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Chandernagore: Down Revolutionary Road

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A trading town older than Calcutta, the erstwhile French enclave by the banks of the Hooghly was a sanctuary for merchants, philanthropists, littérateurs and revolutionaries, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Without much fanfare, the Grand Trunk Road abruptly brought us to a halt in front of the Liberty Gate of Chandernagore. Built in 1937 to mark the fall of Bastille during the French revolution, the motto ‘Liberte Egalite Fraternite’ emblazoned on it seemed incongruous amidst a medley of billboards in Bengali and posters for circuses and magic shows. A traffic policeman tried in vain to make some order out of the snarl of rickshaws, pedestrians and vehicular traffic. It was a far cry from a few centuries ago when British soldiers had to seek permission to enter what was once French territory!

Much before Calcutta was carved out of Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindapur and Fort William was established in 1698, Chandernagore too was created out of three villages – Borokishanpur, Khalisani and Goldalpara. It emerged as the main center of European commerce in Bengal and became a key trade centre. Boats docked here for rice, wax, saltpeter, indigo, jute, rope, sugar, even slaves, as the town became home to seths, zamindars, Muslim and Armenian traders, besides men of enterprise – Louis Bonnaud, the first European to commercially cultivate indigo in India, Dinanath Chandra who ran the first European tincture factory in the area, Batakrishna Ghosh, the first Bengali owner of a cloth mill, and Indrakumar Chattopadhyay, first publisher of a map on Bengal.

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We entered through the Liberty Gate and scoured around for a map or some kind of guide on Chandannagore, which led us by sheer chance to Kumar & Company. On learning of our interest in the historic town, the shop owner Kalyan Chakravarty dropped everything mid-transaction, barked an order to an assistant to take over and quite graciously agreed to come along to guide us around the key sights. Passionate about conserving the heritage of his little town, Kalyan da was also involved with the local chapter of INTACH.

“At one time, Lakshmiganj Market used to be India’s largest rice mart and Chandannagore was hailed as the Granary of the East. Back then, the area was called Farasdanga (Land of the French). Urdi Bazaar is actually named after the vardi or khaki uniform of soldiers who stayed here during colonial times,” he explained. In 1730, Joseph Francois Dupleix was made governor of Chandarnagore while Indranarayan Chowdhury was appointed by the French Compagnie as Diwan. Chowdhury built the temple of Sri Nandadulal and a rest house and later received a gold medal for his philanthropy from Louis XV, the King of France.

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Kalyan da pointed out the marks of cannon fire on the exterior walls of the squat Nandadulal shrine during the sack of 1757. The temple is believed to have a secret chamber where Chowdhury stashed his wealth! We strode into St Joseph’s Convent, built in 1861, to the little chapel and stood at the historic door through which the British had marched into Chandernagore. Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson of the British army pounded Chandernagore and razed the French fortification of Fort d’Orleans to the ground.

The horseshoe shaped town was divided into the French Villé Blanche (White Quarter) and a native Villé Noire (Black Quarter) that lay inland. Located midstream between Murshidabad and Calcutta, Chandernagore was easily the most celebrated ghat on the 2500km stretch of the Ganga and the only part of Bengal outside British control. At its peak, the city’s population was over a lakh while Calcutta was at best a poorer country cousin. However, with the French loss, Chandernagore’s bustling trade was eclipsed by the emergence of British Calcutta.

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The town still has a wealth of beautiful colonial mansions. Kanhai Seth’er Bari, home to the Nandys, was a lovely edifice with the gatepost marked by ornamental urns. Further down the road Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir was a fusion of native and colonial styles where Corinthian columns shared space alongside ornate Hindu motifs. Built in 1860 by Sri Harihar Sett, it was donated to the people of Chandernagore as a theatre hall and library.

Past Hospital Mod (turn) was Nundy Bari, home of a rich Zamindar that now served as the Ruplal Nundy Memorial Cancer Research Centre. His great grandson Shashank Shekhar Nandy explained that the historic building was locally called Gala-Kuthi from the time it was a Portuguese warehouse of gala (shellac). In its heyday, it played host to eminent people of the time like Bengali poet Bharatchandra Ray and Maharaja Krishnachandra of Krishnanagar.

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After a quick stop at the Sacred Heart Church we reached the town’s crowning glory – The Strand. Reminiscent of Pondicherry’s Promenade, the 1km long 7m wide paved avenue was lined by historic buildings. The northern end was once marked by the 1878 built Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court) and Thai Shola hotel built in 1887 (presently Chandernagore College).

On the south end was Underground House (Patal Bari), its lowest level jutting into the river. Originally a rest house of the French navy, it later hosted social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, who even integrated Patal Bari into his stories.

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Also lining the Strand were Rabindra Bhavan, the Gendarmerie (police station), an 1845 Clocktower dedicated to Joseph Daumain S’Pourcain and Dupleix Palace. A former naval godown and residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, it was converted into Institut de Chandernagor, an Indo-French Cultural Centre housing one of the oldest museums in the region.

Its stunning collection included French exhibits like cannons used in the Anglo-French war, 18th century furniture, rare paintings, Shola craft of Bengal and memorabilia related to Dupleix and Tagore. We walked to Joraghat or Chandni, a decorated pavilion at the ferry point with a plaque dedicated to ‘Dourgachorone Roquitte’. Courtier of the French Government, Durgacharan Rakshit was the first Indian to be conferred with the Chevalier de legion d’Honour in 1896.

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From here, the river appeared to curve like a crescent moon (chandra) after which the town was presumably named. Some contend Chandannagar derives from the trade in chandan (sandalwood) or Chandi’r nagar after its presiding deity Boraichandi. Yet Kalyan da exhorted “The town is not as famous for its river or the French as for its revolutionaries!”

The French enclave was the perfect refuge for freedom fighters escaping the clutches of the British Empire. Rashbehari Bose, founder of Azad Hind Fauj, revolutionary leader Kanailal Dutta and social reformer Sri Harihar Seth were all based here. A bust of Bose stood outside Chandernagore College. In 1910 Sri Aurobindo followed an adesa (divine command) and sailed from Calcutta to Chandernagore where he stayed in the house of Motilal Roy for 39 days before heading south to Pondicherry. Roy later established the Prabartak Sangha and launched a fiery Bengali literary magazine in 1915.

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“But of what use is a Bengali tale that does not end on a sweet note,” exhorted Kalyan da, as he brought us to Surjya Kumar Modak. Local lore has that in 1818 a zamindar asked the town’s leading confectioner to create a unique sweet for the new bridegroom. He came up with the jolbhora, literally ‘filled with water’ – a sandesh with a filling of rosewater syrup!

His creation (besides the motichur sandesh, aam sandesh and khirpully sandesh) became a sensation and attracted patrons ranging from Rabindranath Tagore to Sri Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of Jansangh. We bit into a variant, the chocolate jolbhora as its gooey center dribbled down our chins. Sure it was no éclair as Chandernagore was no Pondicherry; yet the town’s mix of French and Bengali flavours held a tantalizing charm that was entirely unique.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Chandernagore lies 37km north of Kolkata, upstream on the Hooghly.

What to See
Liberty Gate, St Joseph’s Convent, Sri Nandadulal Temple, Chandernagore College, Sub Divisional Court, Sacred Heart Church, The Strand, Chandni, Patal Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Nundy Bari, Rabindra Bhavan, Gendarmerie (police station), Clocktower, Dupleix Palace & Museum

Where to Eat
Hotel de Chandannagar, Barabazar, GT Road Ph 9051489311 www.hotelde.in
Surjya Kumar Modak, Barasat, GT Road Ph 9831178348 www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 Dec 2018 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Secret Seven: 7 hideaways in the North East

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten track in India’s North East to come up with some hidden gems

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So you’ve done the Tibetan monastery trail from Tawang to Gangtok, the train ride on the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), tea bungalow stays in Upper Assam, the orchids of Sikkim, wildlife safaris at Kaziranga, and now wonder if the Seven Sisters have anything else to offer. You’d be surprised that there are still a few secret nooks in India’s exotic North East that remain shy of the teeming masses.

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Mechuka
Tucked away in the upper mountain folds of Arunachal’s West Siang district, Mechuka lies closer to the Chinese border than any town in India. Named after the hot springs in the area (men means medicine, chu is water while kha literally means snow or mouth), Mechuka is reached after a circuitous drive from Aalo. The Siyom or Yargyap chu river snakes across the wide plateau surrounded by an amphitheater of hills with bamboo bridges lined with Tibetan prayer flags. Being an advanced landing ground (ALG) for the Indian Army, you wake up to the sound of bagpipes and military drills as wild horses neigh in the fields. Before the road was built, the airstrip was the only access to the village. Stay at Nehnang Guest House and visit Tibetan monasteries like Samden Yongjhar gompa and Dorjeling gompa; the latter has a mud statue spanning two floors, besides the cave where Guru Nanak is believed to have meditated 500 years ago on his journey to Tibet.

Getting there: 180 km from Aalong (Aalo)

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Damro
Located on the back road from Pasighat to Yingkiong, the tiny hamlet of Damro is home to the longest hanging bridge in Arunachal Pradesh swaying over the Yamne river. Surrounded by terraced fields is Yamne Eco Lodge, a cluster of thatched bamboo houses run by Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions. Hike 40 minutes to the bridge and encounter Adi Padam herders heading to the forests to tend to their mithun, a semi-domesticated bovine. Visit the original village of the Adi Padam tribe and get an insight into their unusual Donyi-Polo culture dictated by sun and moon worship. Watch sprightly men wield daos (machetes) with ease as women carry firewood or harvested crops in beyen (cane baskets). Try the local staple of smoked pork, lai (leafs), raja chili chutney, apong (rice beer) and if you are lucky, experience their local festivals like Sollung or Etor livened by song and dance.

