Category Archives: Travel

A date with Oman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HOW TO EXPERIENCE OMAN

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

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

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

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

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

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Where to Stay

MUSCAT
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa

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

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

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

KHASAB

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

SHARQIYA SANDS

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

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

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TOUR OPERATORS

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sibsagar: Legacy of the Ahoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations on Conservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow Leopard WWI

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

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

Bagan-time: Jorhat tea bungalow trail

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY live the plantation life of a ‘Burra Sahib’ on a tea bungalow trail around Jorhat in Assam

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The mist shimmied slowly in the tea gardens as we sipped orange pekoe – prepared the English way as “propah tea” should be – in the spacious verandah of our heritage bungalow. Tossing a cursory glance at local ladies getting about their daily business of plucking ‘two leaves and a bud,’ it was hard not to feel like a Burra Sahib.

We were after all in the ‘Burra Sahib’s Bungalow’ in the tea-town of Jorhat. Unlike the rest of India, the tea gardens of Assam do not follow Indian Standard Time (IST). In this eastern nook, the sun rises early so the British introduced a local system that was an hour ahead of IST. This was ‘Tea Garden Time’ or simply Bagan-time.

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Assam is the largest tea-growing region in the world and the tea gardens stretched as far as the eye could see. We were at Sangsua, one of the seven South Bank estates ‘south’ of the Brahmaputra run by the B&A Group of the prominent Khongiya Barooah family of Upper Assam. Renovated into Kaziranga Golf Resort, the main bungalow served as the Club House with a Heritage Suite while eight colonial style Golf Cottages overlooked pretty flower gardens and sprawling greens. Designed by Ranjit Nanda, the 150-acre golf course was truly a first of its kind in the world – located in the midst of a tea garden!

Before tea, this region was a wild tract ruled by the Ahom kings. In 1794, Gaurinath Singha shifted his capital from Sibsagar to Jorhat but a series of Burmese invasions from 1817 destroyed the new commercial metropolis. By 1823, the British arrived on the scene. While trading in the region, Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce found the tea bush growing wild and noticed local Singhpo tribesmen brewing tea from its leaves.

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The British East India Company defeated the Burmese and took over the region from the Ahoms in 1826. The leaves from the Assam tea bush were properly examined in Calcutta’s Botanical Gardens and it wasn’t long before the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam by 1837.

Assam’s geographic conditions were ideal for growing tea. The clayey soil in the low-lying floodplains of the Brahmaputra river valley was rich in nutrients. The climate varied between a cool, arid winter and a hot, humid rainy season, ensuring a lengthy growing season. This tropical climate contributed to the unique malty taste of Assam tea. All these factors, coupled with generous rainfall, made Assam one of the most prolific tea-producing regions in the world. Each year, Assam’s tea estates produce over 6.8 billion kg of tea! At its peak, there were over 1500 tea plantations dotting the Assam valley; today there are about 800.

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The tea industry and early planters inadvertently brought about a sea change in the region – the introduction of railways, golf, the discovery of oil and the creation of Kaziranga, the home of the one-horned rhino! For a small unassuming town, Jorhat has many firsts to its credit. Jorhat Gymkhana Club, dating back to 1876, is the oldest golf course in Asia and the third oldest in the world.

The Tocklai Tea Experimental Station – the world’s oldest and largest – was established here in 1911. Jorhat was the first town in Upper and Central Assam to have electricity in 1923! The GI-AA-X, piloted by Barnard Leete, was the first aeroplane to land in the northeast in 1928 at Jorhat. Yet, there’s not much to see or do here besides using it as a transit point for Majuli Island and tea trails.

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We picked up the nuances of tea tasting at Sangsua Tea Estate before heading to Gatoonga Tea Factory to see the leaf’s fascinating journey from bush to cup. After collection, the tea leaves are spread on wire mesh racks in the withering shed and allowed to dry, then processed through a CTC machine which ‘crushes-tears-curls’ the leaves, which are left on trays for fermentation and oxidation for an hour or so and finally dehydrated in a drying machine.

The plucked leaf is processed into black tea within 24 hours and sorted into varying grades within the next 24. The tea is then passed on a conveyor belt with vibrating mesh trays so that the tea dust falls right through and the rest are sorted into primary and secondary grades.

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After our tea factory visit, we moved from the erstwhile Burra Sahib’s Bungalow to the Mistry Sahib’s Bungalow, the old abode of the Factory Assistant Manager. Built over a century ago and spread over 2 hectares, it had been renamed Banyan Grove after the massive banyan tree behind the sprawling bungalow. Jorhat’s charm lies in its lovely tea bungalows, some of which are open to guests.

Just 5km from the city center is the beautiful Chameli Memsaab Bungalow, named after the award winning 1975 Assamese movie that was shot here. It was based on Nirad C Chaudhuri’s tale on the relationship between a British planter and a local plucking girl, a common theme back then.

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The way silver tips is considered the champagne of teas, we were primed for the crème de la crème of heritage properties. Pioneer native tea planter Rai Bahadur Siva Prasad Barooah constructed Thengal Manor in 1929 at Jalukonibari, a village where pepper (jaluk in Assamese) was once cultivated. It served as the nerve centre of cultural and literary activities of many cultural icons of Assam.

In 1931, the talkie film Alam-Ara was screened here, becoming the first Indian film to be shown in Jorhat. This was where ‘Dainik Batori’, the first Assamese daily was launched. Though the newspaper and printing press are defunct, the bungalow managed to survive two earthquakes and one world war!

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Set in an immaculate lawn, the façade of the palatial homestead resembled the Pantheon in Rome rather than a planter’s home in Assam. The hallway had black and white pictures of the Barooah family and the living room was decorated with riches collected from the Far East.

The red oxide floors with colourful tiles gleamed like mirrors as we soaked in the luxury of sleeping in antique beds and dining on excellent home cooked fare. The sprawling estate had a beautiful remembrance garden enshrining the mortal remains of their ancestors.

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Soon, we set off to explore the Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, home to India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. We scoured the endemic hoolong trees to spot the flagship species but also ended up spotting its other creatures – the stump-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque and capped langur. The forests echoed with the whoops and calls of the simians. While most of Assam’s wilderness has given way to manicured tea gardens, this small 8 square mile patch seemed to be holding out.

While exiting we stopped at a small roadside chai stall. It was not the refined near-ceremonial experience we had grown accustomed to. No tea cosies and delicate English crockery to gaze hypnotically at milk swirling into the liquor. This was milky tea over brewed with spices and served in a well-worn glass; yet the full-bodied taste of Assam tea lingered on our lips…

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Jet Airways flies direct to Jorhat via Guwahati (55 min). Sangsua Tea Estate and Gatoonga Tea Factory are 16km from Jorhat while Thengal Manor is at Jalukonibari, 15km from Jorhat towards Titabor, from where Gibbon Sanctuary is 19km.

When to Go
Tea harvesting is a year-round activity – the “first flush” is picked in March, the “second flush” in May-June, followed by the summer flush (July-September) post rains and the autumnal flush (October-November), the year’s final harvest.

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Where to Stay
Banyan Grove, Jorhat
Thengal Manor, Jalukonibari
Ph 033-22651388
www.heritagetourismindia.com
Tariff Rs.6,500 upwards

Kaziranga Golf Resort
Sangsua Tea Estate, Gatoonga
http://kazirangagolfresort.in
Tariff Rs.6,500

Chameli Memsaab Bungalow
Cinnamara, Mariani Road, Jorhat
Ph 094355 84958

For more info
Assam Tourism
Ph 0361-2633654
www.assamtourismonline.com
www.tourism.assam.gov.in

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

Kumbhalgarh: Beyond the wall

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The second longest wall in the world stretched to the horizon, the impregnable citadel that fell just once in history, a sanctuary that is home yo the wild – Kumbhalgarh is more than the fort, it is a story in stone, write ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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There are few forts as legendary as Kumbhalgarh. Built by Mewar ruler Maharana Kumbha, it is the birthplace of Maharana Pratap, boasts the longest fort wall in the world after the Great Wall of China and is one of the six hill forts of Rajasthan (besides Amber, Chittorgarh, Gagron, Jaisalmer and Ranthambore) to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2013.

