Category Archives: India

Offbeat Heritage: It’s Monumental

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On the occasion of The International Day for Monuments and Sites (18 April) or World Heritage Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover lesser known places of heritage in India

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We stared wide-eyed at Mahabat Maqbara. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined stumbling upon a monument as grand as this in dusty Junagadh. Built in 1892 for Nawab Mahabat Khan II (1851-1882), the mausoleum was a unique blend of European and Indo-Islamic architecture.

French windows stretched from floor to lintel and Gothic columns shared space alongside Islamic arches and ornate flourishes. Adjacent, and similar in grandeur, stood the florid mausoleum of the Vizier Sheikh Mohamed Bahauddinbhai Hasambhai surrounded by four minarets with elaborate spiral stairways.

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The historic town in southern Gujarat had its share of monuments – from Ashokan edicts to Buddhist caves of Uperkot Fort, the sacred Girnar Hill dotted with shrines and mind numbing murals of the Darbargadh at the old capital of Sihor. It’s hard to stand out in a country with a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage heavyweights…

The Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, the monuments of Delhi, forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Khajuraho-Orchha, Buddhist caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the Kailasanatha temple, the Sanchi stupa, churches of Old Goa, ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, stunning Hoysala temples at Belur-Halebid to Chalukyan architecture at Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal and the Great Living Chola temples of Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram…

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Yet, on our journeys through Gujarat, we came across a wealth of lesser-known treasures – from stepwells, gateways to monuments. UNESCO World Heritage site Champaner-Pavagadh is a vast archeological park near Baroda spread over 2500 acres with monuments stretching from Pavagadh Hill, an early Hindu citadel extending to Champaner, the 15th century capital of Sultan Mahmud Begda (1458-1511) of Gujarat.

Now reclaimed by bramble, the old mosques flanked by minarets with arched entrances and jharokhas take the breath away of any visitor. Shaher ki Masjid was built for the royal family and nobles, the Nagina, Khajuri and Kevda Masjids were named after the shape of the dome and the Jami Masjid was counted among the finest mosques in Gujarat.

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A drive to the Statue of Unity from Baroda, passes through Dabhoi, an ancient fortified town known for its old fort and exquisitely carved gateways. The main entrance is the intricate Hira Bhagol (Gate), extending to the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. The spectacular gateway harks to the legend of its architect Hiradhar, who was buried here alive because the king feared that he would replicate a similar masterpiece for someone else. Some say Hira ran short of stones, thereby incurring the king’s wrath.

A hidden gem and one of Surat’s most important historical monuments are the European tombs of merchants and functionaries of the East India Company who worked in the factories at Surat. The English Cemetery has the impressive grave of the Oxenden brothers while the most majestic structure in the Dutch cemetery is the octagonal tomb of Baron Hendrik Adrian van Rheede. The adjacent Armenian cemetery has no superstructure, only elaborately inscribed tombstones.

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In neighbouring Rajasthan, an oft-overlooked destination is Bikaner, with its Rampuria havelis, Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace and Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of Bikaner’s last maharaja which has been recently renovated with rooms and décor inspired by his life and times.

Stay at Bhanwar Nivas or Gaj Kesri while going on tonga rides through the Old City or do the specially curated Merchants Trail. Mandawa in Shekhawati used to be an important stopover en route to Bikaner but the region is worthy of deeper exploration.

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In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), scion of the Shekhawat clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast area north of Amber. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms), raising new villages, forts and palaces, which attracted Marwari traders.

Using riches amassed through trade, the merchants built flamboyant painted havelis, often vying to outdo the other. Located at the junction of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu the 13,784 sq km area called Shekhawati is thus described as ‘the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan’.

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Nawalgarh, founded by Thakur Nawal Singh, has stunning mansions like the late 18th century Morarka Haveli and Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. The Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawal Singh ji for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati with the biggest mansion being Sawalka Haveli. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town.

In Himachal, we found another heritage town called Garli. It is said that the 52 clans of the hill Sood community were driven out of Rajasthan by marauding Mughals and came to the Kangra Valley. Here, they became treasurers of the Kangra royals and as contractors, helped the British built Shimla. Settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away, they used their riches to set up palatial homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Many are crumbling but few like Chateau Garli and Naurang Yatri Nivas have been painstakingly restored and thrown open to visitors.

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A heritage walk through the cobbled meandering alleys is the best way to explore the town. The Spiti Left Bank Trek takes you to high altitude villages like Komic, the highest in Asia with a stunning old monastery, and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling gompa that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall.

Another relatively undiscovered architectural treasure is Burhanpur in Central India. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and finishing centre where princes and princesses were groomed. Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana all served as governors for over three decades each. Burhanpur has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. Here, Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic in Adil Shah’s two mosques Jama Masjid in Burhanpur and the lofty citadel of Asirgarh.

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The riverside palace complex Shahi Kila was expanded into Mughalbagh by the Mughals who overthrew the Farookis. Here, Shah Jahan built a grand hamam for Mumtaz Mahal suffused with paintings and inlaid with precious stones to reflect the lamp light. The entire ceiling is redolent with intricate paintings and a closer look reveals how some of the iconic motifs seem to be inspired by royal turbans and accessories worn by Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Begum.

Not many know that Mumtaz died in Burhanpur while giving birth to her fourteenth child and was laid to rest at her beloved Ahukhana, a hunting ground turned rose garden. Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana underground Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time; it lay hidden under a mound of earth until excavated 25 years ago.

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There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvelous monument with exquisite murals that is kept under lock and key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, thankfully still intact in portions.

Some sites remain imprinted in our minds vividly because of the sheer impact, be it the massive rock cut Jain statues on Gopachal Parvat while climbing up to Gwalior Fort or the gigantic Buddhist figurines of Kanheri caves in Borivali, Mumbai. From the blue and gold motifs of Raja Man Singh’s fort in Gwalior to the sight of the tomb of Bahmani sultans at Ashtur struck by lightning or the soaring madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi)…

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Be it the glazed finesse of the pillars and carvings at the Madhukeshwara temple in Banavasi, the old capital of the Kadambas or the symmetry of the twin temples of Mosale near Hassan; we tried to go beyond the known to the lesser known. If the terracotta temples of Bishnupur and West Bengal are overdone, try the terracotta temple complex of Maluti in Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, the ruins at Tala on the banks of the Maniari river is a fascinating site. Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the twin Shiva shrines of Devrani (Young Sister-in-law)-Jethani (Elder Sister-in-law). Exquisite carvings lie strewn like a jigsaw puzzle – remains of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads and outré bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles).

