Category Archives: India

Sibsagar: Legacy of the Ahoms

Standard

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

DSC04221

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

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

DSC04258

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

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

DSC04248

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

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

DSC04336

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

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

DSC04330

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

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

DSC04180

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

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

DSC04229

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

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

DSC04252

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

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

DSC04206

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

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

DSC04196

FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations on Conservation

Standard

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

Rwanda Gorilla baby_Anurag Mallick IMG_3792

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

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

IMG_5518

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

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

Khonoma warrior village DSC04811

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

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

Bugun Liocichla

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

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

Mawlynnong DSC00667

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

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

Anu Pri Crossing the bridge

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

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

IMG_7409

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

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

IMG_7423

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

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

IMG_7436

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

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

mating gliding frogs

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

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

parambikulam_anurag-mallick-dsc_0150_opt

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

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

parambikulam_anurag-mallick-image0023_opt

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

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

mojo-rainforest-retreat-goel-family-with-spices_anurag-mallick

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

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

Snow Leopard WWI

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

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

R latralis sm

FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

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

Bagan-time: Jorhat tea bungalow trail

Standard

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

Burra Sahib's Bungalow DSC03221

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

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

Mistry Sahib's Bungalow DSC03297

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

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

Gatoonga Tea Factory DSC03312

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

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

Tocklai Tea Research Station DSC03186

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

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

Tea factory tour DSC03361

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

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

Gatoonga Tea Factory DSC03313

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

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

Mistry Sahib's Bungalow old Banyan tree DSC03277

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

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

Thengal Manor DSC03158

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

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

Gibbon Sanctuary DSC04157

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

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

Tea gardens DSC03345

FACT FILE 

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

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

Mistry Sahib's Bungalow DSC03270

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

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

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

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

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

Kumbhalgarh: Beyond the wall

Standard

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

Kumbhalgarh fort-2

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

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

IMG_1815

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

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

IMG_1678

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

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

Resort 5

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

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

Dal baati choorma-2

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

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

Kumbhalgarh fort_1

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

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

IMG_1865

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

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

IMG_1810

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

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

IMG_2030

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

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

Resort4

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

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

IMG_1994

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

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

IMG_1721

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

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

Resort image1

NAVIGATOR

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

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

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

Fateh Safari Lodge
Ph 7726060701
www.fatehsafarilodge.com

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

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

Rajasthani Thali 2

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

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

Catfish pond

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

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

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

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

Nainital: Through new eyes

Standard

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

IMG_0257

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

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

IMG_0334

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

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

IMG_0299

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

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

IMG_0338

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

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

IMG_0380

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

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

IMG_9956

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

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

IMG_0214

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

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

IMG_0286

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

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

IMG_0085

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

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

IMG_0156

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

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

IMG_0172

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

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

IMG_9939

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

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

IMG_0274

FACT FILE

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

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

Manu Maharani
Ph 05942 237342
www.themanumaharani.com

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

WelcomHeritage Ashdale
Ph 011-46035500
www.welcomheritagehotels.in

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

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

On a Shoestring: The Art of Budget Travel

Standard

Travel need not be an expensive affair, say ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY as they decode the art of travelling on a shoestring

budget travel

Having attended two Maha Kumbh Melas, walked with kanwariyas during the Shravana Mela and hitchhiked from Ladakh to Manali in a truck after staying at a Buddhist monastery for months, we do know a thing or two about budget travel. Exploring South India on a bike while setting up Drifter, a channel on budget travel for Oyeindia.com gave us the perfect opportunity to do things on a shoestring.

We have slept in cars during offbeat festivities like Kenduli Baul Mela and Baithurappa Festival, stayed in Tibetan monasteries from Ladakh to Bylakuppe, a Jain dharamsala in Kaushambi, a church in Kodaikanal, ashrams in Haridwar and Uttarkashi and religiously survived on gurudwara langar in Manikaran. Based on our varied experiences, we’ve put together the essentials for budget travel.

IMG_2255_Shravan Mela-Anurag

Planning
Whether backpacking across Europe or a long haul across Asia, travel research and planning is critical. Be it cheap tickets, late night flights or last-minute deals, scour the Internet for distress sales. Bargain for better rates for longer stints; staying in a villa in Bali or Goa for a week or month is cheaper than a per day rate. Avoid peak season and weekends to save big, as many lodges lower tariff for weekdays and lean season.

Often, a destination is not only more economical but also less crowded then, like Kerala or Goa in the rains. Several museums and attractions, especially abroad, are free. Avail student discounts wherever you can. Cut guide fees by downloading maps and do-it-yourself trails. Pack less. Travelling lean means your bag can be easily lugged around or shoved onto a shared vehicle. Follow a simple rule – take only as much luggage as you can carry on your own!

Matheran Hill Railway IMG_4518

Transport
Hiring a cab (Rs.3500/day) burns a big hole in your pocket, so take public transport. Overnight buses help save a night’s room rent, as we discovered on sleeper buses to Goa, Kerala, Coorg and Pondicherry. In Uttarakhand and the North East, shared jeeps cost more than a bus, but save time. Despite revamped fares and new baggage restrictions, we love rail journeys! If on a budget, a day train with second sitting is more economical than sleeper class. And if the weather is okay, why pay extra for air-conditioning? The cheapest option is a chalu (running) ticket from the counter instead of a reserved ticket.

A ship to the Andamans from Kolkata and Chennai may take 3 days but if you’re in no hurry, it is not as expensive as a flight to Port Blair. In places like Pondy, Hampi, Khajuraho and Kochi, you can easily hire bicycles for Rs.10 or 20/hour rather than scooties, which may cost Rs.300-500/day. Of course, there’s the good ol’ thumb if you want to hitchhike. Walk around instead of taking a rickshaw and you’ll discover more on foot.

IMG_7777_Anurag Priya

Stay smart
Bid goodbye to fancy hotels and say hello to youth hostels, lodges, BnB’s (Bed & Breakfast) and homestays. Owner-run properties have hosts who are usually well informed to help with local tips, critical to your holiday experience. Avoid prime haunts or locations and you’ll save more. If you plan to spend most of the day out exploring, shack up in dormitories instead of AC rooms. You don’t always have to scrimp.

Often the cheapest places to stay (and yet, the best in terms of location and view) are Forest Rest Houses, PWD guesthouses and Inspection Bungalows, which usually require a letter from the DFO (District Forest Officer), Electrical Engineer or DC (District Commissioner) from the nearest hub. When in the hills, carry a sleeping bag or tent as you can set yourself up anywhere.

