Category Archives: India

A Slice of Adventure

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase the coolest adventure sports and the best places in India to experience an adrenaline rush

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Snowboarding, ziplining, surfing, caving, paragliding to hot air ballooning, India’s diverse terrain offers something to every adventure junkie. Push your limits with the coolest adventure sports on offer. Take on the elements as you ski down the slopes of Kufri, Auli and Gulmarg, go kiteboarding at Rameshwaram, zip down Neemrana fort, over the Ganga, at old hunting lodges and abandoned stone quarries, surf along the country’s west coast, glide across the skies in hot air balloons or scour the bowels of the earth with caving in the north east… this is a must-do guide for every adventure seeker!

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Skiing in the Himalayas
You don’t have to go all the way to St Moritz for some snowplay. Come winter and heavy snowfall transforms the Himalayas into vast outdoor playgrounds perfect for snow adventures across Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir. Learn the basics at Auli (1917-3027m), with 3m snow carpeting the slopes, the longest cable car ride (4km to Rajju) and the backdrop of Nanda Devi, Kamet and Dunagiri peaks. At Manali, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports offers skiing courses and facilities at Solang Valley with lessons on offer at Himachal’s first advanced amusement park at Kufri.

In Kashmir, at 13,780 ft, Kongdoori on the shoulder of Mount Affarwat is the highest skiing point in the Himalayas. Little wonder CNN has ranked Gulmarg as the 7th best ski destination in Asia. The world’s highest ski lift whisks you to the upper slopes from where you ski or snowboard down freshly powdered slopes. The Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM) has certified instructors, quality skiing equipment, snow gear and modest shared rooms. For more luxury, stay at the plush Khyber, one of the few resorts where you can literally ‘ski-in, ski-out’!

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Srinagar, from where Gulmarg is a 45 min drive.
When to go: December to March
Cost: Around Rs.40,000/person (minimum group of 8), includes stay, food, training and equipment

Contact
Mercury Himalayan Explorations
Ph +91 11 4356 5425
http://www.mheadventures.com

Ski & Snowboard School
Auli, Garhwal Himalayas
Ph 9837937948, 9837685986
www.auliskiing.in

Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports
High Altitude Trekking & Skiing Center, Narkanda Ph: 01782-242406
Incharge, Skiing Center, Solang Nalla, PO Palhan, Manali Ph: 01902-256011
www.adventurehimalaya.org

Kitesurfing near Rameshwaram C55A9949

Kiteboarding near Rameshwaram
Kiteboarding is a surface water sport that harnesses the power of wind on water. Combining multiple disciplines like surfing, windsurfing, paragliding, wakeboarding and gymnastics into one extreme sport, the surfer is propelled on a kiteboard by a large controllable power kite. Southern Tamil Nadu, with a large stretch of sea, steady wind speed and dry weather, provides the perfect conditions for kiteboarding. India’s only female kitesurfer Charmaine and Govinda, who trained under the legendary Ines Correa, provide certification courses. Learn jumps and wave-style riding from IKO (International Kiteboarding Organisation) certified instructors at Fisherman’s Cove, Lands End lagoon and Swami’s Bay. Learn all about tea-bagging – popping in and out of water intermittently due to light or gusty wind, poor skills or twisted lines. Stay in rustic beach huts for around Rs.1,400 per person per night, inclusive of meals and transfers to kite spots. Also learn snorkelling, kayaking and stand up paddleboard while you’re at it.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Chennai and Madurai, a 3 hr drive away. Or take an overnight bus or train to Rameshwaram, with Rs.400 auto fare to the location.
When to go: Oct–Mar (Winter North Winds), Apr–Sep (Summer South Winds)
Cost: Private or shared lessons of 6-10 hours between Rs.15,000-30,000 (1-2 days).  

Contact
Quest Expeditions
Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409
Email booking@quest-asia.com
thekitesurfingholiday.com

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Surfing in South India
With a 7,000 km coastline, India is just discovering the thrills of surfing. At Mulki, Kaliya Mardana Krishna Ashram (or ‘Ashram Surf Retreat’ as it’s better known) is run by Krishna devotees who impart surfing lessons besides yoga and mantra meditation. With no smoking/alcohol allowed on the premises and healthy veg fare, it’s the perfect place to detox and learn to ride the waves! Ride the Zodiac boat to local surf breaks like Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s and Water Tank. Ganpatipule near Ratnagiri is home to Maharashtra’s only surf school run by Ocean Adventures while Kallialay Surf Club at Mamallapuram south of Chennai provides surfing lessons with wakeboards and equipment on hire.

