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Kappa Chakka Kandhari: Flavours of Kerala

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From toddy shop ‘touchings’ to temple payasams, Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Koramangala serves Kerala cuisine and nostalgia on a platter, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Chatti meen & Kozhi Curry 3_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

The KCK story began on a rainy day when three friends – Chef Regi Mathew, engineer John Paul, and event manager Augustine Kurian – got nostalgic over typical childhood snacks like pazhampori and sukhiyan. Chef Mathew reveals, “Each of us thought of our favourite items and how it would be wonderful to bring it back.” And so, after three years of research and several pop-ups between Bangalore and Dubai, they opened Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Chennai to rave reviews. Around 500 days later and 350 km away, they launched a sprawling new restaurant in Koramangala, Bengaluru. In an exclusive preview, we chatted with co-owner and Culinary Director Chef Regi Mathew to understand what catapulted KCK to #23 at Conde Nast’s recent Top Restaurants in India.

The name itself is a talking point. Built on the three pillars or standard ingredients typical to Kerala – Kappa (tapioca), Chakka (jackfruit) and Kandhari (Bird’s eye chilli) – the restaurant is an ode to home-style local fare, like mum’s cooking, often taken for granted. Be it chai kadas (tea stalls) or toddy shops, this is where the food of your childhood and youth comes together. To recreate a memory map of food, they set off on a culinary journey from Kasargod to Trivandrum.

Mutton Chaps 2_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

“I’m from Kottayyam while my partners are from Thrissur and Kannur,” says Chef Regi. “We went back to our roots to our mothers. We remember plucking tapioca from the backyard for evening snacks and chasing after chickens to prepare a meal for guests. We collected their recipes, nuances and cooking methods and asked them to put us onto ten of their close childhood friends who were good cooks. From 30 housewives it became 265 housewives and after visiting over 70 toddy shops (beyond a point, you don’t remember), we collected 800 odd recipes. Only 90 dishes have made it to the final menu, a good representation from the Malabari, Syrian Christian and Namboodri kitchens.”

The ground floor space is inviting and comfortably seats 90 with an outdoor verandah overlooking a tree-lined avenue. Light pours in through enormous windows and a starry ceiling of studio lights. Teak tabletops rest on vintage sewing machine style bases. Colour tones echo earthy mustards, maroons and browns, the cement floor is industrial while shell-white walls bear sepia images, evocative of simple childhood pleasures – mud football and catching fish with a torth (thin towel). The table setting has neat copper banana leaf-shaped plates and elegant copper and brass cutlery. The serving dishes are mostly black clayware, except for the ‘touchings’ in toddy-shop style white plates with coconut shell spoons and palm handles.

Kandhari Ice Cream_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

We began with orange and lemon Goli Soda that brought in a wave of nostalgia, punching the marble down for the familiar pop ‘n fizz. There are no aerated drinks, only ethnic fare like nannari (sarsaparilla) sherbet, Absolut Kandhari – a school break classic of lime juice with a spicy kandhari kick and Kol Ice (ice lollies on sticks). Blasphemous as it may sound for a Kerala restaurant, they do not serve parota, biryani and meals on the menu.

Chef laughs, “We wanted to keep the food light, inspired by the ‘touchings’, known locally as thuttu-nakki, ‘touch and lick’ accompaniments served at kallu shaaps. Every toddy shop has its specialty like kappa-meen, duck mapas or clams. Portions are deliberately small, and we encourage people to try more sides and eat more protein rather than carbs.”

Idierachi 2_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

So out came Kakka Erachi or masala-fried clams sourced from Kerala’s backwaters, Ideirachi or sun-dried tenderloin and delicious Mutton Coconut Fry with coconut shavings. Kappa Vadas, boiled and spiced tapioca mash fried to a golden brown patty, came with an in-house beetroot puree, inspired from beetroot pickled in vinegar from Syrian Christian homes in Fort Cochin. Koorrka Ullarthiyathu or Chinese potatoes, found only in Central Travancore with a slightly more fibrous texture, were roasted in pepper and mild spices.

Prawn Kizhi, a delicious pocket of prawns steamed with coconut masala in banana leaf, was reminiscent of the kizhi (poultice pouches) used in Ayurveda. Improvising on his mother’s dish, it adds an element of drama and curiosity. Ayikoora Nellikka Masala Fry has its origins in Agasthyarmalai, where tribals would marinate fish with bird eye chili, green peppercorns, wild herbs and sundried gooseberry, baking it on heated river stones, whose minerals gave the salt content. Unusual dishes never found in restaurants, here you experience Kerala’s rich culinary diversity under one roof.

Ramassery idli _Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

In the open kitchen we witnessed the unique Ramasserry Idly being made, a signature dish from Ramaserry in Palakkad. Apparently, the Mudaliars, originally weavers who settled in Palghat travelled to sell their wares and created these idlis that wouldn’t spoil for 3-4 days. The unique steaming technique uses muslin cloth, netted clay rings, earthen pots and Plachi leaves.

It is paired with chicken curry or a delicious granular podi in coconut oil, with the earthy crunch of Palakaddan matta rice. The sweet n’ spicy Pineapple Nendram Masala – ripe nendrapazham (bananas) with spices, mustard, curry leaves and coconut oil is a standout dessert disguised as a palate cleanser.

Pidi and Ramapuram Kozhi Curry_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_shot by Vinayak Grover

Every dish has a story – Ramapuram’s pidi (tiny rice dumplings cooked in coconut milk) with mellow country-style koli (chicken) curry is offered to devotees at the Ramapuram Church on feast day. The mains are delicious, each with specific pairings – Vattayappam, pillowy soft fermented steamed rice cakes with delicately spiced Chatti Meen (Pearlspot) Curry, pathiri or typical Malabar rice roti with tantalizing Mutton Chaps.

The pure white ‘nice pathiri’ is from Tellicherry. Besides the unusual Puttu biryani, a steamed version from Cochin, there’s Maniputtu biryani or idiappam (string hoppers) available in mutton or green gram, served with papad. “Think of it as eating spaghetti”, says Chef Regi, forsaking a classical approach for a bolder attempt to make the food contemporary to a younger audience.

Mutton Puttu Biriyani 2_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

Despite his Taj experience and conceptualizing Ente Keralam, Chef Regi says this project improved his knowledge of Kerala food by 300%. Many staff members were picked up from their travels – toddy shop cook Aachan, the Ramassery idli maker, Sheelammachi and Sheelapriya, two ammachis from Kottayam and Fort Kochi – who ensure that the taste remains authentic and true to the region and community.

They use the open vessel slow-cooking method in traditional cookware like chattis (earthenware), urulis and cast iron pans in small batches at a separate kitchen with Malayalam songs playing in the background! “We make a set quantity of food everyday… if it gets over, it’s over.”

Njandu Roast 9 with ashaan_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

A lot has to do with sourcing the right ingredients, directly from the farmers, which helps maintain quality and flavour. The mutton is from goats that graze in hilly Wayanad; they are more energetic and the marbling on the meat is better. Pepper is top quality Tellicherry Gold from Pulpally. Cardamom is from Vandiperiyar and tea from a particular high-range plantation in Munnar.

They collected a range of payasams from the Namboodris in the Thrissur region and enlisted a Namboodri, also an Ayurvedic doctor and temple priest, who begins his cooking with a prayer. The other desserts were as exquisite – Unnakkai, kapok pod shaped quenelles of deep fried bananas stuffed with coconut and jaggery and the spicy Kandhari Ice Cream. Washing it down with cinnamon and spice infused Sulaimani Tea, a meal at Kappa Chakka Khandari left us with the lingering flavours of Kerala on our lips.

sulaimani chai_Kappa Chakka Kandhari_Photo by Vinayak Grover

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. Photos: Vinayak Grover.
This restaurant review was done for Conde Nast Traveller India and appeared on  13 December, 2019. Here’s the link to the story: https://www.cntraveller.in/story/kappa-chakka-kandhari-koramangala-new-restaurant-bengaluru-brings-flavours-kerala-table/

 

Scrolls of Time: Amadubi Pyatkar Artist Village

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit a rural tourism venture near Jamshedpur to interact with a community of Chitrakars (artists) practising the rare centuries-old art of Pyatkar painting

Amadubi Pyatkar artist Vijay Chitrakar-Anurag Mallick IMG_8434

In the artist village of Amadubi in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, painter Vijay Chitrakar sat in a little hut under the shadow of a palash (Flame of the Forest) tree. His eyes were closed in a meditative trance and as he cleared his throat to sing an ode to Durga, he slowly unfurled a scroll of the goddess painted by him. The performance was short but intense and when he finished, he opened his eyes as if waking from a reverie. We had just witnessed a mesmerizing live rendition of the rare pyatkar scroll painting.

Once upon a time, Manbhum district at the tri-junction of undivided Bihar, Bengal and Odisha was home to a community of nomadic artist/performers called Chitrakars (literally, ‘picture makers’). It’s theorized that their art was called Pyatkar as they painted on paat or scrolls of cloth/tree bark, or perhaps from paad or verse, which accompanied their art. Long before the advent of moving pictures, these storytellers have preserved their unique folk form for centuries, fusing art and song.

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In the old days, artists concentrated on a mythological story before composing an ode. After imagining a storyline, they painted it with mineral and vegetable hues extracted from nature – specific rocks, soil and leaves collected deep in the forest or by the river. During the performance, the scroll was slowly unfurled as they sang.

Like wandering minstrels, they roamed the countryside and villages, singing songs of devotion, life and death, often interpreting bad dreams. If a person died in a Santhal household, the Pyatkars would carry a painting of a person sans eyes to their home. The Santhals believe that it is only after the Pyatkars painted the iris (for a fee), that the wandering soul of the deceased would regain sight to seek the path to heaven and eternal peace.

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Over time, the artists translated these ballads into a series of paintings and sketches, incorporating elements of rural socio-economic life, agrarian practices and festivals. Sometimes a performance could last the whole night with the scroll stretching to a couple of meters. Today, nearly 50 Chitrakar families stay among Santhals at Amadubi. As Vijay Chitrakar humbly spread his artworks on the floor, we couldn’t resist buying a few pieces of this rare art.

We walked back from the village, meeting tribal hunters with bows and arrows along the way. Some were readying bonfires for a barbecue of hare and wild fowl. The rustic comfort of our ethnic huts at Rusiko Sangeko (literally Artisans’ Hamlet), a village tourism initiative at the Amadubi-Panijiya Rural Tourism Centre nearby, was welcoming.

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The vernacular cottages were made of mud, bamboo and wood and named after local trees Sal and Piyal (Chironji). The walls and ceilings bore hand-painted motifs, while the doors and windows had sculpted dokra handles; echoing the rich tradition of metalsmithy using the ancient lost wax technique.

At the Gurukul or workshop, ladies learnt block printing and adapted pyatkar motifs into Kantha embroidery. A small museum in the landscaped compound held a small collection of utensils and traditional musical instruments. The Akhara or open stage served as the venue for traditional dances during colourful festivals like the Sarpha, linked to agricultural practices.

Amadubi local cuisine-Anurag Mallick IMG_8491

After a performance in the yellow glow of lanterns, arranged on request, we dined on rare regional delicacies at the thatched dining hut. An assortment of ud pitha (steamed rice dumpling with lentils), gud pitha (sweet rice dumplings with jaggery) and zil pitha or fried rice dumpling stuffed with chicken was served on kansa (bronze) platters.

While many visit Amabudi as a day trip from Jamshedpur, an overnight stay is ideal for a taste of rural India and how things were before the country’s first ‘Steel City’ came up in the tribal heartland. We woke up to the call of peacocks and set out after breakfast on an excursion to nearby settlements of the Santhal and Oraon tribes.

Santhal homes-Anurag Mallick IMG_8169

Men worked in the fields, women winnowed, little boys made decorations with flowers and strips of bamboo while Santhali girls touched up their homes for the spring festival Sarhul. The walls of their immaculate homes displayed geometric designs in bold contrasting colours, often decorated with mirrors, broken bangles and discarded CDs that sparkled in the sun!

The area was rich in history with WWII era airfields at Dhalbhumgarh and Chakulia, the old Trivineshwar and Dasbhuja temples at Rajbari, a small fiefdom of the erstwhile Rajas of Dhalbhumgarh, the much-revered Rankini Mandir of Jadugoda and the scenic hills of Ghatshila, the birthplace of famous Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhaya. At an animist shrine in the forest, men prepared handiya (rice beer), country chicken and other offerings for their ancestors and tribal deities. With unusual straw figurines of animals suspended from the trees, the mood was set for revelry.