Straddling a 1100m high spur of the Aravalis between the Rajput kingdoms of hilly Mewar and arid Marwar, it was the loftiest and second largest fort in Rajasthan – and a wildlife sanctuary as well! We flew into Udaipur and set off on our 3 hour drive to the western range of the Aravalis.

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After a brief highway stop at Iswal for methi pakoda, kadhi-fafda and chai, our driver Narendra regaled us with anecdotes and local lores. This nook of jagged hills had doubled up as Afghanistan for some scenes in the movie Khuda Gawah. More recently, Bollywood films like Dhamaal and Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo had been filmed here. As we crossed the scenic Banas river, Narendra narrated its mythical origin. The two rivers Banas and Sukri originate at Veron ka Math (a corruption of Veeron ka Math), the spot where Mahabharat warrior Karna allegedly learnt weaponry from Lord Parasurama.

While the Banas flows through Mewar, Sukri courses through Marwar. The fable revolves around a saas-bahu episode, where the mother-in-law hailed from Marwar and the daughter-in-law from Mewar. Since their husbands were away, the two women fought bitterly. Once after a spat, they set off to their maternal homes and the route they took eventually became the course of the rivers. While the quarrelsome Sukri would dry up in summer, Banas would flow all year round. And hence the local expression ‘Saas Sukri, bahu Banas.’

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From a distance we saw the cave from where Sage Gorakhnath would emerge for a ritual bath in the Banas after taking a secret route from his ashram on a hill. Story has it that he and his disciple Machhendranath smoked chillums perched on two mountaintops as they miraculously passed the clay pipe from one to the other.

Machhind, an ancient village in the terai (plains), was named in memory of the sage. When Jain prince and Emperor Ashok’s grandson Samprati constructed the first fortification here in 2nd century BC, he named it after the same Machhind as Machindragarh. Over centuries, the Jain temples fell to ruin and the area lay forgotten for 1500 years.

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Aur hum pahunch gaye resort (And we’ve reached the resort),” Narendra exclaimed as we swung into the driveway of Club Mahindra Kumbhalgarh. The spell was broken and though we were happy to have reached our destination, we felt a twinge of disappointment that our engaging conversation was over.

Greeted by drumbeats and a Rajasthani kachhi ghodi (folk dancer in a horse frame), we were soon ushered into our room overlooking the rugged hills. The sky turned dark as we walked to the multi-cuisine restaurant for some namakpara (Rajasthani soup sticks), dal-bati-churma, mutton biryani and traditional desserts like moong dal halwa and mohan-thal.

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The next morning after a leisurely breakfast, we met our guide Salim Khan Pathan at the fort gate. He narrated its fascinating past as we walked up the incline. Much before Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh, the first capital Nagda was set up by Nagaditya, the fourth king of Mewar. Located near Eklingji (23 km north of Udaipur), it was destroyed by Muslim invaders, though the Saas-Bahu temple still stands. In the 8th century, legendary ruler Bappa Rawal expanded the kingdom and built the Eklingji temple, worshipped as the presiding deity of Mewar.

In 14th century, Hammir captured Chittorgarh and was the first to adopt the title Rana. The Mewar kings consider themselves as the Dewan (regent) of Eklingji, hence they do not call themselves maharaja, but maharana. After Chittorgarh was besieged many times by the Sultans of Delhi, Malwa and Gujarat, Rana Kumbha decided to move the capital to a more remote location.

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Mewar needed to be secured and noted Vastushilpa expert Madan Sutradhar was roped in to build 52 new forts and bolster 32 old forts, especially Machhindragarh. However, the walls built during the day would mysteriously collapse at night. This happened for a week and they finally sought local seer Meher Baba’s help. He attributed it to the curse of Devi Shakti who could only be appeased with nar bali (human sacrifice). The ascetic offered himself on the condition that the fort would bear his name.

The next day, before sunrise, he asked the king to follow him. The place where he stopped for the first time would mark the main gate Bhairon Pol. The next place he halted was where he was to be beheaded. Here, a temple of Durga was built. His headless body then walked up to the top and the spot where it fell was where the main palace was constructed. We paid our respects at the small Bhairon shrine and the cavernous Shakti temple with an idol of Navadurga. True to his promise, the place was called Kumbhalmir after Rana Kumbha and Mehr Baba, but over the years it became known as Kumbhalgarh.

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A series of nine gateways led up to the citadel. Entering through Halla Pol where sentries raised an alarm (halla) in case they spotted an enemy, we crossed Hanuman Pol, Ram Pol and Vijay Pol, the main entrance to the fort. Chaugan Pol marked the chaugan (flat area) till where the king rode an elephant; he then switched to a horse until he reached the pagda (foot trail). We walked past cannons and water reservoirs towards Fateh Prakash Palace built by Fateh Singh in 1884. In the rains, the palace would be covered in clouds, hence its popular name Badal Mahal.

Our guide highlighted the features of the male and female quarters – the mardana had a straight access while the zenana had a zigzag entry and small windows with slats for security and privacy. At the base of the walls were lovely paintings in natural colours depicting elephant fighting with tigers, crocodiles and other creatures. The acoustics in the chambers were amazing and the echoes aided meditation.

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The terrace afforded spectacular views all around. To the west, a white tower in the distance marked the hunting point where kings indulged in shikaar (hunts). The narrow hunting trail used by the Maharana was now a 16km trekking route to the Ranakpur Jain temple across the hill, built by Maharana Pratap’s minister Dharna Shah. Between October and March, the 4-4½ hr one-way trek is quite popular with foreigners, who usually return by vehicle. We lingered till sunset and slowly walked down to the base of the fort.

Kumbhalgarh’s 36km long boundary wall stretched into the horizon. The 15 feet wide walls were broad enough to accommodate seven horses side by side. What was astounding was that the fort, wall and 360 temples (300 Jain and 60 Hindu temples) within the vast complex were built in just 15 years between 1443-58.

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Prominent among these are the Yagyashala, Charbhuja temple, Ganesh temple, Pitaliya Shah Jain temple, Bawan Devris, Parsvanatha, Golerao, Laxminarayan temple and Teen devi ka mandir. Neelkantha Mahadeo has a 5 ft tall Shiva linga; legend goes that Rana Kumbha was so tall that he used to sit and pour water over it as abhishekha (libation) and could encircle the linga with both hands!

We were just in time for the sound and light show, which chronicled the history of Mewar – Samprati’s Jain legacy, Rana Hamir’s greatness foretold, the valorous maid Panna Dai who sacrificed her son to smuggle the infant king of Mewar Prince Udai Singh II (future founder of Udaipur) from Chittor to Kumbhalgarh in 1535 and how Mewar’s brave son Rana Pratap was born here on 9 May 1540 and fought the Mughal army at Haldighati 60km away near Gogunda. Raza Murad’s deep baritone as Akbar boomed across the ramparts as we experienced the past come alive. After the show, the fort was beautifully lit up for a few moments, before darkness took over.

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Kumbhalgarh was considered an ajeya kila (unconquerable) and was impregnable to direct assault. It fell only once, due to a shortage of drinking water, to the combined forces of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Raja Man Singh of Amer, Raja Udai Singh of Marwar and the Mirzas of Gujarat. Yet, there’s more to Kumbhalgarh than the fort.

