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

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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…

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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.

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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/

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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

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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.

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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.

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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/

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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!

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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

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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!

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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. 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.

Netaji Trail: The Bose particle

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On the 120th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY undertake a transcontinental journey in the footsteps of one of India’s most daring freedom fighters

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He travelled from Calcutta to Peshawar as an insurance agent called Mohammed Ziauddin. As Khan Mohammed Ziauddin Khan, a mute tribal Pathan, he travelled on foot and by mule to Kabul. In the guise of a radio telegraphist and an Italian count Orlando Mazzotta, he reached Germany, met Hitler and eventually took a submarine halfway around the world to Japan to raise an army in the hope of liberating India from the yoke of British rule. There are many heroes who fought for India’s independence, but few as enigmatic as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. We retrace his incredible journey from Kolkata to Kabul, Berlin to Burma and across the Far East – Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan and North East India to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands…

As a young radical returning from Cambridge to Calcutta, Bose quit the Indian Civil Service in 1921 and rose to the post of president of the Indian National Congress by 1938. In 1939, he showed up on a stretcher and despite being unwell, defeated Mahatma Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Differences with Gandhiji on his revolutionary ideals led to Bose being ousted from the Congress. After a hunger strike led to his release from prison, he was put under house arrest by the British.

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With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bose saw it as an opportune moment to wrest freedom from the British. Indian support to the colonial cause during World War I in the hope of getting independence had yielded nothing, except Jallianwala Bagh and the Rowlatt Act. The time had come for more direct action and Bose could go to any length to see India free – even shake hands with the devil if he had to. He believed in the maxim, ‘An enemy of an enemy is a friend of mine’ and sought help of the Axis powers Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to oust the British.

Accompanied by his nephew Sisir, Bose escaped British surveillance on 19 January 1941 in a car that is now on display at his home in Kolkata’s Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani. Run as a memorial and research center, Netaji Bhavan also houses relics of Bose’s footprints. He crossed the Indian subcontinent from east to west, reaching Peshawar and Kabul. British presence in the area made him travel under disguise as he finally reached Germany on April 1941, where the leadership seemed sympathetic to the cause of India’s independence. In November 1941, with German funds, a Free India Centre was set up in Berlin, and soon Bose was broadcasting every night on Free India Radio.

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A 3,000-strong Free India Legion, comprising Indians captured by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, was formed to aid in a possible future German land offensive of India. Few know that the title ‘Netaji’ was given to Bose in Germany by Indian soldiers of the Indische Legion in 1942. The title was used by the German and Indian officials in the Special Bureau for India in Berlin, before it gained popularity in India. Meanwhile, the Japanese occupied Singapore and by January 1942, Rangoon was the next to fall. On 23 March 1942, Japanese troops landed in Port Blair and captured it without firing a single shot. By spring, changing German priorities and Japanese victories in the Far East made Bose think of moving to southeast Asia. Bose met Hitler only once in late May 1942 and the Fuhrer arranged for Bose to be transported by submarine.

On 8 February 1943, Netaji boarded the German submarine U-180 from Kiel and travelled around the Cape of Good Hope to the southeast of Madagascar, where he was transferred to the Japanese submarine I-29. This was the only civilian transfer between two submarines of two different navies during World War II. Bose finally disembarked at Sabang in Japanese-held Sumatra in May 1943. If the term ‘Netaji’ was coined in Germany, equally surprising is the fact that the Indian National Army (INA) was the brainchild of Japan! Japanese major and chief of intelligence Iwaichi Fujiwara met Pritam Singh Dhillon, president of the Bangkok chapter of the Indian Independence League, and recruited Mohan Singh, a captured British Indian army captain to raise an army that would fight alongside the Japanese.

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It had the blessings of Rash Behari Bose, head of the Indian Independence League. The first army was formed in December 1941 and the name INA was mutually chosen in January 1942. In February, from a total of 40,000 Indian personnel in Singapore, about 30,000 joined the INA, of which nearly 7,000 later fought Allied forces in the Burma Campaign and at Kohima and Imphal.

However, disagreements led to the first INA being disbanded by December 1942. Mohan Singh believed that the Japanese High Command was using the INA as a pawn and propaganda tool. He was taken into custody and the troops returned to the prisoner-of-war camp. However, with the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943, the idea of an independence army was revived. In May, Bose travelled via Penang and Saigon to Tokyo, where he attended the Diet, met reporters and gave speeches addressing overseas Indians that were broadcast on Tokyo Radio. By July, Bose was in Singapore and it was with equal excitement that we arrived there on the INA trail.

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As we drove past Dhobie Ghaut, the guide pointed out Cathay Cinema (earlier, the Greater East Asia Theatre), where the India Independence League’s Assembly of Representatives met on a drizzly morning of 4th July. To a resounding applause, Rash Behari Bose handed over the reins of the organization to Subhas Chandra Bose. Over the next few days, soldiers of the INA lined up in the padang (ground) opposite the Singapore Municipal Office for inspection and new recruits eagerly joined the ranks.

With Japanese support, Bose revamped the Indian National Army (INA), composed of Indian soldiers of the British Indian army captured in the Battle of Singapore. Bose received massive support among the expatriate Indian population in south-east Asia as many Indian civilians from Malaya and Singapore enlisted. Those who could not, made financial contributions. The INA also had a separate women’s unit – the first of its kind in Asia. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was headed by Capt. Lakshmi Swaminathan, a doctor from Chennai.