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Beside an ornate doorway, the 8.8 ft tall sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed figure of Daksha bowed in reverence. The statue of Mahakal Rudra weighs 9 tonnes and is intriguing as it’s believed to represent the signs of the zodiac – coiled snakes for matted locks, two fish instead of a moustache, round chin shaped like a crab, stomach in the form of a kumbh (pot), two lion heads for knee caps and waist marked by the faces of four maidens. In the past, Tala was a prominent seat of Tantric worship.

There are many places in India that bear traces of colonial trade. While Pondicherry (Puducherry) is well known for its French heritage, Chandannagar further up the East coast 37km from Kolkata is relatively undiscovered French outpost. Taking the Grand Trunk Road to the Liberty gate emblazoned with the French motto, you are drawn into an old world of French colonialism and Bengali aristocracy.

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Mansions like Nundy-bari, Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Patal Bari and Sri Nandadulal temple coexist alongside St Joseph’s Convent, the 1878 Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court), 1887 Thai Shola hotel (presently Chandannagar college) and erstwhile residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, now the Institut de Chandernagor museum.

‘Trankebar’ on the Coromandel Coast was the only Danish outpost in India. The Danes leased the coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) from the Maharaja of Thanjavur, fortified it and after 250 years of trade, eventually sold it to the British. The arched Landsporten or Town Gate beckons you in like a portal as you walk down Kongensgade or King’s Street lined by stately buildings.

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Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, New Jerusalem Church of 1718, a fusion of Indo-German architecture, the Governor’s Bungalow, now a museum, Commander’s House and Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach – it’s like a walk through time as you reach Dansborg Fort, a rare specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture in India.

While in Tamil Nadu, a state weighed down by enviable temples and the architectural treasure of Chettinad, lesser known sights still manage to startle you. Narthamalai is a cluster of nine hills with the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India. At the hillock of Melamalai, we were drawn by the spire of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple.

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Built by Vijayalaya Chola, it served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Much smaller, the likeness was uncanny! Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants, makaras and yalis, held a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guarded a massive linga.

At the quiet hillock of Kadambarmalai, rainwater had collected in natural stone cavities and the 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock had inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II etched on the hillside. There was not a soul in sight as we watched wild birds hop around, sipping and bathing undisturbed in the natural tank, where ancient boulders scripted stories of a past we knew little about. No matter how far or offbeat we ventured into this vast country of ours, we were humbly reminded how we were only scratching the surface…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 April 2019 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Sweet taste of India: Traditional desserts

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY traverse the length and breadth of the country to decode the wonderful world of traditional Indian sweets and the stories behind them  

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The story of Indian sweets is as old as its gods. In the Dwapara yuga, the people of Brajbhoomi offered lavish meals to appease Lord Indra for good rainfall. Deeming it a burden on poor farmers, a skeptical Lord Krishna convinced people to stop the practice. This angered Lord Indra who wreaked heavy rains and threatened to destroy the village.

Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain on his finger for seven days and provided safe shelter to the villagers. Since Krishna used to eat 8 meals a day and this incident left him hungry for a week, as a token of gratitude the villagers prepared 56 types of food (8 for each of the 7 days) for Lord Krishna. Thus the concept of ‘Chappan Bhog’ (56 special items) emerged.

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If chhappan bhog is loved by Lord Krishna, the modak is dear to Lord Ganesha. During Ganesh Chaturthi it is a staple in Maharashtrian households along with puran poli or holige (sweet flatbread with filling of coconut or lentil). Each festival has its typical sweetmeats – kheer during Diwali, gujiya and malpua in Holi, til (sesame) and gud (jaggery) sweets during Sankranti, the disc-shaped ghevar during Teej, thekua for Chhatth puja, kalkals and plum cake during Christmas and sevai and phirni for Eid.

At home, mothers would deftly rustle up sweets during festivals or for sudden guests. Laddus in the north or unde down south, depending on which side of the Vindhyas you stayed, would be fashioned out of besan (gram flour), rava (semolina), ragi (finger millet), peanuts, pori or murmura (puffed rice) and coconut. Halvas would be made out of gajar, moong or suji while kheer or payasa would be stirred out of rice, vermicelli or makhana (puffed lotus seeds). The joy of pilfering sweets on the sly was undeniable, especially during weddings, when sweets were mass-produced in-house.

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India has always been the proverbial land of milk and honey where milk is painstakingly reduced to khoa/mawa or curdled into chhena, the base for most Indian sweets. Whether simmered as rabri or basundi, scraped off in layers as khurchan, shaped into barfis and pedas, frozen as kulfi or made into rasmalai, milk is the bedrock of Indian sweets.

Every season brings to the table its own flavours – from gajak, pinni and hot gajar (carrot) or moong dal halwa in winter across North India to patali gur rosogolla and nolen gur’er sandesh in East India made from palm jaggery. From Mathura and Banaras ka peda to Agra ka petha (made of white pumpkin), each region has its own typical sweets.

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Eastern delights

At Puri’s Jagannath temple in Odisha an elaborate mahaprasad of 56 food items is offered to the Lord. Every day, six sets of offerings are made, spanning different meal hours, including several sukhila (dry sweets). Perhaps Odisha’s most famous export is the rasgulla, with a 700-year-old tradition of being served as bhog to Lakshmi at the Jagannath temple.

As per legend, when Lord Jagannath goes on his annual 9-day sojourn Rath Yatra without her consent, Lakshmi locks the temple gate Jai Vijay Dwar and prevents his convoy from re-entering the sanctum sanctorum. To appease Lakshmi, Jagannath offers her khira mohana, a precursor to the rasgulla.

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At Pahala, a stretch of around 50 shops midway between Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar you find stacks of containers full of cream-hued rasgullas and chhena gaja or deep-fried cottage cheese squares soaked in sugar syrup. Chhena poda, literally ‘burnt cottage cheese’ is a classic Odiya sweet from Nayagarh. It is made of soft chhena with dry fruits dipped in sugar syrup and baked till brown. The chhena jhili from Nimapada is a delightful version of the gulab jamun, Sambalpur’s kalakand is legendary and so is Bikalananda Kar’s rasgulla at Salepur near Cuttack.

Odiya cooks from Puri were much sought after all over East India for their ability to cook food as per Hindu scriptures and norms of purity. Many were employed in Bengal during 19th century and as a result took several dishes with them, including the rasgulla and eventually its Bengali appropriation. The spongy white rasgulla was popularized in present-day West Bengal in 1868 by Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das. In 1930, his son Krishna Chandra Das introduced vacuum packing and canned rasgullas, which took it beyond Kolkata and India. Variants include the slightly larger rajbhog (kesar rasgulla with stuffing of dry fruits and khoa) and kamalabhog (orange flavoured rasgulla).