Sarhul festival-Anurag Mallick IMG_8531

We returned to Jamshedpur and bought more Pyatkar art, besides dokra craft, Mithila paintings and masks from Biponi Handicrafts in Bistupur. Helmed by Amitabha Ghosh of Kalamandir, they organize trips to Amadubi besides local festivals like the Adivasi Mela in Janumdih and Mohona Utsav in Jamshedpur that showcase the vibrant masked dance chhau.

At the Russi Modi Centre of Excellence and the Tribal Culture Centre, we got more insights into Jamshedpur’s early history and the lifestyle of local Santhal, Ho, Oraon, Munda and Bhumij tribes. En route to Ranchi airport, we halted for tea by the wayside and the hypnotic primal sounds of tribal drumbeats resonated through the forests.

Janumdih Adivasi Mela-Anurag Mallick IMG_7290

Must-See/Discover This
During World War II, the British constructed many airfields around India’s eastern frontier. With strategic access to Calcutta port, the bases were used to conduct raids against the Japanese army advancing in Burma. Built in the early 1940s, the airstrips of Dhalbhumgarh, Chakulia, Midnapore and Kharagpur are an important legacy of war history. Shells of abandoned air terminals lie half hidden by sal forests while tarmacs that once roared with fighter planes, have been reclaimed by wild scrub and errant cattle. The Japanese control of the South China Sea cut off seaborne supplies and it was from this forgotten nook that pilots flew 500 km over the treacherous ‘Hump’ or the Himalayas for the first overland bombings of Japan.

Dhalbhumgarh WWII era airstrip-Anurag Mallick IMG_8244

NAVIGATOR BOX

How to reach
Amadubi is 65 km/1½ hrs from Jamshedpur, the closest major town. Drive down NH-33 or the Ranchi-Kolkata Highway via Ghatshila, from where Amadubi is 12 km. The nearest railway station Dhalbhumgarh is 9 km away while Birsa Munda Airport in Ranchi is 170 km and Kolkata Airport 236 km.

Ideal for
Offbeat travelers and those interested in art, tribal culture, rural tourism and war history.

Best time to visit
The region is at its best through winter and spring with colourful tribal festivals like Dasai (Oct-Nov), Sohrai (Nov-Dec), Tusu Parab (Jan-Feb) and Sarhul/Baha (March).

Janumdih Adivasi Mela IMG_7675_Anurag Mallick

Stay
Amadubi has simple but limited accommodation; for greater comfort, stay in the many city hotels at the commercial precinct of Bistupur in Jamshedpur.

Rusiko Sangeko
Amadubi-Panijiya Rural Tourism Centre
Ph 0657-2320109
Email kalamandir.jsr@gmail.com www.kala-mandir.org
Tariff Rs.2,000/couple, Rs.450/head all meals, Sarpha dance Rs.1000

Fortune Park Centre Point
Contractors Area, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Ph 0657-3988444
www.fortunehotels.in
Tariff Rs.4,400

The Boulevard Hotel
D’Costa Mansion, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Ph 0657- 2425321/2, 9431302486
www.theboulevardhotel.net
Tariff Rs.2,300-3,350

The Alcor Hotel
Ram Das Bhatta, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Ph 0657-6620001
www.thealcorhotel.com
Tariff Rs.4,800-5,600

Ramada by Wyndham Jamshedpur
Holding No.3, Ram Das Bhatta, Bistupur, Jamshedpur
Ph 0657-6605000
www.ramadajamshedpurbistupur.com
Tariff Rs.6,800

IMG_8186_Jamshedpur-Anurag Priya

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Sep-Oct 2019 issue of Discover India magazine.

 

Malabar Daze: Silent Valley National Park

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go in search of the Lion-tailed Macaque in one of the last undisturbed tracts of Kerala’s Western Ghats

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For a name like Silent Valley, the place was alive with sounds of the forest – the gurgle of the brook, the buzz of insects, the whoop of langurs and the chirrup of giant grizzly squirrels in the towering Culinea trees. When Scottish botanist Robert Wright explored the area in 1847, he named it after the relative absence of cicadas. Cicadas do not thrive well in wet climate; since Silent Valley does not receive nine months of rain anymore, the cicadas too were back…

According to legend, this dense jungle was once Sairandhri Vanam, where the Pandavas stayed incognito during their agyata vasa (secret exile). It was called Sairandhri after the alias assumed by Draupadi and the river was called Kuntipuzha after the Pandavas’ mother. Pathrakadavu is regarded as the spot where the mythical akshay patra was washed.

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Though Silent Valley abounds in legends, it is its ecological importance that makes it special. Between its notification as a reserve forest in 1914 and declaration as a national park in 1984, a protracted and sustained campaign by the public, media, activists and expert committees had helped protect this unique habitat.

We were in one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest in the world. Surrounded by steep ridges, hills and escarpments, Silent Valley’s topographical isolation allowed it to develop into an ecological island with an unbroken bio history that evolved over millions of years. Driving past tribal settlements and the forest gate at Mukkali, we reached Sairandhri and hiked through the wilderness accompanied by experienced forest guides.

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Of the 960 species of flora here, 17 come under IUCN’s Red List. Our guide pointed out the giant tree fern Dinosaur pulpan, described as a ‘50 million year old living fossil’! Tapping the hard tree trunk, he intoned “Iron Wood of the Forest, in Malayalam Churuli, scientific name Mesua nagassarium.

Braving leeches on our walk, we reached the 100 ft watchtower at Sairandhri. The sign ‘Even Toddy Cats have stopped drinking in the park’ was clearly aimed at revelers. From the top, we got a panoramic view of Katimudi, Mukkalimudi and the Kuntipuzha river cutting through the valley.

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Fed by several mountain streams, the river dashes down the Anginda and Sispara mountains in Western Nilgiris, and flows south through the park after which it is called Thuthapuzha before joining the mighty Bharatapuzha. A 1½ km path from Sairandhri led to the crystal clear river with a steel suspension bridge, a rusty relic from Kerala State Electricity Board’s controversial and now defunct hydroelectric project.

Silent Valley’s flagship species and mascot is the Lion-tailed macaque. The vedichakka fruit of the tall Culinea tree is its primary food source and over half the global population of Lion-tailed macaques can be found here. The park also harbours 25 species of mammals, 35 species of snakes, 12 species of fish, 255 species of moths and 100 species of butterflies.

OT Oct 2019-SILENT VALLEY lion tailed macaque

Photo Courtesy: Dhritiman Mukherjee (Outlook Traveller, Oct 2019)

These include many endemics like Malabar Rose, Malabar Tree Nymph, Malabar Raven, Buddha Peacock, South Indian Blue Oakleaf and Tamil Catseye. Mukkali, the park entrance to the south, is the only place in Kerala where all three species of Crow butterflies – Common Crow, Double Branded Crow and the Brown King Crow – are found.

There are other winged visitors too; the checklist of 200 species of birds includes Ceylon Frogmouth, Nilgiri Laughing Thrush, Jerdon’s Imperial Pigeon, Peninsular Bay Owl and the elusive Malay Tiger Bittern. We spotted a Great Indian Hornbill swoop down from its lofty height. The peaks of Perumalmudi and Velliangiri Mala rose against the mountain folds while the tallest peak Malleshwaram is worshiped as a gigantic Shiva linga by local tribes.

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Trekking is not promoted within the park, though the buffer zones abound in numerous hikes organized by the Eco Development Committee – the Bhavani river trail (6km), the Karuvara waterfall trail (8km) past an Irula tribal colony and the Keeripara trail (10km) to scenic grasslands. Dark clouds swirled in and we just managed a hike back to our vehicle as the call of a Lion-tailed macaque resonated through the forests.

FACT FILE 

Getting There
By air: The nearest airports are Coimbatore (74 km) and Kozhikode (92 km).
By rail: The nearest railhead is Palakkad Junction at Olavakode (60 km)
By road: Drive 40km from Palakkad to Mannarkkad, pick up permissions at the Wildlife Warden’s Office and continue 20km to Mukkali, the park’s entrance. Jeeps can be hired from the Eco Development Committee at Mukkali to Sairandhri (23 km).

Area: 237.52 sq km
Altitude: 725 m to 2383 m above sea level
Location: In the northeastern corner of Kerala’s Palakkad district overlooking the plains of Mannarkkad (45 km).
When to go: The best time to visit is November to February.

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Stay
Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge
Set amidst 10 acres of protected wilderness and adjoining tracts of forest, Dominic Xavier’s rustic forest lodge offers three eco cottages and nature walks to interact with local tribal communities.
Pettickal, Sholayur, Attapady, Kerala 678581
Ph 099615 44663 http://malleeshwaram.com

Inspection Bungalow, Mukkali
Basic accommodation near the park entrance with three double rooms for Rs.600/day and two 8-bed dormitories at Rs.100/person, booked at the Wildlife Warden’s office in Mannarkkad (Ph 04924–222 056). There are also two huts that can be booked at 04294-253 225 (Rs.1000 for stay, Rs.3000 full package for stay, food and trekking).

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Contact
Office of the Wildlife Warden
Wildlife Division, Mannarkad
Palakkad 678 582
Ph 04924–222 056, 94473 73736
Email mail@silentvalley.gov.in

Asst. Wildlife Warden
Mukkali, Silent Valley National Park
Ph: 04924-253 225

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the Wildlife cover story in the October, 2019 edition of Outlook Traveller magazine.

 

Haunts of Horror: India’s Most Haunted

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY turn the spotlight on some of India’s most haunted spots that hold dread and intrigue

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In a country steeped in myth, legend and superstition where people believe in gods, demons and ghosts, it is easy to discover mysterious places where the normal and the paranormal worlds collide. The ubiquitous lady in white with tinkling anklets, spirits hanging upside down from old trees, phantoms with inverted feet, white waifs wafting around corridors and buildings, avenging apparitions, highway spirits hitchhiking or asking for directions are a recurrent theme in almost all ghost stories in India. However, there are some destinations where such stories are kept alive, often underscored by historical incidents, unnatural or accidental deaths, murder or curse.

The cobbled pathway and ruined fort walls leading to a cluster of temples, ruins and a magnificent hill fort looming overhead set against cheery sunny skies, could be mistaken for a lovely medieval European village unceremoniously discarded by time. However, the guide warned us that the place where we stood turned into the hub of demonic spirits that took on a mood so dreadful by night, that even birds abandoned it in fright.

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We were at Bhangarh, better known as “Bhooton ka Bhangarh” literally a ghost town near Sariska in Alwar district, regarded as one of the most haunted historic sites in India. Visitors are disallowed from hanging around between dusk and dawn as several paranormal activities and incidents have taken place, making this the only “legally haunted” site recognized by the Government of India.

The township was established in 1573 as the residence and capital of Madho Singh, the second son of the Kachwaha Rajput ruler of Amber, Bhagwant Das, and the younger brother of Emperor Akbar’s general, Madho Singh I. Madho Singh’s son Chhatra Singh took over as the next ruler but following his death in 1630, Bhangarh fell to ruin. Only four storeys of the seven-storied palace remain.

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The grim tale that shrouds Bhangarh revolves around Ratnavati, the beautiful daughter of Chhatra Singh and stepsister of Ajab Singh, founder of Ajabgarh. Besotted by her beauty, princes deluged her with marriage proposals. However, an evil tantric called Singhia was secretly in love with her. Knowing he couldn’t win her favour or marry her, he uses his expertise in black magic. As a palace maid buys perfume for the princess in the market, Singhia deviously puts a spell on it to enchant the princess and make her yield to him. The princess, herself well versed in tantric practice, sees through his plot and throws the vial to the ground. A boulder mysteriously appears, rolls down and crushes the tantric. In his dying breath, he curses that death and ruin will befall Bhangarh and its inhabitants.

The following year, a battle between the forces of Bhangarh and Ajabgarh, leads to the death of Ratnavati and most of the army. A small dwelling on a hill called Tantric ki chhatri testifies to this tale. Locals believe that ghosts still haunt the place with several claims of apparitions seen around the tombs and chhatris (pavilions) and unearthly screams ringing through the hills. Those who have tried to debunk Bhangarh’s haunted legacy haven’t met a great end.

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In western Rajasthan, the abandoned village of Kuldhara, at the base of the 14th century Khaba Fort is another well-known haunted locale. Viewed from the fort steps, it is hard to fathom that the rubble of stones and broken walls below was one of the 84 Paliwal villages, forsaken overnight some 300 years ago. Locals believe that the lusty advances of an evil dewan called Salim Singh towards the Paliwal chieftain’s daughter triggered the mass exodus. In its heyday, Kuldhara was studded with hundreds of homes, temples, chhatris (pavilions), courts and manmade lakes. We halted at the Shiv mandir at the village centre. Niches bearing unusual images of Durga and Shiva, clutching a severed head with a dog licking its blood, surrounded the empty sanctum.