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The India Heritage Centre in Little India has a small section dedicated to the Indian freedom movement. A bust of Subhash Chandra Bose stands in front of a wallpaper made of INA postage stamps. The INA troops were under the aegis of the Provisional Government of Free India (Azad Hind) formed in October 1943, which had its own currency, postage stamps, court and civil code, and was recognized by nine Axis states. An INA uniform was on display while letters, cheque donations and photographs lined the wall. A magazine cover showed Captain Lakshmi in military attire.

The Provisional Government, presided by Supreme commander Bose, was formed in the Japanese-occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On 30th December 1943 Netaji hoisted the Indian tricolor in British-free Indian territory for the first time at Ross Island. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were renamed Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). As head of the government, Bose stayed in the British High commissioner’s house and a memorial commemorating his visit was erected near present day Netaji stadium in Port Blair.

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We followed the Bose trail past World War II bunkers dotting the island to Cellular Jail. When Netaji visited the infamous prison, he was welcomed by Admiral Ishikawa, who deliberately kept him away from incarcerated Indians and stories of Japanese torture. Like Singapore, the three year Japanese occupation of the Andamans was a dark chapter in history with innocent islanders tortured mercilessly on charges of espionage, often executed or imprisoned. Like the Changi prison, the Cellular Jail too bears testimony to the bravery of those fighting for freedom.

In early 1944, the INA marched through Kohima Pass and the national flag was hoisted in the Indian mainland for the first time at Moirang in Manipur on April 6, 1944. Kohima was strategically located on the lone road connecting the British supply depot at Dimapur (40 miles northwest) to Imphal (80 miles south). As part of Japan’s Operation U-Go, three columns aimed to cut off the Kohima–Imphal Road and surround Kohima. Between April and June 1944, Kohima witnessed the bloodiest and grittiest fighting seen in World War II.

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The Battle for Kohima was fought in two phases: the 13-day siege from 4 April and clearing Japanese forces from mid-April to 22 June to reopen the Kohima–Imphal road. Both sides suffered high casualties. Grenades were lobbed at point blank range across the tennis court in ‘unending snowball fights’ as soldiers dug holes to burrow or tunnel forward using plates, mugs, bayonets or anything they could lay their hands on. The carefully tended tombstones in the grassy clearing with pretty flower beds seemed a far cry from the bloodbath of WWII. The original Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) Bungalow was destroyed in the fighting and the historic tennis court could be distinguished only by the white concrete lines denoting the boundaries.

The 161st Indian Infantry Brigade’s stand at Kohima blunted the Japanese attack. With the opening of the Dimapur-Kohima road, the 2nd Division and troops from XXXIII Corps supported the counterattack in early May. General Sato, Commander of the 31st Division, ordered Japanese withdrawal, signaling the biggest Japanese defeat in history. British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 110 on 22 June, formally ending the siege.

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The fierce hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of Kohima was a defining moment in the Burma Campaign and halted Japan’s foray into India. Near the entrance of Kohima War Memorial, the Kohima Epitaph bears the immortal words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say; For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

Despite the reverses on the battlefield, Bose travelled across Penang, Rangoon and Saigon, mobilizing support among Indian expatriates to fight the British Raj. He had great drive and charisma and he coined popular Indian slogans such as ‘Jai Hind’, ‘Chalo Dilli’ and ‘Give me blood and I shall give you freedom’, which he said in a motivational speech at a rally in Burma on 4 July 1944.

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By 1945, almost half the Japanese forces and the INA contingent were killed. A vast number of INA troops were captured, defected or fell into British hands during the Burma campaign by March end. By the time Rangoon fell in May 1945, the INA was driven down the Malay Peninsula and disintegrated although some activities continued until Singapore was recaptured by the British. On 8 July, in Singapore’s Esplanade Park, Bose laid the foundation stone for a hastily-built memorial dedicated to the unknown fallen soldiers of the Indian National Army. On it were inscribed the proud motto of the INA – Etihaad (Unity), Etmad (Faith), Kurbani (Sacrifice).

Instead of surrendering with his forces or with the Japanese, Bose chose to escape to Manchuria in the Soviet Union, which he felt was turning anti-British. Taking off from Taihoku airport at Formosa in Taiwan, his overloaded plane crashed and he died from third degree burns in a military hospital nearby on 18 August, 1945. However, Bose was known for his miraculous escapes and dramatic appearances in the past. From eluding house arrest in Calcutta and his escape to Afghanistan and Europe under various aliases to his submarine journey from Germany to Singapore; his past exploits fuelled the myth of his future return.

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To the Japanese, he was no less than an Indian samurai. Some believed he had become a sanyasi (holy man) called Gumnami Baba. According to various stories, he was seen as a recluse in the Naga hills or on an abandoned island, was a member of a Mongolian trade delegation in Peking, was hibernating in Russia or in a gulag (prison) and was spotted in the Chinese Army. Most believed he was preparing for his final march on Delhi and would reveal himself when the time was right. There were several Bose sightings, one even claiming he met Bose “in a third-class compartment of the Bombay Express on a Thursday.”

Though INA’s military achievements were limited and the British Raj was never seriously threatened by it, the psychological impact was immense. Indian troops fought on both sides at the Battle for Kohima –Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs, Marathas and Gurkhas under the Allied forces versus soldiers of Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Had the eastern offensive through Burma and North East by Japan been coordinated with the German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq, a war on two frontiers would have stretched the British forces. A Japanese-INA victory and unfurling of the Indian flag could have prompted the Indian sepoy to switch loyalties. Even in defeat, the INA managed to ignite a revolt within the British Indian army.