IMG_6386

In God we Trust
While travelling, we have always found new meaning in religion. Our transformation from agnostic to die-hard believer is swift, if it can wrangle us a stay in an ashram, dharamshala, church, monastery or gurudwara. They usually have simple rules like no smoking, liquor, meat or loud behaviour and restricted entry/exit timings. But mostly you stay for free, with a discretionary donation expected of you.

Attending a discourse, meditation, bhajan or satsang will earn you some brownie points. The other plus is food. All gurudwaras run a langar (free community kitchen) so a visit around lunchtime is good timing; likewise for annadana (free meal) at places like Udupi Sri Krishna temple, Horanadu Annapoorneshwari temple and Padi Igguthappa temple in Coorg.

Sawariya Seth ki sabudana khichdi IMG_3446_Anurag Mallick

Eats shoots and leaves
Street food is the ultimate money-saver as food on the go saves you service taxes at a fancy restaurant with seating and air-conditioning. Eat local at dhabas and eateries. Being a veggie helps as non-veg dishes are costlier. A set thali meal is good value for money and you often get refills. Eat plenty of fruits especially bananas – fresh, cheap and filling! Don’t buy mineral water, carry a bottle instead and fill it wherever you go (most establishments now have RO water). If your hotel tariff has breakfast included, make sure you don’t miss it!

Spiti Ecosphere-REUN8536_Anurag Mallick

Volunteering
A great way to offset holiday expenses is voluntourism like farming, teaching, home-build projects or charity. Organic farms like Rainforest Retreat in Coorg offer internship (minimum 3-6 months) while backpackers can stay in their remote self-service Farway Cottage at just Rs.7000/week. Spiti Ecosphere offers programs like the weeklong ‘Backpacking with a Purpose’ or the 2-week ‘Greening the Deserts: Building in the Himalayas’ and help build greenhouses for village communities. Useful for longer stays, in many cases it not only takes care of your food and stay, you might also earn some stipend on the side.

No matter what your reason for travel, a budget holiday often takes you to places that are more secluded and offbeat, offering real experiences, thrilling adventures and a chance to meet interesting, like-minded people who share travel, rooms and resources.

IMG_6178-Eco Pad Yatra Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

FACT FILE

Top Tips
Avoid peak season and weekends
Take public/shared transport
Walk or hire cycles for local sightseeing
Get better room rates in off-season
Look out for museums/sights with free entry
Eat at dhabas/street food instead of restaurants
Carry a sleeping bag and a water bottle
Talk to locals for info/tips
Try Voluntourism

Popular backpacker haunts
Paharganj (Delhi), Pushkar, Rishikesh, McLeodganj, Kasol, Varanasi, Hampi, Gokarna, Goa, Manali, Spiti

Budget experiences
Kanwar yatra in Shravana Mela
Narmada Pradakshina
Kenduli Baul Mela
Goa in the rains

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 28 July 2018 as the cover story in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Burhanpur: Diamond in the Dust

Standard

Mosques with inscriptions in Farsi and Sanskrit, Mumtaz Mahal’s hamam and the Black ‘Taj Mahal’; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Burhanpur, the gateway to the Deccan and cultural capital of the Mughals in southern Madhya Pradesh

burhanpur 069

A tad weary from our journeys across Central India, we disembarked for a brief stopover at Burhanpur. Hoshang Havaldar, the portly 60-something owner of Hotel Ambar, greeted us with roses and scented cotton yarns. “This ordinary‘sut ka haar’ commemorates Burhanpur’s glorious past as a trading centre of cotton. The fragrance of khus, kewda and gulab represent the three ponds of itr (perfumes) in which Mumtaz Begum took a daily dip in Burhanpur’s Shahi hamam. She gifted a rose to Shah Jahan everyday and we greet our guests with a rose as well.”

Thus, a routine hotel welcome transformed into a history lesson laden with meaning. Local INTACH convener Havaldar took immense pride in his illustrious city. “Without Burhanpur, India’s chronicles are incomplete. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and learning centre for princes and princesses, who imbibed tehzeeb (etiquette)-tameez (manners)-taakat (power)-tareeka-e-ilmaat (life lessons). Akbar spent 40 years in Burhanpur, Shah Jahan 44, Aurangzeb 30, while Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana governed for 37 years. Whoever was appointed a sipahsalar (governor) here was destined for greatness.”

IMG_6377

But what was a Parsi doing in southern Madhya Pradesh? Havaldar’s great grandfather came from Navsari in 1904 to work at the Burhanpur Tapti Cotton Mill. The hotel has been around since 1985 and its foyer is lined with info panels and antiquities. At Heena Garden restaurant, Havaldar explained how Burhanpur’s architecture inspired the hotel’s décor – haveli styled rooms with jalis, arches and lotus patterns. The food was Mughlai but completely vegetarian – from Jalal-e-Akbari to Paneer Mumtaz…

Over a leisurely meal, he elaborated how the Shruti and Smriti puranas refer to Burhanpur as Bhrignapur, the tapobhumi (place of penance) of Bhrigu rishi, who wrote the Bhrigu Samhita on the banks of the Tapti river. Legends recount how Surya the sun god, unable to bear the heat of his own body, created the river from his being. Hence Tapti is worshipped as Surya-putri.“Taap haran karne wali shakti, Tapti.”

IMG_6334

To believers, the mere thought of Tapti or the sight of Narmada is equivalent to a dip in the Ganga. Tapti Mahapuran records how the west-flowing rivers Narmada, Tapti and Poorna predated Ganga’s descent on earth and Ganga undertook a penance to appease the older rivers at Navatha, 40km away. Tapti’s placid flow is attributed to this lore.

That evening we drove around the city noticing its architectural wealth flash amidst its crowded, soiled streets like rubies in the rubble. Burhanpur seemed burdened by its own history. It has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. With the weakening of the Delhi Sultanate, Malik Nasir Khan claimed independence from Mandu’s Sultan, conquered Asirgarh Fort and renamed his capital in 1427 after Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din.

IMG_6446

Burhanpur served as the capital of Khandesh where eleven Farooki kings ruled for two centuries, creating a ‘secular’ state where Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic and Farsi. Adil Shah’s inscription can be seen at the two Jama Masjids in Burhanpur and Asirgarh. “To this day, Hindu-Muslims are like tanabana (warp and weft) of one weave,” quipped Havaldar. We reached the riverside palace complex Mughalbagh or Shahi Kila, constructed by Adil Shah Farooki II between 1457 and 1503.

The best-preserved structure is the zenana bath, built in 1612 with facilities that outshone modern spas – pleasure fountains, aquatic massage, hot and cold running water, showers and channels to route perfumes into tanks. The bathroom was lit up by eight diamonds studded in the ceiling to multiply the reflection of a lone flame from an oil lamp. Today, only intriguing holes remain.