Getting there: 74 km from Pasighat
Ph 9863553243 Email aborcountry@gmail.com www.aborcountrytravels.com

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Nongriat
While Mawlynnong has gained much acclaim for its tag as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’ and its pretty living root bridge Jing Kieng Jri, Meghalaya has a huge wealth of natural wonders. At Nongriat, a deep descent from Laitkynsew down 2500 steep steps, past aquamarine pools set in a boulderscape, lies a double-decker bridge. It was shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. Every local passerby would spontaneously twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones, in keeping with an unwritten ancient code of strengthening the natural latticed structure over time. Dangling above a pretty pool, like a tiered necklace swinging in the tree canopy, Umshiang, the double-decker living root bridge, never fails to leave any visitor awestruck. Dip your feet in the pool for a natural fish spa with butterflies wafting around. If you are up for another hour of trekking, you can catch the Rainbow Falls, another major highlight in Nongriat. While there are pocket-friendly community-run guesthouses in Nongriat, Cherrapunji Resort in Laitkynsew is a good base. Run by Dennis Rayen, an old-timer in hospitality, he’s well versed in birding, local excursions and meteorological data of the region, displayed on the walls.

Getting there: Cherrapunji (called Sohra locally) is a 56km drive from Shillong
Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew www.cherrapunjee.com

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Hoollongopar Gibbon Sanctuary
Named after the profusion of hoolong trees (Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) in the area, the Hoollongopar sanctuary is the only one in the country dedicated to the protection of India’s sole ape species, the Hoolock Gibbon. Surrounded by tea plantations and a railway line, this tiny pocket was once connected to larger tracts of forests in neighbouring Nagaland. Despite its shrinking habitat, the park is a good place to spot Hoolock Gibbons besides troupes of Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Pig-tailed Macaque, Capped Langur and Bengal Slow Loris. There’s also a Forest Rest House where visitors can stay overnight and set out for an early morning nature trail. For a more luxurious stay, try Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari on the outskirts of Jorhat.

Getting there: 27km from Jorhat
Heritage North East Ph 18001239801 www.heritagetourismindia.com

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Siiro
While Ziro has garnered much attention for its music festival, nearby Siiro leads a life of relative obscurity. The pretty little village is home to an organic farmstay called Abasa, run by a charming couple Kago Kampu and Kago Habung. Staying with an Apatani family helps guests gain insights into the centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, recognizable by their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. The facial mutilation was apparently done to deter raiding tribes from abducting the beautiful women! Stay on the 10-hectare farm growing kiwi, tomato, cabbage, babycorn and rice as you get a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming of the Apatanis. Fish and rice form the staple with unique dishes like suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots, pork and tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf which is their secret to being slim) besides the local brew apong, made of fermented millet and rice.

Getting there: Siiro is 3km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.
Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email abasahomestay@gmail.com

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Dzukou Valley
Cradled between the borders of Manipur and Nagaland above 2000m, Dzukou Valley is an ecological haven that is home to the endemic Dzukou lily. Named dzukou or ‘soul-less and dull’ by disillusioned Angami ancestors after a disappointing harvest; others contend it means ‘cold water’ in the local dialect, ascribing it to the icy streams that run through it. The beauty of Dzukou Valley is unsurpassed, earning its more popular tag as the Valley of Flowers of the North East. Accessed by a tough hike across the Japfu Peak from the heritage village of Khonoma in Nagaland, the valley is a pristine paradise that attracts birders and trekkers alike. En route stop at the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary, set up to protect the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan. Khonoma is incidentally the country’s first green village where hunting and tree logging are strictly banned. Other access points are the villages of Viswema and Jakhama. Entry to Dzukou valley (Rs 50 for Indians, Rs 100 for foreigners) is paid at the Rest House, which also offers basic accommodation for a reasonable fee. A better option is staying at Meru Homestay in Khonoma run by Angami couple Krieni and Megongui who happily rustle up traditional Naga cuisine. Go on heritage walks around the 700-year-old village and listen to stories of valour in the land of headhunters.

Getting there: Khonoma lies 20km south west of Kohima which can be reached via NH39 from Dimapur, 74km away.
Ph Meru’s Homestay Ph 0370-2340061, Baby’s Homestay Ph 9436071046, Michael Megorissa local co-ordinator and guide Ph 9856125553

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

Kewzing
Overlooking snowy peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, Kewzing is a scenic village in Sikkim perched at 1700m and surrounded by cardamom fields and forested tracts. Hike to hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla. The altitudinal variation between the Rangit river valley (350m) and the highest hill Maenam (3500m) harbours nearly 200 bird species, including the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis. Bon Farmhouse, a 6-acre family-run farm helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam Bonpo is the perfect roost where farm produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals. Fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and buttermilk from the farm’s Jersey cows also land up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), kew (mushrooms) and ningro (wild ferns). Try Sikkimese delicacies like kinama (fermented soyabean), gundruk (fermented spinach) and fisnu (stinking nettles). Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest.

Getting there: 127 km from Bagdogra Airport
Ph +91 9735900165, 9547667788, 9434318496 www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in The New Indian Express Indulge in December 2018. 

 

 

The Jungfrau region: An artistic refuge

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Few know how the epic landscapes of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region inspired the literary legacy of Goethe and Tolkien, besides the spirit of adventure, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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For a country of hills and vales typified through the folkloric tales of William Tell and Heidi, it might come as a surprise to many that Switzerland is also the inspiration behind JRR Tolkein’s ‘Rivendell’. While New Zealand may have served as the shooting locale for the Lord of the Rings saga, it was the Swiss Alps in the Bernese Oberland (highlands of Bern Canton) that provided literary stimulus. In a letter written to his son in the 1950’s, Tolkien acknowledged that the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the other side of the ‘Misty Mountains’ was based on his own Swiss adventures in 1911.

As part of a group of 12, with his brother Hillary and friends, a 19-year-old Tolkien travelled on foot from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by mountain paths to the head of the valley, eastward over the two high passes Kleine and Grosse Scheidegge to Grindelwald and eventually Merringen. They continued over the Grimsel Pass through Upper Valais to Brig, the Aletsch Glacier and finished up in Zermatt and the Matterhorn. A new walking tour ‘There and Back Again’, retraces the 290km walking route, though we were content to follow most of the journey by train.

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The Bernese Oberland was the first place of mass tourism in Switzerland. British schoolboys came here for a break in the 1830s after finishing school. Before getting the world to travel, the first trip Thomas Cook ever took was to Interlaken in 1863. German composers Wagner and Mendelssohn, Mark Twain, Ted Roosevelt and a host of climbers came here. In 1874, the Bodeli Railway carried the first travelers from across the world to the Custom House, as Interlaken Ost was then called. With the opening of the Bernese Oberland Railway in 1890 and a ship jetty in 1891, tourism boomed.

After watching Deep Purple and local hero Gola at the Snowpenair Concert at Kleine Scheidegg few years ago courtesy Jungfrau Railways, we were here for another spectacular event. Golfing sensation and Omega brand ambassador Rory McIlroy was teeing off at the 22 km long Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps which ran to a depth of one mile, at Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe.

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We reached Interlaken Ost and took a connecting train to our base Grindelwald where we checked into Sunstar Hotels. Cradled at the base of the jagged north face of the Eiger, it overlooked the Snowpark Grindelwald First. Gondolas transported tourists to Schreckfeld and First for the thrill of ziplining down the First Flyer and First Glider, the new Cliff Walk by Tissot and the hour’s hike to the pristine mountain lake Bachalpsee, besides other adventures like Mountain Cart and Trotti Bikes.

It was the annual festival day so Grindelwald’s main avenue had been blocked with makeshift stalls selling handicrafts, local wines, winter wear and food. We grabbed a bratwurst and some churros before boarding a train to Wilderswil, from where the Schynige Platte Bahn took us on a steep 7.2 km ride on a cogwheel-railway track climbing 1400m to the famous alpine wildflower gardens of Schynige Platte. Built in 1893, this mountain railway completed 125 years this year.

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Man and machine seemed in harmony with nature as the locomotives bore names of alpine flowers. We were riding No.19 ‘Fluhblume’. Visitors can see nearly 600 species of plants and two thirds of all the flowers in the Alps on a circuit that’s only a kilometer long. Sometimes jet-black, sometimes silver in the evening sun after a thunderstorm, the plates of slate gleam from afar, giving Schynige Platte its name.

The train halted at Breitlauenen and we admired the view at Ferdinand Hodler lookout point, where one of the best-known Swiss painters of the nineteenth century sat to paint. His piece ‘The Woodcutter’ featured on the 50 Swiss Franc note. We were lucky to get some fresh feathery snowfall on the train ride winding through tunnels and a landscape blanketed in white.

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Two huge picture frames encourage visitors to capture the trio of mountains but the clouds masked the majestic view of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch. At Berghotel Schynige Platte we enjoyed a typical Swiss meal of goulash, Wilderer rosti with venison and Alpler rosti or hash browns with pan fried sausage and onion sauce.

