Category Archives: India

Binsar: A burst of buransh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE 

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

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

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

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

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

Kumarakom: Backwaters and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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

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Where to Stay

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

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

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

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

The Zuri Kumarakom
Ph 9620335599
www.thezurihotels.com

Kumarakom Lake Resort
Ph 1800 4255030
www.kumarakomlakeresort.in

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

India’s Hottest Destinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary: A river runs through

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the once dreaded Chambal ravines to see how conservation has transformed its wild past to unparalleled wildlife and a river teeming with crocs, skimmers and other secrets

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Carved by the river and eroded by flood and rain, the Chambal ravines run in a 2-6 km wide network of mud cliffs and scrub forest on either side of the Chambal River. For centuries, Chambal’s beehad (wilderness) has been the perfect hideout for those wanting to go off the grid – Rajput soldiers escaping Muslim persecution after the fall of Kannauj and Delhi, freedom fighters and rebel sepoys during the 1857 war of independence, villagers absconding after property and caste disputes to renegades, castaways and bandits. Could there be a better hiding spot for those on the run than this riverine maze at the tri-junction of three states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh?

The Mahabharata and Kalidasa’s Meghadootam identify the ancient Chambal river as Charmanyavati or the ‘River of Hides’ (çarman in Sanskrit means ‘hide’), on whose banks leather was dried. According to legend, the river allegedly originated from the blood of thousands of animals sacrificed by Aryan king Rantideva of Dasapura (now Mandsaur). It was on the banks of the Chambal, believed to be part of Shakuni’s kingdom, that the infamous game of dice between the Kauravas and Pandavas took place. When Draupadi was nearly disrobed after being wagered in the game of dice, she cursed the river for silently witnessing her humiliation and cried “Henceforth, anyone who drinks from its waters would be filled with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.”

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The legend seemed to ring true as long as bands of dacoits roamed the ravines seeking retribution. After most of them were killed and the others surrendered or joined politics, the pristine riverine tract was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 to help revive populations of gharial and marsh crocodiles. It was time for muggers of another kind to take over… The Chambal is one of the few large unpolluted rivers in North India before it meets the Yamuna, which drains into the Ganga.

Spread over 5400 sq km, the reserve is jointly administered by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The sanctuary begins downstream of the Kota barrage in Rajasthan with its lower boundary near Panchnada, 5km after its confluence with the Yamuna at Bhareh. National Chambal Sanctuary is among the last surviving habitats of the highly endangered Gangetic River Dolphin (75 as per last census) and harbours over 1255 endemic fish-eating gharials (Gavialis gangeticus), 562 muggers or marsh crocodiles, eight species of turtles, smooth-coated otters and nearly 330 bird species at last count.

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From our base, Chambal Safari Lodge, we set off on a jeep ride past Bah to Nadgavan Ghat boat jetty. We watched in amazement as camel herders guided a retinue of camels loaded with firewood across the Chambal. One could go on camel safaris along the ravines, but we opted for a boat cruise down the river. Turtles basked on the edge, large open jawed crocs sunned themselves and baby gharials peeped from tiny burrows in the river bank. The distinct ghara or pot-shaped snouts gives them the name gharial. Nearly 200-300 nests are produced each year, resulting in around 8000 hatchlings, of which only 2-3% survive!

Chambal is one of the best places to see large populations of Indian Skimmers, besides Black-bellied Tern, Thickknee and Pratincole. We spotted a large flock of skimmers, their curved orange beaks gleaming in the sun. As our boat approached they took off in their signature lop-sided flight, putting on a synchronized airshow with their wings literally skimming the water’s edge. Our naturalist trained his binocs to spot Black Ibis, Black-necked Storks, shags and Greater cormorants on sandy islets or the odd Gangetic dolphin breaking the surface. A sudden movement in the dry scrub shifted our focus to a lone wild fox, camouflaged perfectly; he stared at us warily before skulking away.

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Across the northern bank, a 2km hike led us to the fort of Ater, earlier known as Devagiri (Mountain of the Gods). Overlooking a key spot over the ravines, its lonely turrets and bastions are a great perch for raptors, especially Cinerous Vultures. Built in mid 17th century by Bhadoria Rajput chiefs Badan Singh Judeo and Maha Singh, the fort is accessed from the western gate with the entrance bearing traces of wall art, floral motifs and geometric designs. There are seventeen bastions and four entrances including Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate) and Hathiaphor and remnants of palace complexes with pavilions and balconies offering great views.