As we returned to the same site at night on Suryagarh hotel’s specially curated Chudail Trail, all things that seemed harmless by day, turned into imagined objects of doom in the dark as our guide whispered the fearful tales. Our headlights across the scrub vegetation and gravestones in the Kuldhara cemetery cast spooky shadows. It was as if time could not obliterate history – oral traditions ensured that the desert remembers everything.

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We groped in a dank basement of an abandoned home where the chieftain’s daughter was supposedly buried alive and peered down wells where Salim Singh’s other victims had been drowned. Around the powerful Muhar Mahadev shrine, we noticed small lingas and nandis stacked in different spots where locals had encountered ghosts. Owing to the palpable presence of spirits, no one wished to resettle in the accursed village.

India is full of ghost stories of people who met a grisly or untimely death. The Shaniwarwada Fort in Pune is allegedly haunted by its murdered Peshwa teen Prince Narayan, while the Feroze Shah Kotla fort in Delhi is a hive of ghosts! Apparently, they have a fondness for sweets and people make offerings to appease them. Tales abound about the jinns of Jamali-Kamali Masjid near the Qutb Minar. According to Islamic legends, jinns possess supernatural powers to cross different worlds and often dwell in abandoned places. Sightings of apparitions, lights and animal growls emanating from within besides incidents of people being slapped by invisible forces add to the mystique of the historic Sufi shrine.

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Scenic Shimla hides its eeriness with panache, but a steaming cup of chai with a local could unlock creepy stories dating to the colonial era. The Viceregal Lodge, the former summer home of the Indian Viceroy is allegedly haunted by its erstwhile occupant Lady Curzon, who roams around in the grassy lawns at night or sometimes seen gliding down the majestic teak stairway inside.

Charleville Mansion, a century old castle in Shimla, finds mention in Rudyard Kipling’s “My Own True Ghost Story.” It was the home of British officer Victor Bayley and his wife, who chose it for its low rent and view. But, the Bayleys had unwittingly inherited a resident poltergeist that prompted its previous owner, an army officer, to flee. They lived there for a year but locked the room upstairs where bizarre violent activities were reported by Bayley’s help. The Charleville ghost could seamlessly pass through doors and wreak havoc by breaking mirrors and shattering furniture. Local folks claim that ghostly figures still loiter inside the mansion.

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A much-loved retreat during the Raj era, Mussoorie too has its haunted tales. Rumours abound that Lady Garnett-Orme’s ghost haunts the 1902 Savoy Hotel, which has played host to the likes of Queen Mary and Nobel Laureate author Pearl S Buck. People disclose how she walks down the corridors in search of the murderer who poisoned her!

The unresolved murder mystery inspired Agatha Christie to write her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Ruskin Bond’s In A Crystal Ball – A Mussoorie Mystery (2003). Fern Hill Hotel in Ooty was also declared haunted and shut down after filming crew reported that they heard furniture being moved around upstairs at night. The next morning, to their shock, they discovered that the hotel didn’t have a first floor!

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If ghosts like dark places, tunnels would be their favourite haunts. So it would seem with Tunnel 33 along the Shimla-Kalka highway, the hidey-hole of British railway engineer Captain Barog, who committed suicide after being pulled up by his seniors for his tardiness. People claim that Barog still wanders in the tunnel while some have reportedly seen a woman screaming down the rail tracks and vanishing into the tunnel.

Even renowned schools and educational institutions are not spared of otherworldly stories. Rumours are rife about a headless horseman luring young girls with a rose at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Shimla and a headless lad wandering into the woods around Dow Hill Girls’ Boarding School and Victoria Boys’ High School in Darjeeling.

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Oddly, ghosts don’t always prefer quiet and remote hill stations or cemeteries. Bustling cities too have their fair share of ghoulish encounters. Beautiful and famous landmarks like Writer’s Building in Kolkata is one such. Some people believe that the ghost of East India Company’s Captain Simpson who was killed by revolutionaries inhabits the building, though Kolkatans also narrate stories of voices and footsteps being heard in the empty building at night.

Following an accident death of 12 labourers during the renovation of the National Library in Kolkata and the strange death of a student there, watchmen get jittery on the nightshift fearing the strange sounds of footsteps and spectres lurking amidst the bookshelves. Several locals insist that the apparition of Lady Metcalfe, wife of former Governor General Lord Metcalfe roams around, breathing down the necks of readers.

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The Karkardooma Court in New Delhi has captured CCTV footage of the sinister goings on after work hours, when the court is overrun with invisible spirits. Videos reveal shadowy figures, lights and computers switching on and chairs rolling around of their own accord! The Bombay High Court too, apparently has a ghost in residence that threatens convicts when they enter one of the courtrooms. Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad proves that ghosts even lurk in the make-believe world as eyewitness and film crew have seen spotlights falling off, spotboys being pushed by unseen hands, females having their clothes ripped off or being trapped in rooms.

At first glance, the black sandy beaches of Dumas in Surat may seem a dubious haven for spirits. Yet, local folks recount hearing whispered voices even when the beach is empty. Many tortured souls roam this former burial site, waiting to capture those venturing on foolhardy midnight walks. Many years ago, in faraway Andaman Islands, it was dusk as we drove up to a dark corner on a hillock in Humfreyganj. There was no one in sight and the wind whispered sending the fallen dried leaves spiraling around. The next instant it got chilly and we could swear we heard a cacophony of piercing screams in different tongues. It was getting dark and we felt it wise to leave immediately. Later we learnt that the historic site was witness to one of the worst horrors of war.

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The Humfreyganj Massacre of World War II on January 30, 1944 records the coldblooded shooting of 44 Indians, suspected of spying by the occupying Japanese forces. The Balidan Veedi or State Martyr’s Memorial listed the victims, most of whom were members of the Indian Independence League.

Hundreds of innocent lives were also lost to the terror and torture unleashed by the Japanese on locals and forced labour with horrific accounts of them drowning and being bundled and dumped into the sea. It’s been several years since that trip and yet, we get goosebumps thinking about the tormented shrieks we heard. Real or imagined, the ghosts of yesterday live on to tell their stories in ways we’ll never know.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 September, 2019 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

 

 

Tracking the Silverback in Rwanda

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On World Gorilla Day (24 Sep), ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY relive their encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park while attending the 14th Kwita Izina or naming ceremony of baby gorillas

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Rwanda is undoubtedly one of the best places in the world to spot the endangered gorilla. With direct flights by Rwand Air from Mumbai to Kigali, it’s easy to explore this pocket-sized country in East Africa. Based in the plush Marriott Kigali Hotel in the diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu, we traipsed around the Rwandan capital on a Go Kigali city tour. The gorilla statue near the City Hall was unmissable, and every time we crossed it while visiting local markets and museums, it heightened the anticipation of our encounter with the Silverback.

It was still dark when we set off on a serpentine drive to the misty Volcanoes National Park. Five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Bisoke (with a crater lake) and Karisimbi, the tallest at 4500m – were located in Rwanda on its eastern border with Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The slopes of the 160 sq km Virunga Massif are the last refuge of the mountain gorilla, one of the two sub species of the eastern gorilla. The park had survived human resettlement, deforestation, bifurcation, poaching and civil war.

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In 1967, it became a base for American naturalist Dian Fossey who set up the Karisoke Research Centre and single handedly saved the gorillas from extinction by drawing international attention to their cause. By 1981, due to civil strife and poaching, mountain gorilla numbers in this tri-junction had plummeted to an all time low of 242. Dian was murdered by poachers in 1985 and her life was immortalized in the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, named after her autobiography.

She was buried in the park close to the research center, amongst the very gorillas that were her life’s mission. Karisoke remains the longest running gorilla field study site dedicated to the conservation, protection and study of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. 2017 marked 50 years of it, when World Gorilla Day was first constituted.

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On reaching the park headquarters at Kinigi near Musanze we were divided into groups of eight before being assigned to one of the twelve gorilla trekking routes open to tourists. Our comfort at tackling previous hikes to the forest canopy walkway and the waterfall at Nyungwe National Park got us slotted on the tougher Isimbi trail. Gaiters, rain jackets and gloves were offered on hire as our 26 year-old guide Jolie briefed us on gorilla behaviour.

We drove beyond Sashwara, past small villages with bustling markets and streets where kids waved, smiled and chanted muzungu meaning ‘foreigner’ in local Kinyarwanda. The Umusumba Trekking Trail began at the edge of the forest, where a troupe of porters in blue uniforms awaited us with beautiful walking sticks carved with gorilla heads. Before we set off, Jolie gave us a crash course on the various grunts, calls and gestures of gorilla language, warning us on how to approach them and be submissive. Our hearts thrummed in excitement…

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The two-hour hike along the lower slopes of Karisimbi took us through a thick carpet of sodden bamboo leaves and a tangle of vines. Slipping and tripping through an obstacle course of fallen bamboo, squelchy pathways and dense undergrowth, we practically crawled on all fours at some points. Clearly, to track a gorilla, we had to become gorillas!

We reached our advance party of trackers who had identified their location slightly off-course, forcing us to hack our way through a near impenetrable maze towards steep inclines overridden with stinging nettle. Our hands smarted with the sharp burn as we inadvertently clutched at them to avoid losing balance.

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And then suddenly, we stumbled upon the black furry mass of the 19-strong Isimbi family – they were lolling on a bed of stinging nettles as if it were a cloud of silk cotton. Watching over the ten juveniles and eight females was the mighty Muturengere, the alpha male. He was a Silverback, named after the silvery band on the back of mature adult males.

The tiny tots played ball with wild fruits, somersaulted and tumbled around before noticing us. Slowly they approached us with infantile curiosity and we were instructed to step back. Crouching low, we repeated ‘Maaae-mmmmhh’, which meant ‘we come in peace’ until Muturengere relented and grunted his approval.

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One of the five biggest Silverbacks in the Virunga massif, he weighed over 200 kg and stood at 1.9m. Seeing him face to face barely a few meters away was spine tingling. A few adolescents nibbled away at leaves as older females nit-picked and groomed their offspring, some monkeyed around and drew nearer to us in mock menace, beating their chests like King Kong.

It was unforgettable and definitely one of the highlights in Rwanda. The allocated hour to spend time with the gorillas went by in a blur. As we headed down the slope of the volcano, the fog rolled in and the feathery image of gorillas in the mist was imprinted in our minds forever.

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The afternoon was spent at the gorilla guardian village of Iby’Iwacu for a cultural tour of brewing banana beer, basket weaving, music and food tasting experiences. We met former poachers who were now the park’s custodians. Two days later, we returned to Kinigi for Kwita Izina, a reenactment of the centuries old Rwandan tradition of giving a name to the newborn.

Launched in 2005, Kwita Izina 2018 celebrated the naming of 23 gorillas born in the past year. The numbers were growing each year! The massive gathering at the base of Volcanoes National Park wore a festive air with locals waving Rwandan flags and volunteers dancing and chanting.

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A giant gorilla frame made of bamboo with an infant riding on its back served as the backdrop for performances by cultural troupes and South African pop duo Mafikizolo. The 23 celebrity namers from across the world included diplomats, philanthropists, wildlife promoters, statesmen and sports stars who had turned up in Rwandan attire.

Chinese travellers Xinyu Zhang and Hong Liang, who built a gorilla sculpture using 3000 energy saving bulbs, named a baby gorilla from the Igisha family Urugero (example). Rao Hongwei, Chinese Ambassador to Rwanda, gave his baby gorilla two names – one in Kinyarwanda, Uburumbuke (prosperity) and the other in Chinese, Wangwang, drawing much mirth from the crowds.

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Rwanda Development Board, the nodal agency for investment and tourism, had teamed up with Arsenal Football Club to promote Rwanda. Cameroonian footballer and Arsenal legend Laureno Bisan Etamé-Mayer named his baby gorilla from the Kwitonda family Ikipe (team) while his gorgeous counterpart, Arsenal star Alexandra Virina Scott named her infant from Isimbi family Izahabu (gold).

US Ambassador Peter Vrooman recounted his ascent of Mount Karisimbi and Bisoke and named Susa family’s newborn Intarutwa (paramount). His Highness Sheikh Dr Abdul Aziz Ali Bin Rashid Al Nuami, better known as the ‘Green Sheikh’ named his baby from the Agashya family, Nayombi (exceptional care). It was fascinating to learn from the personal insights and anecdotes, the relevance and context to each name.