Over 200 years ago, as the first visitors travelled to the Bernese Oberland, the Schynige Platte was already a favourite among the wealthy upper class. People thronged grand hotels in Interlaken besides inns and guesthouses in villages and valleys, driven by the maxim ‘up into the mountains, to the summits’. The hike from Schynige Platte to the Faulhorn and Grosse Scheidegg was a classic, done by day or moonlight. Back then, the train ‘saved four to five hours of walk and a cost of 20 to 25 francs for beasts of burden.’

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Early travel journals noted how the Jungfrau always seemed inaccessible and untouchable, hence its name Jungfrau (the maiden or virgin). In 1811 Jungfrau was scaled and the golden age of Alpine mountaineering culminated in the ascent of Eiger’s north face in 1933. But like people, even the trains had learned to climb. Adolf Guyer-Zeller envisioned the historic Jungfrau Railways, tunneling 7.2km through the Eiger and Monch to reach Europe’s highest railway station Jungfraujoch.

In 2001, the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region became the first area of outstanding natural beauty in Switzerland together with the Alpine region to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Today, one million visitors flock to the Top of Europe to delight in its snowy pleasures.

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From Alpine Sensation, Ice Palace, Sphinx observatory (reached by the fastest lift in Switzerland) to Swiss Chocolate Heaven by chocolatier Lindt, there’s lots to explore. Braving winds for a selfie with the Swiss flag at the Plateau, tourists shriek in delight as they go sledding or whooshing down the 250-m long zipline. The year-round accessibility only adds to the destination’s popularity.

Yet, the Jungfrau region is dotted with smaller villages that retain their rustic charm. From Kleine Scheidegg, we took the Wengernalp Bahn past the ‘pedestrian only’ village of Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, dubbed as the Valley with 72 glacial waterfalls. Well-fed Swiss cows munched on sweet-smelling Alpine grass, their tinkling bells forming a constant soundtrack. As the train took the final turn across the bridge, we got a magical view of the church and Staubbach Falls.

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The earliest travel guide to the Lauterbrunnen valley was published in 1768 by Bernese publisher Abraham Wager featuring illustrations by Swiss painter Caspar Wolf. It was a 45min walk from the train station to the base of the fall past pretty chalets and Horner ‘the best pub in town because we are the only one’. The cataract plummeted from a lofty 297 m in a misty spray – it was first measured on 28 July 1776. Like us, many painters, writers and travelers were captivated by its beauty.

Poet and composer Johann Wolfgang Goethe toured the Lauterbrunnen valley in 1779 with Duke Karl August von Weimar. The sight of Staubbach Falls delighted him so much that he called it a ‘most wonderful thing’ and wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters”. In his travel diary dated Sep 1816, Lord Byron noted how the sun made a rainbow in the waterfall. “I have never seen anything like it. It looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit, and was so near that one could just step into it.”

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One look at the scenery and Tolkien’s description of Rivendell came to life. Cascading waterfalls and a loud river that overlooked the three ‘Misty Mountain Peaks’ were no doubt based on Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The mines of Moria were inspired by the construction of the Jungfraubahn, which was being finished when Tolkien visited in 1911.

We learnt ‘Orc’ is a local name for a demon and how a picture postcard of a painting Der Berggeist (the mountain spirit) by German artist J Madlener depicting an old man with a white flowing beard wearing a wide brimmed hat and a long cloak, was the origin of Gandalf. We couldn’t agree more with Tolkien’s words – “I left the view of the Jungfrau with great regret – eternal snow etched as it seems against eternal sunshine.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Swiss from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train to Bern (1 hr 20 min) and take the connecting train to Interlaken Ost (54 min). www.swiss.com www.SwissTravelSystem.com

Getting Around
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes. Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch

Where to Stay
Carlton Europa, Interlaken
Sunstar Hotels, Grindelwald
Berghotel Schynige Platte
Oberland, Lauterbrunnen

Things to Do
Jungfraubahn to Jungfraujoch Top of Europe
First Flyer, First Glider, Tissot Cliff Walk, Mountain Cart
Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte
Hike from First to Bachalpsee
Walk to Staubbach waterfall in Lauterbrunnen
Harderbahn Funicular from Interlaken to Harder Kulm
BLS boat cruise on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz

For more info, visit www.myswitzerland.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 Nov, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday lifestyle supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Kigali: In the Land of a Thousand Hills

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With direct flights by RwandAir from Mumbai to Kigali, Rwanda’s vibrant capital has never seemed so attractive; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a Go Kigali city tour to experience its local sights, markets and cuisine 

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We flew out on Rwand Air and discovered that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali from Mumbai than driving to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa.

Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official program. Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative greeted us warmly at the airport and highlighted the city’s landmarks en route to our hotel.

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“That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state.” When Indian PM Modi visited Rwanda in July this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour. Modi also donated 200 cows to villagers at Rweru under President Paul Kagame’s Girinka program (literally ‘May you have a cow’ in the local Kinyarwanda dialect) where every poor family receives one cow for sustenance. In a country where cows are held in high regard, this gesture won lots of Rwandan hearts.

We soon reached the swanky Kigali Marriott Hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Inside the massive executive suite, a personalized note, macaroons and a dry fruit platter awaited us. The view from the balcony was stupendous.

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A ‘no photography’ sign on the glass door was bewildering. The steward quickly explained that the hotel faced the high-security presidential quarters! On the other side were a line of embassies, leaving us chuffed to be staying in the posh diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the CBD (Central Business District).

Sauntering downstairs to Soko restaurant (literally ‘market’), we admired the entire wall decorated with traditional woven agasake baskets. Besides a massive spread we were intrigued to find faratas and chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner! Rwanda has many Indian settlers who influenced the local cuisine. We tried the local staple kaunga (steamed corn stew) and matoke (green banana and beef stew).

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It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

In the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907 Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first resident. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally ‘expansive’. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills!

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Kandt built the first brick house in town at Nyarugenge, which had great weather and afforded good views. It became a Museum of Natural History but all the exhibits had been moved out except the lone baby crocodile in a pool and a collection of snakes in a small enclosure at the back.

The building presently serves as the Kandt House Museum outlining Rwanda’s colonial history and culture. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908. During this period, Kigali had a population of 2000 with 420 foreigners, mostly Arabs and Indians, besides 9 Germans!

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During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide, where nearly a million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in premeditated attacks by the interim government.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a moving reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past, where locals often come to be reunited with their loved ones. Rwanda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 and April 7 is observed by the United Nations as the Day of Remembrance of the victims.

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We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda.

It was unbelievable that the country had emerged from the Dark Ages in the late-90s into what is its Golden Age of development. It is a gritty story of healing, forgiveness and coming to terms with their past to build a better future. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa and Kigali is so clean, you could literally eat off the wide pavement-lined avenues!

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The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Rwanda is also the safest country in Africa for women and the ease of doing business has been streamlined by merging all nodal agencies into RDB (Rwanda Development Board). You can open a business within 24 hours of landing here!

Back at Kigali Marriott we grabbed some ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative at the Iriba Bar & Terrace and fried sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in early 20th century and ibirayi is derived from uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’! After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa we whiled away the evening happy hours at the posh Executive Lounge.

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The hotel has special Indian, Asian and African theme nights, besides wine tastings and live jazz but we savoured some gnocchi and baked captain fish at their Italian restaurant Cucina. Our friend from an earlier trip to Zambia, Davidson Mugisha of Wildlife Tours Rwanda dropped by to show us a bit of Kigali’s legendary nightlife, as we barhopped from Riders at Kigali Heights to Fuchsia Lounge.

Kigali Marriott has an outlet of Go Kigali, which organizes local city tours and we set off on a half-day excursion the next day. The small boutique also stocks lovely handmade products sourced from all over Africa. Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys.

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Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. Southwest of CBD, the suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders.

Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s. With its busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is hailed as the coolest neighbourhood in Kigali.

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We trawled local milk bars, cafes, mural walks and markets like Kimironko where Colombe taught us how to eat tree tomato and passion fruit like locals as we marveled at the rows of baskets heaped with rainbow-hued beans. We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu – ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, goat curry, fish and aubergine curry, beef pilao, avocado and beans.

That evening we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some more agasake peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw/
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com/

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Must Do
City tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Pay your respect at Kigali Genocide Memorial
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga
Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant
Shop for agasake and souvenirs at Ikaze & Kimironko Market
Clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club, Bougainvilla
Gorilla trekking with Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 3 Nov, 2018 in HT City, Hindustan Times newspaper.  

Victoria Falls: The Smoke That Thunders

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From the mighty Zambezi River thundering down to form the famous Victoria Falls to heritage trains, petting lions and helicopter rides above the falls, Livingstone in Southern Zambia is a traveller’s paradise, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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As our 30-seater Mahogany Air twin-turboprop approached Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone, we could see a giant mist hanging in the air over the lush green landscape. “That’s Victoria Falls,” smiled the amiable steward, quite used to seeing passengers agape. The gush of water is so much, the rising mist can be seen from miles, hence its local name ‘Mosi-oa-tunya’ or The Smoke that Thunders. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Vic Falls as it’s popularly known, ranks among the seven natural wonders of the world – and the only one in Africa.

