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

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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.

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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.

Treehouse Hideaway Bandhavgarh

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.

Uluwatu kecak performance IMG_3875_Anurag Mallick

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.

Pura Taman Ayun IMG_4112_Anurag Mallick

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.

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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

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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

Shiva Shambhu at Garli-IMG_4496_Anurag Mallick

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”.

Pong Dam-IMG_4757_Anurag Mallick

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!

Garli-IMG_4951_Anurag Mallick

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. 

Wayanad: Kerala’s Heartland

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Misty hills, green valleys, heart-shaped lakes, monsoon festivals and delightful new resorts, Wayand never ceases to amaze, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Chembra trek IMG_1399_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

As we negotiated the highest peak in Wayanad, the top seemed achingly near, ringed by a tiara of clouds. Our reticent VSS (Vana Samrakshana Samiti) guide from Meppadi made an odd clucking sound to get our attention and motioned below. We looked back and gasped at the sight.

It was indeed a heart-shaped lake, or as locals quaintly called it ‘Hriday Saras’! When we sat by it half an hour ago, it looked more like liver, but from up here there was no mistaking its shape. We pointed to the top and asked ‘Chembra’? Some more guttural sounds followed, which seemed like a ‘no’.

Chembra Heart-shaped Lake IMG_1479_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

There must have been five points where this strange monosyllabic interaction took place and with each successive crest, Chembra seemed to elude us. It was a lot like our experience in Wayanad, where each step showed us a new aspect to this fascinating hill district of Kerala. The summit, at 6,800ft, was wreathed in clouds and it started to drizzle, so we made our slow descent down the grassy slope.

Our guide disappeared for a while and returned with what looked like a wild orange. We greedily tore into its thick skin and bit into the flesh but it turned out to be grapefruit. ‘Bambli moos’, mumbled the VSS guard. Later, we learnt that its Malayalam moniker was a corruption of the Dutch and French name pamplemousse.

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The colonial stamp on the region was a recent one and as one peeled away the layers, Wayanad seemed wrapped in several histories. The imprint of early man is evident at Edakkal Caves, India’s most important prehistoric rock shelter, with Megalithic and Neolithic wall etchings like the Chieftain dating back to 4000 BC! It also has its ‘Kilroy was here’ equivalent. A scrawl in Brahmi script ‘Palpulita nandakari bedungomalai kachhabanu nanduchatti’, loosely translated to ‘Nandu, who killed many tigers on this mountain, was here.’

This was hallowed land where Lord Rama crossed over the Brahmagiri Hills from Coorg to Kerala, where he performed the pind daan for his deceased father Dasratha at the Thirunelly temple and shot an arrow that ‘pierced the mountain’, which was hence called Ambukuthy. There’s even a temple of Seetha Devi, Lava and Kusha at Pulpally.

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Jainism once prospered here and the wily Tipu Sultan converted a 14th century Jain shrine into an ammo dump, which led to the place Ganpathivattom being renamed Sulthan Bathery after the sultan’s battery! Wayanad was a tactical stopover between his capital Srirangapatna and the Malabar coast. The legendary Van Ingen family, taxidermists to the Maharajas of Mysore, were based in Wayanad. Many of the estates and bungalows they once held, are now resorts – like Tranquil Plantation, not far from the tribal heritage museum at Ambalavayal.

The district has a very large tribal population, chiefly the Kuruchiyas, Kurumbas and Paniyas. It was Kerala Verma Pazhassi Raja of Kottayam (a local principality, not the south Kerala town) who mobilized them into a guerilla army and eventually perished fighting the British. If Tipu was the Tiger of Mysore, Pazhassi Raja was undoubtedly the Lion of Kerala. His memorial stands proud at Mananthavady.

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Yet, Wayanad’s secrets hide in plain sight. Ruins of Jain shrines lie in scenic coffee, coconut and spice plantations. It was spices grown in the highlands around Wayanad that fuelled the lucrative trade in coastal centres like Thalassery and Kannur. We dropped off our guide at Meppadi and continued to the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri.