The wildlife safari through the 600 sq km Kumbhalgarh sanctuary took us on a sharp descent into a ravine. Though you don’t spot much besides sambhar and peacocks, we saw relics like the old hunting tower Kali Audhi (audhi means howdah) and Danibatta, the eastern entrance that connected Mewar and Marwar. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the nature hike from the park entrance to Thandi Beri, 11km away.

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We dropped by at Beeda ki Bhaagal, one of the three villages besides Gundi ka Bilwara and Gawar adopted by Club Mahindra Kumbhalgarh. After chatting with the friendly locals over tea, we visited the local school and interacted with the bright young students who regaled us with patriotic songs. Following a sustainable ‘local livelihood concept’, the resort works closely with surrounding villages and hires locals as staff besides buying their produce and handicrafts.

As part of Club Mahindra’s Hariyali project started a decade ago, we also did some tree planting (the 13th million tree had been planted recently in Maharashtra). The resort also laid great emphasis on sustainability initiatives like solar power, organic farming and conservation and protection of endemic cows on the brink of extinction like the Vechur cow.

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We tried our hand at clay pottery, thanks to Dhanraj, who hails from the potters’ village of Molela. Only soft river clay from the Banas is used for it and he showed us his wares at his stall – a tiny clay whistle shaped like a bird that emitted chirps and warbles when blown and magical pots filled from below that surprisingly didn’t let the water flow out!

Just adjacent was Svaastha Spa and their Universal Indulgence treatments were perfect for our travel weary bodies. We tried the Svaastha Shodhnam, a signature scrub and massage using Ayurvedic and herbal products and a mix of Swedish and Balinese techniques. From our room’s balcony, we caught the strains of folk music emanating from the lawns. Under a blanket of stars, haunting ballads of valour and glory echoed across the Aravalis…

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Fly via Mumbai to Maharana Pratap Airport at Udaipur and drive 95 km to Kumbhalgarh (3 hr drive) in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan.

Where to Stay
Club Mahindra Kumbhalgarh
Ph 9672724555, 9672723444
www.clubmahindra.com

The Aodhi
Ph 02954 242341-6, 8003722333
http://hrhhotels.com

Fateh Safari Lodge
Ph 7726060701
www.fatehsafarilodge.com

Ramada Kumbhalgarh
Ph 02954 242401-4, 9799937000
www.ramadakumbhalgarh.com

Eat
Try the kadhi fafda, methi pakoda and chai at Charbhuja Restaurant & Mishtan Bhandar at Iswal, on the drive from Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh

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Do
Sound & Light Show at 7:30 pm
Jeep safari in Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary (Entry Rs.50/person, Gypsy Rs.200. Safari Rs.1850/Gypsy, Eco Guide Rs.200)
Zipline (Fort view Rs.500, Valley view Rs.200, Forest charge Rs.60) Nandanvan Adventures Ph 9099060604
Feed catfish at Hammeripal Lake
Boating at Lakhela lake, Mewar Boating Ph 9660398813

Around
Pottery village Molela (40km)
Ranakpur Jain Temple (50km)
Nathdwara Krishna temple (50km)
Chetak Smarak & Museum at Haldighati (60km)
Eklingji Temple (75km)

Catfish pond

Shop
Buy Molela pottery items like lamps, statues, vessels and decorative items. In Udaipur, pick up laheriya, bandhini, bandhej and other fabrics, besides traditional sweets, namkeen and papad from Jagdish Misthan Bhandar, Bikaner Sweets and Jodhpur Misthan Bhandar.

Fortune Tours & Travels
Ph 8003804000, 9166777966
www.fortunetours.co.in

Discover This
The small village of Taladri is known for its unique Fish Lake. The first Rana of Mewar of the Sisodia clan Rana Hammir Singh constructed a lake, which is called Hammeripal in his memory. The large water body teems with catfish, an introduced species, which locals protect and nurture. Visitors buy packets of chana and puffed rice sold by locals and sit on the steps of the ghat lined with shrines to feed the fish. The frenzied splash of large schools of huge catfish resembling a shiny mass of roiling slithering bodies is a sight to behold.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.

Mount Buller: Into the White

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Victoria’s premier ski resort holds many adventures like skiing, tobogganing, snow walks, snowboarding, sled dog tours and a ‘Gnome Roam’, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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For a town with a population of just 242 mountain folks, it sure felt crowded at Mount Buller. We are used to seeing more people at a traffic signal in India. Yet, between July and September, while the rest of the world sweats in summer or drowns in rain, it is winter in this part of Australia. In this Red Earth country with soaring temperatures and the wild outback, it’s hard to imagine a realm of snow!

Like thousands of adventure enthusiasts, we drove up via the charming towns of Mansfield and Yea (yea there’s a place called that; it also has a funky public convenience sprayed with ‘ToilArt’). At base camp Mirimbah, travellers pick up wheel chains to drive through the snow (mandatory for overnight visitors) and hire ski and snowboard equipment. Flecks of white on the eucalyptus trees soon gave way to a blanket of snow that draped the alpine vegetation. Switching to the free shuttle service at the parking lot, we proceeded to the festive Village Square Plaza.

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Shuffling up the frozen steps past the Clocktower, large crowds in colourful ski jackets thronged the plaza with restaurants, shops and free wi-fi. It was a short walk to Mt Buller Chalet Hotel near the Bourke Street ski run; one could literally ski-in and ski-out. A stuffed bear and moose graced the lobby, alongside ski memorabilia and a chair made of skis. The friendly manager Harry, a local legend of sorts, welcomed us warmly. We feasted on rib eye steak and Tasmanian seafood at the plush Black Cockatoo restaurant and set off to conquer Buller.

A quick change into hired snow gear and we found ourselves on a ski lift for a ‘Discover’ lesson at the Ski & Snowboard School at the Northside Discovery Centre. The only thing we managed to discover was how bad we were at skiing as we grudgingly eyed the rest of humanity zip down the slopes with consummate ease and screech to a halt in a spray of snow, meters away from us. It was the moment from the old Bullworker ads when the macho guy kicks sand in the face of the wimp. Our dreadful attempt at building a snowman made things worse, so we shamelessly posed with someone else’s hard work!

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We weren’t the first rookies on the mountain. Mt Buller’s spectacular scenery and abundant flora and fauna had first attracted aboriginal tribes eons ago. They brought young men to the peaks as part of initiation rituals and rites of passage. In traditional ceremonies, they roamed the mountain ranges they called Marnong (literally ‘hand’ in the Taungurong language) and told them stories about creation and Dreamtime tracks across the land.

Explorers Hamilton Hume and Captain William Hovell were the first Europeans to record a sighting of the peak on a 16-week adventure in 1824. Two years later, surveyor Thomas Livingstone Mitchell identified and named it after Charles Buller, an official in the Colonial Office in London.

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Soon, gold miners, timber merchants and bushrangers headed up the mountain while cattle traders used them as grazing grounds. In 1913, Frank Klingsporn widened the track for the movement of cattle, which opened the way for summer tourism, horse riders and hikers. The old bridle track is still used for mountain biking. After early forays by the SCV (Ski Club of Victoria) and the introduction of the towrope in 1949, tourism in Australia’s first Alpine village snowballed. Today, it gets more than 300,000 visitors in winter and 130,000 in summer.

The Summit Road loop took us to the Arlberg Hotel as we walked across to the Shakey Knees ski run, past the historic Hotel Pension Grimus to Northside Express Chairlift for a scenic chairlift ride. Around us nearly 300 hectares of skiing terrain spread out as the 1805 m high peak towered above. After endless rounds of tobogganing at the Horse Hill Snowplay Park, we donned our outsized snowshoes and clomped around the countryside on a Snow Walk.