Incidentally, the first European to stumble upon the Zambezi river in January 1498 was Vasco da Gama, who disembarked at a point he named Rio dos Bons Sinais (River of Good Omens). Centuries later explorer David Livingstone became the first westerner to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya. He first heard of the great waterfall in 1851 and finally visited it in 1855.

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He came down the Zambezi in a canoe, camped on Kalai Island a few kilometers upstream and set off in a small dugout to approach the thunderous smoke. He landed on the biggest island on the lip of the waterfall (named Livingstone Island after him) from where he got the first view of the fall.

He later wrote, “It was the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Our first glimpse of the hanging mist from the air did seem a lot like that.

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It was a short drive from the airport to Avani Victoria Falls Resort, located just a 5-minute walk from the cataract. The sprawling resort came within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which ensured chance encounters with wildlife like giraffes, antelopes and the odd zebra crossing!

Decked up in contemporary Zambian designs, the adobe-style rooms overlooked a lawn strewn with contemporary metal figurines of rhinos and ostriches. One could pre-book an African open-air Boma dinner with traditional dances, though we happily devoured a mixed meat Zambezi Platter by the pool.

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Hotel guests of Avani have the unique privilege of unlimited complimentary access to the waterfall and we decided to make the most of it. Following the crashing sound of water, we exited from the back gate and stopped for souvenirs at the small market right opposite the waterfall entrance.

Local artists carved exquisite sculptures from locally available verdite, better known as ‘mosi oa tunya’ stone. Some were carving soap dishes with half submerged hippos; others family of giraffes. Another popular pick-me-up, the Nyami Nyami pendant, made of soapstone, wood or bone, has a fascinating legend.

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The indigenous Tonga tribesmen believe that the Zambezi is home to a fierce river god called Nyami Nyami. The mythical creature is believed to live under a large rock near Kariba gorge, near Victoria Falls. Ever since the dam was built, he was separated from his wife and unleashed his fury through floods, thunder and rain.

The locals tried to calm the spirit through sacrifice and continue to craft the pendant as a good luck charm for visitors. “This is the face of the creature – half snake, half fish, these notches resemble the waterfall and this hole is the eye of the fall,” explained a sculptor. We picked up a few and walked through the gate along a stone pathway.

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There were several trails branching out and we took the rightmost one for a walk upstream, which led to the top of the waterfall. The river flowed gently, nonchalantly disappearing from view over the cliff offering no clue about the drama below. We retraced our steps and paid tribute at the War Memorial in memory of Northern Rhodesians who lost their lives during the First World War.

Nearby stood a large statue of Dr David Livingstone, erected in 2005 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first European sighting of Victoria Falls on 16 November 1855 and to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the town of Livingstone. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African hinterland, Dr Livingstone mapped out almost the entire course of the river.

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We walked down the stone path and with each step the crash grew louder. And then through a clearing we saw it for the first time – the mighty Zambezi river thundering 360ft down the 1,708 m wide gorge. The volume of water was so much that the famous Devil’s Pool on the edge of the waterfall was out of bounds. Yet, there were other trails to Boiling Pot (615m) and the scenic Photographic Trail (788m) that were accessible.

As we approached the Knife Edge Bridge, the gentle spray turned into a full downpour. Our rain jackets were modest protection from the torrential splash. Built in 1968 by PWD, the 40m long 1.3m wide bridge connects the mainland to the headland. We continued to Danger Point for a view of Victoria Falls Bridge. The bridge was a crucial link in the route of the railway, as envisioned by Cecil John Rhodes. The bridge was assembled in sections at the Cleveland Bridge Company factory yard in Darlington before being shipped to Africa.

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The steam engine ‘Princess of Mulobezi’ originally hauled timber for Zambezi Sawmills nearly a century ago. Today, it chugged along the scenic tracks with passengers. We had a brief peek into the plush Royal Livingstone Express in town and continued to the Victoria Falls Bridge. Rhodes had wished “I should like to have the spray of the water of the Victoria Falls over the carriages,” and boy did his dream come true.

We felt the spray as soon we got off the tour bus and walked towards the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The waterfalls were a shared legacy between the two countries and we watched the Zambezi river down below flow towards Zimbabwe. Bang in the middle of the bridge adventure seekers could try the bungee jump over the Zambezi gorge.

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Livingstone has no dearth of adventure. Batoka Sky offer helicopter and microlight rides above the falls. At Mukuni Big 5 you can experience elephant feeding, a walk with cheetahs and lion petting. At the Cultural Centre, there’s vigorous Zambian dances in traditional costumes. The Livingstone Museum, the oldest and largest museum in Zambia, showcases the history of early man, the country and its traditions besides a gallery dedicated to explorer Dr David Livingstone.

Back at our hotel, we dropped by at the adjacent Royal Livingstone Hotel By Anantara. A heady mix of Victorian elegance and old world colonial ambience, the classy resort was filled with paintings and antiques. Wooden decks amid sprawling gardens and towering trees offered sweeping views of the Zambezi, with signature therapies like Zambezi Massage in riverside gazebos.

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It was evening and we headed to Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa, a plush resort made of stone, thatch and wood. The high-roofed foyer was decorated with granaries, drums, cane lamps and African portraits on adobe walls with luxurious spa treatments and Afro-Arabian fusion cuisine at Kalai restaurant. At the pier, we boarded the Lady Livingstone for a magical 2-hr sundowner cruise on the Zambezi river.

A band playing on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds) and we sipped sundowners while training our binocs to the riverbank to spot crocs, hippos and other wildlife. The steward presented us a chilled pint of the local Mosi lager. The label called it ‘thunderous refreshment as mighty as the Mosi-oa-Tunya’. The rising mist from Vic Falls danced like a fairy and we watched the sun slowly sink into the Zambezi, as if it was swallowed whole by Nyami Nyami…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Mahogany Air (Ph +26 097 786 5838 www.mahoganyair.com) flies from Lusaka to Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone.

What to Do

Royal Livingtone Express
Shearwater Victoria Falls Bungee
Mukuni Big 5 Ph +260 213 322286 mukunibig5.co.zm
Livingstone Museum (Mon-Sun 9am-4:30pm Entry $5)
Batoka Sky Microlight & Helicopter Flights

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Where to Stay

Avani Victoria Falls Resort
Ph +260 978 777044
www.minorhotels.com

Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara
Ph +260 21 332 1122
https://www.anantara.com/en/royal-livingstone
Tariff $414 upwards

Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa
Ph +260 21 332 4601
https://aha.co.za/david-livingstone/
Tariff $370

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

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 Oct 2018 in the HT City supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

Kanheri Caves: Black mountain side

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a 2400-year-old cave complex in the heart of Mumbai that was once the biggest Buddhist university in western India

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It’s hard to imagine that one of the most urban and densely populated cities in the world hides a 2400-year-old Buddhist cave complex. Its location inside the 103.8 sq km Sanjay Gandhi National Park (one of the largest within a city) in Mumbai’s western suburb of Borivali certainly adds to its appeal. Though SGNP is one of the most visited national parks in Asia with over 2 million visitors annually, not many value these historic relics beyond its backdrop appeal for their selfies. The fact that you can get here in just over an hour is a big plus.

Long before ‘Bombay’ became a commercial hub, Sopara and Kalyan were the two main ports in the region that traded with ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. The 45km land route between these ports passed through this forest and the link to other trade centers like Nasik and Ujjain made it the perfect place for patronage from merchants. And thus, Buddhism arrived in Aparantha (Western India) at Sopara. Though the island of Salsette is rich in rock-cut Buddhist caves – Marol, Mahakali, Magathana, Mandapeshwar and Jogeshwari – Kanheri is the most extensive of the lot.

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Between 1st century BC and 10th century AD, Kanheri was the biggest university in western India and an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast. Buddhist teacher Atisha (980–1054) came here to study meditation under mahasiddha and Tantric yogi Rahulagupta. Back then, the place was known as Krishnagiri or Black Mountain after the dark basalt rock. With the passage of time it became Kanhagiri and eventually Kanheri.

The first definitive reference of Kanheri came from Portuguese naval officer and former Viceroy Joao de Castro, who left a glowing tribute – “A thing certainly not within the power of man, so wonderful that it may be ranked among the seven wonders of the world, unless, instead of thinking them to be the work of men, we attribute them to spirits.” Yet, the forested tract that was once the haunt of austere orange-robed monks today teems with raucous picnickers.

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With the decline of Buddhism, the area lay forgotten and shrouded by forests until British archeologists James Bird in 1839 and Ed West in 1853 rediscovered it. Kanheri is hailed as the single largest Buddhist site in the country with the most number of cave excavations on one hill.

These include chaityagrhas (places of worship), viharas (monasteries), podhis (water cisterns to harvest rainwater), rock-cut benches and plinths that functioned as beds and a wealth of Buddhist sculptures, relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions dating from 1st century BCE to 10th century CE.

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The massive complex has 109 caves interconnected by steps cut into the rock surface. The double-storeyed vihara of Cave 1 has two large pillars framing its entrance while Cave 3 dubbed ‘the Great Chaitya’ (the second largest in India after Karla), has two imposing Buddha statues, an inscription of Yajna Sri Satakarni (170 CE) on the doorjamb and a massive pillared prayer hall.

Cave 4 has a solid dagoba or stupa with relics used for meditation. Caves 5 and 6 were actually water cisterns highlighting the emphasis laid on water conservation using rock cut channels. Located in a gully formed by a torrent, Cave 11 also called Maharaja or Darbar Cave was where grand assemblies were held.