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Several former personnel of the British Indian Army, captured fighting in INA ranks or working in support of the INA’s subversive activities, were court-martialed. The British charged 300 INA officers with treason and the first joint trial of Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sahgal and Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon took place at Red Fort in Delhi. All three were sentenced to deportation for life. The INA trials led to huge public outcry and became a rallying point. It was the last major campaign where the Congress and the Muslim League aligned together. Immense public pressure, widespread opposition and demonstrations eventually led to the release of all three defendants. Besides the protests of non-cooperation and non-violence, there was a spate of mutinies as support within the British Indian Army wavered. During the trials, mutiny broke out across the Royal Indian Navy from Karachi to Bombay and Vizag to Calcutta. In Madras and Pune, British garrisons faced revolts within the ranks of the British Indian Army as NCOs started ignoring orders from British superiors. Another mutiny took place at Jabalpur during the last week of February 1946.

There were several factors that guided British prime minister Clement Attlee to relinquish the Raj in India, but the most important reason was the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the Indian Army – the very foundation of the British Empire in India. The RIN Mutiny made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj. When Singapore was recaptured in 1945, Lord Mountbatten, Head of Southeast Asia Command, ordered the INA War Memorial to be blown to bits. It was partly an act of vengeance for the pain the allies suffered in Imphal and Burma as well as an attempt to stamp out proof of INA’s existence. After the war, fearing mass revolts and uprisings across its empire, the British Government forbade the BBC from broadcasting the epic tale of the INA. In 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the National Heritage Board of Singapore marked the spot of the original INA memorial as one of the eleven World War II historic site markers.

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As we walked down Esplanade Park in Singapore, we struggled to find vestiges of the INA Memorial. The Cenotaph of the British Indian Army stood tall in honour of ‘Our Glorious Dead’ of the two World Wars. Further down, a Chinese memorial commemorated Singapore war hero and resistance fighter Lim Bo Seng. Yet, there was no sign of INA – just a few stone slabs with peepholes. Often relegated as a footnote in history and denied the importance in the story of India’s freedom movement, was a memorial too much to ask? A local passing by noticed our perplexed look and kindly explained, “There was a signboard, but they’ve recently removed it for renovation.” We breathed a sigh of relief. Mountbatten may have demolished the original memorial, but the spirit of Bose and the INA live on…

Back home in India, the stories surrounding Netaji had always been shadowed by mystery and controversy for decades. Imagine, it was only on 14th October 2015 that the Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that it would declassify the famous ‘Netaji Papers’. Two months later, the whole country watched the broadcast of the event when the first lot of 33 declassified files were handed over by the PMO’s office to the National Archives of India. It was an emotional moment for several members of Netaji’s family and his admirers as the gesture promised to fill the many gaps and loopholes in tracing the legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose. Subsequently, 150 declassified files of the 250 files are now in public domain. Time and again, Netaji has reminded us how he would remain a statesman the world cannot ignore or bury in the dusty pages of history.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the special issue on Bose in the international biannual journal Re:Markings. 

 

Bucolic Bali

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ANURAG MALLICK experiences Bali’s rich culture and cuisine while uncovering fascinating legends that shape the unique island in Indonesia

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At a busy intersection northeast of the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, it was surprising to see ornate mythological statues of what seemed like Krishna and Arjuna in a chariot. However, unlike the calm exposition of the Bhagwad Gita, the towering colossal figure seemed not en- gaged in holy discourse but had a more warlike posture. Our guide Made corrected us and said it was not Arjuna but Ghatotkacha!

Built in 1993, the sculpture depicts the battle between Bhima’s son and Karna in the Kurukshetra war from the epic Mahabharata. Perceived as loyal, intelligent and powerful, Ghatotkacha is revered by the Balinese and is a key figure in wayang kulit (traditional shadow puppetry) of Indonesia. As a flying knight responsible for air defense of the Pandavas, Ghatotkacha is supposed to provide safety and spiritual protection to all outbound and inbound flights from Bali.

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While Indonesia is largely Muslim, most of the four million population on the island of Bali are primarily Hindus, with temples, traditions and folklore reminiscent of India. Interestingly, Hinduism was brought to the island by Sage Markandeya, the child saint who conquered death and wrote the Markandeya Purana. The story goes that he came from India with an entourage of 800 followers via Borneo, Sumatra, to Mount Demalung in Java. Plagued by disease, the group finally came to Bali and rest- ed on the southern slopes of Gunung Agung — the highest mountain on the island.

Here, Sage Markandeya established the Pura Besakih Temple, till date the largest and the holiest temple in Bali. Here, he consecrated the panchadhatu or five metals for the deity. Built on the slope of an active volcano, the temple miraculously survived the last eruption in 1963 with lava flow missing the shrine by metres.

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Meal with a view

We checked into our hotel in the tourist hotspot of Kuta and drove to the cultural park, Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK). The sprawling campus was covered with immaculate gardens, large statues, perform- ance halls and a souvenir store. But we were headed for Jendela Bali, a restaurant with a panoramic view. Perched on a hillside overlooking the city, we could see the lofty Mount Agung wreathed in clouds. It is believed to be an embodiment of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe.

The three-course continental meal of salad, chicken spaghetti and dessert was punctuated with animated conversations on mythology — of Sage Kashyapa, his wives Kadru and Vinata, the eternal enmity between eagles and serpents, the churn- ing of the cosmic ocean, and how Garuda ended up being Lord Vishnu’s vahana (vehicle), and eventually a symbol of Indonesia’s national carrier.

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GWK is a great place to watch Balinese dancers and the famed kecak dance captured so beautifully in movies like Samsara and The Fall. However, we were off to watch the real thing at the Uluwatu Temple nearby. After being warned about the monkeys at the entrance, we watched the sunset by the cliffs before being ushered to our seats in the crowded amphitheatre. About 60 or so bare-chested performers squatted on the ground in meditative repose. They had sandal paste smeared on their temples and a red flower tucked behind the ear.