By the roadside we stopped at an unusual tree that was ensnared in chains. This is Wayanad’s famous Chain Tree. The story goes that Karinthandan, a young tribal helped a British engineer find a safe route through the treacherous Thamarassery Ghat. Unwilling to share the credit, the Britisher killed him and Karinthandan’s restless spirit began haunting travelers near that spot. After a string of accidents, a priest was brought to perform a puja and pacify the spirit, which was supposedly chained to the tree. We sent a silent prayer for safe travels and wheeled offroad from Vythiri.

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Wayanad, the hilliest district in Kerala is also its least populous. We lurched up the mountain slope to Vythiri Resort, which did more to put Wayanad on the map than the unassuming, dull brown Wayanad Laughing Thrush. Long before tourism opened up in Wayanad, it had been wowing travelers with its treehouses, swaying bridge, streamside cottages and local cuisine. Almost every resort in Wayanad is tucked away in an estate, on a mountain or by a stream.

In nearly a dozen visits to the district, we’ve had the chance to stay at some really special spots. Over a waterfall at Meenmutty Heights, around boulders and caves at Edakkal Hermitage, in a colonial era cottage at Tranquil, by India’s largest earth dam Banasura Sagar at Silver Woods and Banasura Island Retreat, in cottages by a waterfall at Blue Ginger… you dream it, it’s out there!

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There’s a whole new crop of resorts in Wayanad. After years of manning Tranquil Resort, Victor and Ranjini Dey have opened their own homestay Amaryllis at Deydreams Farm. It is named after the vibrant long lasting flower, the first one they planted along the driveway when they bought the patch in 2008. The floral theme continues with garden rooms named Azalea, Begonia and Callindra while the tree villas Solandra and Poinsettia overlook the backwaters of Karapuzha reservoir in the distance.

For a closer view of Karapuzha, stay at Vistara by the Lake, with private balconies, immaculate gardens and an outdoor pool overlooking the reservoir. It’s pet friendly too! One place that’s neither pet friendly nor kid friendly (purely due to safety considerations) is Pepper Trail.

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Located in the historic Mangalam Carp Estate set up in the late 1800s by pioneering planter Colin Auley Mackenzie, it comes with two treehouses and two suites in a 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow. That’s the thing with Wayanad – depending on your predilection, you can choose to be a couch potato or a super trooper game for any adventure.

Trek to Banasura Hill or Little Meenmutty waterfall overlooking the 1700 hectare Banasura Sagar. Dotted with 19 islands, the speedboat rides on the reservoir mark the start of Hydel Tourism in the district. Get a dose of responsible tourism with DTPC Kalpetta’s Village Life Experience tours that include visits to tribal hamlets, nature walks through plantations and paddy fields and learning how eucalyptus oil, tribal weapons, leather drums and pottery are made, ending with a tribal ethnic meal.

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Hike to waterfalls like Soochipara (Needle Rock), Kanthampara and Meenmutty Falls or go on day trails or multi-day hiking, cycling and kayaking adventure trips with Muddy Boots. Spot packs of dhol on the hunt at Tholpetty or tuskers by the road at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary.

Lakes like Pookote and Karalad are already popular among tourists for boating or you could drop by at Uravu’s bamboo processing center near Kalpetta, where handicrafts are fashioned out of bamboo like spice boxes, lampshades and Rainmakers (hollow bamboo instrument with seeds cascading through it to mimic the sounds of rain).

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While Wayanad hums to an ancient rhythm, it is indeed in the rains that it comes alive – when streams, waterfalls and grasslands revive and paddy fields turn into venues for mud football, coconut tree climbing and crab catching! So take the winding road to wonderland and make a splash in Wayanad…

FACT FILE 

Getting there
The Kozhikode–Mysore highway NH 212 passes through Wayanad via Vythiri in the west to Sulthan Bathery in the east. Kozhikode International Airport at Karipur is the nearest airport, 95 km from the district headquarters Kalpetta.