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Michael Wale, CEO of Kerzner International which runs Atlantis and luxe resorts around the globe (including two One & Only resorts in Rwanda – Gorilla’s Nest and Nyungwe House). When he visited Rwanda four years ago he found it a paradise; hence his name for the little gorilla from the Muhoza family was Paradizo! Mantis, a family-run collection of eco hotels in Africa, manages Akagera Game Lodge in Rwanda.

Founder-chairman Adrian Gardiner has been visiting Rwanda for 11 years and was amazed at Rwanda’s cleanliness and President Paul Kagame’s commitment to the environment. Lauding Rwanda as the ‘University of Africa’ we could all learn from and the symbol of gorilla tourism in the world, the little one from the Musilikare family was named Iribero (symbol). Thomas Krulis of Lotto Investments shared how he witnessed the birth of a baby gorilla before his very eyes while trekking on 16 July 2017 (the second time it had ever happened). His name for the Sabiyani family newborn, Ruhire (lucky) seemed perfect!

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We felt a connection when the unnamed mischievous fellas from the Isimbi family we had spotted earlier got baptized! Alexa Gray of Gordon and Patricia Gray Animal Welfare Foundation named her Isimbi newborn Kunesha (to win). Michael O’Brien-Onyeka from Conservation International for Africa reiterated mankind’s dependence on nature and how Rwanda gets it right with leadership, good governance, women empowerment and conservation.

“We feel proud to be African. Since Rwanda has become the sunrise in Africa, I give the name Umuseke (dawn),” the crowds roared. Dr Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria lauded Rwanda for devising such a unique and instructive event for raising awareness that was worthy of emulation. He named a newborn Musmikare (May he live long).

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The namers included local heroes like porter Judith Kakuze, who called the Amahoro family infant Indakemwa (integrity). Pop stars Theo Kgosinkwe and Nhlanhla Nciza of South African band Mafikizolo thanked Rwanda for protecting nature, forests and the gorillas, naming their Agashya family newborn Ikiza (goodness).

Zimbabwean entrepreneur and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa admired the Rwandan spirit, naming the newborn from Kwitonda family Ishusho (image), “since Rwanda has become the image of positive change we want to see in Africa.” The star namers held up ‘Remarkable Rwanda’ placards as drummers and costumed Intore dancers stole the show. The event ended on a high with a gala dinner and performance by Mafikizolo at Lake Kivu Serena Hotel.

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While we have attended our share of naming ceremonies of cute little babies in India, being present at one for gorillas, was definitely a first! It was truly remarkable to see how a country coming to grips with genocide in the late 90’s had become a role model for the world.

Kwita Izina was easily the most important conservation event in Rwanda – a celebration of the majestic mountain gorillas, park rangers, guides, local communities and 18,000 Rwandans who live around the park who have joined hands with the government in conservation efforts for the past 15 years.

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The results spoke for themselves – 50% reduction in gorilla mortality rates, increased visitation by 10% and a 26% increase in the population of mountain gorillas from 480 in 2010 to 604 in 2016. In the 2019 edition of Kwita Izina, 22 baby gorillas were named. Today, mountain gorilla numbers have crossed the magic threshold of a thousand known individuals. And a tiny country like Rwanda was leading the way as a model for sustainable development.

The gorilla groups are tirelessly followed up the steep slopes all year round and the monitoring and research programs of these magnificent creatures and their habitat secures the foundation for future generations. The fact that this is the only region in the world where one can spot them in the wild (they do not survive in captivity) makes it a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air (www.rwandair.com) flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali (7 hrs) four days a week. From Kigali, Volcanoes National Park is a 3 hr drive away, as are wildlife parks like Akagera and Nyungwe.

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Serena Hotels, Kigali & Lake Kivu www.serenahotels.com
Ubumwe Grande Hotel, Kigali www.ubumwegrandehotel.com
Akagera Game Lodge www.mantiscollection.com
Gorilla’s Nest & Nyungwe House www.oneandonlyresorts.com
Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, Ruhengeri

Visas
Visa on arrival $30. An East African combined visa covering Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania costs $100.

Entry Fee
Only 96 permits are issued per day with each permit costing $1500

What to Do
Go Kigali City Tour http://gokigalitours.com/
Track gorillas at Volcanoes NP https://www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com
Wildlife tour of Akagera & Nyungwe www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com
Hike to Bisoke (1 day) or Karisimbi, a 2-day trek with overnight camping at 3,800m

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com, www.rdb.rw/kwitizina

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 Sep, 2019 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper. 

Hatta Boy: Dubai escape

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY escape the lures of Dubai to explore the weekend getaway of Hatta in the Al Hajar mountains on the Omani border

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Beyond the mandatory list of things to do – visiting landmarks that flaunt engineering genius and luxury, aerial views of Palm Jumeirah, the laser and light spectacle on the 830m Burj Khalifa, hop-on-hop-off city tours, Ski Dubai, desert safaris with dune-bashing and belly-dancing in Bedouin tents, the marvels of mall crawls and Dubai Mall, a one-stop entertainment destination replete with designer stores, underwater zoos, ginormous aquariums and dancing fountains.

Besides a plethora of museums (from coffee to Islamic culture), water and marine parks like Atlantis, there is a lot more that Dubai offers. New attractions like The Frame, Ripe Market, The Green Planet and Bollywood Parks have the crowds coming in, though there are still places where one still gets a whiff of old Arabia.

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In the port area of Deira, the oldest corner where the story of Dubai as a pearling industry and trade centre began, one can haggle over Turkish plates, Moorish lamps, hookahs, spices, saffron, perfumes and oud (agarwood) essential oil, aptly called ‘liquid gold’. Take an abra (boat) ride to Bur Dubai for just 1 AED while watching gulls swirling over Dubai Creek (Khor Dubai).

Or stroll down the coffee and spice scented lanes of Al Fahidi or Al Bastakiya, the historical mid-19th century quarter that was restored as recently as 2008 with graffiti walls, art galleries and hipster cafes, a fabulous coffee museum, a chic Arabian teahouse, boutique stays and good old Emirati hospitality over cups of qahwa, juicy dates and delicious luquaimat (sweet flour dumplings). Yet, each visit to Dubai unveils a newer facet of the good life.

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We set off for Hatta, 134km southeast of Dubai on the Oman border. Images of the swanky city faded off on the hour-long drive making way for red sand dunes and a dry brown monochromatic landscape of the rugged Al Hajar Mountains. “Hatta” announces itself loudly in a Hollywood-sign style, across a hill. Formerly called Hajarain, Hatta is an enclave of Dubai that has become a popular weekend getaway amidst nature and a restored heritage village.

With tombstones dating to 3000BC besides two 18th century military towers and an old Juma Masjid serving as remnants of its history, Hatta was an oasis town of date palms and orange trees. Somewhere in the 1980s, it slowly transformed into a veritable adventure zone. With tracks and trails for biking and hiking in the mountains and boating and kayaking at the dam’s reservoir, Hatta is the ideal choice for families, expats and corporate groups alike.

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We drove up a sharp incline past the mural of UAE’s founding fathers – the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, painted on the spillway of Hatta Dam. Famous German street artist Case MacLain from Frankfurt was commissioned for this artwork, which is among the world’s largest murals measuring 80m in height and 10m across. It took him two weeks of intense abseiling up and down the spillway with high pigment weather resistant paints to complete the work!

Surrounded by endless rows of barren mountains with the glittering teal green waters of the reservoir below, it was obvious why Hatta was such a hit. We picked our tickets and lifejackets at Hatta Kayak, and sank into our canary coloured boat to pedal away watching cormorants swoop in for a dip and emerge with a treat of fish. Fishing and swimming is banned in these waters, so visitors go pedal boating or exhibit their kayaking skills in the calm waters.

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A new Explore Hatta trail takes visitors to a heritage village, honey factory, ancient tombs, duck lake and a camel farm! With ambitious plans of ecotourism and glamping, lux resorts and mountain lodges besides projects to boost culture and crafts of the region, Hatta is on to something big.

Set right near the main roundabout in town, JA Hatta Fort Hotel is literally a sanctuary in the desert. Landscaped with surprisingly lush green lawns and shrubbery alive with chirruping birds and peacocks preening in the garden, the hotel is a great place to drop anchor. Its tranquil ambience, good food, activities and games are an added bonus. Time and weather didn’t permit us to go on a mountain bike trail of 52km, so we opted for a delightful round of archery and air rifle shooting.

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It took a while to get the hang of archery as we aimed at the target 25 m away, but being crack shots in the shooting range, we floored our Nepali trainer with an all-bull’s-eye record that left him shaking his head in disbelief! At Café Gazebo we grabbed the Chef’s Special ‘Hajar Mixed Grill’ overlooking the pool and the jagged Al Hajar range as we dined on lamb cutlet, kofta, shish taouk and arayes (pita stuffed with meat).

We were lucky to catch a few days of the famous Dubai Food Festival. The 17-day annual food gala has become part of the global gastronomy festival calendar featuring cuisines from across the world. From peacock blue ice candy to pink burgers and charcoal activated ice-cream (with local musicians and cool street magicians thrown in), DFF was rocking. The festival witnesses the involvement of Dubai’s top restaurants, artisanal cafes and numerous kiosks including a food truck alley and a carnival atmosphere at public venues like Swyp Beach Canteen.

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As part of Restaurant Week, we got a private Meat Masterclass at The Meat Co. with Chef Andrew Owczarek and tried limited edition tasting menus at the post-modern Indian restaurant Carnival by Tresind and Japanese fine dine restaurant Morimoto. The Top 10 Hidden Gems in the city showcased eateries that push the boundaries by offering one-of-a-kind menus and dishes in a unique atmosphere.

It was nice to see Asian and South Asian eateries dominate the local food scene, besides Yemeni and Lebanese restaurants, though we were pleasantly surprised to see Karnataka’s very own MTR 1924 voted to the list!

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Direct flights from India to Dubai take about 3½ hrs. Hatta is 134km southeast of Dubai near the Oman border. www.emirates.com

Where to Stay

JA Hatta Fort Hotel
Hatta-Oman Road, Hatta Roundabout
Ph +971 4 809 9333
www.jaresortshotels.com

InterContinental Dubai-Festival City
Dubai Festival City
Ph +971 4 701 1111
www.ihg.com

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Things to Do

Hatta Adventures
Ph +971 54 998 8789
www.hattaadventures.com

Kayaking, hiking through farms/mountains, biking
Entry Adults AED 50 to AED 130 depending on activity/package
Entry Adults 200 AED, Kids 100 AED

The Green Planet
www.thegreenplanetdubai.com/en
Entry Adults AED 95, Kids AED 70

Dubai Parks & Resorts
www.dubaiparksandresorts.com
Entry MotionGate AED 235, VIP AED 595, 11am-10pm

Bollywood Parks Dubai
www.bollywoodparksdubai.com
Entry Q-Fast AED 100 onwards, 4pm-12

Ripe Organic Food & Craft Market
www.ripeme.com

Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
Ground & Level 2, The Dubai Mall
www.thedubaiaquarium.com

Ski Dubai
Mall of the Emirates
www.malloftheemirates.com

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Where to Eat

The Meat Co.
Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Jumeirah, Promenade Area
Ph +971 4 368 6040 www.themeatco.com

Choix-Patisserie & Restaurant
Ph +971 4 701 1136
InterContinental Dubai-Festival City

Carnival by Tresind
Level POD, Burj Daman, DIFC
Ph +971 4 421 8665 www.carnivalbytresind.com

Morimoto
Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai
Ph +971 4 512 5577 www.morimotodubai.com

For more info, visit www.dubaicalendar.ae, www.visitdubai.com, www.visithatta.com

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Deccan Herald newspaper on 17 Sep, 2019.

Go Local: 9 Cool Destinations

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY scout offbeat, immersive experiences in cool destinations around the globe  

Can you really say you’ve been to Zurich if you haven’t grabbed a piadina (Italian flatbread), walked up the narrow Tritlli-gasse and visited Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dadaism? Is a trip to Singapore complete without the fiery taste of Singapore chili crab on your lips, slaked with a cool Tiger or Singapore Sling as you go bar hopping from Clarke Quay to Ann Siang Hill? And is Melbourne the same unless you’ve zipped in trams and trawled CBD’s graffiti-lined bylanes to pay your respect at AC/DC Lane? Beyond the touristy clichés, each city comes with its unique set of quintessential experiences and traditions. We hung out with locals on our globetrotting travels to unearth some cool haunts…

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Heidelberg (Germany)
A pretty medieval university town on the Neckar river, Heidelberg is undoubtedly the seat of German Romanticism. Picture-postcard alleys, Gothic architecture and cobbled pathways lead to a maze of museums and galleries. Hike up or take a funicular to Heidelberg Castle rising above the roofs of the Old Town, a survivor of wars, fires and lightning. Walk through sprawling gardens to a scenic lookout and visit the Apothecary Museum and wine cellar with the largest wooden barrel in the world!