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In Bengal, mishti or sweets were traditionally prepared by confectioner families called Modaks or Moiras who received wide patronage from zamindars and aristocrats. Often, news of good tidings were accompanied by a platter of sweets, hence the origin of the sandesh, literally ‘message’. Pantua, a Bengali variant of the gulab jamun, was reincarnated by master confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag to commemorate the birthday of Countess Charlotte Canning, wife of Governor-General Charles Canning. It was thus after ‘Lady Canning’ that the ‘ledikeni’ (sic) was named. Many sweets have fascinating origins.

Local folklore contends that a princess from the Krishnanagar royal family was married to a scion of the Burdwan royal family. When she became pregnant, she lost her appetite and refused to eat any food, craving for a particular sweet made in her maternal home instead. She didn’t know its name except that it was made by a lyangcha or ‘lame’ confectioner!

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The said sweet maker was located and sent from Krishnanagar to Burdwan, where he was given lands and settled so he could prepare delicacies for the royal family happily ever after. And thus Saktigarh in Burdwan district emerged as the hub for the lyangcha, an elongated gulab jamun. Another story credits a lame gora sahib who fell in love with the fried sweet of Khudiram Dutta, who named his shop ‘Lyangcha’ Mahal in his honour.

Once a daughter of the prominent Banerjee family of Telenipara in Bhadreswar was married into another zamindar family of Baidyabati. After a month of marriage, it was customary for the groom to visit his in-laws. Wanting to pull his leg, the zamindar called upon famous confectioner Surya Kumar Modak to create a sweetmeat that would befool the groom.

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Modak filled a talsansh (common Bengali dry sweet) with rosewater. When the unsuspecting groom took a bite believing it to be a dry sweet, the rose water dribbled onto his kurta. The ecstatic zamindar named this new sweet jolbhora or ‘filled with water’. Even today, Surya Kumar Modak’s shop in Chandannagar serves the iconic sweet but in delicious variants like choco jolbhora.

In another incident the zamindar told his Moira to create a special sweet. The sweetmaker created a sandesh with rose water and cardamom. When his master did not return by the appointed hour, to prevent the sandesh from getting spoilt, he dunked it in sugar syrup. When the zamindar came back and tried it, he loved the sweet and dubbed it monohora or ‘one that captures the heart’.

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Bihar too has its share of iconic sweets – the peda of Kopariya Ghat, the tilkut from Devghar made of hand-pounded til (sesame), jaggery and khoa, the khaja from Rajgir to balushahi and lavanglata (stapled with a lavanga or clove). Anarsa, made of soaked rice paste and sesame, has regional variations from the arasu pitha of Odisha to the kajaya of Karnataka.

What is gujiya or pidukiya to Biharis is karjikayi to the Kannadigas. In what seems a case of misheard lyrics, balushahi is known down south as badushah and shakarpare as shankar palya. Imarti, the jalebi’s fatter cousin, is locally called Jahangir.

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Northern frontiers

Delhi is the perfect place in North India to set off on a sweet tooth tour through its galis (alleys) – from Old Famous Jalebiwala at Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk to Hazarilal Jain Khurchan wale, moong dal halwa at Chaina Ram at Fatehpuri Chowk, the softest gulab jamuns at Kanwarji’s in Parathewale gali and shahi tukda, kheer, phirni and rabri at Kallan Sweets near Jama Masjid. In winter, trays of pinni or atta laddus and gond ke laddu made of edible gum provide delicious fortification against cold weather.

A traditional Punjabi winter delicacy is panjri or dabra, made of dry fruits, whole wheat flour, sugar, edible gum, poppy seeds and fennel. Amritsar’s makhkhan te pede di lassi is no less than a dessert, enriched with pedas of white butter, topped with a crust of malai and served in tall tumblers at Ahuja Milk Bhandaar at Lohagadh Gate and Gyan di lassi near Regent Cinema. Kanhaiya Sweets at Phullonwala Chowk is known for its halwa-pinni and Gurdas Ram Jalebiyan-wale serves the most scrumptious jalebis at Katra Ahluwalia.

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Kashmir has its modur polav or sweet Kashmiri pulao with fried dry fruits and nuts, bakerkhani (layered sweet bread) and gigantic maida puri served with halwa. While driving to the hills of Uttarakhand, travelers stop at Gajraula for ‘thandi kheer’ at Bhajan Tadka dhaba. Further up, Almora is famous for its unusual bal mithai, a brown chocolate-like fudge, made with roasted khoa, coated with white sugar balls. Another Kumaoni delicacy is the singori or singauri, sweetened khoa served in leaf cones of the Malu creeper (Bauhinia vahlii).

In Rajasthan, if Alwar is known for its milk cake and Jodhpur for mawa kachori and makhaniya lassi (best at Mishrilal at Ghanta Ghar), then Jaisalmer is synonymous with Dhanraj Ranmal Bhatia’s panchdhari laddu. Yet, most food discoveries begin in Jaipur – from boondi laddus at Nathulal Mahaveer Prashad to rabdi at Ramchandra Kulfi Bhandar and lassis at Lassiwala and Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar (LMB). Go on a Bazaar & Food Trail with Virasat Experiences to savour the city’s delights like ghewar and imarti. Jaipur Ramdev Restaurant run by Brijmohan serves mithais like rajbhog and kesar bati to disco jamun/rasgulla!

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The churma laddu is a shared legacy with adjoining Gujarat whose signature sweet is the mohanthal (granular besan fudge), a must on all Gujarati thalis. Surati ghari, made of mawa, ghee, sugar, refined flour, gram flour and enriched with dry fruits, is said to have been invented by Devshankar Shukla for Tatya Tope during the 1857 mutiny to energise Indian mutineers. In Kutch, the mawa of Bhirandiyara is made from the milk of buffalos that graze in the Banni grasslands.

In the Hindi heartland of Allahabad and Varanasi, locals love their kalakand and lal peda. Like most pedas, it is made from reduced milk but allowed to brown, giving it its trademark reddish appearance. Loaded with ghee, shaped by hand and dusted with castor sugar and pistachios, it is best enjoyed at Rajbandhu in Kachori gali or near Sankatmochan Temple. Lucknow’s Awadhi cuisine boasts exquisite desserts like nimish (light set cream pudding) and makkhan malai.

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In Madhya Pradesh, the foodie city of Indore has a unique dessert drink called shikanji, a sweet milkshake concocted by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa and popularized by Madhuram Sweets. Since it’s a blend of various ingredients – reduced milk and mattha (buttermilk) enriched with dry fruits and spices like saffron, cardamom, mace and nutmeg, it’s called shikanji (literally, mixture). In Gwalior, Bahadura at Naya Bazar is the place for jalebi and gulab jamun while Shankerlal Halwai’s laddus were made famous by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Gajak (sesame brittle) is a winter specialty from Morena made of roasted sesame or sometimes peanuts and cashew, with jaggery and ghee. Pick up a pack or two from Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar. Badkul, Jabalpur’s version of a jalebi, is made of khoya and arrowroot batter. The dark coloured sweet with a spongy texture was invented in 1889 by Harprasad Badkul, after whom it’s named.