IMG_6295

During Shah Jahan’s reign, frescoes graced the honeycombed ceiling to delight Mumtaz. Guided by Havaldar’s torch, we gasped at geometric patterns and Iranian designs – stars, lattices, arches, flowers, Shah Jahan’s ruby-studded turban, Mumtaz Begum’s sapphire-studded crescent turban, even an image of the Taj Mahal! Everything about the hamam was so dear to Mumtaz, that it became the inspiration for her tomb.

“Xerox kahoon, photocopy boloon, every aspect has been copied,” Havaldar’s voice resonated in the dark chamber. “Each of the four unique arches feature in the Taj, allowing light to fall on her grave at sunrise, sunset and full moon. The fourth hexagonal arch can be seen in Agra’s Moti Masjid. The blue bands and guldaan (vase) on Mumtaz’s grave are borrowed too, while Burhanpur’s Diwan-e-Aam inspired the public audience hall at Delhi’s Red Fort.” The bedroom where Mumtaz passed away while giving birth to her fourteenth child, Gauhara Begum, was in ruins with a tank on the terrace that kept it cool.

3) Burhanpur 002

The architectural genius was admirable. The palace complex, closed from three sides and open to the river, had 140 rooms and housed 400 people. In the cross-section of the false ceiling, we saw three earthen pipes – for fresh water, sludge water and 8 inch pipes for air vents! Alcoves and niches in the courtyard served as Meena Bazaar, a makeshift market for the queens. Shah Jahan built a rampart called Hathiya Chadhao for Mumtaz to descend from her chamber and mount an elephant for a ride to the city. A Pigeon Tower was built by Aurangzeb to ferry messages within the vast Mughal Empire. A few cannons from his time were strewn around; one bore a Farsi inscription: ‘When I open my mouth and belch fire, enemies’ hearts tremble’. Two beautiful mosques the Longi Masjid and Ilaichi Masjid, were named after their clove and cardamom-shaped domes.

Today, 1.75 lakh inhabitants stay within the 4km by 1km fort walls, making it one of India’s largest living forts. Asaf Jah renovated the parkota or circumference during Nizam rule (1720-1760). To him, Burhanpur was heaven for reasons more than its aab-o-hawa (atmosphere). The city had eight darwaaze (gates) and four khidkiyan (windows), as per the Quranic description of bahisht (heaven). Havaldar explained that a gate through which an elephant rider could enter was a darwaza while the smaller khidki allowed horse riders to pass through.

IMG_6249

The three-storeyed Shaniwara Gate served as the city’s main entrance. A blend of Hindu-Muslim motifs, its arch with lotus flowers hark to Akbar’s time, the next level with jharokhe, pipal toranas and kalgi design on the dome are Jahangiri while the two minarets were Shah Jahan’s contribution.

Another unique feature was the nine signs carved on it – ducks, fountains and insignia of the Mughal regiment stationed in Burhanpur. Like the Shaniwara gate, the Itwara and Budhwara gates were named after the local weekly markets. Lohar Mandi Gate was where ironsmiths set up shop while Shikarpura gate, was the hunting route of Akbar’s son Prince Daniyal.

IMG_6459

The following day, we toured with Professor Ghanshyam Malviya alias ‘Guruji’, who was persuaded by Havaldar to lead tours, a decade ago. He showed us how the Jama Masjid, with its 130 ft minars, was built in a way that its 15 arches intersected to form a ‘roofless masjid’. Each arch was unique, decorated with lotus flowers and toranas.

He pointed out a small stone wedged into the structure that conveyed the architect’s illustration of a deeper concept – every stone, big or small played a part in the building, the same way all men were equal in front of god.

IMG_6504

For six centuries, traders flocked to Burhanpur’s cotton market Tana Gujri mandi, which had a serai, hamam and masjid for visitors. Serais were traveller’s inns, kothaar were mid-budget lodges and huzoore were plush stays for respectable dignitaries. Under Noor Jehan’s counsel, Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time.

Built underground to conceal bare bodied males from women passing by, it lay hidden under a mound of earth until 25 years ago. Khan-i-khana’s Akbari Saray where Sir Thomas Roe, emissary of King James I halted, was in shambles, but we peeked into the 1780 Zakvi Haveli built by Zakvi-ud-din, 41st Syedna of the Dawoodi Bohra faith.

IMG_6546

Narrow bylanes took us to the first ever Swaminarayan Temple in India, the Maratha-era Bombaywalon ki kothi and the Nathdwara-inspired Bahuji Maharaj ka Mandir. Its 2-inch idol of Lord Krishna needed a telescope for a clear darshan! Bibi ki Masjid, the city’s oldest mosque, was styled on one in Ahmedabad. We stumbled upon the century old wooden house of the Hathiwala family whose ancestors maintained elephants for Maratha and Mughal armies.

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. Built out of black stone, it is the lament of a father’s anguish. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, has exquisite murals, kept under lock and key. Some say the structure was originally a Jain temple dedicated to 24 tirthankaras.

IMG_6584

The soul of Burhanpur is deeply entrenched in spirituality. Once a flourishing Jain settlement, the city is the revered seat of the Nath sampradaya, Dadu panth, Kabir panth and many religious denominations. The very name Burhanpur is derived from Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din Garib, Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia’s disciple. Nearly 4000 Sufi saints came here to spread Islam. “Yahan teen Chishti araam farma rahe hain…”(Here, three Chishti saints are at rest)

Shah Bahauddin Bajan came to Burhanpur as a young tutor to the children of Farooqi kings. Revered for his intellect, he was nicknamed ‘Chup’ Shah as he spoke very little. He died at the age of 120 and many visit his makbara (tomb). Nearby, on the banks of the Utawali, rests Hazrat Shah Bhikhari. “Utawali? Strange name for a river!” we remarked. Guru ji smiled, “She is quick to flood and quick to dry up. She comes in a hurry and disappears as hurriedly, hence ‘utawali’ or eager”.

IMG_6589

Nearly 2 lakh devotees offer namaaz on Shah Bhikhari’s urs. Saint Syed Mohammad Hashmi Kashmi lived in Burhanpur for 12 years. Two hundred years after his death, when the changing course of the Tapti river threatened to submerge his grave, it was shifted to a safer place. Surprisingly, his body was found intact!

Burhanpur is home to the biggest Shia monument in India. 17th-century Bohra saint Maulana Sayyedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin Saheb lived here and his tomb Dargah-e-Hakimi is much revered. It is believed a trip to Mecca-Medina is incomplete unless ziyarat is offered at Burhanpur. Spread over 125 acres amid immaculate gardens, the pristine dargah glistens like a fresh lotus in the muck and grime of Burhanpur.

