a red and black turban adorned with feathers walked in sounding his bell just as we were being ushered into Chateau Garli with drumbeats, tilaks and a shower of flower petals. For a moment no one was sure whether the itinerant was part of the arriving group or the welcoming party. And then as suddenly, like a mirage, he vanished into the afternoon haze.

Though the harsh sun had obscured the surrounding Dhauladhar range, Garli’s presence here seemed equally surprising and incongruous. We looked around in disbelief at the European style mansions with gabled roofs, Gothic windows and ornate weathervanes wondering how such a place could exist deep in the heart of Himachal Pradesh. It was only after the refreshing mint cooler went down our parched throats and the drumbeats stopped we knew it was real.

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In a dark sunless room, with the only light emanating from a red chandelier, our host Yatish Sud and his friend Atul Lal retraced the story of Garli. The mint had been replaced by hops but we swear the surreal setting made Yatish seem like a character in a Quentin Tarantino flick narrating a fantastic tale. The story went like this…

The 52 clans of the hill community of Soods, who find a mention in the Rig Veda with reference to a sacred fire, were driven out of Rajasthan after successive Muslim invasions. They escaped with a band of professionals – cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, craftsmen – and settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away and set up a trading town. The location was protected as well as auspicious – surrounded by mountains and the snowy Dhauladhar range on three sides with the Beas river on the fourth and at the tri-junction of three powerful Shakti peetha shrines –Jwalamukhi, Chintpurni and Brajeshwari.

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Over time, the entrepreneurial Soods became treasurers to the Kangra royal family and as contractors, helped the British build Shimla. The great fortunes they amassed was put back into their hometown and the buildings drew heavily on colonial influences, a touch of Rajasthan and all the finer things that money could buy – Belgian glass, Japanese tiles, fancy chandeliers. Ummm, but haven’t we heard that story before!

In a pattern uncannily similar to the opulent havelis of Shekhawati (set up the mercantile community of Marwaris) and Chettinad (the bastion of the Chettiars), Garli too prospered in the same timeframe. Between 1820 and 1920, the construction frenzy reached its peak, spurring an unstated rivalry to outbuild thy neighbour. And then, by the 1950’s it was all gone.

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“How?”, we chimed. “We’ll continue that on the evening walk”, winked Yatish and led us to the dining area where hot lunch awaited us. After a terrific North Indian meal, we were ushered to our heritage room where we lay down with the looming danger of missing our tryst with the evening. The four poster bed, the paintings on the wall, the colourful embroidered bedspreads, the vibrant windowpanes and antique furniture really transported us to another era. Each of the 19 rooms in the mansion was unique and distinctive. But sleep be damned, we couldn’t wait till evening for the rest of the tale…

A quick round of masala tea and we were ready for our heritage walk through town. Scattered amidst living dwellings with heaving clotheslines and aam papad drying on charpoys were empty majestic homes that held steadfast against time. Some withering edifices lay forlorn and besieged by neglect. In the snaking alleys, one could sense an eerie silence emanating from the empty halls and corridors of run-down mansions.

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“That one with the murals is Rayeeson wali kothi, the one with the uniformed soldiers is Santri wali Kothi and that’s Nalke wali kothi! “Why?” “Oh that’s ‘cause it’s got a public tap in front of it!” There are nearly a hundred mansions marked out on the illustrated map so you could go gallivanting on your own. In market lanes, we discovered the progressive town-planning, water and drainage system that the early Soods had incorporated nearly a hundred years ago!

They established a school for boys in 1918 and a specialized women’s hospital in 1921 (the girl’s school didn’t come up until 1955)! The foundation stone for the Garli Water Works was laid on 8th February 1928 and a new road was built for the Governor of Punjab to come for the inauguration. The water works used imported copper pipes from London and wonder of wonders, it still worked!

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. Pots of water were left at every few paces thoughtfully for the public to help combat heat and thirst. Before the advent of electricity, niches in the wall exteriors held lamps to illuminate the path for the pedestrian.

The humanitarian spirit and thoughtfulness was apparent even at Chateau Garli where the compound wall actually curved around a well. In 1920, when Yatish’s grandfather Seth Melaram Sud struck water while building the house, he decided that the natural resource was public property and moved his walls so that the village folk could fill their pots freely! The practice continues to this day. So how did it all go bust?

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The story goes that in the bygone days, the licentious ones left their families back in Shimla and snuck away to Garli for a secret rendezvous with their paramour or another man’s wife. Some say it was the curse of a wronged woman that brought about Garli’s downfall. By the 1950s, the whole place was abandoned and left to ruin.