When to visit
Great all year round, some wildlife areas are closed in summer due to threat of forest fires. In the rains, Wayanad Splash in July is a unique monsoon festival with offroad rallies and other events. www.wayanadsplash.com

Wayanad Splash-Mud football IMG_1261_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Where to Stay

Vistara Wayanad
Karapuzha, Kalathuvayal, Ambalavayal
Ph +91 9072111299
vistararesort.com

Amaryllis
Narikund P.O., Via Ambalavayal
Ph +91 9847865824, 9847180244
amarylliskerala.com

Pepper Trail
Chulliyode, Sulthan Bathery
Ph +91 9562 277 000
www.peppertrail.in

Banasura Island Retreat
Kuttiyamvayal, Varambetta P.O, Padinharathara
Ph +91 94955 53311
www.banasuraisland.com

Wayanad Silverwoods Resort
Manjoora P.O, Pozhuthana, Kalpetta
Ph +91 9746475714, 9562088844
www.wayanadsilverwoods.com

Vythiri Resort IMG_1686_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Vythiri Resort
Lakkidi P.O, Wayanad
Ph +91 4936 256800, 255366, 94470 55367
www.vythiriresort.com

Blue Ginger Spa Resorts
Melapoonchola, Vythri
Ph +91 9287439315, 9287439303
www.bluegingerresorts.com

Meenmutty Heights
Ph +91 9656056215
www.meenmuttyheights.com

Sunrise Valley
Ph + 91 9526072777
www.sunrisevalleywayanad.com

Greenex Farms
Ph +91 9846131560, 9645091512
www.greenexfarms.com 

IMG_5397

What to Do

Uravu
Thrikkaipetta, 7km from Kalpetta
Ph 04936 231400 www.uravu.org

Chembra Trek
VSS Office, Erumakkolly
2km from Meppadi

Muddy Boots
Ph +91 95442 01249
www.muddyboots.in

For more info

District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC)
Civil Station, North Kalpetta
Ph 04936 202134
www.dtpcwayanad.com

Wayanad Tourism Organisation (WTO)
Vasudeva Edom, Pozhuthana PO
Ph 04936 255 308, 8547255308
www.wayanad.org

www.keralatourism.org

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

10 Cool Things about Singapore

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ANURAG MALLICK uncovers the Big 10 as he indulges in the best that Singapore has to offer with this cool guide to the island nation

Singapore Flyer IMG_0324_Anurag Mallick

For a country that measures just 50 km by 27 km, Singapore sure packs in a lot. There are enough attractions, entertainment, streets and museums on the island nation to merit a visit again and again. Here’s what makes Singapore so amazing…

Indian Heritage Centre exhibit IMG_0049_Anurag Mallick

Cool Quarters: Little India to China Town
When Stamford Raffles developed Singapore, he earmarked ethnic quarters for various communities. Chinatown, lined with shophouses selling Chinese medicine and barbecued pork, has shrines like Thian Hock Keng and Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic temple besides quirky bits of history. Sago Lane was once called ‘Street of the Dead’ as old people moved into ‘death houses’ to save on expensive funeral costs. Kampong Glam, the old Arab/Muslim quarter dominated by the Sultan Mosque, has cloth merchants on Arab Street and shisha bars, Middle Eastern restaurants and boutiques on Haji Lane. In Little India, originally a European haunt, streets are named after eminent British personalities – Hastings, Clive, Campbell, Dalhousie. Europeans lived here in the 1840s, mainly for the racecourse, but moved towards Orchard and Dempsey. Little India’s location by the Rochor River with its grassy banks made it ideal for grazing cattle and vendors often brought their buffalos to shophouses to sell fresh milk. Hence, Buffalo Road! The India Heritage Centre retells history through interactive exhibits and Augmented Reality.