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Mt Buller is simply a mountain of activities. Take a ‘Snowplay in a Day’ tour or go on a ‘Gnome Roam’, a family-friendly walk in search of Mt Buller gnomes strewn across the village. In between, catch a movie at Australia’s highest cinema Alpine Central, drop by at the National Alpine Museum on the evolution of skiing in the region, take a scenic helicopter flight over Mt Buller and Mt Stirling nearby and pamper yourself at Breathtaker Spa Retreat, the only spa in town. The region is also an excellent mountain biking destination with the 40 km cross-country Australian Alpine Epic trail, the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, we were off to Cornhill Road for the ultimate thrill of a 16-dog sled ride with Siberian huskies. Brett and Neisha of the Australian Sleddog Company briefed us on how to guide, brake and turn the sled. After our Mountain View Run Tour, we got to pet our team and play with the pups! Of all the things, the words of Frank Zappa’s song kept ringing in my head “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Singapore Airlines to Melbourne and drive 248 km (3 hrs) to Mount Buller, 90 km from the nearest town Mansfield, from where MMBL (Mansfield-Mount Buller Bus Lines) has a regular bus service. www.mmbl.com.au

When to go
July-August is peak winter season though spring from September has great deals, less people on the slopes, shorter lift queues and warmer weather. In summer, go on hikes and cycling trails.

What to Do
Skiing, Snowboarding & Snow Walks
www.mtbuller.co.au

Australian Sled Dog Tours
www.sleddogtours.com.au

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Where to Stay
Mt Buller Chalet Hotel
www.mtbullerchalet.com.au

Breathtaker All Suite Hotel & Spa
www.breathtaker.com.au

Hotel Pension Grimus
www.pensiongrimus.com.au

Tip: Pick up a B-TAG top-up card for easy access to lifts, lessons, rentals, facilities and Snow Dough (for retail therapy) www.bullerstore.com.au

For more info, www.visitvictoria.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 22 Sep 2018 in the HT Cafe supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

 

Nainital: Through new eyes

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From a former British hill station to a bustling tourist hub, the picture-perfect town of Nainital has come a long way; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trace the history of India’s beautiful lake town

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As we drove into bustling Nainital, it seemed hard to imagine that few outsiders knew of its existence till early 19th century. George William Traill, the first British Deputy Commissioner of Kumaon and the Commissioner from 1815 to 1835 learnt of this enchanting lake ringed by mountains and meadows, from local people who celebrated their annual fair here.

Yet, his love for the natives and their simple pahadi ways made him keep its location a well-kept secret for years. Traill feared that such a beautiful spot would become a European escape from the hot summers of the North Indian lowlands and the influx of people would besmirch its pristine environment. Looking at hotels and tenements crowding the hills and hordes of holidayers around, proved how Traill’s worst fears had come true…

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On the fateful day of 18 November 1841, Peter Barron, a wealthy sugar and wine merchant from Shahjahanpur, ‘discovered’ Nynee-thal. Writing under the pen name ‘Pilgrim’ in the Agra Gazeteer, he gave a vivid picture of the discovery of this lake-land in “Notes of Wanderings in the Himalaya.” Barron wrote: “It is by far the best site I have witnessed in the course of a 1,500 miles (2,400 km) trek in the Himalayas.”

He constructed Pilgrim Lodge, the first European house and before long, the township became a health resort for British soldiers, officials and their families. Churches were built, a hill station began to flourish and Nainital became the summer residence of the governor and summer capital of the United Provinces.

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Over time, Indian royalty followed suit, setting up their own summer retreats. Ashdale, one of the earliest cottages in Nainital built in 1860 by Captain George Rowels was bought by the Raja Bahadur of Sahaspur Bilari Estate. WelcomHeritage recently renovated it into a heritage hotel.

The Palace Belvedere belongs to the erstwhile Rajas of Awagarh, Balrampur House was the summer palace of the Maharajas of Balrampur while Leisure Hotels’ swanky Naini Retreat was the summer residence of the Maharaja of Pilibhit. They also run Earl’s Court, established in 1890 as the summer home of Captain P. Richardson.

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The town was perched in a hollow at 1938m and radiated around Naini Lake, which supposedly mirrors the emerald green eyes of goddess Sati. According to puranic folklore, after Sati’s death, Lord Shiva carried her body and walked with heavy sorrowful steps, which caused the earth to tremble.

To save the planet from destruction, Lord Vishnu unleashed his discus sudarshan chakra and dismembered Sati’s body. At each place a body part fell gave rise to a Shakti pitha. It is believed her left eye (nain in Hindi) fell at this spot and created a beautiful crater lake – Nainital. It’s believed to be shaped like an eye, though it appeared more like a kidney!

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At the foot of the lake was Tallital while Mallital formed the head of the lake at the town’s north end, the older, colonial part of Nainital. Connecting these two ends was The Mall, a 1.5km promenade of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. The Nainital Boat House Club stood on the edge of a large plain called The Flats, result of a devastating landslide in 1880 that flattened the Victoria Hotel, and 150 people along with it.

In a great display of secularism, a gurdwara, the Jama Masjid and the Naina Devi Temple stood near each other. Not far was St Francis Catholic Church (or Lake Church), the first Methodist Church in India, established in 1858. An NCC troupe practiced their march-past while small bands of boys played cricket. At the Tibetan Market, stalls had colourful sweaters, gloves, momos, Free Tibet stickers and cheap souvenirs that were ironically Made-in-China.

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Away from the touristy boat cruises and horse rides, we hoped to cover the less explored side of the largest town in Kumaon. Driving past the sprawling Manu Maharani hotel we reached our base Shervani Hilltop, tucked into the hillside. There was no ‘lake view’ but it was blissfully cut off from the town’s bustle. It was sweet to see a board crediting the two gardeners Mohan Singh Bhandari and Mohan Singh Jarhot for maintaining ‘Mohan Singh Garden’ for 40 years. After a leisurely breakfast we set off on our local explorations.

A short walk away was St John in the Wilderness, a Gothic stone church in a clearing. The strange name was given by Reverend Daniel Wilson, the fifth Bishop of Calcutta and the first Metropolitan of India and Ceylon, who visited Nainital one wintry February in 1844 to lay its foundation stone. The story goes that being early season, most English homes were closed and the Bishop had to sleep in an unfinished house on the edge of the forest and fell ill.

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While recuperating in the wilderness of Nainital, Wilson was reminded of his time as assistant curator for St. John’s Chapel at Bedford Row, hence the name. Inside the church a brass memorial commemorated the victims of the 1880 landslip and few victims were buried in its graveyard. The attached cemetery was the oldest in town and we paid our respects at the tombstone of George Thomas Lushington. As Commissioner of Kumaon he developed the town, planned the layout of The Mall and also scouted the best vantages that were today’s viewpoints.

Tiffin Top (7,520 ft) was a 4km hike up a stone-paved trail lined with fir and deodar trees. It took us 45 minutes to get to the terraced hilltop on Ayarpatta hill, with a small Shiva shrine. But how could we leave without tiffin at Tiffin Top? At the lone chai stall we savoured a view of the Himalayas over tea and bowls of Maggi.

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Dorothy’s Seat nearby, was a stone picnic perch built as a memorial to Dorothy Kellet by her husband Col JP Kellett of the City of London Regiment, and her admirers after her death in 1936. However, she was not buried here but at The Red Sea after she died of septicemia aboard a ship bound for England to be with her children.

On our return, at Lover’s Point (oddly Suicide Point was not too far away), tourists haggled at the horse stand for rides to viewpoints like Khurpa Tal, Himalaya Darshan, Tiger Top, Lands End and Naina Peak (2610 m), the highest point of Nainital. At Bara Patthar nearby, the Nainital Mountaineering Club had a rock climbing wall for adventure enthusiasts.