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Similar in texture is the thick and chewy Burhanpur jalebi, made of mawa, sometimes bulked up with arrowroot, served hot at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre. Another delicacy from Burhanpur is daraba, made of sugar, semolina and ghee whipped into a fluffy sweet. Sold at Milan Sweets, it is relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela held on the banks of the Tapti.

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Down south

Migration was a key reason behind the dispersal of many sweets across India. In Tamil Nadu, the Tirunelveli Halwa was first prepared by Rajput cooks hired by the zamindar of Chokkampatti, who had tasted something similar in Kashi. Jegan Singh moved to Tirunelveli where he opened a shop and named it Lakshmi Vilas after a relative who sold the halwa on the town’s streets.

Made from wheat milk, sugar and ghee, the halwa has a translucent, light brown appearance. Santhi Sweets at the Central Bus Stand is the best place to buy it. Nearby, a dozen shops bear the same name, but the time-tested way to recognize it is by the crowds! Another local legend is iruttu kadai or ‘dark shop’, named after its dark interiors because of no electricity.

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In early 19th century, when Uttar Pradesh was under the grips of a deadly plague, a few Thakur families moved in search of better prospects from Unnao to Dharwad in North Karnataka. To make ends meet, Ram Ratan Singh Thakur started making pedhas. His grandson Babu Singh Thakur opened a shop that attracted such queues that the area was called ‘Line Bazaar’. Unlike its flat cousins from the north, the Dharwad peda is an irregular round with a grainy texture and a veneer of castor sugar.

While Thakur Peda gave it name, Mishra Peda gave it fame by branching out of Dharwad and making it a household commodity. Belgaum kunda, made from milk, sugar and khowa, was introduced by purohits (Rajasthani cooks) who had migrated from Marwar. Once Gajanan Mithaiwala, better known as Jakku Marwadi, was boiling milk in his kitchen but forgot to switch off the stove. When he returned, the milk had coagulated to which he added khoa and created Belgaum Kunda. Buy this treat from his old shop in Vitthal Dev Galli or Camp Purohit.

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Karnataka has a wealth of signature sweets – the iconic Mysore Pak, Bellary’s ‘cycle’ khova, Gulbarga’s malpuri, karadantu (dry fruit snack enriched with edible gum) from Amingad and Gokak besides godi (wheat) halwa from Bhatkal. Chiroti or peni, a crisp flaky layered puri dusted with castor sugar, is eaten with badam milk.

Belgaum or Belagavi is also known for its mandige or mande, a flaky crepe with a thin filling of ghee, castor sugar and khoa, prepared on an upturned tava and folded like a dosa. Krishnamurti Saralaya in Konwal Gali carries on the legacy of this rare delicacy. Another crepe like sweet dish is the pootharekulu, a traditional sweet from Atreyapuram in East Godavari district. Pootha is ‘coating’ in Telugu and rekulu means ‘sheets’. Wafer thin rice crepes are cooked with ghee, liberally dusted with castor sugar, folded and cut into delectable pieces.

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Neighbouring Kerala is famous for Kozhikode Halwa, a glutinous sweet made of flour, molasses and oil. SM Street is lined with shops selling large multi-coloured stacks with flavours ranging from fig and date to banana. On the streets one also finds dweep unde from Lakshadweep, made from coconut and jaggery and wrapped in leaf. Kerala’s most popular dessert is the rich and caramelized ada pradhaman made from rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Chakka pradhaman is a jackfruit variant while mola ari payasam is a sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk.

Kerala’s northern tract of Malabar has it own set of sweets, mostly fashioned out of locally available bananas and coconut. Pazham nerchadu are ripe bananas stuffed with coconut and jaggery and fried while the spindle-shaped unnakaya, named after the similar looking silk cotton pod, is mashed bananas with a stuffing of coconut, sugar and raisin, deep-fried till golden brown. Mutta mala (egg garland) is a unique Moplah egg dessert where the whites are steamed into a cardamom-scented cake and the yolk is drizzled into sugar syrup to form lacy necklaces!

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Ramzan feast

In Mumbai, the mile-long stretch of Mohammed Ali Road from Bohri Mohalla to Minara Masjid teems with food stalls during Ramzan selling malpua, phirni, bhandoli (a yellowish malpua with egg) and special sweets. Sutarfeni from Gujarat is a thread-like sweet mixed with milk and eaten at sehri, the pre-dawn meal.

The steamed Kutchi Memon sweet saandal, made of fermented rice, sugar, coconut milk and mawa, looks like sanas and is as soft as cotton. At JJ Jalebi, started in 1947 by Haji Chhote Khan of Kanpur at the JJ Hospital corner, attendants squeeze out dough from a muslin cloth like calligraphy artists to fry dark brown mawa jalebis.

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The whole precinct is dotted with famous sweet shops. Fakhri Sweets was started 75 years ago by Mansoor Ali Dosaji Mithaiwala, who invented the salam pak, a sweet made of gond (gum), mawa and ghee. The shop is still famous for mawa samosa and malai khaja, available in fruit flavours. Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala, who started Zam Zam Sweets as a bakery in 1936, invented the aflatoon with mawa and other secret ingredients. Today his fourth generation has diversified into barfis made of fig, apricot and dry fruits.

Tawakkal Sweets, another fourth-gen shop started by Ismailji Alibhai Mithaiwala has expanded its repertoire beyond boondi and jalebi to contemporary sweets like mango malai and black currant mithai. Maharashtra is also known for orange barfi from Nagpur, mango-flavoured amba barfi and kandi peda from Satara. Modi Sweets and Ladkar’s, started by Mohan Babu Rao Ladkar in 1940, have both been awarded the President’s Medal.

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Inventiveness and adaptability have been twin mantras for any confectioner. And India has readily absorbed all foreign flavours – the ghee-laden sohan halwa made its way across the northwest frontier courtesy the Mughals. Shahi tukda too is Mughal in origin. With the availability of double roti (bread) from bakeries, it evolved into the Hyderabadi double ka meetha.

The ubiquitous kaju katli was created only after the Portuguese introduced the cashew to India, as was the bebinca in Goa. Chettiar traders picked up kavuni arisi from the sticky rice pudding in Myanmar (Burma). Yet, all these flavours have melded into the cultural cauldron to create the sweet taste of India!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story on 17 March, 2019 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Bera: Leopard Country

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Bera, a remote boulder-strewn habitat in Rajasthan that boasts one of the densest leopard populations in India

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For a place not notified as a national park or sanctuary, there’s surely a lot of wildlife action in Bera. Located at the foothills of the Aravalli range near Jawai baandh (dam) in Rajasthan, Bera is a rocky tract surrounded by villages, scrub forests and privately owned agricultural fields, making it a challenge to be earmarked as a wildlife reserve. Yet, this boulder-ridden landscape is a unique habitat that is one of the finest bastions of the leopard in India.