And then, all of a sudden, they broke into chants of ‘chak chak chak’, their intonations forming unbelievable cadences. As the clouds turned purple in the horizon, two ladies waltzed in. We browsed the pamphlet and learnt that the performance was a retelling of the Ramayana — the part where Sita is abducted by Ravana and Rama brings her back with the help of the vanara sena (monkey army). We watched in awe Jatayu’s valiant fight, Hanuman posing for selfies and fooling around with the audience be- fore setting fire to Lanka using balls of hay, which were kicked around with reckless abandon, drawing gasps from the crowd.

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The next morning, we drove 25 km north of Denpasar to the highlands of Ubud, stop- ping to look at master craftsmen of silver jewellery, stone sculptures and batik. The lanes were overflowing with stunning wood- en door and window frames, Buddha idols. At Sari Amerta, we watched local artisans use molten wax to create complex patterns on fabric. Little wonder that the UNESCO had designated Indonesian batik as a ‘masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.

At the Desa Batuan Temple in Ubud, our guide Made helped us grab sarongs in the outer courtyard before he explained the nuances of Balinese temple architecture. Guardian deities or fierce gatekeepers were clad in checkered black and white garments, which represents the concept of rwa bineda — maintaining the balance between opposing forces.

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It’s for the same reason the entrance gates are split or cleaved in two, with the left and right halves denoting balance and harmony. Most puras (temples) have an aling aling or screen wall immediately after the entrance to fend off negative spirits. As per the local belief, spirits cannot turn left or right, but travel only in straight lines, and are bounced off as they cannot go around the protective wall.

A priest played the gamelan while locals offered prayers. Made explained that there are four types of temples: pura desa or public temples that are very large, smaller village temples, family temples where ancestor spirits are worshipped, and functional temples built as per your profession. Farmers build a shrine of Devi Sri or the goddess of the fields/grain while fishermen consecrate Deva Varuna. Every day on the streets of Bali, locals make ritual household offerings or canang sari — a small palm-leaf bas- ket with flowers, rice, tobacco and lime symbolizing Shiva, betel nut denoting Vishnu, and Brahma symbolized by gambier.

Canang sari-daily ritual offering IMG_4079_Anurag Mallick

Healing touch

In Ubud, just past the Sacred Monkey Forest, we continued to the Pura Gnuung Lebah or the ‘temple on the small hill’. It is said that Sage Markandeya came from Gunung Agung following the course of the Patanu river till he arrived at a campuhan or ‘sacred confluence’ with the Pakerisan river.

Here he sat down in meditation. Many local people suffering from skin diseases and other ailments came to see this holy man. Markandeya chanted some mantras and asked them to jump into the river. As soon as they did so, miraculously their dis- ease was cured. The people rejoiced and shouted “Ubad ubad” (medicine, medicine). That’s how the place was named Ubud!

Ubud-Gunung Lebah temple Campuhan IMG_4051_Anurag Mallick

After a quick stop at the Ubud Royal Palace and Saraswati Temple on the main avenue (Jalan Raya) lined with shops and eateries, a 15-minute walk past paddy fields brought us to Sari Organik. The view of jade green paddy fields all around and the delicious organic meal made the effort worthwhile.

The Balinese nasi campur — a rice meal with fried tofu, cucumber, spinach, tempe (fermented soy cake), vegetable curry, chilli sauce and chicken satay — was completely organic and sourced locally. In the distance, the tinkle of a baling baling (hollow bamboo wind chimes) kept the birds away, adding a bucolic touch. Back in Bengaluru, each time the baling baling catches the breeze rustling through the coconut trees, I close my eyes and I’m transported back to Bali.

Balinese organic meal at Sari Organik Ubud IMG_4027_Anurag Mallick

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 26 March, 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Garli: Chateau Charisma

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

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If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

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Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

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Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

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Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

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Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

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Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

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VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/

Leaping Tiger, Rearing Merlion: New experiences in Singapore

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There’s always something new to experience in this warm tropical paradise, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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The emblem of the leaping tiger on the gate looked oddly familiar… yet, the connection eluded me like the sighting of a big cat on a South Indian wildlife safari. I ran through all the wild felines in my head – it wasn’t the logo of a tiger park and enough Tiger Beer had been consumed in the past to know this was different. My itinerary, titled ‘Cultured Leopard, Rising Tiger: Finding Your Tao in Haw Par Villa’, didn’t reveal much either. I had turned up for a new walk curated by The Original Singapore Walks company without the faintest idea. And then it struck me…

A distant memory from a trek, a faded label, the smell of camphor, yellow ointment stains on the clothes; I’d be damned if it wasn’t the tiger from Tiger Balm! The guide Geraldine welcomed the group and led us up the slope as she outlined the tale of the two Aw brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par (called the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Leopard’) who transformed their father’s homegrown business that was set up in 1860, into an empire. “So what’s Tiger Balm for?,” enquired an Aussie visitor. Geraldine seemed aghast by his ignorance. “Shoulder rub, neck pull, backache, pain, sprain, congested chest, mosquito bite, anything and everything under the sun”!

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On our walk, we learnt that Tiger Balm was originally white and labourers often complained that it was too gentle. One day, Boon Haw noticed that the jar of ointment at home was stained red. He learnt that his wife had been chewing seere (betel leaf), which stained her lips and fingers red. Her constant use had turned the balm ochre! In his eureka moment, the Tiger added a yellow pigment, the workers loved the new ‘stronger’ balm and the rest is history.