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We descended the rugged and woody Anyarpatta hill. The forests were so dense than sunrays could not penetrate the vegetation; in Kumaoni anyar-patt means ‘the part of complete darkness’. The lakeside road at the base of the hill was called Thandi Sadak (Cold Road) for the same reason.

Little wonder, it was on the quiet western slopes of the lake that Sri Aurobindo Ashram ran a Van Niwas Himalayan Centre. Tiger conservationist and author Jim Corbett too stayed at Guerney House, his last dwelling in India before returning to England. Few know that Corbett was a Municipal Board member at Nainital and spent Rs.4000 of his personal funds to build the Band Stand. In the 70s’s every summer evening Mr. Ram Singh’s famous band played Kumaoni and popular Bollywood tunes.

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Ambling down Thandi Sadak, we crossed a slew of temples – Shani Mandir, a sacred rock shrine of Nainital’s patron goddess Pashandevi and a temple of Kumaoni god Golu Devta. The Lake Bridge connecting the two banks had a post office, the only one in the world to be located on a bridge!

Walking south of the lake to Tallital, we took a steep 1.5km climb to Nainital High Altitude Zoo, named in memory of Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant. The enclosures occupy a steep slope with sharp gradients so it won’t be just the leopards, Tibetan wolves, Himalayan black bears and iridescent pheasants that make you gasp for breath.

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Nainital has a vibrant candle making industry and we peeped into Mehrotras House of Wax, the oldest candle shop in Nainital. Also worth a look is The Pahari Store, factory showroom of Anil Candles who specialize in decorative, perfumed, floating and gel candles in every shape, size and colour. They also stock excellent jams, pickles, honey, Himalayan herbs, organic food and spices, handmade soaps and cosmetics, scarves and woolens. Black and white photos of founder RS Virmani gifting exclusive candles to Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman adorned the wall.

Sadly, the most magnificent building in Nainital was out of bounds. Raj Bhavan, formerly Government House, was built in 1899 by architect F.W. Stevens in the Victorian ‘domestic’ Gothic style. The erstwhile summer residence of colonial era governors, it has a lovely golf course attached to it. The Old Secretariat, built in 1900, currently houses the Uttarakhand High Court. We headed back to Shervani after a really long day. We were so tired, we skipped the evening entertainment and grabbed an early dinner.

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Early morning, we were ready to visit Snow View (7,450 ft) at Sher-ka-Danda ridge northeast of town. There’s a cable car from the Mall but we preferred the 2km hike. Halfway up, Tibetan prayer flags announced the small Gadhan Kunkyopling Gompa of the Gelukpa order. It was a clear day and the snowy peaks of Nanda Devi, Trisul and Nanda Kot looked resplendent. The trail continued 4km to Naina Peak.

Nainital is a great base to explore nearby lakes like Sat Tal (23km), Bhimtal and Naukuchiyatal and century old forest rest houses at Kilbury, Vinayak and Kunjakharak. At Pangot spot 500 bird species. But for this, a 2-day jaunt seemed too little. Rudyard Kipling was right. In his 1889 ‘Story of the Gadsbys,’ he wrote on heartbreak, “Two months of Naini Tal works wonders…”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
277km north of Delhi, Nainital is just over an hour’s drive from the nearest railway station Kathgodam (35km south).

Where to Stay
Shervani Hilltop Nainital
Ph 05942 233800
www.shervanihotels.com/shervani-hilltop-nainital/

Manu Maharani
Ph 05942 237342
www.themanumaharani.com

The Naini Retreat/The Earl’s Court
Ph 011-46520000, 9555088000
www.leisurehotels.co.in

WelcomHeritage Ashdale
Ph 011-46035500
www.welcomheritagehotels.in

Balrampur House
Ph 05942 236236, 231058
http://balrampurhousenainital.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 1 Sep 2018 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Much ado about Kathmandu

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The charm of Nepal’s ancient temples and squares, lively streets and mountain magic cannot be smothered by any calamity discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY

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‘We are in the year 2074,’ my guide Bir intoned solemnly in what sounded like the opening line of a futuristic sci-fi saga. Given its seamless blend of tradition and modernity, one does feel like a time-traveller in Nepal, but I discovered that the country has its own calendar – the Bikram Sambat Nepali Patro – and an unhurried sense of time!

Nepal has attracted mountaineers and hippies since the 60s, but a lot had happened since my last visit 12 years ago in the middle of bird flu and a palace coup! The month-long trip was a screaming rollercoaster of landslides, bungee jumps, canyoning, rafting and paragliding besides sedate explorations of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. This time, I had a more enriching purpose.

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In 2015, I had helplessly watched Nepal receive a body blow from a devastating earthquake. So when Marriott Hotels decided to celebrate their 30th Anniversary by inviting guests from across the world to participate in a home build project, I jumped in. Partnering with Habitat For Humanity, we were to build one of 12 homes for needy families around the globe. Kavre, a region near Kathmandu badly affected by the earthquake would be our worksite for a Nepalese family that had lost their home.

The 40km bus ride to Kavre passed through scenic Nagarkot and the 143ft tall copper statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, built by a Jain businessman from India on the Sanga Hills that divide Bhaktapur and Kavre. This was the traditional village of oil-producers – sang is Newari for mustard oil and ga means village. We drove past rice terraces and the quaint town of Banepa, an old trading outpost between Tibet and Nepal. Everywhere mud and stone homes bore scars of the quake.

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At Kavre, we grabbed gloves, donned hard hats and picked our tools to dig foundation trenches and clear boulders. After completing our ‘Rally to Serve’ project, we visited Habitat for Humanity’s model town in Pipaltar village, where volunteers had helped rebuild 87 houses. Three years on, as the country hobbles back to its feet with rebuilding and restoration projects, tourists are streaming in again, smitten by its irresistible charm.

On our return we stopped at the plush Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel for a traditional Newari meal. Tasteful decorated with Nepali artifacts, the emphasis is on holistic living and healthy food using ingredients sourced from their organic farm. Their Himalayan Salt Room ensconces you in a pink cocoon of healing salt while the Chakra sound therapy chamber stimulates the body’s seven chakras. We sipped local beer and dined outdoors, savouring the view of majestic Himalayan peaks.

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Thamel Trail & Durbar Squares
On the surface, Kathmandu seemed the same – crowded and dusty with the familiar charm of brick houses, smiling faces and walls splashed with colourful graffiti. After champagne and high tea marking the launch of Fairfield by Marriott – the first Marriott hotel in Nepal – we took an evening rickshaw ride around the tourist-friendly hub of Thamel. We rolled down Tridevi Marg towards the winding maze of festooned alleys selling an assortment of exotic art and crafts. The streets were lined with bars, pubs, tour agencies and adventure equipment stores.

We learnt that Dharma Kirti Vihar, located behind Swayambhunath stupa was the school where Myanmar’s icon of democracy Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi studied Buddhism and taught English four decades ago. Sambhu, our charioteer stopped by an unusual tree stump covered with coins at a street corner. “That’s Vaisha Dev, the ‘dentist god’. Nepalese people hammer a coin into the idol to solve their dental problems!”

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Hopping off at Basantapur Durbar Square, we set off on a twilight heritage walk with Bir, our guide. The carved spires of temples were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The brackets depicted gods and goddesses as locals believed only they had the power to hold the weight of the massive conical roofs. Swinging between memories and the moment, I tried to fix the missing pieces. One of the oldest structures, Kasthamandap, the wooden architectural wonder that gave Kathmandu its name was completely razed.