Almost equidistant from Udaipur and Jodhpur, Bera lies an hour’s drive from the Jain temple at Ranakpur and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kumbhalgarh Fort. As we drove in, Bera’s pastoral charm was evident – the fields were full of lacy fennel and maize, white tufts of cotton, golden ears of wheat and pink-stemmed castor.

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Our base was Varawal Leopard Camp, a clutch of six Swiss tents and a cottage run by Pushpendra Singh Ranawat and his sprightly sister Rajeshwari. Over lunch, we learnt that the Ranawats claim descent from Maharana Pratap; Pushpendra represented the 17th generation after the legendary Rajput ruler and retraced the origins of Bera…

Back then, this tract of southwest Rajasthan bordering Gujarat was called Gorwar or Godwad. Since it lay on the lucrative trade route from Jodhpur to Mewar and Ahmedabad, there was regular traffic of traders, and hence dacoits. Once, Maharana Pratap’s fourth son Rana Shekhaji was accompanying his mother on a pilgrimage to her isht devi (family deity) in Mt Abu.

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While conversing with the general of the small batch of accompanying troops, they rode ahead of the royal entourage. The queen’s palanquin was waylaid by dacoits and she had to hand over her paayal (anklet) for safe passage. She didn’t mention a word about the incident but when they returned, Maharana Pratap enquired about the trip. In reply, she displayed her bare leg. For his negligence, Shekhaji was exiled from Mewar and he set out with a band of men to carve out his own fiefdom.

Returning to these badlands, Shekhaji killed the dacoits and captured the area from the local Chauhan king Munja Balia. The Ranawats set up their first dera (base) at Juna (Old) Bera at the foot of the Aravallis under a banyan tree, finally moving their thikana to its present location 3km west.

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Not many know that this small principality hosted several royalty who came here to hunt leopards. The maharajas of Mewar, Marwar, Indore, Rajkot and Bhavnagar all shot their first leopards at Bera. After hunting was banned and the Land Ceiling Act took away their lands, Bera’s erstwhile royal families turned into conservationists, helping wildlife enthusiasts and photographers track leopards using the knowledge of their ancestors passed down over generations.

In 1957, Umaid Singh ji of Jodhpur built a dam on the Jawai river, creating one of the largest manmade reservoirs in western Rajasthan. It became a haven for flamingos, geese, cranes and aquatic birds. We were visiting at a time when most of the water had been drained for agriculture and dark streaks on boulders marked the level when the dam was full… Wildlife trails reveal hyena, wolf, desert foxes, sloth bear, jungle cat, mongoose, antelope and smaller game though we spotted owls and the Isabelline and Bayback shrikes. However, the apex species is undoubtedly the leopard.

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Over 64 leopards can be found in a radius of just 25 km, the highest leopard density in India. The reason was the inter-connected cave systems, an excellent spot for leopards to seek respite from the hot sun before they stir out to hunt. Leopards only choose caves that have cross-ventilation and an emergency exit. Being a hot-blooded animal, such an air-cooled habitat helps them maintain their body temperature. Pushpendra admitted that he learnt the ropes as a kid while holding the spotlight for his uncles on night drives. “My teachers were Neelam, Nagini, Ziya and I learnt all about leopards while observing their behaviour,” he says.

Bera’s tryst with leopard spotting began with Ziya’s grandmother and Zara’s mother Mangoli. Devi Singh ji’s pioneering resort Leopard’s Lair opened in 1997 and soon other brothers followed suit. Thakur Baljeet Singh started a heritage hotel at Castle Bera. Shatrunjay Singh Pratap and Katyaini run Bera Safari Lodge with stone cottages under the theme ‘leopards and shepherds’ – how wild creatures and pastoral Rabari herdsmen have coexisted for centuries.

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Sujan’s Jawai, designed by owners Anjali and Jaisal Singh, takes luxury camping to another level with 1930’s industrial style tubular brushed steel furniture. Varawal Leopard Camp was started as recently as 2013, but still manages to holds its own thanks to Pushpendra’s keen wildlife knowledge and on-ground experience.

All the lodges are virtually enclosed by leopard country. Private decks offer uninterrupted views of the wilderness and the dramatic landscape of granite formations, scrub and sandy riverbeds. Experienced guides help track the elusive big cats in open jeeps.

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Pushpendra drove us to Devgiri Mataji temple, accessible by an arched entrance and a long flight of steps leading up to the cave shrine. The idol is believed to have manifested itself on its own and the cave split to reveal it. The shrine is guarded by an idol of Bhairon and rock bees who are considered as the devi’s army. Leopards stir out moments after the priest leaves after performing his daily puja!

The oldest leopard in the area is Nagini’s father Daata. The leopards were named after their distinguishing attributes or habitats. Taking inspiration from the Nag Bavci Mandir or temple of the snake god where they were frequently sighted, the female leopard was named Nagini and her mating partner was called Nagvasi. Marshall was so named because he strutted around like one and was very strong.

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Shadewood loved sitting in the shade of trees to make himself near invisible. Neelam was always spotted against a backdrop of ‘blue’ skies. She was challenged by her offspring for territory, who was thus called Baghi (rebel). Neelam’s range spanned 67 caves and 40 acres of boulders and we were lucky to spot a male from her current litter of three at Jag Talao.

Sighting is not easy as one must scour the hills with binoculars. Don’t even attempt photography if you don’t have a tele zoom. While leopards in other areas and forested tracts have more yellow to merge with the foliage, the ones at Bera were a little grayish and muted for better camouflage against the lava rocks or grey granite.

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Trackers spread out in the surrounding villages of Kothar, Siyana and Batu and the three hills Liloda, Badala and Pola to track their movement. The next morning, our pointsman Govind confirmed some activity at Kothar, where we spotted one of Nagini’s three cubs.

“Undoubtedly, females like Ruby, Ziya, Neelam and Baghini have given better sighting,” remarked Pushpendra as his 4X4 negotiated the treacherous incline of the granite hills with practiced ease. All around was an endless lair of boulders and rock, surrounded by a patchwork of fields and the Jawai reservoir shimmering in the distance. One of the caves Bhadreshwar Mahadev is believed to have a Shiva linga installed by the Pandavas.

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Back at Varawal, we watched fascinating leopard videos and were treated to delicious home cooked fare personally supervised by Pushpendra’s mother. Their 120-acre farm has horses and cattle with fresh butter, ghee and chhaas available. Many of the local Rabaris serve as drivers, trackers or attendants at the resorts.