Long Bar Raffles Hotel-Singapore Sling IMG_7657_Anurag Mallick

Littering in the Long Bar
In a country that’s a stickler for cleanliness, there’s indeed a place you can litter – a National Monument at that! Inside Singapore’s iconic Raffles hotel, each table at the Long Bar comes with a complimentary bag of peanuts and it’s an old tradition to toss the shells on the ground. Five large sacks are used every day! Another tradition is to try the Singapore Sling where it was invented. Opened in 1887, the hotel was a haunt for writers, adventurers, tycoons and movie stars. Since it wasn’t fashionable for women to drink in public, the wily bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created a ladies’ cocktail disguised as fruit juice! In 1915, he concocted clear gin, brandy, Cointreau, Dom Benedictine, pineapple and lime juices and Grenadine syrup into the pink-hued Singapore Sling. While you spend more than peanuts for the original Sling ($36), the peanuts are free! www.raffles.com/singapore/

National Gallery-Posing with 3D masterpieces_Anurag Mallick

3D selfie with masterpieces at the National Gallery
As if admiring masterpieces was not enough, Singapore’s National Gallery transforms two-dimensional art into interactive selfie stations. Visitors click themselves against giant 3D reproductions like Cheong Soo Pieng’s ‘Drying Salted Fish’, which features on the back of Singapore’s $50 note! Engaging hour-long guided tours by volunteers deconstruct works of local artists. Each tour has 20 slots on a first-come-first-served basis. The Building Highlights Tour (11am daily, 3pm weekends) explores the two national monuments the gallery is housed in – City Hall, where Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945 and Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew took oath and, the Supreme Court, with holding cells for undertrials and a domed Rotunda. Don’t miss the Foundation Stone with a Time Capsule of old newspapers and coins buried underneath to be retrieved in 3000 AD! www.nationalgallery.sg

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

Restaurants in renovated spaces
As an island nation where space is limited, repurposing the defunct comes naturally to Singaporeans. Yesterday’s churches, plantations, barracks and underground shelters are hip hangouts of today. Lau Pa Sat, a Victorian era wet market was transformed into an open-air food court. Dempsey Hill, a British cantonment, is now a posh entertainment quarter with top restaurants like PS Café, ChoPSuey and The White Rabbit, actually a converted church. On Victoria Road, a Catholic convent is now a complex of bars and cafes. Built in 1841, the Church of Infant Jesus was renovated into CHIJMES, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the church bells. Ann Siang Hill was earlier a spice plantation of nutmeg and mace; today all the spice comes from conversations of rooftop bars. Besides Lolla and Oxwell & Co, hop into the uber cool subterranean haunt Operation Dagger, named after a Singapore Police drive to crack down on Chinatown’s notorious underground societies. The bar’s nameless entrance sports a secret scrawl like a gang sign. A collection of bulbs dominates the bar, lined with unbranded bottles mimicking an apothecary. Their cocktails – The Egg, Hot & Cold and Penicillin – are equally edgy.

Street art & graffiti
Street art in Singapore first became prominent at the old Arab quarter of Kampong Glam in the hipster Haji Lane, Victoria Street and Aliwal Street. At the Art Precinct of Bugis-Bras Basah, a low wall next to Peranakan Museum on Armenian Street is emblazoned with art commissioned by the National Heritage Board in celebration of their 20th anniversary. Nearby, an independent arts enclave The Substation has funky graffiti all over. Bras Basah Complex features ‘Rainbows’, part of a larger street art initiative by the Australian Commission of Singapore. ‘50 Bridges’ celebrated Singapore’s 50th year of independence with 50 pieces of street art across the island. Wherever you go – sidewalks, walls or pedestrian pathways at Clarke Quay – there’s art everywhere.

Food-Hainanese Chicken Rice IMG_0562_Anurag Mallick

Mind-boggling cuisine
From hawker centers, Michelin-starred restaurants to street food joints that made celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay eat humble crow, Singapore has ‘em all. Winning the cook-offs catapulted small eateries like 328 Katong Laksa and Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice into overnight sensations. In Singapore, the popularity of a restaurant is judged by the length of the queues. Topping the list are Jumbo’s award-winning Singapore chili crab, Song Fa’s bak kut teh (pork rib soup), Din Tai Fung’s steamed pork dumplings, Tanglin Crispy Curry Puffs and Ya Kun’s Kaya toast – crispy toast with a generous wad of butter and kaya (coconut jam). Kim Hock Guan, the city’s oldest bak kua shop established in 1905, serves the best barbecued pork slices. Try degustation menus at top restaurants like Pollen at The Flower Dome or pair signature desserts with sake at Janice Wong’s 2am dessert bar in Orchard.