IMG_6679

Syed Hakimuddin’s miraculous powers and the marble mausoleums of the 26th and 42nd Syednas draw many devotees. The old Mughal tradition of the tonga, known in Shah Jahan’s time as shahi sawari, is still alive among the Bohri Muslims who love taking horse-drawn carriages to Dargah-e-Hakimi.

Burhanpur is sacred to the Sikhs too as Guru Nanak stopped here in 1511-12 on his way to Omkareshwar and Guru Gobind Singh halted in 1708 en route to Nanded. Gurudwara Badi Sangat marks the spot where the latter camped and gave satsang. He stayed for 6 months, 9 days at Nivas Asthan Patshahi, which houses his weapons. It was here that Gobind Singh ji decreed that there would be no more gurus after him and the holy book shall be the sole guide. He compiled the Guru Granth Sahib and marked it with his seal. The Gurudwara has the carefully preserved tome with his golden signature and exquisite miniature paintings on each page, locked inside.

IMG_6735

One question nagged us. If Mumtaz Mahal died in Burhanpur, why was her tomb in Agra? Back in the day, Burhanpur had excellent medical facilities and was home to renowned hakims. After Mumtaz died during childbirth, she was embalmed and laid to rest for 6 months at her beloved Ahukhana, the shikargah (hunting lodge) built by Akbar’s son Daniyal, which had been restored by her into a rose garden.

Shah Jahan wished to build a memorial on Tapti’s riverbank so he could see its reflection in the waters. The bank was 80 ft high and required a larger plinth and a taller structure. However, the loamy black cotton soil wouldn’t withstand the weight of such a large edifice. The logistics of transporting marble from Makrana in Rajasthan tilted it in Agra’s favour. The rest is history. We drove out via the historic Dilli Darwaza, along the route of Mumtaz Begum’s final journey in a golden casket in 1631, accompanied by her son Shah Shuja to Agra.

Aseergharh Fort WallbarhampurONE 419

On Burhanpur’s outskirts, Asirgarh’s distinct form could be seen from afar. Perched at 259m, “it is the highest, oldest and most protected fort of India,” claimed Guruji. Havaldar ranked it among the 7 unconquered forts of India. Overlooking a pass over the Satpuras, Asirgarh lay on a key trade route between North India and the Deccan. It was the strategic Dakkani Darwaza or Doorway to the Deccan.

Nasir Khan Farooki murdered local raja Asa Ahir and captured the fort. Despite a matrimonial alliance with the Farookis, Akbar besieged Asirgarh for six months with a 32,000 strong army in 1600. Mounting cannons atop a hill – named ‘Akbar topi’ for its uncanny resemblance to the Mughal emperor’s headgear – he bombarded the fort in vain. Eventually, he too resorted to deceit. Under the pretext of the zenana wanting to see the fort, Mughal troops emerged from palanquins in Trojanesque fashion to end Farooki rule in Khandesh.

IMG_6162

In January, 1601 Akbar finally offered namaz at the Jama Masjid in Asirgarh. Stone inscriptions record Shah Jahan’s revolt against Jahangir as governor of Burhanpur and Aurangzeb’s overthrow of Shah Jahan. The British paid Rs.7 lakh to acquire the fort from the Marathas. After the 1819 treaty, Asirgarh was the last major fort to come under British control. Such was its import that a message was dispatched to the British viceroy that India had finally been conquered!

Yet, no one ever captured Asirgarh in battle. A formidable chain of seven gateways rose from the abyss, overrun by foliage. We wisely chose the winding mud road off the highway that ended abruptly against 120 ft high walls. Spread over 60 acres, the complex has three fortifications – Malaygarh the lowermost, Kamargarh the middle one built by Aurangzeb and Asirgarh, the highest and oldest part. Steep stairs led to a plateau at the summit where the Jama Masjid stood.

IMG_6134

Legend has it that the mountain was once Ashwathamagiri, the haunt of Drona’s son who hid here after abandoning the Kurukshetra battlefield. Another lore hails how after his ritual bath in the Tapti, Ashwathama does puja at Burhanpur’s Gupteshwar temple and takes a bilva marg (subterranean path) to perform a puja at Asireshwar Mahadev, which gave the fort its name. Till today, a single wild flower mysteriously appears on the linga as proof of his secret ritual.

Scattered around were remains of Rani Mahal, barracks, Phansi Ghar (gallows), prison, cemetery and an erstwhile British cantonment. Veer Surendra Sai, legendary freedom fighter from Sambalpur was imprisoned here for 19 years and died in 1884. From the summit, we spotted Moti Mahal, the palace and mausoleum of Shah Jahan’s third wife Moti Begum at the foothills of Asirgarh. While the whole world flocks to the monument of eternal love at Agra, Burhanpur lies discarded like a concubine, in the dusty wayside of history.

IMG_7282

NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Burhanpur is 181 km south of Indore (4 hrs) via SH-27. The citadel of Asirgarh lies 20km from town and 5km off the highway.

Stay
Hotel Ambar & Holiday Resort
NH-27, Rastipura Colony, Opp. Bus Stand, Burhanpur
Ph 07325-251197, 94240 24949
http://hotelambarburhanpur.com

Shop
Buy cotton clothes at Tana Gujri Mandi, locally made country cheroots or some daraba (sweet) and Burhanpur jalebi to take home.

IMG_6270

Eat
In the Khandesh region, poha, jalebi, samosa, kachori and khaman are commonly eaten for breakfast, besides chiwda, lasaniya sev, maand (roomali roti) and regional dishes like kala masaichi (curry of over-roasted black masala) and makai ki kachori. Try Burhanpur’s thick mawa jalebis at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre, Subhash Chowk (Ph 98262 72490).

For non-veg Mughlai cuisine head to Rahmania Restaurant at Jaistambh Chauraha (Ph 07325-257291) and for veg Mughlai delights like Nargisi kofta, Paneer angara, Jalal-e-Akbari and Kebab Palak, head to Heena Garden at Hotel Ambar Palace. For the signature sweet daraba (semolina, sugar and ghee whisked to a fine fluffy dessert), try Kundan and Geeta in the morning, Subhash bhai halwayi or Milan Mithai at Gandhi Chowk (Ph 07325-252315, 252295).

IMG_6495

5 Things to Do in the Region
Explore India’s highest fort Asirgarh
Try local treats like Burhanpur jalebis, maande and daraba
Take a ride in a tonga or horse-drawn carriage to Dargah-e-Hakimi
Attend Balaji ka Mela (Nov) on the banks of the Tapti river
Do an architecture tour – frescoes at Begum Shah Shuja’s makbara to Shahi Hamam

Discover This
Located 7km from town, Kundi Bhandara or Neher-e-khair zaari (literally, channel that flows regularly and safely) is Burhanpur’s wondrous water system built by Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana. Water is channeled from the base of mountains at a depth of 80 ft to the surface by 3km long tunnels, using a capillary system. It is supported by a network of 8 gidgidi (points for drawing water), 44 karanje (ponds) and 105 kundi (wells).