In 1921, Haw made Singapore the headquarters of the Tiger Balm business and built a sea-facing villa in 1937. Since the restricted entry to non-Europeans in Shanghai’s Huangpu Park was making waves at the time, the Tiger set up an elaborate garden and threw it open to all. The sculptures mirrored Chinese mythology, Taoist folklore and legends – from Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals and the Ten Courts of Hell to Commissioner Lin who played a key role in the Opium Wars. It was moral science meets tacky sculpture.

Haw Par Villa IMG_0441_Anurag Mallick

There was cool stuff as well – the 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop modified into a ‘Tiger Car’ with a horn like a tiger’s roar and the idol of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy after whom the camera company Canon was named. Sadly, Haw Par Villa was destroyed after World War II and the family business eventually sold. However, Tiger Balm is still a legend.

Besides this freaky tour, there was a new historical Battlebox tour at Fort Canning. Built in the late 1930s, the bombproof chamber 9m underground served as the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II. It was here on 15 February 1942 that the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British, often described as ‘the worst and largest capitulation in British military history’.

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For history and war buffs, the new Fort Siloso Walkway is a great way to explore Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. At the western edge of Sentosa Island just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, the lift transports you 36.3m to a viewing deck. The 200m long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea and harbor ending at the first of many gun placements. While entry to the lift and fort is free, the 90-minute guided tour for S$20 is worth every cent. Staying at the beach-facing Rasa Sentosa gets you a complimentary coupon!

When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found its location ideal for a trading settlement. It was at the crossroads of the monsoon wind and sailing ships could arrive here with ease. The early fortifications – Fort Canning, Palmer and Fulerton – protected the trading hub by the Singapore river. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a direct trade route from Europe to Asia Pacific. Since the Singapore river was too shallow to accommodate the new steam ships, trade operations moved to the deep waters of Sentosa.

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Sentosa was once tagged Bulao Panjang, Malay for ‘Long Island’ and Pulao Blakang Maki or ‘Island of Death’, after the bodies of sailors killed by pirates that washed ashore. When the British first came here, many died and the island was hurriedly abandoned. What was regarded as the ‘Asian curse’ turned out to be malaria. But the need for newer forts made the British blast the mountaintop of Mount Siloso to erect a coastal fort in the west, Fort Serapong in the center of the island (now a golf course) and Fort Connaught in the east (which made way for Sentosa Cove). Giant pulleys hauled cannons up the steep inclines over a bed of logs, aided by Chinese coolies. Since the Chinese didn’t have a problem cooking beef or pork they also ended up being cooks! At the barracks, life-size models depict the soldiers’ life among cooks, tailors and dhobis.

During World War II, while the British expected a naval assault from Sentosa or Changi, the Japanese attacked through the Malayan peninsula, taking them by surprise. The cannons had to be turned towards land but the hull-piercing shells meant for ships didn’t cause much damage. The Japanese took control of the water supply and pushed for an unconditional surrender.

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The WWII Surrender Chambers recreate the scene of capitulation and show their clever psychological warfare tactics. Despite being fewer in number with supplies for only two days, the Japanese turned up in big numbers and in full military regalia to give the impression of a large force. The three years of occupation were the darkest days in Singapore’s history with mass executions on beaches.

It was only after a complete rebranding exercise that the island was christened Sentosa, after the Sanskrit santosha, meaning peace and fulfilment. With tourist attractions like Universal Studios and its amazing 4D Transformer and Battlestar Galactica rides, Madame Tussauds, S.E.A. Aquarium, Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly and Resorts World, Sentosa has become an essential stopover in everyone’s Singapore itinerary. You could spend a week here without getting bored!

Indian Heritage Centre exhibit IMG_0045_Anurag Mallick

Back in town, the Indian Heritage Centre had moved out of Little India Arcade to a new four-storey building. Inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) and mirroring the hexagonal design of the paved street, the glass-fronted building gives the impression of a jewel by day and a glowing lantern by night. The galleries span two millennia of cultural transfusion in Southeast Asia caused by waves of migration between 1st century CE to the 21st century.

Hindu-Buddhist icons, motifs from the Ramayana-Mahabharata, arduous sea journeys undertaken by migrants to distant port towns during the establishment of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore (1786-1824), their culture and contributions to Singapore form the broad theme. Armed with a tab and aided by Augmented Reality, it’s story-telling taken to another level. The headgear section actually encourages visitors to choose a pagri or topi for a selfie.

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The National Gallery Singapore which opened last November is spread over 6,90,000 sq ft and is the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks, it is also the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world. The self-portraits of Georgette Chen, Liu Kang’s Life by the River, the wildlife themes of Indonesian artist Raden Saleh, art installations like Matthew Ngui’s Chair are stunning, while Cheong Soo Pieng’s Drying Salted Fish, featured on the back of the Singaporean $50 bill, lets visitors click pictures against a 3D version of the same.

The gallery is housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass and metal façade that seamlessly conjoins the two buildings in a make-believe bamboo lattice, it’s a delight to the explore the prison cells, Rotunda (round library) and chambers. The terrace deck overlooks the padang (ground) and the Singapore skyline. It was in the City Hall that Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on 12 September 1945.

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Adding to Singapore’s impressive roster of museums – the Philately Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum and National Museum of Singapore – is the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Part of Sir Stamford Raffles’ museum of Southeast Asian biodiversity started in 1849, it forms the current Heritage Gallery section with taxidermy kits, stuffed birds and Cabinets of Curiosity housing collectibles that survived World War II.