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Cave 34 is the only one with traces of lovely unfinished paintings on the ceiling. A rare depiction of an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara is seen in Cave 41 and the walls of Caves 90 and 93 bear ornate carvings and sculptures of Buddha and his attendants. The trail continues to the summit from where you behold the entire landscape of western Mumbai from Versova to Gorai islands and Powai’s high-rises on the other side.

Despite the unwelcome shrieks of overzealous visitors and wild troops of monkeys, the trudge uphill promises a sense of peace. By dusk, the caves of Kanheri return to their original state, the way they were centuries ago. The wind wafts through cool dark chambers, echoing the sonorous chants of monks who once dwelt within.

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FACT FILE

Distance: 27 km from Mumbai, 159 km from Pune
Time: 1 hour from Mumbai, 3hr 20 min from Pune
Route: Head north on the Western Express Highway to Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali and drive 7 km from the main gate to the ticket counter
Link: goo.gl/b1FF41
Stay: 3-member family tent (Rs.2500) and 14-member dorm tent (Rs.4200) at Sanjay Gandhi National Park. For booking, contact Nature Information Center (NIC) Ph 022-28868686 Email nicsgnp78@gmail.com https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in
Excursions: Tulsi Lake, Lion & Tiger Safari (Adult Rs.61 Child Rs.24), Nature Trails, Gandhi Tekdi memorial, Boating (2-seater Rs.36, 4-seater Rs.73) and Mini Train (Adult Rs.31 Child Rs.12) at Sanjay Gandhi National Park
Top Tip: Don’t visit on public holidays to avoid crowds. All activities except Gandhi Tekdi and Kanheri Caves closed on Monday & lunch time (1:30pm – 2:30pm). Wear comfy footwear with good grip because of the rocky surface. Carry a picnic hamper, though water, snacks and chai are available at a small tea stall at the entrance.

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 9 Sep 2018 in Mint Lounge newspaper. 

Lusaka: The heart of Zambia

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Known as Africa’s City of Peace, Lusaka is fast emerging as a tourism hub. Interesting cultural experiences, wild encounters and a vibrant nightlife can be found in the Zambian capital, write ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Sitting around a stone table in a dim-lit grotto with the soft gurgle of an indoor waterfall, we sipped white wine and nibbled on an assorted cheese platter. We were at Kaposhi Dairy in the 10,000-acre Chaminuka Farm on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital Lusaka, where an hour earlier we had petted cheetahs and admired the Chaminuka art collection.

Another night we moved from live jazz at Misty’s to bar-hopping at Chicago and Kegs & Lions, ending at Kalahari where a local band and dancers rocked late into the night and random strangers got on stage to bump and grind for dangerously close face-offs.

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Lusaka is one of the fastest developing cities in southern Africa and one can see why. Named after the headman of an erstwhile Lenje village on Manda Hill (manda means graveyard), Lusaka is perched atop a 4,198 feet high limestone plateau that blesses it with great weather.

Its strategic location at the junction of the Great North Road to Tanzania and the Great East Road to Malawi made it the natural choice as capital of the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. A section of the Great North Road was named Cairo Road in memory of British mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes’ vision of a road from Cape to Cairo through British colonies in Africa.

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In 1950, Ralph Sanders, a colonial civil servant working for the department of Game and Tsetse Control founded a Botanical Garden. He called it Munda Wanga or ‘My Garden’ in the local Nyanja dialect. As a botanist he was responsible for the establishment of many parks, gardens and the beautiful tree-lined avenues in Lusaka. Yet, wherever we drove around, we spotted painted signs of boring and drilling companies from China and India.

For years, European powers vied for control over the mineral-rich Copper Belt to the north. Dubbed as ‘red gold’, copper shaped the country’s infrastructural development, spurred trade unions and birthed Zambian nationalism. They say Zambia was born with a ‘copper spoon in its mouth’. Thanks to the freedom struggle spearheaded by Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia gained independence on 24 December 1964. The international airport named after the first President Kaunda is currently undergoing a major expansion with Chinese collaboration.

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We visited Chilenje House No. 394 where Dr Kenneth Kaunda lived between January 1960 and December 1962. From this humble house, he directed Zambia’s freedom struggle, triggering independence movements in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi). House No. 395 contains simple relics and chronicles the history and growth of Lusaka and Zambia’s political development. For more on the country’s history, the National Museum is the perfect resource. As the venue for several historic conventions, Lusaka is often hailed as Africa’s ‘City of Peace’.

The next stop Embassy Park Presidential Memorial is a mausoleum where late Zambian presidents Levy Patrick Mwanawasa (1948–2008), Frederick Chiluba (1943–2011) and Michael Sata (1937–2014) are buried. The US$15 entry fee is steep but includes a guided tour that describes its architectural highlights. Photography of the building across the main road, a former parliament building and now used by the Ministry of Defence, is prohibited. Interestingly, while these gentlemen had died in office, Zambia’s first President is still alive and well.

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Lusaka has a vibrant nightlife with several places to wine and dine. The historic Lusaka Golf Club serves excellent steak. Musuku restaurant at Southern Sun Ridgeway dishes out terrific Zambian fare including wild game meat like kudu, croc and impala, as does Chuma Grill at Radisson Blu.

Rembrandt at the Great Best Western offers the local staple nshima (finely ground maize flour porridge) and Zambezi bream, fresh from the river. Taj Pamodzi, where the Indian President Shri Ramnath Kovind had stayed during his recent visit, has a lovely bar called Marula and a rustic open-air restaurant Steaks and Grills rustling up Indian and Zambian grills.

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For shopping, head straight to Kabwata Cultural Village, an amorphous open-air market of thatch-roofed huts and makeshift stalls where you can buy stone and wood carvings, baskets, antique masks, drums, colorful clothes and more, directly from the artisans. Also worth a look is the Sunday Craft Market, a weekly affair in the car park of Arcades Shopping Centre on Great East Road.

It’s a great place to strike a bargain with a wide range of colourful handicrafts, wooden bowls, malachite figurines, African prints and masks. For a shopping mall experience, try the massive Manda Hill, East Park or Levy Junction.

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Yet, many of Lusaka’s top tourist hotspots are located not within the city but on the outskirts. Set in Lilayi Lodge’s 650-hectare game farm, the Lilayi Elephant Nursery is where orphaned elephants and abandoned calves are nursed before being rehabilitated to a Release Facility at Kafue National Park, 4 hours away. The project manager gave us an overview and showed us the backroom facility where formula milk was prepared for the young pachyderms.

Many calves like Nkala, Rufunsa, Maramba, Zambezi, Mosi-oa-Tunya and Kavalamanja were named after their place of discovery and had been released at Kafue. Each one had a heart-rending story. Musolele was named after the wildlife police officer who died defending his mother from poachers.

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Mulisani, literally ‘shepherd’, was named in honour of wildlife conservationist and artist David Shepherd. Njanji means ‘train tracks’ as this elephant was found on the railway line after being darted. In what’s a daily ritual, at 11.30am, we were ushered to a high viewing deck to watch them feed and play.

Soon, it was time for us to forage as well and Lilayi Lodge gave us our best meal in Lusaka – char-grilled rump steak, grilled Zambian crayfish and East African seafood curry. We shuffled heavily back to our vehicle for the hour’s ride to Lusaka. Bent over our padded waistlines, we laboriously packed our souvenirs, noticing how it wasn’t the only excess baggage we carried…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Lilayi and Chaminuka are on the outskirts of Lusaka, 45 min drive away.

Stay
Southern Sun Ridgeway
Ph +260 211 251 666
www.tsogosun.com

Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel
Ph +260 21 1239666
www.lusakagrand.co.zm

Protea Hotels by Marriott
Ph +260 21 1254664
https://www.marriott.com

Radisson Blu Hotel
Ph +260 960 280900
www.radissonblu.com

Taj Pamodzi
Ph +260 21 1254455
https://vivanta.tajhotels.com

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Nature/Wildlife
Chaminuka
Ph +260 211 254146, 840884
www.chaminuka.com

Lilayi Elephant Nursery & Lodge
Ph +260 211 840435/6, 971 00 2010 http://www.lilayi.com
http://gamerangersinternational.org/

Must Eat
Steaks at Lusaka Golf Club
Zambian cuisine at Musuku, Chuma Grill & Steaks and Grills
Nshima & Zambezi bream at Rembrandt
Fried Chicken at Hungry Lion
Pizza at Debonnairs
Indian food at Bombay Lounge

Buy
Masks, wood & stone carvings Kabwata Cultural Centre
Local crafts at Sunday Market, Arcades car park
Malls like Manda Hill, East Park, Arcades & Levy Junction

Nightspots
Live jazz at Misty
Local Zambian music at Kalahari
Bars like Chicago’s, Keg & Lion and Alpha
Late night at Kabwata

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 Oct 2018 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

A date with Oman

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ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY savour a platter of experiences – from Portuguese forts and dolphin cruises, ancient petroglyphs and secret wadis – served with trademark Omani hospitality.

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Oman is a country that will astonish you with its riches. The Queen of Sheba’s palace near Salalah was the epicentre of the 6000-year-old frankincense trade and it is likely that the frankincense carried by one of the Three Magi during the birth of Jesus originated here. Sinbad the Sailor is not merely a legend, but a man of flesh and blood who was born in the ancient Omani capital of Sohar.