Getting there: Mulki is 30 km north of Mangalore, Ganpatipule is 300 km south of Mumbai, Mamallapuram is 56 km south of Chennai.
When to go: Good all year round, with Summer South Winds blowing between Apr–Sep and Winter North Winds between Oct–Mar 

Contact
India Surf Club, Mulki
Ph +91 9880659130
Email gauranataraj@gmail.com http://www.surfingindia.net
Cost Rs.3,500-4,500 (double occupancy), surfing lessons Rs.1,500/p/day

Kallialay Surf Club, Mamallapuram
Ph +91 9442992874, 9787306376
Email kallialaysurfschool@hotmail.com

Ocean Adventures, Ganpatipule
Ph +91-99755 53617
http://www.oceanadventures.in
Cost: Rs.2,500 (4 hrs) or Rs.5,000 (3 days)

Caving in Meghalaya Kipepo

Caving in the North East
Call it spelunking (American) or potholing (British version), caving is the hot new adventure trend. It’s dark and grimy, but the descent into the subterranean realm offers a chance to see the beautiful world of stalagmites, stalactites, candles, cave curtains and cave pearls, formed over thousands of years. The presence of limestone hills, heavy rains and high humidity are ideal conditions for cave formation, best exhibited in India’s North East. With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and the largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Little wonder it ranks among the world’s Top 10 caving destinations.

For tourists, Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills is a decent primer, though for less touristy stuff, head to Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills, riddled with cave passages like Krem Tynghen, Krem Umthloo, Krem Chympe and Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India. In neighbouring Manipur, Khangkhui Mangsor (cave system) near Ukhrul is a top draw with the village’s Tangkhul Naga inhabitants doubling up as guides. Each of the pits and caves has interesting legends of kings and demons attached to them.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Guwahati from where Shillong is a 3 hr drive.
When to go: November to March

Contact
Kipepeo
Ph +91 9930002412
http://www.kipepeo.in

For more on Meghalaya’s caves, http://megtourism.gov.in/caves.html

Bir Billing Paragliding

Paragliding in Kamshet & Bir-Billing
A good place to get initiated into paragliding is Kamshet in Maharashtra. Its mild altitude, dynamic wind, moderate weather, profusion of flying institutes and proximity to Mumbai and Pune, make it ideal for beginners. All year round access means you clock more air miles here. Basic and advanced courses like EP (Elementary Pilot) and CP (Club Pilot) are offered, but for serious stuff like XC (Cross Country), head to Bir-Billing in Himachal Pradesh. The 2400 m high meadow at Billing, 14 km north of Bir, is the launch site with the landing site and tourist accommodations in Chowgan.

There are a host of paragliding schools like Paragliding Guru run by BHPA certified paragliding instructor Gurpreet Dhindsa or Hi-Fly run by Debu Choudhury from Manali, the only Indian pilot to be in the Top 50 of Paragliding World Cup Association and India No.1 several times. Manoj Roy, founder and president of Paragliding Association of India, explains that the sport is catching on at Panchgani, Sikkim, Vagamon and Varkala (Kerala), Yelagiri (Tamil Nadu) and Goa. An annual paragliding tournament is conducted in Bir in Oct.

Getting there: Kamshet is 110 km from Mumbai and 45 km from Pune. Bir is 65 km from Dharamsala.
When to go: October to May (avoid rainy season and peak snowfall period in the Himalayas between Dec-Feb)
Cost: Around Rs.18,000 for 3-4 day course, includes stay, food, travel to the hill and equipment 

Contact
Hi Fly, Bir
Ph +91 9805208052
http://www.hi-fly.in

Paragliding Guru, Bir
http://www.paragliding.guru

Indus Paragliding, Karla
Ph +91 7798111000, 9869083838
http://www.indusparagliding.in

Nirvana Adventures, Kamshet
Ph +91 93237 08809
http://www.flynirvana.com
 

Temple Pilots, Kamshet
Ph +91 9970053359, 9920120243
http://www.templepilots.com
 

For more info, visit http://www.pgaoi.org, http://www.appifly.org and http://www.paraglidingforum.in