Tracing the history of life on earth, the twenty zones across two floors have over 500,000 Southeast Asian animal and plant specimens ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Highlights include the world’s largest crab (Japanese Spider Crab) and the smallest (Coral Spider Crab), trilobite fossils, three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale ‘Jubi Lee’ that washed ashore in Singapore in 2015 and was unveiled in March 2016. All day long, the dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half-hour.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9980_Anurag Mallick

Singaporeans love their laser shows, be it Wings of Time (S$18, 7:40pm, 8:40pm) at Sentosa, WonderFull (8pm, 9:30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (7:45pm, 8:45pm) at the SuperTree grove in Gardens by the Bay; both free to public. A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at 165m was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014.

While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take-off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and fully-functional aircraft controls. The Flyer also lets you reserve a pod for a private 3-course dinner. But if you’re not into ‘slow travel’ or ‘slow food’, hop on to the new Gourmet Bus to take your taste buds for a ride. Singapore always has a new trick up its sleeve…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct to Singapore from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities taking 4 hrs for the flight to Changi Airport, located in the eastern part of the city. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay

Oasia Hotel Downtown Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com
Great location, this new hotel in the CBD is close to attractions

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com
Top beach resort at the western end of Sentosa overlooking the Fort Siloso walkway

Crowne Plaza Changi www.ihg.com
5-star hotel at Changi voted as the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2016 by London-based Skytrax, with top multi-cuisine restaurant Azur.

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What to Do

Experience Changi
Changi Airport is a destination by itself with art installations, recreational facilities and the world’s tallest slide in an airport. There’s a Cactus Garden, Orchid Garden, Sunflower Garden, Butterfly Garden and an Enchanted Garden. The airport outlet of the Long Bar by Raffles at T3’s DFS (Duty Free Store) serves a great Singapore Sling besides awesome deals! Changi also organises a free city tour for transit passengers with a long layover (over 6 hrs).
https://in.changiairport.com

The Original Singapore Walks
D/Centennial Building, 100 Lorong 23 Geylang Ph +65 6325 1631 www.journeys.com.sg
Timings 9:30am, 2:30pm Guided tour S$38 Adults, S$18 children 

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

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

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9991_Anurag Mallick

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

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

Fort Siloso, Sentosa
Ph 1800 736 8672 www.sentosa.com.sg
Timings 10am-6pm Entry free, 90 min Guided Tour S$20 adults, S$14 children

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

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Beautifully Bespoke: Unique experiences in India

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From desert camps, mountain abodes, rainforest retreats to beachside bungalows, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY curate bespoke indulgences across the country

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Suryagarh, Jaisalmer (Rajasthan)
The welcome is grand. An open jeep with flags aflutter leads guests to the fort-like entrance where a pair of camels leads you up the driveway to the porch. A Manganiyar troupe welcomes you with song, Panditji applies a tilak on your forehead as a flower petals rain from above. At the foyer, an attendant hands a towel, another plies you with cool beverage before ushering you to the room. A manganiyar seated in a jharokha of the central courtyard welcomes you to the world of Suryagarh. Few hotels match the art of hospitality and pampering of Suryagarh. Its diverse dining experiences are beautifully curated – Breakfast with Peacocks, Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard or Dining on the Dunes, at Fossil Hill or lakeside.

Its bespoke Desert Remembers trails present the Thar desert’s lesser known history – Bhil settlements, ruins of caravanserais, rainwater harvesting techniques of Paliwal Brahmins who prospered from the Silk Route, cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, ancient stepwells and the sweet water wells of Mundari. Retrace old trade routes on camel safaris or go on a midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara. The hotel’s design elements are inspired by its surroundings – the jharokhas mirror Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling from Kuldhara. Suryagarh’s Residences, exclusive private havelis and suites handcrafted from sandstone, are reminiscent of Paliwal villages. They even have your photos printed and placed in customized frames in your room as a personal touch. Each day, halwai chef Gatta Ram sends a mithai platter with descriptive historical nuggets on scrolls. Surrender to specially designed therapies at Rait Spa that uses locally sourced Thar sand and Luni river salt.

Ph +91-02992-269269, 7827151151
www.suryagarh.com
Tariff 14,000-1,00,000/night

Coco Shambhala_2

Coco Shambhala, Nerul (Goa)
No matter whether you’re in Bangalore or Burkina Faso, a friendly phone call one day prior to your arrival at Coco Shambhala notes your dietary preferences in detail. Spread over an acre near Coco Beach, the secluded villas – named Bharani, Aslesha, Ashwini and Rohini – come with two rooms, treetop living room, private plunge pool, open showers, equipped kitchen and complimentary mini-bar stocked with beers, wine and champagne. The Panchvati style interiors by Belgian designer Lou Lou Isla Maria Van Damme uses colonial furniture in a tropical jungle style garden with ethnic accents. There’s no separate restaurant but signature dishes like Prawn & Chorizo Bruschetta, Basil Prawns with Lemon and Namibian Chicken are served in the comfort of your villa.

Relaxing treatments of 2 Heavens Spa can also be arranged in your room. Meals are ordered a day in advance so only fresh produce is bought and used. Savour the exclusive menu and gustatory experiences curated by India’s top wine and food specialist Shagun Mehra. The stunning pool uses chlorine-free well water. Guests are handed a cellphone pre-fed with staff details, including a complimentary cab and driver for excursions, with free pick up and drop to the airport. Sounds too good? No wonder Coco Shambhala was ranked among the Top 25 Beach Villas in the World by Condé Nast Traveller and recently bagged Outlook Traveller’s Best Boutique Hotel Award 2016.