We returned to Chambal Safari Lodge at Jarar, set in a 120-acre farm run by Ram Pratap Singh and his wife Anu, an environment scientist. Jarar was the main seat of RP’s family since 1472 and the 1890s lodge served as a field camp for the mela (cattle fair) held twice a year, hence the name Mela Kothi. Ethnic cottages were set in blocks among thickets of vibrant bougainvillea and named after local trees and birds – Gharial was a heritage room in Mela Kothi, Dolphin and Sarus in the guest wing Imli Serai, Hans and Surkhab in Bougan Serai, Koel, Thickknee, Hornbill and Spoonbill in Neem Serai and Ibis, Tern, Skimmer and Barbet in Shisham Serai.

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Thanks to its low carbon footprint, the eco-lodge was voted among the world’s Top 10 eco lodges in 2010 and won the INTACH Heritage Tourism Award in 2011, besides a clutch of responsible tourism awards. Camel rides, jeep safaris, village walks, river cruises; all activities involve the local community including camel herders, woodcutters and boatmen. Much of the kitchen produce and milk is sourced from the farm or local farmers and we enjoyed the fresh home-cooked buffets in the renovated late 18th century stable, surrounded by old trees and gardens.

After a jeep safari around the countryside to spot blackbuck, Indian coursers and the Sarus crane, we drove to Bateshwar, 9km away. As part of an eco-tourism project undertaken by the Chambal Conservation Foundation, Chambal Safari Lodge has renovated the family’s riverside retreat The Kunj. Located on a scenic curve of the Yamuna River with a private jetty and ghat, we admired the sweeping crescent of Bateshwar’s temples from the rooftop.

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Perched on a raised platform with ghats leading down to the river, the complex once had 108 Shiva temples built by kings, traders and devotees. Sadly, only 40 remain, thanks to the Yamuna’s shifting course. From The Kunj, one can take boat rides and a guided tour of the temples, ending with a brief prayer performed by the priest.

The name Bateshwar is derived from the main shrine of Bateshwarnath Mahadev, dedicated to Batuknath, Lord Shiva’s young ascetic form as he rested under a vat or bat vriksh; an old banyan tree still shelters the shrine. The whitewashed temples are dedicated to various forms of Shiva – the five-faced Sri Panchmukheshwar Mahadev, the underground Pataleshwar temple and Gowrishankar or Lord Shiva with his family. Just across the temple complex are mud caves and teelas (hillocks) inhabited by sadhus.

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Every purnima (full moon night), Bateshwar’s ghats come alive in a grand maha aarti. Thousands congregate on Karthik Purnima for a cleansing dip in the river. Around Diwali a big month-long cattle fair is held on the floodplains of the Yamuna. Believed to be the oldest mela in the country, the Bateshwar Fair is the second largest animal fair in India after Sonepur Mela in Bihar.

After 10 days of hectic animal trading – camels, horses, elephants, donkeys, oxen, cows and goats – there’s a brief lull of a few days before the religious fair kicks in, bringing on a colourful pageantry of rural India. And then, just like that, the riverbed empties and the river flows through silently, the stillness occasionally broken by the gentle ‘plop’ of a turtle diving in…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
By Road: Access points are Bah (65 km from Agra via Fatehabad) and Dholpur (46km from Agra/Gwalior, 252 km from Delhi via NH3).
By Air: The nearest airport is Agra (63km).
By Train: The nearest railhead Bah has limited connectivity. The nearest major railway stations are Etawah 50km away or Agra, 65km away.

Where to Stay
Chambal Safari Lodge
Mela Kothi, Village Jarar, Tehsil Bah, District Agra, Uttar Pradesh 238104
Ph +91-9997066002, 9837415512, 9719501517 www.chambalsafari.com
Tariff Rs.6,000-9,500+tax

What to do
River Safari (3hr) from boat jetty at Nadgavan Ghat, 25km/35 min from the lodge via Jarar, Badagaon and Jaitpur. Jeep safaris (Blackbuck and Sarus Trails) and Camel Rides to Ater Fort (Rs.2,500/person) also arranged, besides Guided Walking Tour (Rs.1500/person) at Bateshwar.
Ph 9997066002, 9837415512 www.bateshwar.co.uk

MP eco-tourism boating on Chambal at Dholpur Bridge
Indians, Rs.1500/boat, Foreigners Rs.3000/boat (1 hr, max 6 people), Rs.150 guide, Rs.25/person Forest Dept entry fee, Camera Rs.50.

When to go
The best time to go is October to April. The month-long Bateshwar fair is held in Oct-Nov. Autumn and winter are ideal for birdwatching, when altitude migrants from the upper Himalayas and the Arctic are present.

Contact
DCF National Chambal Sanctuary, Mau Road, Agra, UP Ph 0562 2530091
DFO Morena, Madhya Pradesh, Ph 07532-234742
CCF Gwalior Ph 0751-2340050

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in May 2019 in Shubh Yatra magazine. 

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.

IMG_8642 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

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.