The Quarry Adventures-DSCN1404 (2)

Ziplining in North India & Coorg
Ziplining in the country started when Flying Fox founder Jono Walter met Neemrana Hotel’s Aman Nath and remarked “I want to fly you over your fort like a vulture.” Aman retorted, “No, no. I want to fly like a god!” And thus Flying Fox, India’s zipline pioneers, started South Asia’s first zipline in 2007. Ziplining at Neemrana promises a heady buzz of history and adrenaline as you zip over battle-scarred ramparts of a 15th century fort. Zipline five sections over the Aravali countryside – from the 330m Qila Slammer launched from an old lookout to the 400m ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or the Bond-inspired Pussy Galore and Goodbye Mr Bond, ending at Big B, named after Amitabh Bachhan who zipped from that very spot into the fort in the movie ‘Major Saheb’.

At Jodhpur, launch from ridges and battlements of the historic Mehrangarh Fort accessed through secret tunnels as you tackle Chokelao Challenge, Ranisar Rollercoaster and Magnificent Marwar, a 300m flight over two lakes landing on the tip of a fortified tower. In Punjab, Flying Fox Kikar set up the longest zip-line tour in South Asia and the first forest-based zip-line adventure in India at an old hunting lodge. Upstream of Rishikesh at Shivpuri, zipline over forests in the Himalayan foothills and raging rapids 230 ft below as you span 400 m stretches of High Times and White Water Flyer.

Down south, Siddhartha Somana (Sidd) repurposed a 35-year-old abandoned stone quarry near Madikeri into an offbeat adventure spot. Set in an 18-acre patch at Madenad in a 250m long horseshoe arc, take a guided Rainforest Walk, go rock climbing, rappel down a 50 ft natural rock wall and try 5 Treetop Adventures above the forest floor, eventually flopping into a Giant Hammock. The ziplining is done in two stretches – 400 ft and 600 ft, about 100-150 ft high. The all-inclusive ‘Full Dosage’ costs 1,999/person for all activities with food arranged on request.

Getting there: Neemrana and Kikar are 2 hr drives from Delhi while Shivpuri is a 15 min drive upstream of Rishikesh. Jodhpur Airport is well connected by flights from Delhi and Jaipur. Quarry Adventures is 8km from Madikeri.
When to go: All year round
Cost: Rs.1,399-2,299/person 

Contact
Flying Fox

Ph +91 9810999390, 011-66487678
http://www.flyingfox.asia

Quarry Adventures
Ph 9880651619, 9482575820
http://www.thequarryadventures.com
Timings: 9am-6pm

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Hot Air Ballooning across India
A hot air balloon is indeed a strange aerial vehicle that has no brakes or steering wheel with only the fair winds to guide you! Commercial hot air ballooning in India finally took off on 1 Jan 2009 with pioneers SkyWaltz waltzing into the skies. The tourism hub of Rajasthan, with its forts, palaces and rugged Aravallis was the perfect place to start. Headquartered in Jaipur, the action spread to Ranthambhore, Pushkar camel fair, a permanent operation at Lonavala, besides tethered flights at festivals like Taj Mahotsav, Hampi Festival, Amaravati Festival and Araku Balloon Festival. SkyWaltz has flown over 35,000 happy customers in the last nine years. With the trend catching on, the fifth edition of the Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival is back this January with tethered flights and night glow at Chennai and Pollachi.

Getting there: Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam.
When to go: All year round except peak summer and rains. Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival takes place 4-6 Jan 2019 in Chennai and 13-15 Jan at Pollachi.

Contact
Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Email tnballoonfestival@gmail.com
http://www.tnibf.com

SkyWaltz/E-Factor
Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222
Email goballooning@skywaltz.com
http://www.skywaltz.com

Pushkar Fair
Ph +91 8130925252
http://www.pushkarmela.org

Araku Balloon Festival
http://www.arakuballoonfestival.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in the January 2019 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

 

Kurumgad: Turtle Recall

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go island hopping off the Karwar coast in Karnataka discovering lonely lighthouses and turtle-shaped islands

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If you really want to know what island life is all about, ask someone who mans a lighthouse on a remote island and gets to visit the mainland only once a month for supplies. For romanticists like us, an island quest is all about marine adventure and lost treasures.