It also has the popular misnomer Khooni Bhandara. One morbid story narrates how dacoits often looted and killed merchants who halted at Burhanpur’s serais, and dumped their bodies in a well where the water turned bloody. Local guide Guru ji scoffs at the tall tales – “Ek billi ka bachcha bhi nahi mara 75 saal mein!” (Not even a kitten has died Dargah-i-Hakimi,here in the last 75 years).

IMG_6403

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

 

 

Salt, Sand & Spice: The Thar therapy

Standard

The desert sand heals those that dare to tread it. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover an oasis of wellness amid the dunes of Rajasthan.

AA2I0902

One look at the harsh unforgiving landscape of the Thar and you wonder what rejuvenation a desert could possibly offer? As we drove in to Jaisalmer, there was no palm-fringed oasis in sight and the barren land with hardy kikar and khejri trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Unlike Kerala or Bali, the Thar didn’t possess the healing touch of green that soothes the soul, the crisp mountain air of British sanatoriums of yore or the relaxing soak of hot water springs in the fabled spa towns of Europe.

The Great Indian Desert yawned endlessly over 200,000 sq km covering 60% of the state of Rajasthan. However, all apprehensions about a wellness holiday in an arid desolate tract prone to extremes of temperatures dissipated, as a flagged convoy waiting on the town’s outskirts led us with much pomp to Suryagarh. From the main gate, two camels ushered us up the slope to the resort’s entrance where floral showers, drummers and a traditional welcome swept us off our feet…

Halwai Breakfast

Founded by Maharawal Jaisal in 12th century, Jaisalmer lay on the southern strand of the Silk Route. Between 16th and 18th century, the city thrived on taxes collected from the caravans from Central Asia passing through the desert en route to Osian and China. Its caravanserais teemed with traders plying exotic goods.

Inspired by this indigenous desert culture and its ancient healing traditions, Suryagarh’s Rait Spa was named after the sea of rait (sand) it was set in. Drawing on the essence of delicate aromas of fine oils, elixirs and spices, its signature thermal therapies were based on sand, salt and stone. But Suryagarh’s legendary hospitality spearheaded by our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat was not to be taken lightly.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer_Entrance

The Halwayi breakfast of traditional snacks and sweets was so heavy we could barely make it to our first spa session. Trudging with heavy steps from our opulent Haveli Residence, we secretly hoped that the short walk to the spa was enough digestive exercise.

The illustration of mustachioed wrestlers dominated the Akhara or gym while yellow lights contrasted against the deep blue of Neel, the indoor pool. The flicker of oil lamps and flower petals announced Rait Spa, enveloped in an air of calm. Ambient eastern music played in the background and it was like being in a medieval oasis in the desert.

AA2I0808

We tried the Sand Ritual, an age-old treatment handed down centuries based on the natural healing potential of heat. After a fragrant spice scrub, we surrendered to a massage using heated potlis (bundles) of Jaisalmer rait (sand), which helped relieve the tautness of our muscles. We felt knots of pain slowly melt away into nothingness.

The soft tinkle of a bell announced the end of the session. We couldn’t believe that only an hour had passed; it felt like eternity. After we cooled off in henna and aromatic vetiver (camel grass or khus), the therapist explained how heat aided the body to release toxins naturally and regain natural rhythms, enabling better metabolism.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer

‘Better metabolism’, just the words we wanted to hear! For the days that followed, we needed every ounce of metabolic willpower to take on the specially curated culinary experiences at diverse venues – breakfast with peacocks in the bush at dawn, specialty cuisine at Legends of Marwar, Jaisalmer kebabs and biryani at the Lake Gardens, Thar dinner at Celebration Gardens, Signature Thali dinner at The Courtyard that came veiled or the magical Dinner on the Dunes under the stars – a recreation of the nomadic hunt menu. Mehboob Khan and the troupe of manganiyars (traditional musicians) formed a continuous musical backdrop.

The days were spent exploring the Thar on bespoke trails through shifting sands and thorny scrub. We scoured dhanis (small settlements), learnt about govardhans or carved pillar markers that pointed out water sources, tasted fresh water at sweet water wells, marveled at Phoenician-like figures of traders on tombstones in the cemeteries of Paliwal Brahmins and went on the spooky midnight Chudail Trail to the abandoned village of Kuldhara.

Suryagarh bespoke experiences IMG_8879

Overlooking the ruins of homes and serais, stood the 13th century Khaba Fort. Info panels explained how 60 million years ago, the Arabian Sea stretched beyond Gujarat to present-day Rajasthan and this vast wasteland was once a flourishing tract through which the Saraswati and its tributaries coursed.

Tectonic shifts caused the river to dry up, leaving behind little rivulets and isolated saltwater lakes. One such surviving river is the Luni, known in Sanskrit as Lavanavati, or ‘salt river’, due to its high salinity. Incidentally, the desert too is referred to as Lavana Sagara (Sea of Salt). Even today, the sandy bed throws up whorled fossils of ammonites and petrified trees.

Suryagarh bespoke experiences IMG_9126

For centuries, these salt-water lakes and streams in the Thar Desert have been used to manufacture sodium chloride salt. On our return, we noticed the motifs of jalis, stonework and roof patterns of the ruins finding recurrence in Suryagarh’s architecture but we didn’t expect the salt to be used for our spa therapies!

Rait’s unique salt therapy sources salt from the Luni riverbed handpicked by the staff. It is fused with IMRS (Intelligent Magnetic Resonance System), a health care system developed in Germany to balance the body’s magnetic field and subtly adjust bodily cadences. Adhering to the salt theme, Himalayan rock salts were used to light the room to cleanse and align the energies.

Rait Spa_Suryagarh Jaisalmer

For better efficacy and absorption by the skin, oils were charged with bio disks, technically engineered using over 100 natural minerals bonded in glass using molecular level fusion at high heat. The therapist slowly wrapped us in soft muslin drenched in salt and we lay mummified, experiencing heavenly realms of peace. The salts were rich in potassium, magnesium and other minerals, ideal for deep cellular-level cleansing. An hour later, we emerged like lithe spirits.