Change trains at Molkenkur to ride in wooden boxcars of Germany’s oldest funicular railway up the local mountain Königstuhl (568 m) for a fantastic view of the Rhine plain. The main street Haupstrasse, one of the longest pedestrian zones in Europe, is lined with churches, shops, restaurants and cafes. The boutique Hip Hotel is the perfect base; each of its 27 themed rooms are different and styled after cities – Havana has bat wing doors, Cuban cigar wrappers on the ceiling and a Che Guevara pic on the semi-plastered brick wall.

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Stroll through Germany’s oldest University with the historic Studentenkarzer (students’ prison) where errant pupils were interned. More a shrine than a detention centre, it bears the scrawls of entire generations. The city’s signature treat Heidelberger Studentenkuss (Student Kiss) is a chocolate invented at Café Konditorei Knosel. Grab a meal at Zum Goldenen Hecht or Palmbräu Gasse and hang out at cool bars on Untergasse like Weinloch (Wine Hole), Betreutes Trinken (literally, Supervised Drinking), Destille and Pop – visited by Santana in the 70’s.

Take a leisurely cruise on the Neckar aboard the solar-powered boat Neckarsonne. In the evening, cross the Old Bridge lined with buskers and tourists to Schlangenweg (Serpentine Path) that zig-zags up to the famous ‘Philosopher’s Walk’. For centuries, this scenic walkway overseeing a magical view of Heidelberg has inspired poets, authors and artists from Goethe to Mark Twain.

Insider Tip: At the old Karl Theodor Bridge is a bronze sculpture of Heidelberg’s Bruckenaffe (bridge monkey); the original one in 15th century held up a mirror as a warning to passersby. With fingers shaped like a horned hand and a hollow head where visitors pop in for a pic, the monkey is a good luck charm. Rubbing the mirror will bring money; rubbing the little bronze mice will bless you with kids and rubbing his fingers means you will return to Heidelberg!

Getting there: Fly Emirates via Dubai to Frankfurt, from where Heidelberg is a 1 hr drive away
Where to Stay: Hip Hotel www.hip-hotel.de
Contact: Heidelberg walks with Dino Quass www.heidelberg-marketing.de, Tour Guide Dirk Slawetzki www.visit.ruhr

For more info, www.germany.travel

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Belgrade (Serbia)
The Serbian capital is a charming city packed with history. Seen from across the river, Belgrade’s stone fortress shimmers white, hence the name ‘Beo grad’ (White City). Pose against Pobednik, the Victor statue but don’t miss the ornate Ružica (‘Little Rose’) Church with an ornate chandelier made up of bullets! At the Kalemegdan ground outside the fortress, buy a 1993-era inflationary currency note from Olga the octogenarian vendor.

The abandoned trenches, once inhabited by gypsies; is today’s hip Bohemian quarter of Skadarlija with cool kafanas (coffee houses/taverns), breweries and restaurants like Dva Jelena (Two Deer), where musicians belt out starogradska (Old Town Music) on trumpets and accordions. Walk down Knez Mihailova, described as ‘the most beautiful pedestrian zone in southeast Europe’. Drop by at Hotel Moskva for its trademark šnit (cake) and gulp water like a local from Delijska ćesma, an ornate public well.

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At the beautiful Republic Square, sit on the steps of the bronze equestrian statue of national hero Prince Mihailo Obrenović, who liberated Serbia from Turkish rule in 1867. Visit the Cathedral of St Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and The House of Flowers, the mausoleum of former Yugoslav statesman Josip Broz Tito.

Catch the live science experiment every evening at the Nikolai Tesla Museum and pop into the Museum of Contemporary Art – the first contemporary art museum in Europe. Belgrade’s nightlife is best experienced at clubs and splavs (party barges) moored by the riverside. The longest stretch of the Danube is in Serbia and the perfect ending to a boat cruise is a quayside dinner at the old suburb of Zemun.

Insider Tip: Have a coffee or a shot of rakija (fruit brandy) at the oldest kafana in Belgrade – ‘?’ or Znak pitanja (Question Mark). Story goes that in 1892 the management wished to change the name to Kod Saborne crkve (By the Saborna Church) but it was opposed by the Serbian Orthodox church. The owner temporarily put a question mark on the door, which became its identity and remains so till date!

Getting there: Fly via Moscow or Istanbul to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade.
Where to Stay: Metropol Palace Ph +381 11 3333100 www.metropolpalace.com
Hotel Moskva Ph +381 113642069 www.hotelmoskva.rs
Contact: Novi Sad/Belgrade Tour with Luka Relic Ph +381 65 9890305 relic.luka@gmail.com, Offroad Serbia tour with Balkan Adriatic Ph +381 11 3625036 www.balkan-adriatic.com

For more info, visit www.serbia.travel

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Kigali (Rwanda)
A direct flight from Mumbai by Rwand Air makes Kigali a truly convenient getaway. Drive past the town’s key landmark the Kigali Convention Centre as you explore the undulating Rwandan capital. Zip around in local bike taxis (Goa style) to sights like Kandt House Museum and the somber Kigali Genocide Memorial. Try ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative and relish a Rwandan meal of ugali (cassava porridge) and goat curry at Tamu Tamu.

Kigali Marriott Hotel in the central diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu is the best address in town. Get a Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa and try out international and local cuisine at Soko and fried sambaza (fish) from Lake Kivu at Iriba Bar. Book a city tour with Go Kigali – their little boutique at the hotel stocks handmade products from all over Africa. Start your exploration with Mount Kigali for a panoramic view before trawling milk bars, bakeries and cafes.

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At Kimironko market, learn how to eat tree tomato like a local as you marvel at multi-coloured beans of every size and hue. Shop for agasake (hand-woven peace baskets) and traditional Rwandan handicrafts at Ikaze boutique. The suburb of Nyamirambo, established by Belgian colonists in the 1920s for Swahili traders, is the city’s Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, or the Green Mosque, is the oldest in town while Gaddafi Mosque is home to the Islamic Centre.

With a busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is today hailed as Kigali’s coolest neighbourhood. Catch Kigali’s nightlife at Fuchsia, Riders, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club and Bougainvilla. Rwanda is a small country and it’s easy to get around to Lake Kivu, gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park, tracking Colobus, Golden and mountain monkeys at Nyungwe National Park and spotting the Big 5 at Akagera National Park.

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Insider Tip: Drop by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian nickname for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide when 1,268 people were sheltered here by its manager Paul Rusesabagina, a story made into the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’.

Getting there: National carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali (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
Contact: Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com, Go Kigali Tours $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm Ph +250 788316607 http://gokigalitours.com/

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

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Belfast (Ireland)
Boney M wrote a song about it, Van Morrison found lyrical inspiration here and it is the famous birthplace of The Titanic. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland sparkles with wit and wisdom, political street art and numerous interesting trails. Get a primer on the city’s past as ‘Linenopolis’ and a ship-building centre at the Titanic Belfast museum and catch the exhibition at Belfast City Hall, which narrates the story of its people, culture and heritage. The historic Linenhall Library, founded in 1788, has a phenomenal collection of priceless books including a rare treasure of books on C Scott Lewis.

To the east of the city, follow the footsteps of CS Lewis to places that inspired his fantasy world of ‘Narnia’. Stop by at Queen’s University where Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney studied and Belfast Hills where Jonathan Swift found inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. In 2017, Northern Ireland celebrated Swift’s 350th birth anniversary. Grab a pint o’ Guinness at John Hewitt, the pub named after local poet and catch a bite at Mourne Seafood Bar and Muddlers Club.

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Every Saturday, St Georges Market is abuzz with local foods, crafts, art and live music while the Sunday Brunch at Bert’s Jazz Bar promises live jazz. Have a ‘craic (Irish for ‘a good time’) at Whites Tavern, the oldest in Belfast, Kelly’s Cellars and the old-world The Crown Liquor Saloon. Lovers of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre can head out to County Down chasing tales of the Bronte sisters Charlotte and Emily and make a pitstop at FE McWilliams Gallery for scones, cakes, Irish coffee and ongoing exhibitions.

Go on a guided tour of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace around Heaney Country, where the poet and Nobel Laureate grew up. Guide Eugene Kielt conducts bespoke literary tours and runs Laurel Villa in Magherafelt, a boutique homestay themed around Heaney and other Ulster poets like Patrick Kavanagh, Michael Longley, Louis MacNeice with poetry reading evenings. Continue on the literary trail to Armagh Library, which houses the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels dated October 1726, carrying amendments in Swift’s own handwriting!

Insider Tip: Mystic of the East, the Van Morrison Trail, dedicated to one of Belfast’s most famous sons, revisits the locations made famous by his songs – from Cyprus Avenue, On Hyndford Street to Orangefield. A special phone app activates a QR code that plays bits of his songs at each locale!

Getting there: Fly to London and catch an Aer Lingus flight to Belfast.
Where to Stay: Bullitt Belfast Ph +44 28 9590 0600 https://bullitthotel.com
Fitzwilliam Hotel Ph +44 28 9044 2080 www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com
Europa Hotel Ph +44 28 9027 1066 www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast
Contact: Ken McElroy Ph +44 7801541600 www.kmtgs.co.uk

For more info, www.belfastcity.gov.uk, www.tourismni.com, www.discovernorthernireland.com

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Flores (Indonesia)
When the Portuguese landed in a nook of the Lesser Sunda Islands in eastern Indonesia a few centuries ago, they were amazed by the flowering Delonix regia (Flame trees) and profusion of corals in the crystal clear waters. They named the cluster of islands Cabo de Flores (Cape of Flowers). Even today, these forests and dive sites continue to fascinate offbeat travellers who fly in from Bali to the adventure hub of Labuan Bajo in West Manggarai district.

Head to Batu Cermin or Mirror Rock, a cave system 4 km from town with stalactite formations and cool down with a chilled Bintang while catching the sunset over the harbour at Paradise Café. Visit the local fish market and enjoy an elaborate seafood spread at Treetop restaurant amid funky artwork and signs like ‘Reality is an illusion caused by lack of alcohol.’

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Go on a boat trip to Komodo Island to watch perpetually drooling venomous Komodo dragons up close and pick up shell handicrafts near the jetty. Go snorkelling at the unique Pink Beach (caused by red algae on white sand) or head on hikes to crater lakes in the region. Grab some local coffee and palm sugar, prepared by locals the traditional way. Flores also hosts a 661km gruelling cycle race called Tour de Flores.

Insider Tip: Drive 20km on the Trans-Flores Highway to Ruteng to witness the Caci dance, a ritual whip fight that’s a fascinating cultural tradition of the Manggarai people. Donning leather masks and armed with rattan whips and bamboo shields, the blood shed by the male warriors was considered an offering for a better harvest!

Getting there: Fly to Bali and onward to Labuan Bajo, from where boat trips are available to Komodo Island and Pink Beach.
Where to Stay: Ayana Komodo Resort, Luwansa Beach Resort, The Jayakarta Suites Komodo Flores

For more info, www.indonesia.travel

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Lalibela (Ethiopia)
As a seat of the Orthodox Christian faith, Ethiopia draws pilgrims and travellers from all over the world. After Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim army of Saladin in 1187, Ethiopian king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela decided to build a holy city symbolic of Jerusalem. Following the theme, the local river is called Jordan and the hill Mount of Olives. It took 23 years to carve these rock-cut churches into the hillside, aided by divine help – angels are believed to have toiled at night to complete twice the day’s work done by men!

The city was called Lalibela in honour of the saint-king and UNESCO recognised it as a world heritage site in 1978. Walk on pink volcanic rock through cavernous tunnels to a complex of churches. A cloth-draped pillar in the Church of Golgotha is marked as the Tomb of King Lalibela. Continue in the north western group to Bet Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world, connected to Bet Maryam, possibly the oldest of the churches.

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The unusual cruciform Bete Georgis, dedicated to St George, was cut top down into the rock. Rent a white and blue bajaji (our Indian Bajaj auto) to get around, but watch out for pesky flies and over-friendly kids pestering you to buy ‘books or football’. Bargain for various styles of Ethiopian crosses, silver jewelry and sacred relics.