For Govind, the caretaker at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad, it is a lonely vigil shared by another attendant (currently on leave). Their sole responsibility is the daily maintenance of the lighthouse – from the upkeep of the solar powered system and digital control room to flicking the generator that flashes the light, pulsing from dusk to dawn to help vessels navigate the high seas every night.

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We were on an island trail off the scenic coast of Karwar. Within a radius of 5-10 miles from the mainland, this was the only such cluster of islands along the 5700 km coastline of India. The five islands – Kurumgad, Devgad (Oyster Rock), Madhyalingad (Sanyasi Island), Puttadweepa and Anjediva – located on the approach to the harbour shelter the coast from winds, cyclones and storms, making Karwar an all-season harbour. Seafarers from Arabia called Karwar’s port Baithkol (Bait-e-kol, Arabic for ‘Bay of Safety’).

It is claimed to be one of three natural ports of the world and the safest. In 150 AD, Greek mathematician and geographer Ptolemy was astute enough to mark the position of Anjediva off Karwar on a cartograph. Great powers vied to control this strategic nook – from Arab sailors, the Sultans of Bijapur, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Sonda dynasty, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, to the Portuguese and the British.

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Like the weathered shoreline, the island that was once Devaragudda or ‘god’s hillock’ became Devgad over time. When the British discovered it, they found its rocky fringes full of oysters and named it Oyster Rock. After years of rich harvest, not much of the oysters remained but what survived are a cannon and the 1864 British lighthouse. Built by Chance Brothers from Birmingham, ironically the equipment was French, made in Paris by ‘Ingenieurs and Constructeurs Barbier, Bernad & Turenne’ in 1933. The stone masonry lighthouse loomed 66 ft high and its beam could be seen from 20 nautical miles or 37km away.

Govind took great care of the polished antique lights, gleaming copper oil cans and spectacular mirrored discs. Until recently, the lighthouse used to be manually operated. Govind led us up the smooth teakwood steps out onto the slim balcony and we understood when he said, “It’s peaceful here. There’s no din of the city to deal with.” All around us the waves swirled in an incessant dance with a few boats silhouetted against the horizon as fishing eagles pirouetted over their eyries.

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The sun was about to set. We left Govind to his daily duties and hiked down to our boat. The crystal clear water around the island seemed ideal for snorkeling but we had to return to our base, Kurumgad, literally the ‘tortoise-shaped’ island. Afloat like a carapace, its form is discernible from afar as you arrive by boat from mainland Karwar.

Adjacent, lies the small Madhyalingad or Madyagad, locally known as Sanyasi Island. Folklore recounts how the island was named after a sage who sought refuge here. It is difficult to dock on this uninhabited island and local fishermen swear that the sage’s presence is perceptible.

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We were happy to gaze at it from the comfort of Cintacor Island Resort on Kurumgad. In 1498, as Vasco da Gama led the first Portuguese ships down India’s west coast, they discovered the natural harbour formed by the islands off Karwar and called it Cintacora. Whether the name is derived from cinta or sash, after the wide shoreline or a mispronunciation of Chitakula, the old name for Karwar, remains unclear. What is known is that Anjediva Island was the first place the Portuguese conquered in India; it was also the last place they left after 450 odd years of colonial rule.

As Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva steered the last Portuguese ships out in 1961, Kurumgad Island ended up with the Coelho family. It served as a rustic island getaway called The Great Outdoors, until The Little Earth Group (of Destiny Farms, Sherlock and King’s Cliff fame in Ooty) took over and transformed it into a plush island getaway a year ago.

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Our sea-facing cottage Seasponge, one of the five S type cabins, was the most lavish on the island with large balconies overlooking the seascape. The marine inspired décor ran through the other rooms Scallop, Seagull, Swordfish and Salmon. The vegetation outside which had been deliberately left untrimmed, presented a natural view rather than a manicured one. Bunched together in the shade of trees were the compact O cabins – Orca, Otter, Oyster and Osprey. A little further away, en route to the beach, were the medium-sized H Cabins – Herring, Hake, Halibut, Hoki, Hawk and Haddock.