Our ‘man Friday’ Motiram Devasi looked magnificent in his traditional attire – gamchha, baudiya, dhoti, chain, kada and a bright red saafa (turban) that doubled up as a wallet to store things, a tiffin box to stash away a snack and a rope in emergencies, measuring up to 9m! He bid us a cheery goodbye and as we drove out, we saw locals busy in their fields. In a time of frequent man-animal conflicts, Bera was a shining example of conservation and peaceful co-existence…

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Fact File

Getting there
Fly to Jodhpur (160 km) or Udaipur (150 km) and drive 3½ hrs to Bera. Jawai Bandh (12 km) and Falna (30 km) are the nearest railheads. Ranakpur is 60km away while Kumbhalgarh is 85km.

When to go
Bera is great all year round. Winters are most comfortable though summers give the best sightings. By July, the rains arrive and the Jawai river gurgles to life and the reservoir fills up, with water lasting till December, a good time for birding.

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Where to Stay

Varawal Leopard Camp
Ph 9694889207, 7742133581
www.varawalleopard.com

Bera Safari Lodge
Ph 9413312133
www.berasafarilodge.com

Castle Bera
Ph 02933-243186, 9829877787
www.castlebera.com

Sujan’s Jawai Leopard Camp
Ph 011 4617 2700
www.sujanluxury.com

Leopard’s Lair
Ph 8239365771
www.leopardlairresort.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Shubh Yatra magazine.

Thrissur: Gold’s Own Country

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PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Kerala’s cultural capital Thrissur to understand the Malayali fascination for gold

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Gold is extraterrestrial. How it came to our earth’s crust is itself a miracle. It was created in space by cataclysmic stellar explosions or supernova that rained on earth as meteorites! So, gold is literally born out of dead stars. According to the journal Nature, a meteor bombardment 4 billion years ago brought 20 billion billion tons of ‘gold and precious metal-rich space rock’ to Earth. So predicting when our love affair with gold began might be tough, though excavations in Egypt peg it to 3000 BC.

While the affinity to gold is universal, the people of Kerala possess an unabashed love for it. Keralites buy nearly a third of the overall gold imported into India. From Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s buried vaults spilling with gold worth hundreds of billions of dollars, to glinting nettipattams (forehead adornments) of caparisoned temple elephants during the renowned Thrissur Pooram, traditional ivory-hued kasavu saris woven with gold threads and giant hoardings with models weighed down with ornaments – the proof is out there.

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In God’s Own Country, there’s ‘Gold’s Own Country’ Thrissur, an unassuming cultural district that is the epicentre of the gold industry. Nearly 70% of all the gold sold in the state everyday is handcrafted in Thrissur. People in Kerala love their gold. When asked why, college girls, mothers, husbands, salesmen, artisans, traders, each had a view.

“It’s in our culture.” “Gold is a deposit.” “We can easily liquidate it in an emergency.” “Unlike land, gold is a guaranteed investment.” Saji, a cab driver joked, “In Kerala, ladies love gold more than their husbands! Attend a rich family’s wedding and you won’t see the girl’s face or sari, only gold.” Those WhatsApp forwards on Malayali brides laden from head to toe in gold are true!

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TS Kalyanaraman, Chairman & Managing Director of Thrissur-based Kalyan Jewellers says, “Kerala has always celebrated this precious yellow metal. Ayurveda has extensive references on the therapeutic nature of gold. In rituals, gold and ghee are considered two of the purest elements.”

In Kerala, gold plays its part through rites and rituals of life’s significant events – from the birth of a child, educational initiation, puberty, communion ceremony, graduation to wedding, the cycle continues. The gold connect begins rather early. Newborns are given honey and vayambu (sweet flag plant) mixed with 24-carat gold. During the Vidyaarambham ceremony elders use a gold ring to write on the child’s tongue, marking the entry into the world of knowledge and learning. We reckon, once Malayalis get the first (and second) taste of gold, they develop a healthy palate for it!

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The Thrissur connection

Every state has its own unique style and creative renditions. Kerala’s traditional jewellery designs borrow heavily from nature. A visit to the Kalyan showroom presented the full range of designs, each with evocative names. Mulla Mottu Mala is shaped like a string of jasmine buds, Naaga Padam resembles a hooded cobra and Maangamala is inspired by the paisley shape of mangoes. Manimala was a string of gold beads, Poothali was embellished with intricate flower (poo) patterns, Pulinakha mala was shaped like a tiger claw, Kaasu mala was a chain of gold coins (kaas), while Elakkathali was a choker named after the quivering movement (elakku) of its tiny free-hanging gold leaflets.

Palakka, a chain with a repeated heart-shaped pattern, mimicked the palakka fruit that tribals strung together into long chains. The classy kasavumala, a broad band of gold, was recently invented to match the gold border of the traditional kasavu mundu or two-piece sari. Non-traditional names – like Sachin, Seema Tara and Savitham – are design identities named after celebrities, actor or movies for the karigar’s convenience!

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CS Ajay Kumar ‘Chitti Kappil,’ a fourth generation goldsmith, says his ancestors moved from a village near Kochi and settled at Cherpu in Thrissur’s suburbs when King Rama Varma IX or Sakthan Thampuran (1751-1805) invited professionals to populate his newly founded capital. His family specialized in making the unique jewel Chittum Kaapum used in the past by Nambuthiri Brahmin women.

He discloses that his family name ‘Chitti Kappil’ is attributed to the jewel rather than the ‘tharavad’ or ‘ancestral place’ as is the norm. His son, Hari Krishnan says, “The unusual earring is not worn anymore as the earlobe hole had to be widened to insert and lock the stud. One would probably find it as a family heirloom or some elderly lady’s ear.”

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Ajay narrates how until the 1930s, thatans (traditional goldsmiths) would visit homes six months prior to a wedding to take orders for customized jewellery. Easwar Warrier, belonging to a community of temple treasurers, opened the first gold workshop in 1935 near Paramekkavu Devaswom at Thrissur Round with 10-15 talented goldsmiths. As business grew, the workers roped in their skilled cousins and craftsmen from Palakkad, Thiruvallamala and Chenganassery.

Warrier encouraged them to settle down with their families, triggering an influx of master craftsmen and talented goldsmiths. This was the beginning of Thrissur as a gold hub. Families from across the state would travel to Thrissur to buy ornaments. The steady growth spawned more retailers and the advent of readymade jewellery.

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Behind the Scenes

“In our culture women look more beautiful in gold,” said young Ans. His father Anto, a gold trader in the busy Puthanpally Church area since 40 years remembers it as the main gold hub. Some traders melted as much as 10-20kg gold every day; its purity checked by placing it on a ‘purity analyzer’ for 30 seconds. “The purity of gold in Thrissur is excellent so people love to hoard gold.” Ans continued, “Local lore says if there is an earthquake in Thrissur, they’ll find cities of gold underground!” “It’s a fixed asset that can be exchanged anywhere at the day’s rate”, sums Anto. “Today’s is Rs.2960/g.”