Try the staple injera (spongy flatbread), tej (honey wine) and Ethiopian fare at Kana, Hotel Lalibela and Seven Olives Hotel besides local music and dance at Torpido Tejbet. Tour company ETT can craft an Ethiopian itinerary from Lalibela to Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Addis Ababa and trips to Danakil Depression, Simien Mountains and Omo Valley.

Insider Tip: Perched on a clifftop with architecture right out of Burning Man (described as ‘Gaudi meets Mad Max’), Ben Abeba dishes out the most experimental food in Ethiopia. Run by Scottish lady Susan and her partner Habtamu, ‘Ben’ means mountain in Gaelic and ‘Abeba’ is Amharic for flower. They even offer blankets on the outdoor terraces when it gets chilly.

Getting there: Fly Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa and take a connecting flight to Lalibela. www.ethiopianairlines.com
Where to Stay: Lalibela Hotel
Contact: Ethio Travel & Tours (ETT) Ph +251 911213177, 929214110, 940373737 www.ethiotravelandtours.com

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Tel Aviv-Yafo (Israel)
There’s a saying in Israel, “While Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays”. There are many exciting ways to explore the vibrant seaside city – a SEGO Segway tour along the Sea Shore Promenade to the port and local farmer’s market, an architecture tour through the White City with its unique Bauhaus architecture, a street art tour in Florentin to find the best graffiti, a food tour through Tel Aviv’s only Arabic style shuk (market) at Carmel or a night tour of Rothschild Boulevard to hipster clubs like Kuli Alma and Sputnik.

Walk down Nahalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall with its Arts and Crafts Bazaar and explore reinterpreted spaces like Manshiya, a reconstructed old train station and Neve Tzedek. A heritage walk through the cobbled bylanes of Tel Aviv’s twin town Jaffa is ideal as you explore quaint cafes, the mosque and Ilana Goor Museum. Feast on mansaf (ground beef with rice) and majadra (wild rice) at Pua restaurant, which sources furniture from the Jaffa Flea Market – every item here is for sale! Check out the local craft beer at Beer Bazaar and Israel’s first microbrewery The Dancing Camel. Tel Aviv even boasts a pop-up hotel in a lifeguard hut on Frishman Beach!

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Insider Tip: Spot the early 20th century shutter stoppers called menchalach (Hebrew for ‘little human figures’) in areas like Neve Tzedek. Meant to stop windows from banging, it had a man’s head when put up and a woman’s face in its downward position. Local lore says it carried a secret code; a woman with a lover put up the man’s face if someone was home and the woman’s face if she was free and ready for action!

Getting there: Israel’s national carrier El-Al flies from Mumbai to Tel Aviv thrice a week (8 hrs) while Air India flies thrice a week from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Air via Addis Ababa (12 hrs).
Where to Stay: Carlton Hotel Ph +972 3 5201818 www.carlton.co.il, Poli House/Brown Hotels www.brownhotels.com
Contact: Ofer Moghadam Tours Ph +972 587833799 www.ofermog.com, SEGO Segway Tours Ph +972 528551932 www.sego.co.il

For more info, https://israel.travel/

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

Copenhagen (Denmark)
There’s good reason why Copenhagen is rated one of the happiest cities in the world. It’s a land of bicycles, bodegas, chic design, parks, floating cafes, fairytales and a dollop of good ol’ hygge, the Danish concept of cosy comfort. The journey from trading in amber, gold, silver, furs and slaves to becoming a leading manufacturing nation and welfare state, Denmark has ample reason to gloat, but doesn’t. Locals love a cool dip in Amager Strandpark beach, kayak polo by the harbourfront and several recreational baths like Islands Brygge, a winter bathing hotspot and one of the cleanest harbors in the world.

Get on a GoBoat for an eco-friendly ride from Islands Brygge drifting down canals past some of the oldest specimens of Danish architecture – Christiansborg Castle, Holmens Church and Børson, the Old Stock Exchange with its dragon spires. Take a canal tour around Christianshavn and Nyhavn port or join locals and tourists dining at its amazing restaurants, quaffing away at old bodegas, listening to jazz. Walk around the marvelous bridges and canals bordered by vibrantly painted homes and hotels.

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The historic Tivoli Gardens in the city centre is the second oldest amusement park in the world and inspired Walt Disney’s Disneyland. Don’t miss the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired dark ride called The Flying Trunk. Take an HC Andersen heritage walk with raconteur Richard Karpen and unravel the city’s hidden stories in everyday landmarks. Hop across to the 150-year-old Nytorv restaurant, the city’s popular hangout specializing in Danish cuisine and try delicious smørrebrød and Danish Schnapps or akvavit, a sweet alcoholic drink flavoured with herbs and spices ‘designed to make men feel strong and women feel weak’!

If you’re up for something edgy, don’t miss the offbeat trail around the graffiti-rich freetown of Christiania, locally called ‘staden’ is full of art galleries, music venues, restaurants and quirky homes. Pedal down Nørrebro and Christianshavn in the world’s bicycle capital with Cycling Copenhagen or in an iconic vintage Christiana bike, tackle the canals with Kayak Republic or take a walking food trail in the hip Vesterbro district. Savour a community Danish dinner at Absalon, an old church reimagined into a public space or try the unique family-style specially curated long-table meal at Gro Spiseri, set behind the OsterGRO rooftop farm in the heart of town. For retail therapy or window shopping, Strøget, one of Europe’s longest car-free pedestrian streets, is the place to be.

Insider Tip: If you’re done with the Little Mermaid, look up high above Richs building at the corner of Vesterbrogade to a gilded sculpture of the rotating Weather Girls – one astride a bicycle and the other holding an umbrella and walking her dog. It sums up the typical scene in Copenhagen – omnipresent bicycles and rain! Locals swear that these are the only two women in Copenhagen one can trust.

Getting there: Fly to Copenhagen via Dubai, Frankfurt or London (12 hrs).
Where to Stay: Avenue Hotel Ph 0045 35373111
Hotel Danmark Ph 0045 33114806 www.brochner-hotels.com/hotel-danmark

For more info, www.visitcopenhagen.com

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Lima (Peru)
Peru is hailed as “the next great global foodie destination”, ranking among the Top 5 cuisines in the world. Capital Lima is also considered ‘the gastronomic capital of the Americas’ and hosts Mistura, the annual food festival in Oct-Nov that draws gourmands from across the world. Imagine a country with 3800 variety of potatoes, 300 kinds of chilli and over 55 types of corn and beans. But there’s more to Lima than beans!

As the erstwhile bastion of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, Lima has a lot of history. Head to the pretty Spanish colonial quarter where museums and churches, promenades and palaces beg to be explored around the famous UNESCO Heritage Site Plaza San Martin and the old town square Plaza de Armas. Walk around the upmarket Milaflores, known for its casinos, nightlife, shopping and its Gaudi-inspired Parque del Amor. In the Bohemian district of Barranco discover extraordinary street art, architecture and quaint landmarks like Peunte de los Suspires (The Bridge of Sighs).

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Dine at the archaeological complex of Huaca Pucllana overlooking the magnificent 15-acre pre-Inca ruins. At Maido, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumara’s speciality Nikkei cuisine fuses Peruvian with Japanese flavours, first created by Japanese immigrants who arrived in the 1900s to work on sugarcane farms. Try the legendary local brew Pisco Sour, street food like picarones (Peruvian donuts), churros filled with manjar blanco (vanilla cream) and cancha (corn) in all its forms – tamaleto chicha, fried corn to ceviche.

Insider’s tip: Museo Larco is a privately owned museum of Pre-Columbian Art set in an 18th century viceroyal building in Pueblo Libre district. Founded by art collector Rafael Larco Hoyle in 1926, it has a unique gallery housing the world’s largest and most fascinating collection of erotic ceramics, pottery and everyday objects illustrating various sexual acts! The adjacent creeper-riddled Museo Larco Café serves superb Peruvian delicacies.

Getting there: Fly via Paris, Amsterdam, London or Madrid to Peru’s capital Lima. Jorge Chavez Airport is 12km west in the suburbs, in the port city of El Callao.
Where to Stay: La Hacienda Milaflores www.hotelslahacienda.com

For more information visit www.peru.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 August, 2019 as the cover story in the Getaway Issue ‘The Road Less Travelled’ in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.  

Binsar: A burst of buransh

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY base themselves at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley to explore the Kumaoni mountain retreat and wildlife sanctuary

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From Kathgodam railway station, the winding mountain road took us via the pristine lakeside retreat of Bhimtal and further onto Kainchi Dham and Almora to the pine-scented air of Binsar. A heavy drizzle cleaned up the tarmac and the feathery branches of conifers shivered in the breeze, infusing a piney aroma with hints of earthy dampness. At Club Mahindra Binsar Valley Resort, a traditional welcome awaited us along with a cool glass of buransh or rhododendron juice!

General Manager Himanshu Mathpal led us to the cottages explaining how “The design is based on Katyuri architecture with two-levels, the upper level being a little inset.” In the garden stood beautiful aadu (apricot) and badam (almond) trees laden with pale white blossoms. After high tea and snacks on a grassy perch, we hiked 20 minutes to Club Mahindra’s annexe Manipur Villa, a cluster of wooden cottages on stilts set on a hilltop. It was the mystical night of the Super Moon perfect for a lavish dinner by a blazing bonfire, sharing stories about leopard encounters around Binsar wildlife sanctuary. Thankfully, we opted out of trudging back in the dark and hopped into a jeep instead.

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We set off early next morning to catch the sunrise at Zero Point on the summit of Jhandi Dhar hills. Entering through the forest department checkpost, we noticed that buransh (rhododendron) – Uttarakhand’s state flower – was in full bloom. Soon, the entire hillside would be carpeted in a lusty explosion of red. Parking near the KMVN guesthouse, we hiked along a 2km trail to Zero Point past patches of snow, where a stone watchtower offered an uninterrupted view of Himalayan peaks. Stretching over a 300 km range stood Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Trisul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli. Some movement in the bushes alarmed a group of Bengali tourists but disappointingly it turned out to be a furtive troupe of macaques.

As strips of mist rose and sunrays slowly gilded the panorama of distant peaks, it was easy to see why the Katyuri and Chand kings of Kumaon chose Binsar as their summer capital. Drawn by its exquisite beauty, Sir Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of Kumaon (1856-1884) based in Almora, moved the administration 23 km to the cooler climes of Binsar during summer. Binsar’s bracing climate and green forests attracted colonial officers to establish retreats in these hills; many are run as private resorts today.

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The name ‘Binsar’ was a British corruption of its older name Bineshwar, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. These forests have been sacred since the time of the Saptarishis (seven great sages) who meditated here, hence its ancient name Satkhol. Even today, pilgrims trek through the forest to pay homage to Bineshwar Mahadev, whose temple is located at the exact centre of a mystical cross, with Shiva and Shakti shrines 14 km north, south, east and west of it.

We returned for a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant Bird Song, aptly named, as we dined to a chatter of Oriental White-eyes, tits and thrushes. It was a short drive to the temple town of Jageshwar, 34 km from Almora, considered as one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Nestled in a beautiful valley ringed by lofty deodars or Himalayan cedar (from deo-daru, literally ‘wood of the gods’), the dense thicket cut off the sun as we tiptoed across the cold stone floor of the temple complex.

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There are nearly 125 shrines big and small, built by the Katyuri (7-10th century AD) and Chand (11-18th century AD) dynasties, dedicated to Lord Shiva’s various forms – Baleshwar, Kedareshwar, Mrityunjaya, Lakulish and Yogeshwar, which got corrupted to Jageshwar. Priests sat on mats chanting or conversing while newly married Kumaoni couples came for darshan and selfies.

In a shaded grove by a stream we enjoyed our packed Gourmet Express lunch of kati rolls and sandwiches. On our return we stopped at another ancient shrine Chitai Golu Devta temple, believed to be over a thousand years old. Revered as ‘nyay ka devta’ or the arbiter of justice, ‘Golu devta’ was allegedly a fair Katyuri king of Kumaon who was venerated as a deity. We entered what seemed like a long tunnel of bells of every size tacked with heaps of paper sheets. Devotees scribble prayers on notes, even stamp papers and agreements to seek divine assistance in court cases and offer bells when their wish comes true. The priest smiled before adding “This is nothing, there’s much more in the godown!”

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At Almora, we stopped to pick up some singaudi (khoa in cones made of screwpine leaves) and the legendary ‘bal mithai’ – a sticky caramel sweet studded with tiny sugar balls. A quick halt at organic store with a fabulous array of Kumaoni produce had us walking out with a big haul of flavoured honey, homemade pickles, exotic rhododendron juice and nettle salad dressing besides deliciously packaged nature-based cosmetics, soaps and handcrafted woollens.