Jolly Roger’s Club, the lounge bar, overlooked the sea access from Karwar. The Hub, marked by its co-ordinates ‘14o 84’ N, 74o 09’ E’ served as the reception area where the sprightly Seraphin from Sikkim would greet us with welcome drinks. Occupying the highest spot on the island was the restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck. Canary yellow nautical meters, gauges and pipes radiated from the centre adding a contemporary flair.

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On the walls were portraits of diving legend Jean Jacques Cousteau and references to Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s character in ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ and ‘The Mysterious Island.’ Chefs Sundar and Senthil stirred up delicious grilled kingfish and butter garlic prawns. Food was a blend of Konkani dishes, ‘Journeys along the coast’ and recipes from the world over, ‘Across the Seven Seas.’

Next morning, over breakfast from our perch above the infinity pool, we watched in delight, glistening pods of dolphins leap and cavort in the sea. The water was a fascinating shade of labradorite, grey-green with flashes of rainbows in its mysterious depths. Naturalist Roshna accompanied us on a circumnavigation of the island. We took the West Mile Way, walking through dense foliage.

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Nearly 80% of the island was wooded and a grove called Victor Woods was dedicated to the original owner Victor Coelho. Roshna pointed out Macaranga peltata or the Pencil Tree; its wood is used in the pencil and plywood industry while its kenda leaves are used to wrap jaggery and sweetmeats.

Sanyasi Island looked forlorn and undisturbed to our west. A signboard indicated a mysterious deep fissure at the base of Kurumgad. Folklore attributes it to Lord Narasimha who apparently swam into the island creating the long creek, before he emerged near a cave at the top. Geologists theorize that the fissure was formed by an earthquake in the Carboniferous Period over 300 million years ago.

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Continuing along the West Mile Way where it joined the Temple Trail, we sprinted up the rock steps to Narasimha Temple built on a flat patch atop the island. Every year in January thousands of devotees come for a pilgrimage on Pushya poornima. The island resort remains shut on those two days. The simple shrine had a painting of Narasimha slaying the demon Hiranyakashipu. Interestingly, both kuruma the tortoise and narasimha, half-man, half-lion are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. To complete the mythological drama, a fishing eagle swooped down dramatically – the eagle being the vahana (mount) of Lord Vishnu!

The mystery creek and rocky islets around the island are good places to spot shy otters or watch sea eagles and Brahminy kites soar in the skies. We saw paradise flycatchers, orioles and sunbirds flitting about the bushes. The island is also home to several species of butterflies, including the Crimson Rose, Blue Tiger and Southern Birdwing, the largest in India.

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Down the slope along East Mile Way, we stopped at a small rocky pool, home to terrapins. A little detour to the rocky shore led to the Tidal Pool, a natural hollow by the edge of the sea, best enjoyed at low tide. The island was under the control of various kingdoms, but it was Basalinga Nayak of the Sonda dynasty who fortified Kurumgad for a battle against the British. The ruins of the bastion were barely discernible through the overgrowth.

Like Kurumgad, Anjediv Island too, is historically significant. Theories abound whether Anjediva was so named because it was the anj dweep ‘fifth island’ or in honour of the island deity Aryadurgadevi, whose idol was shifted to safer shores at Ankola after the Portuguese settled here. In 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque launched his conquest of Goa from this island.

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It remained unoccupied till 1661 when the British were forced to seek shelter there, awaiting the handover of Bombay as dowry after the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. The island has the 18th century Our Lady of Brotas Church named after the brotas or perennial sweet water spring on the island. Handed over to the Indian Navy for its Seabird project, Anjediv is no longer open to the public.

We retired to Kurumasana Spa on Kurumgad for a relaxing Stress Buster massage before strolling to the Cozy Canopy, formed naturally by ancient roots and branches, en route to the beach. A little ahead was a secret cove, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, kayaking and fishing. We took a spin around the island on jet skies, spraying through the surf. With the sun going down over the Arabian Sea we headed back to the beach bar On the Rocks. It was 6 pm and the beam from Devgad Lighthouse began to wink in the distance, every ten seconds. Govind was diligently on duty at Oyster Rock while we guiltily sipped martinis, slinking into our shells at Kurumgad as the silvery moon took over the sea. After weeks of hectic travel, we were happy to drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.