Further away, the beautiful carved stone Garuda stared at the vacant space where the multi-tiered 1680 Trailokya Mohan temple should have stood. The Krishna Temple was another gaping spot. The ornate beauty was marred by dense scaffolding, which enveloped the monuments in a skeletal hug. One wasn’t sure how or where to begin healing the city.

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The tall fierce image of Kala Bhairava glowered in lamplight as people bowed their heads in reverence to the God of Time, offering flowers, incense and butter lamps. The temple of Thulja Bhavani, closed throughout the year, is opened to public only on the eighth day of Vijayadashami. We noticed that the structures showed British influences. Bir pointed out a stone inscription in various languages including French; apparently King Pratap Malla who ruled in the 1700s was a polyglot!

The Jaganath temple, famous for its erotic art had been sadly defaced. With Buddhism emerging as the main religion in the 17th century, several people had adopted a monastic life of celibacy and the population in Nepal had dropped drastically. These amorous carvings were created to encourage people to marry and have children! It is also believed that it would prevent Kumari, the incarnation of the Virgin Goddess considered to be a form of Thunder and Lightning, from striking the temple.

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We saw the magnificent 9-storeyed palace built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the architect of modern Nepal who conquered the three Malla kingdoms of Nepal and unified it with the Gorkha kingdom. In Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav temple honored the unusual terrifying form of Shiva regarded as the Master of the Sky.

His giant form is artistically ‘caged’ to prevent him from flying off and the temple is opened only once a year during Kali Jumma. After wandering around the famous Freak Street (now Jochne) we guzzled local beer at New Orleans, a popular restaurant with retro architecture and a great vibe.

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Stupefying stupas & Himalayan views

The next morning, we headed for our Everest flight. The destination board at the airport counter simply stated “Mountain”! Buckled into a small seat on the tiny Buddha Air 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, with propellers spinning, we were off for a close encounter with Sagarmatha. The scene of high altitude lakes, marbled mountains and glaciers ringed by the world’s best-known peaks seared my mindscape. It was a dreamy tour as we flew just 20 miles short of the world’s highest peak. You even get a chance to sneak into the cockpit for an uninterrupted view and click a few pictures for posterity.

Back on terra firma, I was still dreaming as I walked down Tridevi Marg to the Garden of Dreams (Swapna Bagaicha), famous as the Garden of Six Seasons. The serene Edwardian botanical garden inside Kaiser Mahal, former home of the late Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Rana begs you to linger despite the damage to its stunning pavilions, statues, fountains and ponds.

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A leisurely lunch awaited us at Mulchowk Restaurant, a gourmet dining space inside a leafy courtyard of Baber Mahal. Named after Patan’s Mul Chowk or Main Square, the restaurant is set in the erstwhile palace residence of Baber Shumsher. Now renovated by his descendants into a complex of restaurants and multiple courtyards enveloped by a maze of boutiques, art galleries and swanky stores, the luxe hangout is a delightful tribute to Rana architecture.

We headed to the famous Patan Durbar Square, a market cum temple plaza – its atmospheric appeal heightened by the golden glow of sunset. A local band regaled the crowds in one corner as elderly folks and couples chattered around the temple pati (resting plinths) and steps.

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Tourists followed their babbling guides or haggled with hawkers along the cobbled pathways. King Yog Narendra Malla’s golden statue on a stone pillar loomed above as we explored the historic heritage site. We could cover only three of the ten odd temples in this vast complex and the trio of courtyards in the old palace – Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk.

The Mulchowk Palace Museum had a collection of statues, paintings and images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. We saw the Thulja Bhavani shrine where the Malla kings performed sacred rituals and the stunning Sundari Chowk with its unique lace-like wood and ivory carved window, a masterpiece of Newari architecture. The exquisite sunken royal stone bath Tusha Hiti was suffused with intricate carvings.

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The Krishna Mandir, built from a single stone, flaunted its 21 pinnacles and scenes from Hindu epics. The 3-storeyed Golden Temple or Hiranyavarna Mahavihar monastery displayed outstanding metal sculptures. There was so much to Kathmandu our appetite couldn’t be quelled! After a late dinner, we hit the swanky rooftop lounge Prive at Labim Mall to catch the sparkle of the city’s nightlife.

Before heading to the airport next day, as I grabbed some traditional sel rotis to accompany my potato mash, Bir nodded approvingly. According to tradition, visitors and family members are offered this unusual ringed deep-fried bread made with rice flour, bananas and cinnamon before they travel. Since the sel roti’s ends meet and overlap like a bracelet, Nepalis consider it a symbol of reunion – a circle of life. “You may go around the world my friend but like the sel roti, you will return to Nepal someday.” he affirmed.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is just a 1hr 45 min flight from Delhi.

Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott, Thamel
Tariff $100-$150
www.marriott.com

Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu
Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikel
Tariff Rs.25,000 + taxes onwards
www.dwarikas.com

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Where to Eat
Garden of Dreams Café
Mulchowk
Prive, Labim Mall
Thamel House

For more info, visit www.welcomenepal.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 August 2018 in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Zambia: On the wild side

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From escaping ravenous lion prides to being charged by African elephants and encountering packs of wild dogs, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY live on the wild side in Zambia

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We were barely meters away from a pair of mating lions in an open safari vehicle, the tyres were horribly stuck in mud and daylight was fading faster than our false bravado. The more our Zambian driver-and-guide Powell Nchimunya revved the jeep, the deeper it sank. The cloud of grey fumes we blew towards the lions wasn’t exactly the post-coital smoke they would have enjoyed, so we begged Powell to ease off.

“During mating, lions prefer to stay in one area and they’re at it 60-70 times in the space of 2-3 days”, we were informed. “Just once makes people so ravenous,” we chuckled. And here was a lovely international spread for the lions’ delight if they so chose. “English, Swiss, French, Indian, what would you like to have tonight dear?”, we joked. (Nervous laughter)

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It was a strange predicament, thanks to unseasonal heavy rains, which had made the loop roads and tracks of Kafue National Park slushy. There was nothing we could do but radio for help and wait for the second safari vehicle from Mukambi Safari Lodge trailing behind to pull us out. “Shall we have the sundowners now?” Powell tried to sound cheerful. Considering our situation, it wasn’t a bad idea.

Out came sausage rolls and white wine. He carefully kept one spotlight trained on the tawny mane in the bush. “Ummm…. Can’t spot the lioness,” we observed warily. “Actually there were two lionesses…’ Powell corrected. “I don’t see the other one either!” We nearly choked on our wine, imagining two hungry lionesses slowly stalking us in darkness.

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This wild tract was once inhabited by the ferocious Ila tribe, who wore elaborate tasseled headdresses with kudu bone woven into their hair to follow each other in the tall grass. Finding plenty of fish in the river, they were always well fed. It was a cruel twist of irony that ‘Kafue’ literally meant ‘belly full’. Just when we thought we’d be part of the ‘lion’s share,’ we spotted a pair of headlights in the distance. Our joy was shortlived. The second vehicle that swooped to our rescue was stranded deeper in the slush! The leonine buffet spread was getting larger.

The spotlight was frozen on a pair of eyes shining like stars in the bush, in anticipation for any move. Minutes felt like hours as we radioed for help. Finally, a tractor from Ila Safari Lodge nearby towed us out. “Ah don’t worry, it’s quite common to get stuck when it rains.” Getting back on the gravel path, we hazarded a closer look at the mating lions, before returning to the safety of our lodge. Or so we thought…

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In the wilds of Kafue, it is not uncommon for stray wildlife to walk through resorts. Mukambi Safari Lodge, located on the banks of the Kafue river and named after the mukambi (water buck) has a clear policy on guests being accompanied to their rooms at night with a minder. “Once after dropping a guest, I saw an entire pride of lions walk by,” said my night guide.