“Even our haveli was not too different. My grandfather was orphaned very early in life and was taken care of by Atul’s father. I was the first to come back and then Atul followed. It took years of restoration. The annexe in front of the swimming pool was once a cowshed. We built it like the older structure.” The result was spectacular and seamless…

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Yatish then bundled us into his open jeep for a crazy off-road drive. Recklessly ignoring concerned locals crying “Agey raasta nahin hai…(There is no road ahead)”, we drove down a steep incline, bounced along unpredictably before rolling into the vast expanse of weathered boulders covering the banks of the River Beas. We made it in time to watch the big red sun take its final bow for the day from the horizon.

After a quick stop at the ancient Kaleshwar Mahadev temple we went for a cuppa at Naurang Yatri Nivas, a rustic style country lodge restored by Atul and his wife Ira. The elaborate brick structure was built by Rai Bahadur Mohan Lal for the stay of the Lt Governor of Punjab so he could attend his daughter’s wedding.

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Subsequently it became an accommodation for travellers and merchants who came to Garli for trade. In disuse for almost a quarter of a century, it took 30,000 litres of water, 250 kg of washing powder, 75 iron brushes, 18 people and 15 months to restore it to its former glory.

Returning to the luxury of Chateau Garli, we nibbled on juicy grilled meat and snacks followed by butter naans dunked in mutton gravy. The next day after breakfast local ice-cream man Satpal Sharma ji tinkled his bells to sell his family’s best kept secret – Malai barf! The creamy kulfi-like dessert with an unchanged 40-year old recipe was served on a sal leaf and priced at only 30 bucks a serving. To Yatish, it was “the taste of nostalgia”.

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Thus fortified, we set off for Pong Dam to witness the massive swathe of wetlands. In the distance, herds of bovines grazed and wallowed in the slush. In winter, thousands of migratory birds come visiting from Central Asia, making it a birding haven.

The Dada Sibba temple nearby has a rich treasure of 200-year-old mural art on the walls. Unusual images of Krishna, Shiva and Parvati made us linger and absorb the genius of unnamed artists who helped evolve and define the Kangra style of painting.

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We drove to the famous 8th century monolithic Masrur rock-cut temples where architectural virtuosity was on full display. Despite being weather worn, the delicate carvings, motifs and expressions were unmistakable. Our guide, like many we had met earlier in other towns and villages across India, claimed that the temples were ‘built overnight by the Pandavas’.

It was too hot for Kangra Fort so we headed back for a swim in Sud’s tempting pool, which boasted a funky underwater sound system! The party was on… and didn’t stop. Around midnight, Yatish mischievous asked, “Ok, who wants to come for an open jeep ride into the wilderness. Last week, we spotted a leopard, right on the road!” We dove right in and the adventure continued. Onion-like, the little town of Garli peels away its layers one by one, to reveal its many hidden secrets.

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Discover This
Garli is best discovered on foot. Start your heritage walk from Seth Melaram Sud’s residence, formerly UCO bank and presently Chateau Garli towards the Beas. Walk by the taal (lake) past spectacular buildings – Kanya pathshala, Mohan Nivas, Govt Girls’ High School, the tall gates of Saraswati Vidhya Mandir and the green gabled roof of the Civil Hospital to Naurang Sarai. While returning, take the left from the Govt Hospital and the right from Kanya Pathshala for scenic viewpoints.

Continue on the main road past Bhagwan Niwas and Peerewalan to the market. To its right lies the Garli Water Works while a left turn from Minerva School leads to Bishnu Nivas and the ‘House with the brick jali’. And for those who are interested, there’s also The Hidden House and a Mystery House, besides several ruins!

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Road: Located 4km from its twin heritage village Pragpur, Garli is 60km from Hoshiarpur, 70km from Dharamsala and 186km/4hr drive from Chandigarh via Ropar, Anandpur Sahib and Nangal.

By Air: The nearest airport is 47km away at Gaggal in Dharamsala or Bhuntar (85km) near Kullu.

By Train: The nearest railway station is Amb, 25km away though one can travel to Una or Hoshiarpur, which have more train connections. From Delhi, one can take the Kalka Shatabdi to Chandigarh and drive to Garli.

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Where to Stay

Chateau Garli
Mohan Niwas, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 94180 62002, 98104 35554 www.chateaugarli.com
Rs.5000 onwards

Naurang Yatri Nivas
Opp Senior Secondary School, Village Nahan Nagrota, VPO Garli, Tehsil Rakkar, Dist Kangra
Ph 01970-245096 http://www.nyngarli.com

Banta House homestay
Near Garli entrance, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 8459220851

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When to go:
Garli is great all year round, though summers can get pretty hot. Time your visit to catch a local festival like Hola Mohalla at Mairi, 15km away or the century old wrestling festival and 3-day fair Maidan ka Mela at Garli in September.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Discover India magazine.