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THE INFORMATION 

Getting there
Kurumgad is 7km into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karwar off an estuary of the Kali river. Fly to Dabolim airport and drive 2 hrs to Karwar. Cross the Kali river bridge and take the privately arranged boat from Kodibagh for the 30-minute ride to Kurumgad.

Cintacor Island Resort
Kurumgad, Karwar
Ph 9487533640
www.cintacorislandresort.com
Tariff O Cabin Rs.11,500 + 28% tax, H Cabin Rs.12,500 + 28% tax, S Cabin Rs.15,000 + 28% tax (breakfast included), Rs.3000 hike in tariff on weekends (Fri-Sun)

What to Eat
The restaurant Captain Nemo’s Deck serves fresh seafood besides Konkan, Continental and Indian cuisine. On mainland Karwar, try Hotel Amrut (Main Road, near Syndicate Bank Ph 9845201215) and Swetha Lunch Home (Ananda Arcade, Green Street Ph 9986675726)

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What to See & Do
Nature Trails on Kurumgad – East & West Mile Way, Temple Trail, Half Mile Trail
Sunrise cruise (6:30 am), Sunset cruise (5:30 pm), Dolphin cruise (9am-6pm)
Lighthouse Tour (3pm) with boat cruise & picnic at Oyster Rock Lighthouse, Devgad
River Cruise (9am-6pm) upstream along the river Kali
Water sports like jet skiing, kayaking, tubing and banana boat rides
Fishing, Snorkelling & Stargazing
Swedish & Thai massages, wraps and therapies at Kurumasana Spa (11am-9pm)

Safety tips
While on the boat, wear life jacket at all times. Do not lean over the side, stand suddenly or crowd to one side of the boat.
Watch your step on island hikes as the walkways run along the edge of the cliff with steep drops in some places.
Be cautious while swimming in the sea as there are rocky areas. Always check with the lifeguard and avoid the beach if the red flag is up.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of an Islands Special cover story in the December 2018 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Inspired Heritage: Reclaiming the Past

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‘Inspired Heritage’, that’s the buzz at luxury hotels across the country, as they pick out elements from history to spruce up their interior decor, while curating new menus and experiences, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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A turbaned doorkeeper sounded the gong marking our arrival outside the gates of Kamalapura Palace, alerting the front desk about our impending check in. The car rattled along the stone pathway, deliberately rough hewn like in the past, the way a ratha or chariot would have clattered in bygone Hampi. The main building and villas came to view, their turrets and domes so reminiscent of Hampi’s monuments. There were shades of Anegundi’s Kamalapura Palace and the angular roofs echoed the temples near Virupaksha…

Greeted with a cool sandalwood tika, flower garland and a welcome drink, we were ushered to a foyer. In place of the reception was a recreation of Hampi’s iconic landmark Sister Stones, two sisters who complained about the tedious exploration of Hampi on foot and were magically turned into stone! The beautiful arches seemed right out of the Octagonal Bath.

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We were led to our Jal Mahal villa styled after the zenana or Queen’s Quarters and their water palaces. While Evolve Back (formerly Orange County) had styled its pioneering resort at Chikkana Halli Estate in Siddapur, Coorg on the lines of a plantation resort and its Kabini resort as a thatched Kuruba hadi (settlement), their latest offering in Hampi was a celebration of the architectural glory of the Vijayanagar Empire.

In what’s emerging as a new trend, hotels in India are now seeking inspiration from their immediate environment not just for design and architecture, but also for cuisine and thematic curated experiences. After working up an appetite in our private pool, we relished local Vijayanagara cuisine at Tuluva, the restaurant named after the most prominent of the three dynasties that ruled Hampi. Bidri showcased the Dakkani flavours of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. The lofty Elephant Stables inspired the design of the Howdah bar.

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Our guide Venkatesh took us on specially curated itineraries – the Raya Trail, the Virupaksha Trail, the Pattabhirama temple adopted by Evolve Back and the Tungabhadra Trek, along the banks of the river past Courtesan Street, Achyutharaya Temple, Sugreeva’s Cave and the fascinating Koti Linga carved on a sheet of rock, just in time for sunset.

After wowing everyone with Grand Chola in Chennai with its Chola inspired architecture, the latest addition to ITC’s luxury portfolio is ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad, the first luxury business hotel in the heart of Hi-tech City. In keeping with their Responsible Luxury theme, it mirrors the culture and ethos of the destination, inspired by the world’s most famed jewel – the rare priceless diamond from Golconda.