Back at the resort, the information panel at the reception caught our eye. It flashed a list of ‘must try’ menu specialties at Club Mahindra’s various other properties in the region – steamed chicken roll at Kanatal, kapa ka tandoori chicken at Naukuchiatal, Murg Ghunghat at Mussoorie and chaandi bater musallam in Corbett – slow cooked quail spiced with cardamom, saffron and dry fruits! Interestingly, Binsar had Bhaang Murg and we couldn’t wait to try it out…

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A lovely surprise awaited us that evening as we were led to an elevated patch. ‘Gaon ka chulha’ was a special theme dinner with a traditional Kumaoni meal prepared on wood fire. Seated on stools hand-painted by the talented staff and snug inside a kitchen-in-a-tent setting, the show began. Out came the much anticipated bhang murg – chicken marinated with hemp seed paste (looked like pudina chicken, but tasted more herby and nutty) and bichhu booti ki chutney made of tender leaves of stinging nettle.

On a traditional kansa platter that was differently shaped for men and women, was a royal feast – gahat ki dal (horsegram), arbi ke gutke (colocasia wedges), bhang ki jholi (kadhi), bhat ka jola (black soya bean), palak ka kaapa (smoked spinach gravy), jangora (unpolished red rice), madua ki roti (ragi or finger millet), bhaang ki chutney and lapsi (flour porridge).

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Stuffed to the point of imbalance, we heaved ourselves out of the rustic feasting chamber, aware of the danger of rolling down the hillside and stopping only at Kathgodam! Binsar’s charms lie in its hospitable warm hearted pahadi folk and its bountiful nature.

Every season ushers something new – March to May the forests are aflame with buransh, in summers the cool mountain air brings respite from the heat of the plains, the monsoon months are misty with dramatic sunsets, autumn promises crisp air and unparalleled views while in winters, the slopes are carpeted with snow. We were indeed lucky to get all of Binsar’s shades in one trip…

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Binsar is 33 km north of Almora town in Uttarakhand. From Delhi, take a train to Kathgodam, from where it’s a 120km/3½ hr drive to Binsar via Kainchi Dham, Bhimtal and Almora.

Where to stay
Club Mahindra Binsar Valley
Almora-Takula-Bageshwar Road, Bhainsori Post, Almora Dist
Ph 083929 10583 www.clubmahindra.com

What to Eat
Almora’s famous bal mithai and singauri (khoa wrapped in leaf cones), besides bichchu booti ki chutney, bhaang murg and Kumaoni delicacies at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley

For more info, visit https://uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia.   

Kumarakom: Backwaters and beyond

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover wellness at Niraamaya Retreats by the serene Vembanad Lake at Kumarakom in Kerala

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A strong gust of wind sent ripples across the surface of Lake Vembanad. Spread across three districts, it was Kerala’s largest lake and the longest in the country. We were at its widest point, Kumarakom, where the lake measured 6km across. There was a steady stream of boats down the National Waterway (the aquatic version of a highway). As we squinted into the distance to see its far shore, it seemed as vast as the sea and we wondered why it was tagged as a lake!

Kumarakom owed its existence to Henry Baker, a missionary from Essex who came here in 1818. His son, Alfred George Baker bought 500 acres from the Maharaja of Travancore, reclaimed the backwaters, developed canals and cultivated a coconut farm. Ingenious dykes prevented seawater from flowing in, which led to paddy cultivation on the reclaimed land. Fed by lakes and rivers, this riverine nook of Kuttanad transformed into the Rice Bowl of Kerala.

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In the following years, Baker’s 130-year-old colonial bungalow was assimilated into the Kerala Agriculture University and Taj Kumarakom Resort and Spa. The luxurious villas and heritage rooms overlook lotus pools, gardens and a lagoon, blending Kerala style with Edwardian and modern décor. Baker’s rubber plantation was converted into Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, a habitat for aquatic birds and fruit bats. But it was the convalescence of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his ‘Musings from Kumarakom’ that drew the attention of domestic travelers to its therapeutic charms.

We were staying at Niraamaya Retreats Backwaters and Beyond, a swank new wellness retreat that afforded the longest lakefront view from its 27 villas – some by the water front, some with private pools on the ground floor and others on the first floor with panoramic waterscapes to gaze at. The rooms were named after local rivers and birds. Our perch, named after the river Chalakudy, presented a stunning view of the sunset from a wide Kerala-style balcony.

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Hailing from the legacy of Surya Samudra in Kovalam and Cardamom Club in Thekkady, the resort was a real spot of luxury. After the lighting of the lamp by HH Shweta Rathore of Ranbanka Palace Jodhpur, CEO Manu Rishi Guptha elaborated on Niraamaya’s vision as we experienced their holistic healing with mindfulness coach Dr Shahir and yoga classes by Lalitha Damodaran.

With a golden sunset on Lake Vembanad as a backdrop, we watched Bengaluru band Chronic Blues Circus perform at the official launch. Seeing Mukut Chakravarti, the resort’s GM for Sales & Marketing double up as a keyboard player who put the swing into the evening took us completely by surprise.

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The next morning, after an early breakfast at the restaurant decorated with vibrant theyyam (ritualistic folk dance of North Kerala) masks, we set off to explore Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, the largest heronry in Kerala. A 2km trail over culverts and overgrown roots led past trees laden with giant fruit bats.

Two watchtowers rose above a 5-acre swamp in the core of the sanctuary that was the breeding site for Darters and Black headed Ibis. Apart from all four cormorant species, Kumarakom harbours 88 avian species, including White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Heron, Night Heron and Marsh Harrier.

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We lounged in the garden benches set in a clearing, watching a houseboat dock across the bird sanctuary at Coconut Lagoon, CGH Earth’s resort. Tharavad homes (heritage bungalows) had been transplanted in a 22-acre coconut plantation fringed by an 8-acre paddy farm. Guests enjoy an elaborate Kuttanad style curry meal on banana leaf with mashed kappa (tapioca), fish curry, fish fry and duck, besides Ayurvedic rejuvenation based on ancient marma techniques and luxurious Spice Coast Cruises.

Just across the lake, but invisible to the naked eye, was Purity by Vembanad, the new boutique hotel run by Malabar Escapes. Winner of the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2017, this Relais & Chateaux property won the best designed hotel in Outlook Traveller’s Boutique Hotel Awards 2018. Strewn with contemporary art, it offered wellness treatments at its Purespa Ayurveda and boat tours aboard Discovery, their stylized solar-powered houseboat complete with sundecks!

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We headed back to Niraamaya for a relaxing massage and Kerala sadya (veg meal usually served during Onam) on banana leaf, before heading out on a boat cruise around Vembanad Lake. A tightly bunched squadron of neer kaka (literally ‘water crows’) or cormorants flew low above the water’s surface like fighter jets avoiding detection by radar. Pond herons hopped between clumps of hyacinth, which bobbed and drifted with the current.

Small country boats better suited to explore the narrow canals offered a glimpse into Kuttanad’s riverine culture – fishing, coir making, duck farming, toddy tapping, cultivating rice, coconut, banana and tapioca besides unnamed kallu shaaps (local bar) serving kappa-meen. It’s not hard to see why Arundhati Roy chose this idyll setting as the backdrop for her book ‘God of Small Things’. The famed village of Ayemenem was just a stone’s throw away.

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Vembanad is a fabulous eco-system. During monsoons, as water levels rise, the locks of Thaneermukkam Bund (literally ‘mouth of the water’) are opened to regulate the water level, making the lake saline. But the roots of mangrove trees absorb the salinity, making the water fresh again.

We crossed the private MRF Villa – there was indeed a lot of rubber from the plantations available locally and the embankment was lined with strips of old tyres. The boatman pointed out a lush stretch of paddy fields called 900-acres and R-Block, a 3000-acre patch lower than the sea level. It was once owned by the Marickans, hailed as the Kings of the Backwaters who named it after one of their daughters, Rani.

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It was the same uncanny Malayali sense of enterprise that transformed war canoes into chundan vallams (snake boats) for races and humble rice boats or grain barges into plush kettu vallams (house boats). Rest and recreation in these parts was not new. The King of Kochi traditionally made an overnight halt at Pathiramanal or Island of Midnight Sand on his journey to south Kerala.

The 19.6-hectare island supposedly surfaced from the lake after an earthquake, though locals say it was formed when a devout Brahmin Sri Narayan Gurudev, dived in to perform his ritual evening bath and the waters of the Vembanad magically parted. A paved path led to the far end of the island and by evening Pathiramanal became the feeding-ground for birds from Kumarakom sanctuary nearby. The sun dipped over the waters, turning it into liquid gold and the sounds of a flute from a passing houseboat caught the wind…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Nedumbassery airport at Kochi and drive 100km (1hr 30 min) to Kumarakom. Cabs can be hired from Alappuzha or Cochin from Travel Cart Ph 0484 2669933/44 www.travelcartindia.com

Getting around
Boats ply on Lake Vembanad from the jetty at Muhamma or Kavanatinkara boat landing, 10 km from Kottayam. Spice Coast Tours operate houseboats from the private jetty at Puthenangad, 45 km from Kochi. Choose from short 2-hr Kettuvallam Cruise, Sunset Cruise, 6-hour Day Cruise that includes on-board lunch and evening snacks/tea or Overnight Cruise with full board.

When to Go
The main tourist season is from October to March, though the monsoon months of June-August offer quiet romantic holidays.

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Where to Stay

Niraamaya Retreat
Ph 0481-2527700, 080-45104510
www.niraamaya.in

Coconut Lagoon
Ph 0481 2525834-6, 2523572-4
www.cghearth.com

Purity by Lake Vembanad
Ph 0484-2704600
www.purityresort.com

Taj Kumarakom Resort & Spa
Ph 0481-2525711-18
www.tajhotels.com

The Zuri Kumarakom
Ph 9620335599
www.thezurihotels.com

Kumarakom Lake Resort
Ph 1800 4255030
www.kumarakomlakeresort.in

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia. 

India’s Hottest Destinations

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick ten upcoming destinations across India to visit this year. Go now, before it gets really hot! 

A spurt of new attractions and airports across the country has turned the spotlight to atypical places hitherto off the tourist grid. Some places are reinventing themselves with unique sights or through experiential hospitality ventures, thus witnessing a surge of visitors.

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Statue of Unity
Everybody seems to be making a beeline to see the world’s tallest statue, Gujarat’s hot new attraction. Sardar Sarovar Dam was hardly a tourist destination, but the 182m tall Sardar Patel statue constructed on a small river island Sadhu Bet changed all that. Built at around 3000 crores by L&T in a world record time of 33 months, it was unveiled on 31st October 2018 on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary. From the parking lot and ticket counter at Kevadiya, visitors are transported to the dam site in a shuttle bus. A wide walkway lined with travelators and a series of escalators leads to Sardar Patel’s feet with an Exhibition Hall and Gallery at the base.

Designed by Padma Bhushan artist Shri Ram V Sutar, the sculpture of Sardar Patel’s face in the hall is an exact replica of the main statue in the scale of 1:5. A museum catalogues Patel’s life and contribution to the freedom movement, besides the making of the statue. An audio-visual gallery screens a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal legacy. The concrete towers shooting up the statue’s legs have two high-speed elevators that transport visitors to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery in just 30 seconds. One can stay at the two Tent Cities overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam run by Gujarat Tourism. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat (a 2 hr drive), plenty of good hotels and a hovercraft project in the pipeline, the Statue of Unity is truly a big attraction.

Getting there: Fly to Baroda and drive 100 km to Kevadiya, from where buses transport you to SoU.
Timings: 9am-5pm, Monday closed  Entry: Viewing Gallery Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30 www.soutickets.in (2-hr visit slots available online)
Stay: Grand Mercure Surya Palace in Baroda www.grandmercure.com

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Jhalana
Bera near Jawai Dam in western Rajasthan has gained a lot of attention for its leopard population and charming stays like Jawai Leopard Camp, Leopards Lair, Castle Bera and Varawal Leopard Camp. Jeep safaris across its boulder-ridden landscape provide sightings from a distance but require a big lens to photograph the big cats. Jhalana, on the other hand, is a relatively new destination and its easy access (just 6km from Jaipur’s city centre) is a big advantage. Spread over 20 sq km, Jhalana Leopard Safari Park is home to around 16 leopards, of which 6-7 leopards have their territory in the tourism zone of the park. Started as recently as December 2016, two safari routes are currently open for visitors and sightings have been great.