Robyn van der Heide, who runs the place with husband Edjan and her daughters, fondly remembers Basil the semi-resident hippo who used the resort as his hangout for 14 years, often plopping himself at the reception. We locked our rondavels (traditional circular African dwelling with conical thatched roof); thankfully the night was uneventful.

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The next day, we took a boat across the river and set off on our safari. Kafue is the biggest and oldest national park in Zambia and the second largest in all of Africa. At 22,480 sq km, it is roughly the size of Wales. We were mock charged twice by African elephants and sneakily drove past some male Cape buffalos, called ‘widow makers,’ due to their aggressive nature. These lone stragglers inhabit slushy mud pools and cake themselves with mud, hence the nickname ‘dagga boys’ – after construction workers who have dried cement on them due to mixing dagga or sand, cement and water.

Kafue boasts the highest population of wild dogs in Africa and the greatest diversity of antelope in the world – semi-endemic puku, the endemic Kafue lechwe, sable, kudu, waterbuck, impala and many more. Guides jokingly call impala ‘McDonald’s’ after the M-shaped mark on their rump – “it’s fast food for predators”. Statistics reveal that it takes an average of 18 game drives to spot wild dogs; we were indeed lucky to see a pack of over a dozen Cape Wild Dogs on our second safari. First, tearing into a carcass and later crossing the main road.

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Nearly 500 of Zambia’s 750 odd bird species can be spotted at Kafue. The metallic glossy blue of the Greater Blue-eared Starling, the brilliance of the Malachite kingfisher, Namaqua doves flying off from their perch as we approached, gigantic Ground Hornbills preening furiously, Red-naped spurfowls calling out in warning on spotting the Western Banded Snake Eagle, the Grey Crowned Crane bobbing its head in the reeds like a powder puff flower; every moment in the bush was a head turner.

Zambia’s national bird the African fish eagle surveyed the stream. Hadada Ibis, named after their distinct ‘hadada’ call while in flight, were silhouetted on a tree. The Grey Go-away Bird, with its peculiar call that sounds like ‘go away,’ infamously featured in the film ‘Gods Must Be Crazy’. Technically a species of turaco, royalty and chiefs all over Africa have treasured its crimson flight feathers as status symbols. The hammerkopf with its hammer-shaped head kept flitting about ahead like an usher.

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Spotting a herd of Boehm’s zebra in the distance, we decided to stop for a coffee break. Only when we stood still did we notice the smaller creatures, like the pesky tsetse flies. “We burn elephant dung in a can at the back of the vehicle to ward them off,” said Powell. Though prevalent in Kafue, tsetse flies provided a natural barrier against encroachment in the park.

A train of Matabele ants scurried about busily. Named after the fierce Matabele tribe in Zimbabwe who raided other tribes in the 1800s, the ants raid termite mounds to grab eggs and hatchlings. Worker ants set out as scouts and leave a scented trail of pheromones for the whole colony to follow.

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Kafue does not have many lodges, which means you don’t encounter too many vehicles while on safari. The landing strip at Chunga is open for chartered flights all year round. Between our game drives, we dropped by at Ila Safari Lodge, run by Jacques and Linda van Heerden. They are the proud owners of Zambia’s first eLandy or Electronic Landrover.

The eco-friendly resort has absolutely no limitations while staying in the bush – a solar panel electric boat, luxury tents with a wooden deck and outdoor showers equipped with solar geysers. Their 3-day packages include pick up/drop from Lusaka, full day game drives with lunch in the bush, dining on the boat, fishing trips and seamless inter camp transfers.

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Undoubtedly, the best place to spot large herds of herbivores and their predators are the Zambezian flooded grasslands in the north – the Busanga Swamp and plains. A 6 hr drive away, this absolutely prime tract is the undoubted Jewel of Zambia. “It’s like Masai Mara without all the people. So wild, you are on your own,” said Linda.

We took the Great West Road straight as an arrow back to Lusaka. At Southern Sun Ridgeway, it was with a twinge of guilt we tried Zambian game meat like kudu, croc and impala. Musuku restaurant overlooked a pond-courtyard where resident weavers nested in the reeds and baby crocodiles sunned themselves on the central islet.

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For a closer brush with wildlife, opportunities are immense. Set in Lilayi Lodge’s 650-hectare game farm on the outskirts of Lusaka is Lilayi Elephant Nursery, an elephant orphanage where abandoned calves are nursed before being rehabilitated to Kafue Release Facility. At 11.30am every day, project staff give a brief talk about the project, explaining elephant behaviour and usher visitors to the viewing deck which provides the perfect vantage point to watch baby elephants feed and play.

Chaminuka, literally ‘village on a hill’ is 10,000 acres of pristine Miombo woodland and savanna overlooking Lake Chitoka, beyond Lusaka Airport. The home of Andrew and Danae Sardanis since 1978, it houses a huge private collection of contemporary African paintings, sculpture, masks and traditional artefacts – over a thousand pieces acquired from all around Africa over 50 years! Besides a tour of the Chaminuka Art Collection and game drives, you can pet cheetahs and enjoy wine and cheese tastings.

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The Kafue and the Luangwa are the two largest left-hand tributaries of the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa. South Luangwa National Park stretches around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons possess excellent concentration of animals with great leopard sightings. The famous ‘walking safari’ originated here. The Lower Zambezi National Park promises canoeing trips down the Zambezi river – though you must watch out for hippos that sometimes topple boats! At Kenneth Kaunda airport in Lusaka, we marveled at Coert Steynberg’s bronze antelope sculpture ‘Lechwe of the Kafue Flats’, before boarding our Mahogany Air flight to Livingstone.

One place where the roar of the lion is drowned out by the roar of nature’s spectacle is Victoria Falls. Counted among the seven natural wonders of the world and the only one in Africa, it’s a dramatic 1,708 m wide and 108 m drop of the Zambezi river. If Vasco da Gama was the first European to come across the Zambezi river in January 1498 (at a point he called ‘Rio dos Bons Sinais’ or River of Good Omens), centuries later explorer David Livingstone was the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (literally, the smoke that thunders) waterfall in 1855. He called it Victoria Falls after the Queen. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African interior he mapped out almost the entire course of the river.

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Mosi-oa-Tunya is also a National Park with a decent population of antelope, elephants, giraffe and rhino, but thankfully no predators. Our resort Avani Victoria Falls Resort was a mere 5-minute walk from the cataract whose deafening roar hummed through the forest. Located within a nature reserve, Avani allows unlimited access to the waterfall and chance encounters with wildlife. We saw zebras grazing in the lawns and giraffes nibbling leaves off the trees! After devouring a mixed meat Zambezi Platter, we were off to Mukuni Big 5 to experience elephant feeding, a walk with cheetahs and petting lions.

From the plush David Livingstone Safari Lodge we embarked on a magical river cruise on the Zambezi aboard the Lady Livingstone. Sipping sundowners with a band playing on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds), we trained our binocs to the riverbank to spot wildlife. In the distance, the misty spray of the gushing waterfall rose like a wraith… David Livingstone’s words rang true, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Lilayi and Chaminuka are on the outskirts of Lusaka, 45 min drive away. From Lusaka, Lower Zambezi National Park is 153km/2 hr 45 min drive while Kafue is 260km/4 hr drive via the M9. Mahagony Air flies to Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone and Proflight to Mfuwe, the nearest airport to South Luangwa.
Mahogany Air Ph +26 097 786 5838 www.mahoganyair.com
Proflight Zambia Ph +260 (0) 211 252452/476 https://proflight-zambia.com

When to Go
The low season is from December to April, the wet months, when the grass is high and visibility is less. The dry season lasts from May to October when animals congregate around the river. Peak season rates apply from from July to Oct. Walking safaris start in August when the grass is short.