In the 8th century, Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king of Kerala, adopted Islam (purportedly the first Indian to do so), divided his kingdom among various feudatories and sailed to Mecca; he died while returning and his tomb lies in the Omani port of Zafar. In a country where the tallest structure in any town is not a shiny skyscraper but usually the local mosque, the understated Omani hospitality is disarming.

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Straddling the crossroads of three continents and four seas, Oman’s rich history was shaped by the waters that lap against its rugged shores. Hemmed by the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea and guarded by the Al Hajar mountains and the Rub’ al Khali desert (literally ‘Empty Quarter’), it strategically overlooks the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The Persians and Ottomans vied for control over the lucrative maritime trade of the Indian Ocean.

Yet, the country’s geography was its security and even the powerful Portuguese could only occupy a few coastal areas. Expelled in 1650 AD, they left behind a slew of seaside forts. Today, Muscat’s twin forts Al Jalali and Al Mirani, besides the Muttrah souq stand proof of the short-lived Portuguese presence in the Gulf.

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But Oman has a lot more to offer than Muscat. We flew to Khasab, an hour’s flight from the capital in the northern-most governorate of Musandam. One look at the Prussian blue fjords surrounded by mauve mountains from our Oman Air flight and we knew why it was called the ‘Norway of Arabia’.

Checking into the luxurious Atana Khasab Hotel, we enjoyed a lovely Arabian spread of fried hamour (fish), Zatar bread, hummus, falafel, moutabel (seasoned eggplant with olive oil) and salads perked up with zesty sumac (lemony spice). We washed it all down with laban (salty buttermilk) and date milk, before setting off on our local explorations.

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Khasab Fort, built by the Portuguese on the site of an earlier fortification, has been renovated into a museum and serves as the perfect curtain raiser to the maritime nation and its well-preserved Arabian culture. Various types of traditional boats graced the courtyard as if they had magically washed ashore.

Around it were specimens of a coffee-making room, arish (summer house) and granary with thematic rooms on the upper floors – a ladies’ majlis, study room, wedding chamber, an apothecary of traditional medicine and a dazzling showcase of costumes, jewellery and ornate khanjars (Omani daggers). We drove along the scenic Coastal Road from Khasab to the fort of Bukha, set against a stunning backdrop of jagged cliffs.

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Oman’s 1600km long coastline brims with adventures – from kite surfing and sportfishing to diving at The Aquarium at Damaniyat Islands, whale watching at Mirbat, bird spotting at the wetlands of Masirah Island and turtle hatching at Ras al Jinz. Back in Khasab, a traditional Omani dhow waited for us with friendly staff at our service with fruits and cool drinks as we lounged on plush carpets. The crags were studded with large flocks of nesting cormorants feeding their young while others dived and emerged to dry their wings on the rocky perches. Dolphins cleaved through clear blue waters, outpacing our dhow with graceful leaps.

We soon docked near Telegraph Island, named after the undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854 to send messages from Karachi to London along the Persian Gulf submarine cable. Today, its rich marine life and stunning tropical fish was a magnet for snorkelers and divers seeking hammerheads, leopard whale sharks, mink whales, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. Donning our masks and fins, we plunged into the clear waters for a sublime experience.

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Oman is also home to the loftiest peak in the Arabian Peninsula – Jebel Shams, often compared to the Grand Canyon for its rugged untamed beauty. But we were headed on a winding offroad drive to the 2,087 m high Jebel Harim, or the ‘Mountain of Women’. According to legend, local women often flocked to this lofty hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing, hence its name.

En route we stopped at a lookout over the stunning fjord Khor Najd, besides Bedouin cave dwellings that were inhabited till the 1940s. At Qida, intriguing petroglyphs (stone carvings) of human, animal and abstract figures indicated the presence of early man. Yet, nothing prepared us for the sight of marine fossils high up in the mountain, imprinted on rocks when the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates of a restless earth collided around 90 million years ago!

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We flew back to glitzy Muscat, which seemed a world apart from remote Musandam. The imprint of Sultan Qaboos was everywhere with roads, grand mosques and portraits paying tribute to the dynamic sultan who had literally pulled the sultanate from the dark ages, transforming it into a modern state.

After luxuriating at the opulent Shangri-La Hotel, we drove to A’Sharqiyah or Wahiba Sands for some glamping at Desert Nights Camp. Our plush tent with stunning rugs and carpets was indeed fit for a sultan. It was a short offroad drive to catch the sunset over the dunes, which changed colour with every passing moment.

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The 12,500 sq km desert tract stretched 180 km by 80 km in the Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern Region) and was earlier called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe inhabiting the region. Choosing to trudge down the sandy slopes to the camp, we were greeted by the sweet strains of the oud (traditional stringed instrument) and darbouka (goblet drum) while the smoky aroma of barbecues wafted as we dined under a starlit sky. It was a lavish Arabian spread of shuwa (meats), rice, Zatar bread, labneh, date milk and camel milk.

In the morning, we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride around the resort and tried quad biking and sandboarding, before our guide Mohammad from Khimji Travels took us dune bashing. It was a quick pitstop at Al Wasil to fill air into the tyres, which had been deflated to reduce the air pressure for the desert.

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Our next destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi (freshwater pool) in the region, part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains that soared up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there was no road access and people could get here only on donkeys or on foot. We trudged along the falaj or irrigation canal lined by date palms to the oasis. Serving coffee with a platter of dates is the hallmark of Omani hospitality. In the old days, the birth of a son was marked by planting a date palm! Enterprising kids deftly maneuvered wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels.

On reaching an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains shimmering with copper deposits, we spotted locals enjoying themselves at aquamarine pools. With depths ranging up to 10 meters, the pools were safe for swimming. The scent of char-grilled meats emanated from barbecues in shaded groves of palm trees; someone else burned frankincense in a majmar (charcoal brazier). It was the heady aroma of Oman.

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HOW TO EXPERIENCE OMAN

One of the safest countries in the Middle East to immerse yourself in authentic Arabian culture, Oman is the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. Its long coastline, soaring dunes and rugged mountains bejeweled with idyllic wadis (fresh water pools) are filled with many adventures.

Getting there & Around
The national carrier Oman Air flies direct to Muscat International Airport, Seeb from Mumbai (2h 50m), besides Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi and Trivandrum (3h 30m). Khasab is a 50-min domestic flight from Muscat while Sharqiya Sands is 203 km via M23 (Muscat-Sur highway) towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. www.omanair.com

When to go
Oman is pleasant from October to April barring the scorching summer months from June to August, except Salalah in the south which is washed by the khareef (rainy) season. The annual nesting of green turtles at Ras al Jinz is between July to October.

Visa
1-month e-Visa for Oman is available for 20 OMR (Omani Rial). Those holding a valid visa for US, Canada, Australia, UK, Japan or Schengen countries can get a short-term 10-day visa for just 5 OMR. https://evisa.rop.gov.om/en/visa-eligibility

BUY
Oman’s souks brim with stalls selling frankincense, attars, oils, ornamental khanjars (daggers), antiques, besides Turkish plates and lamps. Pick up a bottle of the best perfume Amouage or choose from hundreds of varieties of dates – Khasab, Farah or Khalas (the most premium variety), besides the glutinous Omani halwa. The medwak or Arabian smoking pipe made of wood, bone, metal, marble, gold, silver or glass is a great souvenir.

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Where to Stay

MUSCAT
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa

Accessible through a tunnel, the complex of two hotels Al Waha (literally Oasis) and Al Bandar (The Town) has traditional Dhofari architecture with Chi spa offering a 4-hr Serenity Ritual with a frankincense scrub www.shangri-la.com

The Chedi
Luxurious 158-room hotel with Omani style rooms and villas, six restaurants, three pools and a Balinese spa. www.ghmhotels.com/en/muscat/

Al Bustan Palace
Opulent Arab-Art Deco resort with luxurious rooms, majestic 38m domed atrium lobby, five pools and 1km private beach, the longest in Oman. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/oman/al-bustan

KHASAB

Atana Khasab/Musandam
Atana Khasab is a 4-star resort offering panoramic views of the spectacular Musandam shoreline or the mountains and authentic Omani cuisine while Atana Musandam is inspired by an Omani village with 8 clusters of lowrise buildings that come with private balconies. www.atanahotels.com

SHARQIYA SANDS

Desert Nights Camp
The only luxury desert camp in Oman set in 10-acres with 39 uber-luxury Bedouin style tents and adventure activities in the desert.
Ph +968 92818388, 99477266 www.desertnightscamp.com www.omanhotels.com

1000 Nights Camp
Set amidst golden dunes and Cineraria trees, stay in a choice of luxury tents fitted with reflective glass in the east and west for the perfect view of sunrise and sunset.
Ph +968 99448158, 22060243 http://thousandnightsoman.com

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TOUR OPERATORS

Khimji Travels
Hotel bookings, local transport and tours
www.khimjistravel.com www.touroman.om

Khasab Tours
Dhow cruises, offroad safaris & local excursions in Musandam
www.khasabtours.com

TIP
Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed (some believe it captures their soul), so always ask before clicking.