Getting there: Fly to Jaipur and drive 6km to Jhalana.

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Ahmedabad
Acclaimed by UNESCO as India’s first heritage city in 2017, Ahmedabad serves as the perfect introduction to Gujarat. Hiding in its historic lanes are exquisite mosques, ornate stepwells, quaint pols (walled neighbourhoods) and a wealth of history and architecture. Go on a guided heritage walk with Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) or an unusual night walk of the Old City around Mangaldas ni Haveli while staying at The House of MG. The historic hotel showcases the textile traditions of various communities in Gujarat with a family archive of saris and shawls. The new textile gallery collection has three exhibitions titled ‘The Art of the Loom’, ‘Painting with Threads’ and ‘The Colours of White’.

The new lifestyle Renaissance Hotel is inspired by the city’s textile, culinary and festive heritage with kite-like patterns and other architectural motifs. It also has a specialty Japanese and Asian restaurant called Kuro to cater to the many corporate travelers from Japan! Its well-informed Navigators are like custodians of the city who take guests on specially curated local experiences – a tour of Sabarmati Ashram led by a Gandhian, meals at Agashiye rooftop restaurant at The House of MG to chasing wild asses in the Little Rann of Kutch (2hrs from Ahmedabad) while staying at Rann Riders ethnic resort.

Getting there: Fly to Ahmedabad and drive 2 hrs to the Little Rann of Kutch at Dasada
Stay: The House of MG & Mangaldas ni Haveli https://houseofmg.com/
Renaissance Ahmedabad Hotel http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/

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Sindhudurg
With commercial flight operations set to commence and the most luxurious resort on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast, tourism in Sindhudurg is set to boom. After rave reviews of their villas in Goa, Coco Shambhala’s Sindhudurg property won the best debut boutique hotel award in 2017 and was ranked by Conde Nast Traveller among the ‘25 Best Beach Villas in the World.’ Its recognition is well deserved. Overlooking a large swathe of the Arabian Sea and a short walk from Bhogwe beach, Coco Shambhala is nothing short of a tropical oasis.

An old village door opens to a flight of laterite steps that lead to four sea facing luxury villas at different levels. Each of them – Arka, Amaresha, Inaya and Varenya – come with two rooms, an open dining-cum-living space and private plunge pool. Dine on delectable international cuisine and Konkan fare in the comfort of your villa, spot birds from the balcony and pamper yourself at the spa. Excursions are organized to Bhogwe Beach, Kile Nivti fort ruins, boat ride and water sports at Tarkarli and Sindhudurg Fort, the only sea fort built by Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Getting there: Fly to Dabolim Airport in Goa and drive 3½ hrs north to Bhogwe in Sindhudurg district via Kudal.
Stay: Coco Shambhala Ph 8550985232, 9372267182 https://cocoshambhala.com/

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Bikaner
With direct flights now from Delhi and Jaipur, Bikaner is emerging as Rajasthan’s top destination packed with attractions. Explore Bikaji ki Tekri where the town was founded, the massive Junagadh Fort, Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, the royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar, the opulent Laxmi Niwas Palace (a meal here is a must) and the 15th century Bhandasar Temple, the oldest and largest of Bikaner’s 27 Jain shrines. Its foundation was built using ghee instead of water – an indignant response from the merchant when someone taunted him for wasting water in an arid region. The city’s most Instagram’ed location is the cluster of seven Rampuria havelis built by a prosperous Marwari family of Oswal Jains. Red sandstone mansions with exquisite jalis (lattice work) and contrasting turquoise doors and windows line the narrow lane. Bhanwar Niwas, the grandest of these mansions, is run as a heritage hotel by Sunil Rampuria and his son Prashant and boasts a stunning Blue Drawing Room and gilded Dining Hall featuring the work of local usta (gold painting) artists.

Sunil’s newer property Gaj Kesri is a beautiful art hotel set amidst sprawling gardens and adorned with stunning art pieces. Go on a delightful horse carriage ride through the bylanes of Bikaner, visit the Camel Breeding Farm and Karni Mata’s ‘Rat Temple’ and peep into the Bhikaji factory to see how the legendary Bikaneri Bhujia is made. Narendra Bhawan, residence of the last maharaja of Bikaner, was recently renovated into a whimsical boutique hotel inspired by his eclectic personality and travels. The rooms represent Narendra Singh ji’s transition across the ages – flamboyant Princes rooms, Regimental rooms inspired by his military life, India rooms with khadi décor and avant garde Republic rooms. Be wowed by specially curated culinary experiences like Reveille at Ratadi Talai, Sundowners at the Pastures and Picnic at Ganga Sagar Canal, besides Merchant and Royal Exploration tours of the city.

Getting there: Fly to Bikaner from Delhi and Jaipur
Stay: Narendra Bhawan www.narendrabhawan.com
Gaj Kesri www.gajkesri.com Bhanwar Niwas www.bhanwarniwas.com

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Kurumgad
What used to be a rustic island retreat called The Great Outdoors off the coast of Karwar is now a hot new island getaway. The Little Earth Group, which runs the famous Destiny Farmstay, Sherlock and King’s Cliff in Ooty, has transformed this turtle-shaped isle of Kurumgad into the plush and private Cintacor Island Resort. Stay in ocean-themed rooms and enjoy the day’s fresh catch at Captain Nemo’s Deck at the highest point of the island. Go on trails around the isle – the Half Mile Trail, the East & West Mile Way and the Temple Trail to the old Narasimha temple linked to many legends. Discover charming nooks like Terrapin Pond, Cozy Canopy formed naturally by old roots and branches and Secret Cove, ideal for swimming, sunbathing, kayaking and fishing.

Indulge in water sports activities like jet skiing, kayaking, tubing and banana boat rides or simply watch the sun go down at ‘On the Rocks’ beach bar. Choose from various boat trips – Sunrise cruise (6:30 am), Sunset cruise (5:30 pm), Dolphin cruise (9am-6pm), River Cruise (9am-6pm) upstream along the river Kali or Lighthouse Tour (3pm) with a picnic hamper at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad island. If you like to take it easy, just go fishing, snorkeling, stargazing or pop by at the seafacing Kurumasana Spa (11am-9pm) that offers Swedish & Thai massages, wraps and signature therapies like the Stress Buster massage. So get on a boat (pick up/drop from Karwar jetty included) and drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.

Getting there: Fly to Dabolim airport and drive 2 hrs to Karwar, from where Kurumgad is a 7km/30 min by boat.
Stay: Cintacor Island Resort Ph 9487533640 www.cintacorislandresort.com  

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Bengaluru
There’s a lot happening in Bengaluru, which makes Karnataka’s capital the flavour of the season. While the new terminal is still underway, the KIAL airport has been swanked up with a new F&B precinct outside called The Quad that everyone seems to love. There’s shopping and dining outlets in an alfresco environment and the city’s best craft beer from Windmills, Geist and Barley & Grape. With over 70 microbreweries, the city has firmly established itself as the Microbrewery capital of India. New joints like Fox in the Field, Shakesbierre, Aurum, Bier Library, XooX and Byg Brewski on Hennur Road (which, at 65,000 sq ft, is the largest craft brewery in India and one of the largest in Asia) have added to the ever-expanding pub culture and Bangalore nightlife.

Upping the oomph factor is a clutch of new hotels that wow visitors with unique concepts in hospitality – like the spanking upscale Four Seasons at Embassy ONE. Renaissance Hotel Race Course Road is a lifestyle hotel with an unusual derby theme inspired by the adjoining racetrack and curates authentic local experiences for guests. The stylish Sheraton Grand Bangalore in Whitefield is well kitted for business and leisure travelers alike with light fixtures and paper art from Auroville, Czech chandeliers by Lasvit and kinetic installations at the Convention Centre. Get a detox at Shine Spa and enjoy a range of cuisine choices at the restaurants – Inazia for pan-Asian and Grills and BBQs at Upper Cut.

Getting there: Fly direct to Kempegowda International Airport
Stay: Renaissance Hotel Race Course Road http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/
Sheraton Grand Bangalore Convention Centre www.sheraton.com
Four Seasons www.fourseasons.com

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Puducherry
Set up in 1968, Auroville recently completed 50 years of existence and has opened itself to visitors interested in a more immersive experience than a mere look at the Matri Mandir. While shops and eateries at the Visitor Centre happily snare tourists with some hankering for a visit inside the ‘Golden Globe’, true travelers could get a behind-the-scenes look at Auroville, led by an Aurovillean. Aura Journeys organize walks, tours and workshops to explore various communities – from agri farming to handmade paper, indigo dyeing, waste upcycling to artisanal chocolate and more, ending with a meal at the Solar Kitchen, making a great half day tour.

In Puducherry (Pondicherry), there’s a new Police Museum near our Lady of Angels Church with interesting headgear of gendarmes over the years. The Raj Nivas or Governor’s House is now open to visitors Mon-Sat 12pm to 1:30 pm, after registering online. Discover ‘Pondy By Cycle’ and choose a Wake Up Pondy Tour (7am-9am) with breakfast included or an Afternoon Photo Tour (3pm-7pm) with tea. Try scuba diving with Temple Adventures, go for guided walks with SITA on the French Connections Trail, Pondy Gourmet Walks and culture workshops. Take a ‘Life of Pi’ cycle rickshaw tour from Maison Perumal in the Tamil Quarter and a dose of Ayurveda and marma chikitsa at Palais de Mahe, as you experience modern Indian cuisine at their windy terrace restaurant. Get a dose of wellness with wat-su (water shiatsu) treatments and visit the Deepak Chopra Healing Centre at Dune Eco Village & Spa, which also runs the Hotel de L’Orient in the French Quarter.

Getting there: Fly to Chennai and drive 3 hrs to Pondy or take a train to Villupuram and drive an hour.

Stay: Dune Wellness Group https://dunewellnessgroup.com/
Maison Perumal and Palais de Mahe www.cghearth.com  

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Kannur
With the opening of Kannur International Airport, tourism is growing in Malabar, the northern tract of Kerala. Located a 45-minute drive east of Kannur town, the airport is perfectly positioned to explore the coastal towns of Bekal, Kannur and Thalassery and even destinations like Coorg and Wayanad. Being an ancient port, Kannur formerly Cannanore, was a centre of spice trade for the Portuguese, the Dutch and later a strategic British base on the west coast. Not many know that baking, circus and cricket were introduced to India in this coastal nook. Malabar has Kerala’s most pristine stretch of backwaters at Valiyaparamba with houseboat cruises sans the crowds of Alapuzha.

Visit beedi making units, coir factories and handloom weaving workshops and explore Bekal Fort, St Angelo’s Fort, Arakkal Kettu museum, Overbury’s Folly, old mosques, lighthouses and beaches like Payyambalam, Thottada and the drive-in Muzhappilangad. The region is known for its dramatic oracular ritual form – theyyam – an elaborate costumed spectacle that often lasts all night. While in Kannur, don’t miss the fish meals at Hotel Odhen’s or the Thalassery biryani at Paris Restaurant. Stay at beachside homestays like Kannur Beach House and Costa Malabari. For a culinary masterclass head to Ayisha Manzil where owner Faiza conducts demo-workshops on Mapilah cuisine, with informative walks to the local fish and vegetable market with her husband and host, Moosa.

Getting there: Fly to Kannur airport and drive 30 km to Kannur and 21 km south to Thalassery.

Stay: Ayisha Manzil www.ayishamanzil.com
Kannur Beach House Ph 098471 86330 www.kannurbeachhouse.com

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Rajkot
Easily one of the best new museums in India, Mahatma Gandhi’s alma mater has been converted into a hi-tech museum that opened on 30 September, 2018. Founded in 1875 as ‘Kattywar’ High School by the Nawab of Junagadh to mark The Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to India in 1870, Alfred High School was the first English School in Saurashtra. Mahatma Gandhi studied here between 1880-87 and it was renamed Mohandas Gandhi Vidyalaya in 1971.

The school’s 39 classrooms spread across two floors of the handsome stone building now serve as inspiring galleries, which pay a befitting tribute to the man who led India’s Freedom Struggle. With world-class technology and presentation – touch screens, interactive installations and recorded speeches – the museum illustrates the Mahatma’s life events and philosophy. Museum tickets are valid for Sound & Light show (7pm-7:20pm). While in town, also visit Mahatma Gandhi’s childhood home Kaba Gandhi no Delo, Watson Museum and the quirky Rotary Dolls Museum.

Gandhi Museum Timings: 10am-7pm
Entry: Rs.25 Adults, Rs.10 Children, Rs.400 Foreigners

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. An abridged version of this article was carried on 8 June, 2019 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.