Tip
Tsetse flies are attracted to dark objects so wear light colours and avoid blue and black while in the jungle.

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Where to Stay

KAFUE
Mukambi Safari Lodge
Ph +260 (0)97 44 24 013
www.mukambi.com
Tariff $395/person, all-inclusive
(Peak season July-Oct $480)

Ila Safari Lodge
Ph +260 978 294 956, 976 366 054
https://greensafaris.com
Tariff $375/person low season
High season July-Nov$675

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

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

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

LUSAKA
Southern Sun Ridgeway
Ph +260 211 251 666
www.tsogosun.com/southern-sun-ridgeway-lusaka
Tariff $184

The Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel
Ph +260 21 1239666
www.bestwestern.com
Tariff $135

Protea Hotels by Marriott
Ph +260 21 1254664
https://www.marriott.com
Tariff $124

lilayi elephant nursery-feeding time 15.38.57

Wildlife Experiences
Chaminuka, Lusaka
Ph +260 211 254146, 840884
www.chaminuka.com

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

Mukuni Big 5, Livingstone
Ph +260 213 322286
mukunibig5.co.zm

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

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the August 2018 issue of Travel + Leisure India magazine. 

Jaffa: Peeling the Big Orange

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Tel Aviv’s twin city Jaffa or Yafo is not just its oldest part dotted with historic relics; it is also its hippest quarter with cool cafes, boutiques and vibrant nightlife, discovers ANURAG MALLICK on a trip to Israel

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Listening to English cricket commentary on TV, I always wondered about the origin of the phrase “He has bowled a Jaffa”. It was a trip to Israel that finally cleared the mystery! But what in the world does an unplayable delivery have to do with a port town in a country that’s not a cricket-playing nation? The answer, is oranges…

Like the historic city it comes from, Jaffa’s famed fruit is a culmination of cultures – developed by Palestinian farmers from a Chinese strain brought by the Portuguese! Locally known as Shamouti, it evolved in mid-19th century from the sweet orange, introduced from China to the Mediterranean by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Unlike ordinary oranges, the Jaffa orange is sweet, practically seedless, with a thick skin that made it perfect for export. As crates of the fruit were shipped to Europe, Jaffa became synonymous with oranges. But what’s the cricket connection?

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After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the British were stationed in Ottoman Syria to administer undivided Palestine. During the Mandate that lasted till 1948, the cricket-crazy British were based in Jaffa where they picked up the orange reference. Theory goes, if the line and length of a delivery was good, then even if the bowler had bowled a Jaffa (orange) it would have beaten the batsman. By the 1960s, Jaffa oranges became Israel’s emblem. If New York is the Big Apple, Old Jaffa is nicknamed Big Orange.

Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew) is not just the oldest part of Tel Aviv; it is older than history itself. Supposedly named after Noah’s son Japheth who founded the settlement after the Great Flood, Jaffa is linked with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter. Long before the Bible was written, a fishing village existed at this spot.

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Straddling the crossroads of religion, culture, commerce and politics, it is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. In Greek mythology, Andromeda was chained to a rocky outcrop near Jaffa’s harbour as a sacrifice to appease the sea god Poseidon before being rescued by Perseus. It is called Andromeda Rocks in her memory.

Jaffa’s history is like a flipbook through the greatest empires of the world and legendary conquerors, from Ramses, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Herod and Saladin to Napoleon. Every civilization worth its sea salt colonized the region’s sole port – ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Ottomans and the Arabs. Jaffa survived everything from the Crusades, two World Wars and British intervention!

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Savouring spectacular coastal views from Hapisga Garden, we walked up Jaffa Hill, which has yielded archeological finds dating back to 3500 years. One of the monumental gates discovered here dates to 13th century BC when Jaffa was an Egyptian garrison under Ramses II. An older gate found underneath was destroyed during the conquest of Jaffa; an event retold at the Visitor Centre in Qedumim Square. The cast iron cannons were imported in early 18th century by the Ottomans to protect Jaffa from Bedouin raids by land and pirate attacks by sea.

Parts of the Old City have been renovated and the suburb is crammed with restored stone buildings, art galleries, souvenir shops, hip restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The Zodiac alleys are a maze of lanes leading to the harbour where the British-built Jaffa Lighthouse stands defunct. Overlooking the seafront, the minaret of Al-Bahr (Sea) Mosque, depicted in a 1675 painting by Dutch painter Lebrun, is Jaffa’s oldest existing mosque. According to folklore, the wives of local sailors and fishermen prayed here for their safe return.

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Located on the collision course of history, Jaffa has seen monuments built by one pulled down by the other and rebuilt or repurposed by yet another. St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan Roman-Catholic basilica and hospice built in 1654 on the remains of a Crusader fortress, commemorates St Peter, who brought the disciple Tabitha back from the dead. On his 1799 military campaign of the Middle East, Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here during the siege of Jaffa.

The Jaffa Museum of Antiquities is located in an 18th century Ottoman building constructed on the remains of another Crusader fortress. Beit Zunana, an old mansion named after an 18th century Jewish landlord, was revamped into a hotel and later converted into a Libyan Synagogue. Famed Israeli artist Ilana Goor restored a 270-year-old building into a unique museum brimming with artefacts and antique vessels; its sculpture garden on the terrace offers terrific sea views. The Market House Hotel’s glass-floored lobby reveals the fascinating archeological ruins of a Byzantine Chapel below.

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Thanks to 400 years of Ottoman rule (1515-1917), several monuments are of Turkish origin. The majestic clock tower built in 1906 to honor Sultan Abdul Hamid II marks the city’s northern entrance. Mahmoudiya Mosque, the largest in Jaffa, was built by Abu Nabbut, Governor of Jaffa (1810-1820) and has a charming sabil (water fountain) for pilgrims. The Saraya (Turkish Governor’s Palace) built for Mohammed Agha in the 1890s was used as a post office and jail before becoming a soap factory. The New Saraya inaugurated in 1897 was bombed and only the facade and Romanesque columns survive.

Yet, for all the histories that Jaffa holds, it lies on the cutting edge of art and design. Walls are awash with street art while charming nooks have quirky boutiques and cafés. The best place to experience Jaffa’s bohemian flair is Shuk HaPishpeshim or Jaffa Flea Market. By evening, tables and chairs dot the pavements, transforming the whole area into a vibrant outdoor dining space. The stylish Puaa restaurant has furniture sourced from the flea market and every item is for sale!

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Despite the clash of civilizations, one thing that unifies everybody is food. Locals throng Abu Hassan for creamy hummus and msabbaha (hummus with chickpeas). Legendary sweet shop Abouelafia dishes out bourekas (stuffed pastries) proudly sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ t-shirts ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.

Strolling down Jaffa’s cobbled pathways, I came across Ran Morin’s enigmatic sculpture ‘Oranger Suspendu’ where an orange tree grew out of an artificial stone suspended by steel wires. The Hovering Orange Tree is seen not just a metaphor for Israel’s prosperity, but the fate of its people, hanging between heaven and earth.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier El Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv-Yafo in 8 hrs while Air India takes 7hr 15 min from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa.

Stay
Market House Hotel www.atlas.co.il
Margosa Hotel www.margosa-hotel.com
Old Jaffa Hostel www.telaviv-hostel.com

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Eat
Café Puaa
Bourekas and sweets at Abouelafia Bakery
Hummus at Abu Hassan/Ali Karawan
The Old Man and the Sea
Aladin Restaurant

Local guide
Ofer Moghadam Tours
Ph +972 587833799
www.ofermog.com

For more info, visit http://www.goisrael.in/

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 14 July 2018 in HT City Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.