Ph +91 9372267182
www.shambhalavillas.com
Tariff 30,000-42,000/villa, incl. breakfast

reception - viewing deck

 

The Ibnii, Madikeri, Coorg (Karnataka)
Opened in Feb 2016 after an extensive 10-year development project, The Ibnii (literally ‘Dew’) offers true-to-nature holidays. The check-in is paperless and a welcome drink of bellath (jaggery) coffee is served at The Kaadu, a wooden machaan overlooking the 120-acre property. The Ibnii takes great pride in having no phone network or room service (though wi-fi is available). Ten Balinese wooden cottages on stilts overlook a rainwater harvesting lake and 22 private pool villas called Kopi Luwak come with Jacuzzi and outdoor pool.

Guests are encouraged to walk to Pattola Palame (meaning ‘collection of silk strands’) to dine at the multi-cuisine Fig, veg restaurant Ballele (banana leaf), outdoor barbecue Masikande (charcoal) and Kaldi Kaapee coffee house where the Bean-to-Cup coffee tour culminates. Duck feeding, responsible fishing, nature trails, interactive kitchen with baking classes at the Boulangerie; there’s plenty to do here. Try the signature coffee and sugar scrub, besides Ayurvedic and Western spa treatments at Manja Spa named after the healing ‘turmeric’.

Ph +91 88849 90000 www.ibnii.com
Tariff Rs.35,000, incl. all meals

home

Chamba Camp & The Grand Dragon Ladakh (J&K)
Could a high altitude cold desert like Ladakh offer comfort you’ve never imagined? Experience ‘Glamping’ or glamour camping at Chamba Camp Thiksey, part of Cox & Kings’ The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC). Individually designed luxury tents come with en-suite bathrooms, colonial furniture, a private deck and personal butler. Experienced guides accompany you on personalized cultural trips to monasteries and oracles, regaling you with folk tales by campfire. Watch a game of polo, raft down the Indus River and enjoy lavish picnic lunches. In 2015, it won Robb Report’s 27th Annual International Best of Best Awards, the connoisseur’s guide to the world’s finest things. The only hitch? Just a 4-month season.

Thankfully, The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh’s plushest hotel is open all year round offering great winter packages besides swanky new suites. Centrally heated with impressive views of the Stok Kangri range, it serves terrific food and traditional Ladakhi cuisine. Move over from momothukpa and discover skiu (wheat pasta stew), timstuk (wheat strips and black gram soup), nang (Ladakhi sausage), shapta (meat curry), phingsha (keema with phing or glass noodles), taint (Ladakhi spinach) and tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns). Unique cultural experiences like learning calligraphy, a session with a Ladakhi oracle, tea by the Indus and Zanskar rivers and witnessing prayer sessions in monasteries make your stay special.

Ph 1800 123 0508
www.coxandkings.com
Tariff Rs.2,45,355/person for 6 days, 5 nights

Ph +91 9906986782, 9622997222
www.thegranddragonladakh.com
Tariff Rs.10,670-43,000

Rokeby Manor_Pine Tree Lodge - Dining

 

 

Rokeby Manor, Landour (Uttarakhand)
A colonial era boutique hotel between the Shivaliks and the Himalayas, Rokeby Manor was built at Landour in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy and named after the writings of Sir Walter Scott. With stone walls, wooden floors and quaint niches and nooks, the renovated rooms overlook the valley or the Tea Garden. The restaurant Emily’s serves gourmet cuisine and house specials like Mustard Chicken. While the second oldest villa in the erstwhile British cantonment is special, wait till you discover the cluster of 19th century colonial cottages called Rokeby Residences!

Offering stand-alone experiences, every mountain retreat has 2-3 bedrooms and its own Mr. Jeeves. Shamrock Cottage, built in the 1800’s, has a spacious garden. Bothwell Bank is a stone-clad log cabin with knotty pine wood décor, original fireplaces, kitchen, barbecue and outdoor Jacuzzi. Tabor Lodge has a private deck lined with herbs in outsized cups. Pine Tree Lodge displays Scandinavian architecture with patchwork stools, vintage lamps and Finnish artwork. Whatever your choice, exclusivity is guaranteed, with the Swiss-style Stubli Café, Ale House English pub and Little Shed Salon & Spa bound to keep you occupied.

Ph 0135-2635604/05/06, 9634443666
www.rokebymanor.com
Tariff Rs.10,000-70,000

 

 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Q4 2016 issue of Audi magazine.

When the twain met: Germany Reunited

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PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Brocken and the remote borderlands of erstwhile East & West Germany to bring back real life stories and anecdotes of the Cold War, 25 years after the German Reunification

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It was unbelievable, standing between two former Border police officers for a picture at the very border in Bad Helmstedt that once separated them. Decades ago, the now balding Helmut Maushake from East Germany and the grey-haired Lothar Engler from West Germany eyeballed each other in hostility; today they clasped hands like long lost friends.

Each held a piece of Germany’s post-war history and memories of a wired wall that was more than just a geographical demarcation. My weeklong trip took me to Germany’s borderlands, where locals narrated stories of an Orwellian past. A period that saw the clash of two different ideologies – capitalism and socialism, sparking off a Cold War between neighbours for forty odd years. Ironically, the Iron Curtain is now a Green Strip, with many of these stretches developed into national parks and historic trails.

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We stood at the wall’s western side marked by remnants of concrete that separated Bad Helmstedt from Beendorf. Once stretching for 1400km, it divided the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany controlled by UK, France and the US from the Soviet Occupation Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. As things got strained, the wall became impermeable, affecting the lives of thousands. Pointing to the information panel, they showed us the uniforms used while patrolling the border, recalling how a mere step across the wires could set off an alarm and result in death.

On a November winter morning, we were invited for the launch of Grenlehrpfad information trail to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and 25 years of German Unification. Today, the former border area near Elm-Lappwald Nature Park is a popular walking and cycling site. We trudged along a path carpeted by autumn leaves past a lake with ducks paddling around.