Another signature therapy was Stone using the healing properties of tiger-striped seashells from the Philippine islands with volcanic stones. These unique, specially sourced seashells, enclosed with a gel rich in lava powder, emit heat due to a natural chemical reaction. The shells, rich in calcium carbonate and trace elements, help nourish bones and tissues. The coarse texture of the shells made a natural scrub and we yielded to the long strokes and deep-kneading massage that boosted vascular circulation, drained toxins and improved metabolism.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer_Couple Room

Back in our room, a secret bedside platter of assorted traditional sweets awaited us. This daily treat was the creation of resident halwayi Chef Gatta Ram who would set them with little scrolls tied with silken strings, explaining each item. Tearing ourselves away from the pleasure palace that’s Suryagarh was near impossible but the task of continuing our Thar wellness tour to their property in Bikaner goaded us on.

Narendra Bhawan, the revamped residence of Narendra Singh ji, the last Maharaja of Bikaner is the most idiosyncratic address in the region. Renouncing the comforts of the palace, he created his own residence where he stayed with his family, 86 dogs and 500 cows (he used to call each by name)! Long before bovine love was fashionable in India, he was given a Gauratna for his service to cows. Legend goes that he never ate a meal till his animals were fed.

NB Facade

Today, his goshala (cowshed) is an alfresco bar where we downed Negronis and evening snacks on a fiery onyx tabletop. We were led us past the typical Bikaneri façade, for which red sandstone was brought from Dhulmera 80km away. Step inside, and it was anything but Bikaner.

It took architect Ravi Gupta and interior designer Ayush Kasliwal six years to reinterpret Narendra Bhawan as a tribute to the man and his travels. Manvendra explained, “We imagined it as the house of a mad uncle we all love – nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Like a residence, it’s not themed”.

Narendra Bhawan- Residence Room

Bright walls, framed Banarasi textiles, Ming vases, crystals, porcelain figurines from Dresden, Richmond patterned chequered floors, Art Deco lights, framed photos of the Narendra Singh ji’s royal lineage and dogs, old Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin classics, usta gold painting, a red piano; everything was an ode to the maharaja’s eccentric nature and eclectic tastes.

The rooms transcend his phases in life – flamboyant Prince rooms, leather-panelled Regimental rooms flagging his military lineage, India rooms reflecting Gandhian ethos and Republic rooms showcasing works of Le Corbusier in a post-independent India. “It’s not really a hotel but a landscape of memories – life’s passage through time,” added Manvendra.

IMG_3781

The same vein of creativity ran through the spa. Inspired by the great sanitariums of Europe, Clinic – The Spa was a novel concept based on holistic healing through flowers and plants. Between 1920-30, Dr Edward Bach developed a set of 38 floral remedies catering to a particular emotional state.

Using concepts from the Bach Flower Therapy, Narendra Bhawan’s Flower Essences are specially designed to soothe one’s senses, instill harmony and bring balance. Aided with Bemer technology for Physical Vascular Therapy, it promised improved microcirculation, enabling the body’s self-healing powers to promote inner and outer radiance. The spa’s clean sharp décor bestows a sense of calm.

IMG_3776

The food carried the irreverence forward, fusing disparate themes like the banquets of kings at P&C (Pearls & Chiffon), colonial era bakeries at the Mad Hatter, poolside Muslim feasts served in crescent platters, Jain thalis in a haveli’s rooftop on the Merchant Trail, Reveille at Ratadi Talai that recreated cavalier grills to smart English menus with a Bikaneri touch.

Listening to jazz while eating dahi wale aloo, murgh sabja, kachre ki sabji (variety of wild melon) and angoor ki sabzi was quite an experience. Inventiveness was its peak with arrancini biryani, wild mushroom gujiya and seb ki kheer. At open pastures beyond Bikaner, we enjoyed sundowners and char-grilled kebabs as folk musicians played the ravan hattha (stringed instrument) by the dancing light of lanterns and the setting sun. Life was good in the Thar.

Narendra Bhawan (6)

FACT FILE

Getting there
The nearest airport is Jodhpur, from where Jaisalmer is 300km (5 hrs) and Bikaner 249km (4 hrs). Jaisalmer and Bikaner are 312 km apart.

What to See
Jaisalmer: Fort, Patwon ki Haveli, Museums, Kuldhara & Khaba ruins, Desert National Park, Sam & Khuri Dunes
Bikaner: Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace, Rampuria Havelis, Bhandasar Jain temple, Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke

What to Eat
Mirchi bada, Bhikaji’s Bikaneri bhujiya & namkeen, Mawa Kachori, local dishes like ker-sangri, kachra, gatte ki sabzi with bajre ki roti.

Infinity Swimming Pool

Where to Stay

Suryagarh
Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Ph +91-02992-269269 www.suryagarh.com
Rait Spa Therapies: Salt 1hr 45 min Rs.5900/person upwards, Sand 2 hrs. Rs.7000/person, Rs.12,000/couple, Stone 1hr 30 min Rs.4400/person, Rs.7500/couple

Narendra Bhawan
Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner
Ph +91-0151-2252500, 7827151151
www.narendrabhawan.com

For more info, visit http://rajasthan-tourism.org/

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

30 unique dishes from Karnataka (How many have you tried?)

Standard

There’s more to Karnataka cuisine than Bisi Bele Bath. On Rajyotsava Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a culinary tour across the state to pick 30 unique dishes from its 30 districts and various communities.

Flameback spread DSC01910

Like political leaders and psephologists criss-crossing the state, we had trailblazed across Karnataka on a 2-year long research project to document the state’s cuisine for Oota, a restaurant in Whitefield. Travelling with two chefs and a video crew, we ate in iconic eateries, discovered fantastic food folklore and cooked with nearly 25 communities in homes, roadside stalls and temple kitchens.

From the ghats of Coorg and Malnad to the Karavali coast, ragi fields of South Karnataka to the jola (jowar) and rice fields in the north and the Hyderabad-Karnataka region to the Maharashtra border, we traversed nearly 30 districts and 20,000km. Here’s a sample from an astonishingly diverse cuisine that goes beyond the ordinary…

Chigli (Red Ant) Chutney IMG_0962

Chigli Chutney
The hilly region of Malnad is known for the unique chigli chutney made of kempu iruve or red fire ants (Ecophila Smoragdina). The ants have a vicious sting and the sour ooze from the swollen larvae gives the typical tang and bite to the chutney. The leafy nests must be harvested before sunrise and the ants are roasted along with salt, pounded and stored for future use. Ground with garlic, birds’ eye chili, onion, coconut and spices, and eaten with rice rotis, the protein-rich chutney is a winter delicacy (Nov-March). Its medicinal properties help prevent cough, cold, flu and pneumonia.