For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om

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

 

Sibsagar: Legacy of the Ahoms

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Former capital of the Ahom kingdom,  Sibsagar and its surrounding towns are a treasure trove of Assam’s regal heritage, write ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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As luck would have it, we happened to be in the historic city of Sibsagar the day ULFA had called for a bandh. We couldn’t let a strike disrupt our only chance to explore the ancient capital of the Ahoms. With much difficulty, we found a brave taxi driver who agreed to show us around.

The moment we got off the car to click pictures of the old British era Dikhow Bridge, we noticed locals down their shutters and flee in the opposite direction. We nonchalantly clicked away, casting a quizzical glance at their odd behaviour. Were they that camera shy, we wondered?

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When we returned to our car, our driver explained that we had been mistaken for top ULFA commanders scouring the area to ensure that the response to the bandh was absolute. “Whatever gave them that idea?” we asked. “Your clothes” was his quick reply. Only then did we notice that by sheer coincidence we had worn jungle-style camouflage cargos and caps that day!

We guffawed. Thus emboldened, we went about discovering Sibsagar town with renewed swagger. Like the central section of the Dikhow Bridge that could be raised to allow ships to pass, it seemed as if the whole town had paved way for our unhindered exploration…

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Centuries ago, it was another trailblazing journey that changed the course of Assam’s history. Tai prince Chao-Lung Sukapha of Mang Mao decided to seek fortune in a new land and forged south from Yunnan in China with his queens, retinue and a large army. Travelling via Myanmar and Patkai Hills to Namrup in Upper Assam, the epic journey took 13 years.

Enamored by the sight of the glorious plains of the Brahmaputra Valley, he called it Mung-Dun-Chun-Kham or the ‘Golden Kingdom’. Here, he established the medieval Ahom dynasty in 1228 AD that reigned for 600 years and took on the might of the Mughals. The kingdom eventually fell to Burmese invasions in 1819 and was annexed by the British East India Company in 1826.

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Sukapha set up his first capital in 1251 AD about 30 km from present day Sivasagar. He named it Charaideo, derived from Che-Rai-Doi or “shining city on the hill” in the Tai language. Not much of it remains except the maidams (royal tombs) that looked like hemispherical mounds atop a small hillock. Historical records note how each of these vaults of kings, queens and nobles, much like the Egyptian pyramids, contained articles to be used in the afterlife and were thus plundered for their riches.

Of the 150 tombs here, only 30 remain, located in a compound protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Over time, the Ahoms married locally and assimilated into the social fabric of the region. The kings were called Chaopha (chao means ruler, pha is heaven) or kings of divine descent. Suhungmung (1497–1539) became the first Ahom king to take on the Hindu title Swarganarayan; later kings were called Swargadeos (Lord of the Heavens). By the 17th century, the Ahoms had well adopted Hinduism.

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The capital was shifted many times over the years though Charaideo remained the spiritual centre. Garhgaon, 14 km from Sibsagar was another such imperial city but the only surviving relic was the Kareng Ghar. The multi-storied palace was built in 1752 by Rajeshwar Singha at the center of a walled city encircled by a moat. The lofty citadel afforded great views over the manicured gardens that stretched around it.

Rudra Singha (1690–1714 AD), the 30th Ahom king established a new capital and christened it Che-mon or Rangpur. It served as the capital of the Ahom Kingdom from 1699 to 1788 and was renamed Sibsagar or Sivasagar after the borpukhuri (Big Tank), a large man-made lake in the heart of town. On its banks stand a troika of dols (temples) constructed in 1734 AD by Kuwori Ambika, the queen of Swargadeo Siba Singha.

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Soaring over a hundred feet above the city’s skyline, Shivadol is the tallest Shiva temple in the north east. The original golden kalasha (urn) capping the spire was taken down by the British and replaced by a gold-plated replica. In the complex were smaller temples – Vishnudol and Devidol – that were testimony to the co-existence of Vaishnavite and Shakta sects. The temple walls were suffused with intricate sculptures and reliefs.

At the tall gateways Na-Duar (New Gate) and Bor-Duar (Big Gate), we noticed the winged dragon with a spiky tail, the emblem of the Ahom dynasty. The recurrent motif gave some clue about the oriental origins of the Ahoms. At Rang Ghar, two dragons graced the entry gate to what locals claim is the oldest amphitheater in Asia.

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Built in 1744 by Pramatta Singha, the two storied building was oblong, allegedly inspired by the shape of the Ahom longboats. From this lofty recreational pavilion, the Ahom kings witnessed cockfights, bullfights, elephant fights and various other festivities.

We drove past Gola Ghar or Khar Ghar, the old ammunition depot that sat pretty but forlorn in the paddy fields. Talatal Ghar, the largest Tai Ahom monument, was built as a strategic military base. Only its first two floors are accessible while the upper royal quarters made of wood are long gone.

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It takes its name from the three subterranean floors (currently out of bounds), which had secret tunnels for escape during war and cul de sacs to confuse the enemy. Our driver explained that the massive stone slabs had been held together by a unique mortar – a mixture of sticky rice, duck eggs, certain types of fish and other local ingredients!

Near Talatal Ghar is Joydol on the bank of Joysagar Tank, a beautiful lake spread over 318 acres. Both the lake and shrine were constructed by Swargadeo Rudra Singha (1696-1714) in memory of his mother Joymoti, who sacrificed her life to save her husband Gadapani. During the Purge of the Princes (1679 -1681) under King Sulikphaa, Gadapani went into hiding at Vaishnava satras (monasteries) and the Naga Hills. Despite being tortured for days, the Ahom princess refused to betray her husband. The valorous tale of Joymati was the subject of the first ever Assamese feature film Joymoti in 1935.

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Sibsagar is a town of tanks and monuments erected by members of the Ahom royalty. Queen Bor Kuwori Phuleshwari Devi built the massive Gaurisagar spread over 150 acres. Swargadeo Lakshmi Singha built a tank in 1773 and named it Rudrasagar after his father Swargadeo Rudra Singha.

Over time, the Ahom dynasty disintegrated although a small population of Tai-Khamyang people stays at Chalapothar Shyam Gaon in Moniting. They follow Buddhism and it is home to the oldest Buddhist temple in Assam and a few other monasteries. Though the days of royalty have long gone, their legacy lives on in the lakes and temples they left behind that continue to sustain the populace.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Jorhat, the nearest airport, from where Sibsagar is 66 km while Dibrugarh Airport is 81km away.

Where to Stay
Hotel Piccolo
Arunodoi Path (Boarding Road)
Ph 03772-223126, 222173, 98592 87203
www.hotelpiccolo.in

Hotel Brahmaputra
BG Road, Sivasagar
Ph 03772-222200, 7399019903
www.hotelbrahmaputra.com

Hotel Brindavan
AT Road, Near Shyam Temple
Ph 03772-220414, 9706012999

ATDC Tourist Lodge
Main Road, Sibsagar
Ph: 03772-222394

For more info
www.assamtourismonline.com
https://tourism.assam.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the cover story ‘Jewels of the North East’ in the September 2018 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Conversations on Conservation

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase top eco-friendly destinations in India to go with Sept 27, World Tourism Day’s theme – Sustainable Tourism, a Tool for Development

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We just returned from Rwanda after attending the 14th Kwita Izina, a unique naming ceremony of newborn mountain gorillas. An endangered species, the gorillas were saved from the brink of extinction in the 1980s to a current population of over a thousand. The world had gathered to attend the ceremony and a 2-day workshop called Conversations on Conservation and it was heartening to see a tiny country roughly the size of Meghalaya lead the world in the field of cleanliness, wildlife protection and sustainable tourism.

India is no stranger to conservation. This is a country where animals are deified as vahanas (sacred mounts) for gods, where trees, mountains and rivers are worshipped, the world’s first laws on conservation were promulgated by Emperor Ashoka in his rock edicts and communities are ready to lay down their lives for the protection of flora and fauna. Many of the shikargahs (hunting reserves) maintained by royalty and the British became the nucleus of today’s wildlife sanctuaries.

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Through conservation efforts like Project Tiger and Project Elephant, numbers revived and in many cases tribals living on park fringes were made custodians and poachers turned protectors. But somewhere along the way we lost the plot and massive population pressures led to massive deforestation, unchecked nature exploitation and constant human-animal conflicts.

Yet, some community-led eco initiatives across India give hope to the rest of the country. In Nagaland, a region where hunting is a way of life, conservation might seem a far-fetched concept. For centuries, warrior tribes embellished their colourful costumes and headgears with feather, tusk, claw and bone. During festivals, long bamboo pennants were festooned with iridescent dead birds.

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But in the dark woods of Nagaland, a small Angami village community in Khonoma is committed to protecting the exotic Blyth’s Tragopan. The vulnerable pheasant, widely hunted in the past for food in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, suffered greatly due to rampant deforestation and slash-and-burn cultivation, which destroy its habitat. Being excellent hunters, Nagas mimic birdcalls and lure the gullible bird by emitting calls of the opposite sex.

When Khonoma switched to alder cultivation as part of a larger plan to create a model village for eco-tourism, it paved the way for the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). Set up in 1998, the sanctuary is maintained entirely by the village community, which enforced a complete hunting ban in 2001. In the 2005 census, 600 tragopans were recorded, besides other endemics like Naga Wren Babbler. The 25 sq km 70 sq km sanctuary is maintained by the village community and is a great place for birdwatching.