Sentosa-Transformers Ride IMG_1251_Anurag Mallick

Experience ‘satisfaction’ in ‘Sentosa’
It’s hard to imagine that Singapore’s popular island resort was once a pirate hideout, a war outpost and a backwater of death and disease. After a complete overhaul and a public contest in 1972 by Singapore Tourist Board the island was renamed Sentosa, Malay for ‘happiness, satisfaction’, from Sanskrit santosha. You need a week to do justice to its attractions; thankfully the trams are free. Pose with the tallest Merlion statue and take in magnificent views from the revolving 131m high Tiger Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing observation tower in Asia. Stay at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa at the western end overlooking Siloso Beach and get free tickets to a guided walk at Fort Siloso. At Resorts World Sentosa, an integrated resort with a casino, explore marine life at S.E.A. Aquarium and cut the queue at Universal Studios with a VIP Tour to experience dizzying Transformer 4 and Battlestar Galactica rides. For real adventure, try Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly or walk on a suspension bridge to the ‘Southernmost point of continental Asia’. http://staging.sentosa.com.sg/en/

Garden City-Singapore Botanic Gardens IMG_7431_Anurag Mallick

Garden within a city or City within a Garden?
As per the Green City Index, Singapore is the greenest city in Asia and it’s easy to see why. From tree-lined avenues to orchids and heliconias at the Botanic Gardens to vertical gardens at hotels like Park Royal and Oasia Downtown, it’s tough to discern whether it is a garden within a city or a city within a garden. At Gardens by the Bay, the dramatic SuperTree Grove channels rainwater harvesting to sustain thousands of plant species growing up the metal cladding of eighteen giant trees. Singapore has 300km of Park Connector tracks that meander around ponds and gardens. There’s even a Civic District Tree Trail that explains prominent trees around key monuments!

Changi-Butterfly Garden IMG_3960_Anurag Mallick

Explore Changi, the world’s favourite airport
Amazing gardens, slides, restaurants, shopping, artworks and as a bonus you can even take flights from here; Changi is more than an airport, it’s a destination! Many things make it the world’s most loved airport. The world’s tallest slide in an airport, Cactus Garden in T1, Orchid Garden in T2 and Sunflower Garden, Butterfly Garden and Enchanted Garden in T3. Uniformed volunteers rove the arrival areas as Changi Service Ambassadors to help passengers. Massage chairs are free, not coin-operated. For long layovers of over 6 hours, there’s a free city tour. And if transiting on the national carrier Singapore Airlines, you get free Changi dollars to spend ($40/ticket)! Snooze in dedicated Sleep Zones and discover why Changi is repeatedly voted as ‘the best airport to sleep in’. And if you forget to catch your flight, Crowne Plaza Changi was voted the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2016! https://in.changiairport.com

Singapore Flyer IMG_0315_Anurag Mallick

Night Life
Singapore’s nightlife is legendary. From the pulsating vibe of live music and animated chatter from bars and restaurants at Clarke Quay to throbbing clubs like Zouk, Singapore is a different animal at night. As the sun sets, tables and chairs crowd the sidewalk at Ann Siang Hill and Lau Pa Sat with alfresco dining as food and beverages are consumed with abandon. There are unique after-dark experiences like Food & Night Cycling tours, the Singapore Flyer and free laser shows at Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands. Pick up a ParkHopper Special ticket to visit Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, River Safari and end the day with the Night Safari, an exciting tram ride through the world’s first wildlife night park!

Garden City-Tree-lined avenues IMG_4009_Anurag Mallick

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. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay
Oasia Hotel Downtown Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com
Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com
Crowne Plaza Changi www.ihg.com

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

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