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Behind us, a board captured the ironic humour of the Bad Helmstedt townsfolk with the words emblazoned across the German black, red and gold tricolour – “40 jahre am arsch der welt, jetzt mitten un Deutschland” meaning “Forty years in the world’s ass, now in the middle of Germany!” We laughed and thumped our glasses of beer and scooped into bowls of hot goulash.

The contrast between East and West was palpable. Easterners seemed more wary and guarded while talking of their grim past. West Germans, like our guide Jens Becker, were light-hearted and open. A frequent traveller to East Berlin, Jens elaborated how one needed ‘day visas’ and ‘transit visas’ for the highways. “The visa was given in the East and once you reached West Berlin, you returned it at the border.

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Back then, they even checked how long was your drive from one point to another. If you took longer, they suspected you were up to something. So no stopping to admire the scenery, getting lost or whimsical detours!” he revealed. Helmstedt was a key border point to reach West Berlin and Becker pointed out three famous checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.

Driving past fields and beautiful brick homes to Grenzdenkmal, we met local guide Hans Gunter Apun at what looked like a bus stop; it was a shelter near the inner German border in the former Soviet Zone. “The demarcation line that later became the border reminds us of a period that started in 1945 and ended in 1989, when the wall came down”, he explained. Hans lived 3km away in the British Occupation Zone. In 1945, the border was marked by a barrier of barbed wires. People tried to cross it at night using the cover of bushes.

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Before the war ended, the victorious Allied powers and anti-Hitler coalition of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided that Germany would lose the eastern territories, be divided into four occupational zones, with France invited to occupy parts of Germany. Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, was also divided into four sectors. In Berlin, you still see sideboards – Former American or British Sector. After the war was over in 1945, everybody was euphoric. At first the four powers unanimously administered Germany as a whole – socially, economically, politically. But that did not last long.

“Things changed in 1946-47 because of ideological differences”, Apun explained. “The Western allies had a different vision from the Soviet Union’s Eastern zone on how to organize public life. And that caused all the problems, friction and confrontations in the following forty years. The more the two sides disagreed, the more the East reinforced its border. They built walls near villages, towns, any habitation. But never on the Western side!”

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“We were allowed as close to the border as we wished,” Apun chuckled. “The West German Border Police warned us, ‘Sir don’t put your foot there – it may cause diplomatic problems!’ People on the other side were not allowed to even go near the border.” By 1961, obstacles prevented cars from crossing. The entire 1400km border had a strip of land 10m wide, which was always ploughed and raked, to detect footprints of potential refugees!” Apun remembers.

At Sorge, in the restricted zone of the former German inner border (also the smallest town in the county with just 86 people), we met the lovely Mayor Inge Winkel. She ran a small museum to keep the past alive, replete with a model of the region, original signboards, warnings, black-and-white pictures of border posts with a collection of tickets, permits and passes issued to people. A 13km stretch of the wall was retained as a reminder why history must not repeat itself. The town’s name, Sorge, meant ‘worry’ or ‘preoccupation’.

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Sharing glimpses of her life in the GDR, Inge rued how a special 5km stretch called Sperrgebeit was a Closed Zone where everyone was prohibited. It was cleared of vegetation and one needed a special permit if you lived there. Another 500m near the border was closed to all. Minefields were planted with danger signs cautioning people not to venture further. She remembers how some young people made a dramatic escape from east to west before the walls were reinforced. “We had a very hard winter and were hit by snow as high as the fences, so people with skiing skills managed to escape to the other side!”

A short drive past a railway track led to the entrance of the open-air museum showcasing Sorge’s actual border. The razor straight pathway cutting through tall trees could pass of as a scenic walking trail if it wasn’t for the strange stray relics around – wired fences, dog runs for patrols, and a perforated concrete cylinder that allowed water to flow but prevented anyone from swimming through canals and escaping! Further down the path was a watchtower called B-Tower.

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The trickiest part was that the high security border lay deep in the Eastern side and people coming from the freer Western side didn’t actually realise they had reached Eastern territory, for which they could be shot! The ground near the fence was always bare, often poisoned so nothing could grow and officers could check for footprints. We posed for pictures at the border fence that once emanated frissions of shock.

In the lovely half-timbered town of Wernigerode, the famous heritage train Brockenbahn took us to the highest hill in the Harz mountains. Being the best vantage to survey the region, Brocken used to be a high security area. A watchtower intercepted radio signals and an old domed listening post at Urian was used for Stasi surveillance. The TV tower and museum display old espionage and communication equipment besides geological history. Over 50 shows of the famous rock opera ‘Faust’ have been performed on the summit.

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The Brockenbahn chugged past fir forests. The foliage had begun to turn in late fall and we saw how the Cold War had left several tracts along the border undisturbed for decades. Nature takes over where man is scarce. The transformation of a virtual Death Zone into a place brimming with life was inspirational. Fauna that had long disappeared, now returned.

Today people walk their hounds, hike, cycle, picnic and enjoy peace and tranquillity that now pervades the region. Twenty five years on, the changes were more than geographical or political; the old border had transformed the emotional, ecological and cultural fabric of Germany.

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FACT FILE
Getting there:

Fly to Hannover and drive 122km to Wernigerode in Saxony Anhalt, from where Bad Helmstedt, Grenzdenkmal and Sorge are short drives away. From Wernigerode, the heritage steam train Brockenbahn takes you on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway to Brocken in the Harz mountains. www.hsb.wr.de

Stay:
HKK Hotel Wernigerode +49 (0) 39439410 www.hkk-wr.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 January 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.