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Perched like an eagle in the upper reaches of Western Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest Sanctuary was practically unknown to the birdwatching community till 2003! Largely due to the efforts of Kaati Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to biodiversity research and conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest is now rated among the top birding hotspots in Asia. Tapping into the indigenous knowledge of forest-dwelling tribes like Bugun and Sherdukpen paved the way for responsible wildlife tourism through sustainable partnerships.

The recent discovery of a new bird species the Bugun Liocichla by birder and conservationist Ramana Athreya has spurred interest into the tiny 218 sq km sanctuary. With an altitudinal variation of 500-3200m, trails from the tented campsites of Sessni (1250 m), Bompu (1940 m) and Lama Camp (2350 m) reveal rare species like Temminck’s Tragopan, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler, Ward’s Trogon, Beautiful Nuthatch, Purple Cochoa and Chestnut-breasted Hill-Partridge and. Many of the local Bugun tribesmen serve as guides and naturalists, making them direct stakeholders in the conservation story.

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At Mawlynnong in the Eastern Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, local inhabitants take great pride in the tag of ‘cleanest village in Asia’ their tiny village has acquired. The small community of about five hundred people is fastidious about cleanliness and the pathways are spotless with beautiful cane dustbins outside very home. A green sign proudly proclaims ‘Mawlynnong: God’s own garden’ and quite ironcially the local economy thrives on the cultivation of Thysanolaena maxima or Broom grass, whose inflorescence is used for the common phool jhadu.

The village authorities run a scenic guesthouse and machan overlooking a rivulet for hikes to Meghalaya’s fascinating Living Root Bridges. An age-old method of crossing wild mountain streams, the pliant quick growing roots of the Ficus elastica tree are entwined to grow into an elaborate lattice. Over time the bridge is paved with stone. There’s an unwritten rule that if any villager passing by spots a new root, he has to weave it into the mesh.

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Another community that occupies prime position on India’s conservation map is the Bishnois, a cult founded in late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji who proposed 29 principles (‘bish-noi’ in Marwari) governing a conscientious life and conservation. Being staunch vegetarians, they worship the all-sustaining khejri tree, do not sterilize oxen and consider all life forms sacred. They revere and protect the blackbuck with their life, as certain Bollywood stars on a hunting trip found out!

Long before Sunderlal Bahuguna’s Chipko movement and Hug-a-Tree campaigns, a memorial in Kejarli village in Pali district honours the commitment and sacrifice of the Bishnois. Led by the fearless Amrita Devi, who hugged a khejri tree to prevent it from being cut to fire a brick kiln of the king, 256 Bishnois joined her and laid down their lives.

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In Rajasthan, Tal Chhapar Sanctuary is a taal (flat tract) of open grassland with scattered acacia trees on the edge of the Thar Desert. Spreads over 1334 sq km, it is a haven for India’s most elegant antelope, the Blackbuck. Even today, each Bishnoi family makes a monthly donation of one kilogram of bajra (pearl millet) to a community store, maintained to feed blackbucks every evening.

After wandering the plains all day, blackbucks assemble around Bishnoi hamlets at dusk. Locals lovingly feed these herds, which vary from 50 to 500 in number. The villages of Kejarli, Rohet and Guda Bishnoiya offer great insights into the inextricable link between Bishnois and nature.

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In a distant corner of Jodhpur’s Thar Desert, the nondescript village of Khichan has gained international acclaim for its heartwarming tradition of feeding Demoiselle Cranes (locally called kurjas) every winter. A small grain-feeding initiative snowballed into a conservation movement, with over 9000 cranes visiting Khichan every year between August and March. The locals, mostly Jain Marwaris, are strictly vegetarian and idolize the kurja for its vegetarian diet and monogamous nature.

As part of a systematic feeding program, cranes are fed twice a day at chugga ghars (feeding enclosures) on the village outskirts. Each session lasts 90 minutes and 500 kg of birdfood is consumed daily! This huge demand is met by generous donations from locals and tourists, overseen by societies like the Kuraj Samrakshan Vikas Sansthan and Marwar Crane Foundation. With avian and human visitors on the rise, many buildings have been converted into lodges to witness the dance of the demoiselles and the sky enshrouded by grey clouds of birds on wing.

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A similar initiative can be seen closer home at Kokkarebellur by the banks of the Shimsa River off the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway. Dotted with water-tanks replete with fish, for years Kokkarebellur has been the roosting site of painted storks and spot-billed pelicans, which nest atop ficus and tamarind trees in the village centre. Catalyzed by an incentive scheme introduced by senior forest official SG Neginhal in 1976, locals adopted a sustainable conservation model. Though compensated for losses incurred in their tamarind crops due to nesting, the villagers’ involvement transcends cold commerce.

They protect the birds as a ‘living heritage’, regarding them as harbingers of good luck and prosperity. The migrants arrive in September after the monsoon to build nests and lay eggs from October to November. After roosting for months, they tirelessly feed their hatchlings through summer. When they fly back in May, womenfolk bid them emotional goodbyes as if they were their own daughters leaving their maternal homes after delivery.

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The endemic Nilgiri Tahr roams free in the 97 sq km Eravikulam National Park on mountain slopes carpeted with purple kurunji flowers in the shadow of Anamudi (2695m), the highest peak south of the Himalayas. Managed as a game reserve by the Kannan Devan Hill Produce Company, Eravikulam was earlier a private hunting ground for British tea planters. Estate managers served as wardens while Muduvan tribals were employed as game watchers. In 1928, the High Range Game Preservation Association was set up to manage hunting activities.

Later, this regulatory body lobbied for the creation of a specialized park and continues to manage and protect the area along with the Forest Department. Of the 1420 Nilgiri Tahr found in Kerala, Eravikulam harbours the largest surviving population; 664 as per the 2017 census.

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Wrapped around three dams that create a 20.6 sq km reservoir, Parambikulam is a 285 sq km park on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. The altitudinal variation of 600 m to 1439 m blesses it with great astonishing diversity with Karimala Peak the park’s highest point. Once a hub of British timber trade, today the park is well protected and a role model for sustainable tourism. Eco-tourism packages range from wildlife safaris, bamboo rafting, birdwatching, overnight camping inside the forest and guided walks like the Kariyanshola Trail and the Cochin Forest Tramway Trek.

Visitors stay in Swiss-style tents, treetop huts overlooking the reservoir and a bamboo hut on Vettikunnu Island, accessible only by boat. The 48.5 m high Kannimara Teak, believed to be the largest in Asia, is hailed as the pride of Parambikulam and it takes five men to encircle the 450-year-old tree with a girth of 6.57 m. The other big draw happens to be a tiny creature – the coin-sized Parambikulam Frog endemic to the park.

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Kerala has shown the lead in sustainable eco-practices through its walking trails in Periyar with local guides as well as Thenmala, the first planned eco-tourism destination in the country. The damming of three rivers has created a scenic artificial dam where boating is conducted, besides rope bridge walkways, trekking and a deer rehabilitation centre. In adjoining Coorg, another biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, botanist-microbiologist couple Dr Sujata and Anurag (Doc) Goel with their daughter Maya run a 20-acre farm growing cardamom and coffee in the shade of rainforest trees.

A unique blend of eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture and environmental education, the award-winning eco lodge is a good place to go on guided plantation walks while staying in low impact Drongo and Atlas Cottages (named after the world’s largest moth species found here). Wholesome meals are prepared using fuel from the biogas plant with farm produce like cardamom, civet cat coffee, gourmet filter coffee, pepper and vanilla sold under the label ‘Don’t Panic, It’s Organic’.

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Proceeds go towards the Goels’ biodiversity research foundation WAPRED (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity). Doc has also published Life Organic, a coffee table book on the floral and faunal biodiversity of the plantation featuring flying frogs and green vine snakes.

To protect the fragile watershed of Talacauvery and its rainforest ecosystem, Pamela and Dr Ashok Malhotra acquired over 300 acres of private forest land since 1991 to create Sai Sanctuary Trust. With the Paradise Flycatcher as their logo, their conservation efforts have paid dividends as the river has replenished, otters have returned along with the birds and wildlife while butterflies congregate in large numbers. The eco-friendly cottages give visitors a chance to stay and lend a helping hand.

Snow Leopard WWI

In the high altitude cold desert of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, Spiti Ecosphere partners with local communities for sustainable development in this fragile mountain ecosystem. The stress is on livelihood generation through conservation of indigenous natural resources like tsirku (seabuckthorn) and wild organic produce. As part of responsible eco-travel, tourists can engage in voluntourism like building energy efficient homes and green houses.

As part of wildlife conservation, follow the trail of the endangered Himalayan Wolf and the Snow Leopard at Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and Pin Valley National Park. Discover ancient fossils and remote Buddhist monasteries on yak safaris or treks while staying at rustic homestays in high altitude Himalayan villages. The Snow Leopard Conservancy and similar programs in Ladakh have created alternate livelihoods for local villagers as trackers in what is now a busy winter season to track the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas.

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FACT FILE

Rainforest Retreat
Ph +91-8272 265638/6, 201428, 9480104640
Email rainforestours@gmail.com
www.rainforestours.com

SAI Sanctuary Trust
Theralu Village & Post
South Kodagu District
Ph 08274-238022/238036, 9341975527
Email saisanctuary@gmail.com
http://www.saisanctuary.com

Spiti Ecosphere
Ph 01906-222652
M 9418860099, 7673903530, 8988471247
www.www.spitiecosphere.com

Eaglenest Biodiversity Project
West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh
Ph 02132-245770

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