Where to Eat: Not feature on regular menus, but hotels serving Gowda fare like Flameback Lodges (Ph 9242714197, 9448379748, www.flameback.in) near Mudigere and Black Pepperz Gardenia (Ph 9242144019) at Daradahalli might serve it on request

Rakti DSC02751

Rakti
Saujis or Savajis are a martial community of the SSK (Somavamsha Sahasrarjun Kshatriya) Samaj who migrated from Central India to Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra. As kshatriyas, meat, blood and chili dominate their cuisine and Sauji restaurants are popular among meat lovers. During Dussehra, they offer laal-pani (liquor), edimi (wheat-gram flour dumplings) and arithi (wheat flour diyas) to Goddess Bhavani. A unique dish from their repertoire is Rakti, made from rakt (coagulated blood), reduced into a spicy thick paste and eaten with jolada (jowar) rotis.

Where to Eat: Hamsini Hotel on Shamanur Road in Davanagere (Ph 9886792331), Hotel Milan Savaji (Ph 0836-2435450, 9341998875) at Jubilee Circle on PB Road and Kathare’s Savaji Hotel (Ph 0836-2441956, 2435450) at Line Bazaar in Dharwad, Bhavani Sauji Hotel in Rattihalli near Shimoga and Hotel Chetak in Kalaburagi.

Batti Chutney IMG_3039_Anurag Mallick

Batti Chutney
Originally from Andhra Pradesh, the Idugas have been in Karnataka’s border regions for centuries. They are known for their meat heavy cuisine with a liberal use of chillis, a typical Andhra influence. Every part of the goat – trotters, intestine, brain, blood and spleen – is used for dishes like poondi palya mutton, taley mamsa, boti and nalla vanta. Batti Chutney is made of spleen, liver and hand-pounded red chillies and garlic; rolled into gummy meatballs, it makes an excellent spicy bar snack with a taste profile akin to paté!

Where to Eat: Eateries at D Hirehalu and Ballari

Appekayi Trroiin IMG_2186

Appekayi Trrroin
Haviyak or Havyaka Brahmins came to Malnad from Ahichhatra in Central India for the completion of havans (hence their name) and the recitation of Yajur Veda at yagnas. Their scientific approach to food gives great importance to medicinal plants and various concoctions called tambulli made from arshina (raw turmeric), nellikayi (gooseberry) or doddapatre (carom leaf). Most feasts begin with a digestive drink strangely called Appekayi Trrroin, made from appekayi (raw mangoes). As for the ‘trrroin’, it’s most probably from downing it one gulp!

Where to Eat: Havyaka homestays like Gundi Mane near Jog Falls (Ph 9900956760, 9980100975 www.gundimane.com) or Vihar Homestay (Ph 08389-249437, 9449192329 https://viharhomestay.in) near Sirsi

GSB spread with Amshe Tikshe and Sungta Song IMG_5185

Sungta Song
It’s not really a song but you’ll surely dance to the tune of this classic prawn curry from the GSB or Gaud Saraswat Brahmin kitchen. A coastal preparation of prawns in thick tangy onion and tomato masala, it is finished with lemon juice and freshly chopped coriander.

Where to Eat: Shwetaa Lunch Home (Ph 99866 75726, 95918 41334) at Ananda Arcade, Green Street and Hotel Amrut in Karwar (Ph 08382-226609, 645562 www.hotelamrut.com)

Halasina Yele Chilmi IMG_3953

Halasina Yele Chilmi
The unique steamed dish from the Canara coast is as exotic as it sounds! First halasina yele (jackfruit leaves) are shaped into cones, rice paste is smeared on the insides before a mix of coconut and jaggery is poured in and sealed with rice paste. Placed inside a steamer, it is left to cook. The leaf is carefully peeled to reveal a marbled conical dessert.

Where to Eat: Blue Waters Resort (Ph 08254-230093, 9844065100, www.bluewatersindia.com) in Kundapura and their hinterland resort Green Woods in Senapura

Kalees Ankitiya (Pork offal)-IMG_5162

Kalees Ankiti
While leitão (whole roast pigling), a Portuguese tradition is popular among Catholics of Mangalore, the rest of the pig’s ‘spare parts’ go into an offal curry known by the intriguing name kalees-ankiti (literally ‘liver-intestines’). Cooking it is laborious and the intestines must be rubbed and boiled with cinnamon leaves to remove the smell. After adding spices, onions, tamarind, vinegar and local baffath powder, it is finished with pig’s blood and eaten with sannas. Surely not for the faint-hearted!

Where to Eat: Pereira Hotel in Mangaluru (Ph 0824-2425430, 9480158112, 9611067783)

Krishnamurti Saralaya's mandige shop at Belgaum IMG_5840_Anurag Mallick

Mandige
Besides the iconic Belgaum Kunda, Belagavi is known for another sweet – mande or mandige. A crepe with a thin filling of sugar, ghee and khoa, it is made like a roomali on an upturned tava and folded like a dosa. A fascinating legend explains its mythic origin. A devout Brahmin was in deep penance when the Lord appeared before him. Since he had nothing to offer, he rolled dough, sugar and ghee and baked it on his bent back with the heat of his penance. Thus the mandaka or mandige was born! It’s a must in Brahmin weddings and is often displayed in large baskets. Rumours abound how weddings have been called off because no mandige was served!

Where to Eat: Krishnamurthi Saralaya (Ph 0831-2452707/4208620, 9448231751) in Konwal Gali, Belagavi.

Kalbutthi (Flintstone Curd Rice) IMG_2757

Kalbutthi
The ancient capital of the Kadamba dynasty, Banavasi is famous for its pineapples and the 400-year-old Konkani community of Padkis. At the home of Mrs Indira Phadke, we picked up an unusual dish from Chitpawan Brahmin cuisine. Kalbutthi is like a curd rice sizzler using a piece of hot glowing flintstone (kal is stone). On the hot stone, some ghee, curry leaves and mustard seeds are used for tempering and covered with the curd rice to infuse the smoky aroma!

Where to Eat: Konkani Brahmin homestays

Allu susla or 'Susheela' IMG_6121

Susheela
From Davanagere to Dharwad and Huballi to Bijapur, mandakki or puffed rice is a common snack, presented in assorted flavours like Girmit, Nargis or Khara Mandakki, often paired with mensinkayi bajji (chilli pakoda). For breakfast, puffed rice is lightly soaked and tossed with seasoning into a light fluffy poha called allu susla. However, in street parlance it is commonly mispronounced as ‘Susheela’.

Where to Eat: TS Manjunath Swamy’s Masala Mandakki Angadi (Ph 9902200924) on Lawyer Road at Jaydev Circle in Davangere and LEA Canteen at Dharwad (Ph 9448147157)

Ballari Cycle khova IMG_3339_Anurag Mallick

Bellary Cycle Khova
If you thought Ballari’s only claim to (in)fame was the Reddy brothers, think again. Spread around two granite hills with a fort built by Hande Hanumappa Nayaka, Ballari (earlier Bellary) is famous for its cycle khova, sold on bicycles and dispensed from brass containers on eco-friendly sal leaf plates!