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Its unique angular architecture is a reflection of the facets of the famed diamond with crystal clear glass façade. Like the Kohenur (Persian for ‘Mountain of Light’), the hotel is bright and full of light by day. By evening, it lights up like a gem, rising majestically above the lake Durgam Cheruvu that it overlooks.

The jali (lattice) pattern and marble inlay floors are a recurrent motif with an installation of Hyderabad’s local craft bangles hanging from the ceiling at the reception. The Peacock Bar, a tribute to Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne where the Kohinoor diamond was once mounted, had a bas relief plaster peacock on the ceiling glittering with colourful tekri (glass) work. The Golconda Pavilion with design motifs from the 14th century Bidri metal craft, Persian zardozi and pearls, showcases local culinary favourites from the region.

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The restaurant Dum Pukht Begum’s has arches, columns and chandeliers reminiscent of palaces like Falaknuma and Chowmahalla. Its rich interiors reflect another famous diamond from the region the Noor-ul-ain (Light of the Eye), a tribute to the royal ladies who brought refinement and appreciation of fine things. The food too balances the flavours of Awadhi cuisine from the Dum Pukht brand with local Nizami touches.

At 4000 sq ft, the Grand Presidential Suite Koh-i-Noor is the largest in the Hi-Tech area. Even the Executive Room is more spacious than the other base category rooms in the city. Given its location in Hi-Tech City, the hotel comes with snazzy features – entertainment and room automation app on an i-Pad and a unique automated laundry system that can be accessed without entering the room. In between meals at the creative Chinese restaurant Yi Jing and authentic Italian Ottimo, we found time and space to rejuvenate ourselves at Kaya Kalp Spa.

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In Kochi, CGH Earth Hotels achieved the impossible. Inspired by the shipping legacy of India’s busiest harbour town, they transformed an old Victorian shipbuilding yard into a waterfront colonial-style hotel called Brunton Boatyard. One look at its lofty ceiling and large pillars and one imagines it’s a restored heritage mansion that dates back a few centuries; yet it’s just over a decade old!

Enjoy the day’s catch at the alfresco Terrace Grill or sample Kochi’s multi-cultural cuisine at History Restaurant – the Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish Chuttulli Meen, Ceylonese idiappam (string hoppers) with fish curry and the now iconic First Class Railway Mutton Curry.

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CGH’s other hotel Eighth Bastion is a tribute to the historic port town’s Dutch legacy and is named after Fort Kochi’s ‘eighth bastion’ – no longer there. Their restaurant East Indies presents a specially prepared menu called the ‘Dutch Route’, featuring dishes collected from former Dutch colonies. Expect everything from Dutch Bruder bread to Indonesian satays, rendang (Sumatran caramelized curry) and lamprais, a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish of aubergine, frikkadel (Afrikaans meatball), sambal (spicy relish) and balchao (shrimp pickle) wrapped in a leaf with rice, hence its derived name ‘lump rice’.

When it comes to heritage, no one does it as well as Rajasthan. JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa is the first signature hotel under the Starwood banner in Rajasthan. An architectural gem set against the Aravalis, it is styled after the Amber Fort nearby. Musicians by the doorway welcome you to a mesmerizing world of intricate marble inlay, traditional jaali (lattice) and tikri (patterned mirror work), with ornate fountains and water bodies recreating the air of a pleasure palace.

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Each dining space had its own character – all-day dining at Sukh Mahal, the rooftop restaurant Hawa Mahal or the Indian specialty restaurant Mohan Mahal, inspired by the Sheesh Mahal at Amer Fort in Jaipur. A unique fine-dine experience, instead of electric lighting, light from candle flames are reflected in a stunning mosaic of mirrors in the ceiling and walls of the restaurant.

We savoured signature dishes such as laal maas, murgh makai ka soweta, dana methi ki sabzi and more. Tailor-made experiences included a walking tour of old Amer and a visit to Hathi Gaon, home to rehabilitated elephants that ply up the slope of Amer Fort ferrying tourists every day. The elephant interaction program includes a joyride, body painting with natural colours, bathing and feeding.