In sweaty workshops artisans deftly twisted, beat and blew fire on gold bits and wire, transforming them into wondrous adornments, which make their way to showrooms of India’s biggest brands and gold retailers. To Manikandan a craftsman from Palakkad, “This is good work and good pay.” Hammering a tiny bit of gold into a pathalachi – a pockmarked cube used in jewellery making, he says, “It’s been 35 years. I learnt the skill from my father when I was 10.” Thrissur has the most skilled and gifted craftsmen.

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Another feature that sets Thrissur jewellery apart is its lightness – a skill that makes gold purchases affordable without sacrificing aesthetics or design. The astuteness of Thrissur’s craftsmen makes them an asset in every gold jewellery unit. The labour-intensive nature and migration to other cities led to a decline in craftsmen; a gap filled by migrant workers from Kolkata. Nearly 10,000 Bengali craftsmen work in Thrissur.

Demand for Thrissur-trained workers everywhere and the skills acquired here helps them earn better back home. This cultural cross-pollination has also impacted jewellery design. Customers now have additional choices of Bengali filigree designs and nakkaash or hand-embossed ornate designs from Karnataka and Chettinad.

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Back at Kalyan Jewellers, Anjana, a shy bride-to-be eyed a tray of gold bangles quietly. Her mother, sister and grandparents hovered over her along with a small platoon from the groom’s side. The mother-in-law to be, her four co-sisters and a few nieces pored over the choices, mumbling about weight and patterns. Shelba, one of the nieces confessed that her pre-wedding gold shopping fourteen years ago was exactly the same.

“This is the tradition. Even after shopping, all the neighbours and relatives will come over on the wedding eve to scrutinize the purchases, comment and probe into all the details.” In contrast, at another counter Jibin and Vaishnavi, a young couple shopped independently for their upcoming wedding. Vaishnavi says, “This piece is my choice, the rest of the shopping like rings, mangalsutra and wedding pieces will be a family affair.”

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“Jewellery shopping continues to be an emotional exercise that involves families or couples coming together to pick the right pieces,” says Kalyanaraman. “Thrissur is where brand Kalyan is from – and for that very reason, it is one of our most important markets, despite 18 showrooms across the state. When I started my business, I knew every customer by face and name. Today, their children are our customers, and for many in Thrissur, Kalyan is their family jeweller.”

They undertake surveys and study every market beforehand as jewellery tastes vary from city to city. Thrissur’s buyers prefer traditional designs – the shinier the better – and nearly 96% go for yellow gold rather than pink and brushed gold, platinum or diamonds. Thrissur also has a strong culture of exchanging old jewellery for newer pieces because there is 100% exchange on gold value.

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Digging into the past

“It is the innate curiosity of women to enter a shop when they see a new product on display. If women were happy with whatever they had, shops would shut down”, quipped Mohan, a tour guide and history buff from Calicut. “The fashion-minded ladies in Kerala have perhaps motivated artisans to produce newer products, thus fueling the gold industry.”

Mohan explained, “The Greeks and Romans settled around Kodungullur in 300 BC. There was rich cultural exchange through trade as pepper, ivory, spices and diamonds were bartered for gold. When the Jews and Christians arrived, there was demand for skilled artisans to craft gold crowns and ornamented vestments for bishops.

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Excavation findings between 2007-2014 at Pattanam point to a flourishing tradition of glass and bead-making in the region but little gold.” Historian TR Venugopalan too confirmed that Thrissur’s tag as a gold capital was a recent phenomenon.

Stories of excavated gold coins took us to Thrissur’s Sakthan Thampuran Palace, now a museum. The Numismatic gallery revealed 5th BCE Roman dinari found in the Eyyal hoards of Thrissur, which also included Veerarayans (gold coins) circulated around Kochi. Museum Curator Srinath said, “In 1341, when the great flood in the Periyar River swallowed Muziris, Kochi was created (derived from Kochch-azhi literally ‘new port’).”

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At Kodungallur, Nawshad PM, Managing Director of the Muziris Heritage Project and archaeological expert Dr Midhun showed us around Kottapuram Fort. Pattanam, the excavation site, broadly corresponds to the ancient port of Muziris, hailed by ancient chroniclers like Pliny as ‘the first emporium of India’. However, gold findings were limited to a small axe-like pendant, a tiny gold bead and some Roman gold coins kept at Koyikkal Palace Nedumangad Museum in Trivandrum.

The temple of Augustus, testimony to the prosperous trade with the Red Sea, has long gone. It was evening and the sky was ablaze as families sat scrutinizing ornaments in bright-lit stores. The Latin word for gold is ‘aurum’, meaning ‘shining dawn’. Clearly, the name holds true in Kerala, where the sun will never go down on their love for gold.

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Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

The Colossus: Statue of Unity

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A trip to Gujarat is now incomplete without seeing the world’s tallest statue, say ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Fine. The Diwali weekend may not have been the best time to set out to see the Statue of Unity. We left Baroda on a Saturday morning, naively calculating that we’d drive two hours to the statue, spend an hour or two there and head to Surat. The roads were lined with congratulatory signboards – ‘the world’s tallest statue, built by L&T in just 33 months, a world record’.

Comparative posters showed how other iconic statues measured up… or didn’t. Christ the Redeemer in Brazil 38m, Statue of Liberty 93m, Ushiku Daibutsu in Japan 120m, Spring Temple Buddha in China 153 m; the 182m tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel dwarfed them all.

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Thinking we had left early, we turned off the highway into Dabhoi to check out its old southern gateway Nandodi Gate. The once fortified town had four gateways and the main one Hira Bhagol (Gate) was suffused with intricate carvings and pillared arches. One side extended as the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. Local legends recount how Hiradhar, the architect was buried here alive!

Some claim it was because the king did not want him to replicate a similar masterpiece for anyone else. Others say Hira ran short of stones as he pilfered them to create a tank for his lover, thereby incurring the king’s wrath. Whatever the story, death was a heavy price to pay for a skilled architect. Yet, Hira’s name lives on…

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Soon, we were back on the highway towards Kevadiya. We had a sinking feeling as every vehicle seemed headed that way, but it was too late to turn back. Whenever any car halted for tea or snacks, we rejoiced as it meant lesser people to deal with. Eventually, we joined a slow moving traffic jam.

After an eternity we were directed to a massive makeshift parking lot. We shuffled out and joined a large mass of people on the road. It seemed like we were trapped in the Maha Kumbh mela or the mass migration of wildebeests.