Magical clouds at Suryagarh Jaisalmer

As you drive past Jaisalmer, an open jeep convoy leads guests to the fort-like entrance of Suryagarh where a pair of camel riders usher you up the driveway. At the porch, a Manganiyar troupe welcomes you with song, Panditji applies a tilak and flower petals are showered from a jharokha above as you enter the foyer. An attendant hands a towel, another plies you with cool beverage and a musician seated in the central courtyard welcomes you to the magical world of Suryagarh.

An ode to the medieval Silk Route trade, Suryagarh is styled on the impressive ruins of Paliwal Brahmin settlements at Kuldhara and Khaba Fort. The hotel beautifully integrates design elements from its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard were inspired by Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara.

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The Residences, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel. Each handcrafted sandstone haveli was based on the community living concept and offered a sense of private luxury with a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exude sophisticated charm. Even its diverse dining experiences are beautifully curated – Breakfast with Peacocks, Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard or Dining on the Dunes.

Its bespoke Desert Remembers trails present the Thar desert’s lesser known history – a midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara, cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, ancient stepwells, ruins of caravanserais, rainwater harvesting techniques and the sweet water wells of Mundari, retracing old trade routes. Even the wellness therapies at Rait Spa were an ode to the region’s geography, using salt from the Luni river and potlis of rait (sand).

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Narendra Bhawan, a swanky boutique hotel in Bikaner has taken theme holidays to another level. It retells the story of Narendra Singh ji, the last reigning maharaja of Bikaner (1948-2003). Born at the cusp of India’s independence, Narendra Singh ji established a novel residence in keeping with his new tastes and vision and Narendra Bhawan celebrates his life’s passage through time – from his royal birth and patronage, military life, the makings of a global bon vivant to a socialist who embraced the idea of a new democratic India.

We viewed the recently launched premium Regimental Rooms, based on Narendra Singh ji’s time at the royal military academy. The canopied bed is styled like a field tent, while stern military stripes and miniature Spanish armada lanterns adorn the room. The starters were finger food you’d expect in an elite military club. We were led down to the foyer where a police band played outside to go with the theme, followed by a ‘mess lunch’ at the Gaushala.

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After a viewing of the India Room, we enjoyed a sundowner and dinner by the poolside and a viewing of the Republic Room ended in a brunch at the Indira Gandhi canal and an Imperial dinner at Laxmi Niwas Palace. Each category of room corresponded a particular stage of Narendra Singh ji’s life with a specially curated meal and experience, titled the Grand Essentials of Life.

The food at Narendra Bhawan is as eclectic in choice as its erstwhile owner. From smoked salmon, cured ham, assorted cheese and canapés to robust Rajasthani fare like kale chane ki kadhi, papad ki sabzi and aloe vera ki sabzi, it carries off its varied cuisine with élan. Thanks to the direct flight connectivity from Delhi to Bikaner, you can be here quicker than the waiting time on a weekend at a posh South Delhi restaurant.

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

In Leh, The Grand Dragon Ladakh draws from vernacular architecture of the region with ornate carved windows and intricate dragons blazing flames of colour around the pillars and wide open views overlooking the Stok Kangri range. Welcomed with silken scarves we are handed a pouch of camphor that helps acclimatize to the high altitude.

Going beyond the obvious sightseeing trails, the hotel highlights unique offbeat excursions like visiting the only potter in the monastery village of Likir, local oracles, tea and biscuits by the Indus and smithy workshops in Chilling to interact with metal craftsmen making bells and utensils for locals and Buddhist monasteries, including exquisite kettles. It’s heartening to see how hospitality brands in India are exploring new ways to recreate the glory of the days gone by in their architecture, cuisine and experiences.

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FACT FILE 

Where to Stay

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi
www.evolveback.com

ITC Kohenur, Hi-tech City, Hyderabad
www.itchotels.in

Brunton Boatyard/Eighth Bastion, Kochi
www.cghearth.com

JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa, Kukas, near Amer
www.jwmarriottjaipur.com

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
www.suryagarh.com

The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
www.thegranddragonladakh.com

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

Chandernagore: Down Revolutionary Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

Secret Seven: 7 hideaways in the North East

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

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

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

Getting there: 180 km from Aalong (Aalo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

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

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

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

 

 

Kanheri Caves: Black mountain side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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.

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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.