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Ten minutes later, we noticed people cross to the left and join a serpentine queue leading to the ticket area. To our horror, the counter was like an octopus with multiple queues. Further away, a long line of buses trailed with more queues. Every face was writ with grim determination – “I am going to see this statue today, no matter what!”

Ashen, we approached some security personnel who directed us to an office. We were told, “It is an impossible situation. Such crowds had not been anticipated. One lift has packed up. Those waiting might get a chance in a few hours, maybe evening…” There was no shame in cutting losses; we would live to fight another day.

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One of Sardar Patel’s lasting legacies was the peaceful accession of over 560 princely states into the Union of India. We dropped by at one such erstwhile kingdom nearby – Rajpipla. Some unsuccessful castaways from the statue expedition were trying to derive some pleasure or meaning from the dreary museum at Rajvant Palace, which had clearly seen better days. Kids ran with glee in the odd shaped dry swimming pool at the back. We returned for another attempt after our weeklong south Gujarat tour.

The long drive from the Dangs of Saputara back to Baroda barely left us enough time to cover the statue en route before we flew out the next morning. It was now or never. How could we possibly go back not having seen “The Statue”? The one the whole world was talking about – of how much it cost (2,989 crore rupees) and whether it was needed? We imagined the incredulous inquisition that would follow. “You couldn’t see it?” “What do you mean there was a crowd?” Fearing public ridicule, we drove into Kevadiya by late afternoon with iron will and steely resolve to meet India’s Iron Man.

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It wasn’t as bad as Diwali but crowds were still lining up. Luckily, a chance to check out the new Tent City on the banks of the Sardar Sarovar Dam gave us a back-route access in our own vehicle rather than the public shuttle. Driving past Zero Point to the main canal of the Narmada, we stopped at Dyke IV, where 55 tents of Tent City 1 overlooked the scenic backwaters.

Further along the reservoir at Dyke III, Tent City 2’s 188 tents stretched out like a mini city. Gujarat Tourism offered all-inclusive multi-day packages with excursions to the dam-site, Valley of Flowers, Shoolpaneshwar Temple and Rajvant Palace & Museum at Rajpipla.

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Our heart skipped a beat when we finally saw the statue outlined in the afternoon haze. Constructed on Sadhu Bet, a river island, it was accessible by a wide walkway lined with travelators on either side. On the opposite side of the river, the words ‘Statue of Unity’ screamed from the hillside in Hollywood-esque fashion. Looming high, Sardar seemed to watch the people scurrying below.

A series of escalators transported visitors up to his feet. We seemed like two stitches in his sandal strap! Built out of steel framing, reinforced concrete and bronze cladding (incidentally, made in China), the statue was designed to withstand earthquakes and wind velocities of 60 m/s.

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The mandatory selfie over, we ambled down to the hi-tech Exhibition Hall and Gallery below. As part of an outreach drive and a symbolic gesture, farmers across India had donated their old farming implements. By 2016, 135 metric tonnes of scrap iron had been collected as part of the Loha and Mitti campaigns. After due processing, 109 tonnes was used for the foundation. One section of the gallery was devoted to the making of the statue and how 3500 workmen toiled night and day for three years. The statue was finally unveiled on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary.

Dominating the hall was the face of Sardar Patel, an exact replica of the main statue in a proportion of 1:5. It was designed by Padma Bhushan awardee Shri Ram V Sutar. Similar scale models of the statue have been installed elsewhere – a 30 ft statue in Gandhinagar and a 21 ft statue at Bardoli, where Patel led a satyagraha and gained the title ‘Sardar’. The museum catalogued his life and contribution while an adjoining audio-visual gallery screened a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal culture.

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Two high-speed elevators zipped up and down the concrete towers that form the statue’s legs. In just 30 seconds, 26 visitors are transported to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery, which can accommodate 200 people. As luck would have it, one of the lifts had conked. The security guys looked dazed like club bouncers at dawn after a Saturday night party. Irate people hung around the elevator doors in uncertainty, as we wondered if the maintenance guy would suffer the fate of Hira the architect at the hands of the king.

Surely, logistics and infrastructure issues will be smoothened out. Meanwhile, the food court is being populated, the sound and light show is getting its final touches and the road to Kevadiya has been made into a four-lane highway. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat, tourism is all set to prosper in a quiet nook that was not even a destination. Ironically (no pun intended), the Sardar Patel statue has been as controversial as the Sardar Sarovar Dam it calmly surveys. But TV debates aside, by sheer numbers it was turning out to be the hottest tourist attraction of the year.

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Fact File 

Getting there
Fly to Baroda and drive 95km/2 hrs to the Statue of Unity at Kevadiya. It is 154km/3 hr 30 min from Surat and 200km/4 hrs from Ahmedabad. Visitors must leave all private vehicles at the parking lot from where buses ferry you to/from the statue.

Entry
Statue of Unity Ticket Centres at Kevadiya: Shrestha Bharat Bhavan, Swagat Sthal, Hotel Pratima
Timings: 9am-5pm, closed on Monday for maintenance.
Viewing Gallery: Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30.
Book tickets for a 2-hr slot online at www.soutickets.in

Where to Eat
There’s a food court at the Statue of Unity, though Hotel Narmada on the highway at Rajpipla is a good place for a bite.

Also visit
Crocodile spotting at Sardar Sarovar Dam
Shoolpaneshwar Mahadev Temple (13km)
Rajvant Palace & Museum, Rajpipla (28km)
Nilakanth Dham, Swami Narayan Temple, Poicha (45km)
Kalika temple & Hira Gate, Dabhoi (56km)

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Where to Stay

Narmada Tent City 1 & 2
Sardar Sarovar dam site, Kevadiya
Ph 079-27454646, 9797949494
www.tentcitynarmada.com
Tariff 1 night/2 day package Rs.6,000 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.4500 deluxe AC, Rs.3000 standard non AC, 2 night/3 day package Rs.10,500 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.9000 deluxe AC, Rs.6000 standard non AC

Rajvant Palace Resort
Vijay Palace, Palace Road, Rajpipla
Ph 8469137327
www.rajvantpalace.com

Grand Mercure Vadodara Surya Palace
Sayajigunj, Opp Parsi Agiary, Baroda
Ph 0265-2363265
www.accorhotels.com

Four Points by Sheraton Baroda 
1275 Ward, No. 7, Fatehgunj, Baroda
Ph 0265-6160000
www.marriott.com

Arudh Mahal homestay
B/S Shree Residency Apartments, Lulla Classes lane, Piramittar Road, Dandia Bazaar, Baroda
Ph 9998034545
Email arudhmahal@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.1700

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Jan 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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.

IMG_9340 East Indies_Cheenavala, a trio of fish, calamari and tiger prawn_Anurag Mallick

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.