Where to Eat: Bombay Sweets (Ph 08392-272228, 9448056398) and Abid Cycle Khova Store (Ph 9901824292) on Bangalore Road, Bellary

KT or Kalladka Tea IMG_5813

KT (Kalladka Tea)
Kalladka, a small town 30km from Mangaluru on the Bengaluru highway, is famous for its strong tea, perfect for truckers and travelers to stay awake on the treacherous ghat route. Locals called it Kalladka Tea or KT, for short. Step into the roadside hotel where it was invented and you can see it made and poured in layers inside the tiny kitchen.

Where to Eat: Laxmi Nivas Hotel (Ph 08255-275359, 9448545203) at Kalladka

Hyd Karn Gulbarga-Malpuri-IMG_5660

Malpuri
Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi) is known for its paan mithai and malpuri, which is like a malpua on steroids. Stuffed with khova and dry fruits like a gujiya, the sugar-syrup laden sweet was invented by Khasim Ali but immortalized by Mamu Jaan. Just utter the password ‘Mamu jaan ki malpuri’ and you will be guided to his little shop.

Where to Eat: Khasim Ali near the dargah and Mamu Jaan ki Malpuri in in Kalaburagi’s Chappal Bazaar

Bullet Idli

Bullet Idli
Mitra Samaj shares a wall with the Chandramouleshwara Temple in Udupi and started off as a temple kitchen. It serves excellent uppitu, Mangalore goli bajji, the gigantic Outlook dosa and an octet of miniature ‘bullet’ idlis in a plate of sambar. Till some years ago, a cow used to walk past the cramped tables to the kitchen where it would be fed reverentially. Only then would it step out!

Where to Eat: Mitra Samaj (Ph 9880199678) in Udupi

Gadbad Ice-cream IMG_5691

Gadbad ice-cream
Invented at Diana Restaurant in Udupi but popularized by Ideal Ice-cream, the assorted ice-cream was invented in a gadibidi (hurry). Local folklore has it that one day a bunch of customers came late and since portions of one flavour weren’t enough, 3 assorted flavours were mixed and served with fruits, cherries and dry fruits. It became a hit. And the name stuck!

Where to Eat: Diana Restaurant (Ph 0820-2520505, 9448132202, 9743388718) in Udupi and Ideal Ice-cream (Ph 0824-2440396, 9448121673 www.idealicecream.com) in Mangaluru

Mahabharata 2

Mahabharata
Just when we thought we had seen and tasted it all, we encountered a tangy mango chutney at a Brahmin feast in Bengaluru. It was called Mahabharata! Even more shocking was the discovery that there was another chutney called Kurukshetra. Truly epic!

Where to Eat: Brahmin feasts

Amingad kardantu DSC03102_Anurag Mallick

Kardantu
Invented in Amingad, though popularized in Gokak, kardantu is a popular teatime snack and desi energy bar from rural Karnataka. It is often given to pregnant women, wrestlers and body builders. In 1907, Savaligappa Aiholi of Amingad mixed dry fruits like pistachio, almonds, cashew, dates, fig, kopra, jaggery and antu (edible gum) and fried them together to create karadi-antu (literally ‘fried gum’). When shaped into balls, it is called antin-unde.

Where to Eat: Vijaya Kardant (Ph 8123115005) on SH-20/Raichur Highway in Amingad and Amingad Cool Drink, Bijapur (Vijayapura).

Karchikayi, a native vegetable, is used to treat diabetes in folk medicine IMG_3900

Karchikayi Palya
A small pod vegetable that grows in creepers infested by scorpions, karchikayi (Momordica cymbalaria), a relative of the bitter melon/gourd plant, is unique to the Hubli-Dharwad region. Another peculiarity is that the vegetable must be consumed the same day it is harvested, before the pods burst open! It is usually made into a palya or stir fried.

Where to Eat: Uramma Heritage, Anegundi (Ph 9448284658 www.urammaheritagehomes.com)

Sorlaysoppu:Kannekudi soppu khatne IMG_2808

Kannekudi Khatne
The hill region of Malnad is a treasure trove of medicinal plants that grow wild, whose leaves, roots, herbs and barks are used for indigenous cooking. The bushy Kannekudi or Soralekudi (Persicaria piripi) is one such plant, widely used by the Haviyak community to prepare a tangy chutney. Consumed during the rainy season, it protects you against cold and fever.

Where to Eat: Homestays like AjjanaMane at Talavata (Ph 9535693240, 9342253240, Email ajjanamane@gmail.com www.ajjanamane.com)

Masala Akki Roti IMG_1727

Dapati to Uggi chapati
Karnataka has a wide variety of staples – besides jolada roti (sorghum flat bread) and akki otti (rice rotis), there’s berki roti made of mixed flours and pulses, dapati (multi-grain masala roti) and the uggi chapati which is steamed on tender cornhusk and served with spicy kempu (red) chili chutney and ghee!

Where to Eat: Kolavara Heritage near Tirthahalli (Ph 08181 254722, 202210, 9448639444 www.kolavaraheritage.com)

Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani

Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani
Once a flourishing port under the Vijaynagar Empire, Bhatkal attracted Arabian sailors and traders who intermingled with local Jains and GSBs to form a new community – Navayath or ‘newly arrived’. Their dialect borrows heavily from Konkani, while local tastes blend seamlessly with Arabia. Bhatkal is famous for its Godi Halwa, a glutinous sweet made of wheat extract and the exquisite Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani made of delicate vermicelli and prawns.

Where to Eat: Chillies Restaurant (Ph 99803 26265), NH-17, Bhatkal

Carrot Kismuri

Kismuri
Malnad is known for a variety of kismuri or delectable salads that can be made from carrot, beetroot, bale dindu (banana stem) or suvarnagadde (yam). Par-boiled juliennes of the vegetable are mixed with chopped onion, tempered with mustard, urad dal (split black gram), green chili, curry leaves and finished with yoghurt and a topping of crunchy papad.

Where to Eat: Surendra Mallya’s farm at Masigadde (Ph 94486 57245)

Amey soppu (Fiddlehead fern) DSC06318

Ameysoppu palya
Siddis are descendants of African slaves brought to India. Some escaped from the Portuguese in Goa and settled in the forested tracts of the Western Ghats. In Karnataka, they inhabit the stretch around Haliyal, Yellapur and Ramanguli. The Siddis eat river fish, rice and local greens – kesa (colocasia) and ferns like amey soppu, literally ‘turtle greens.’

Where to Eat: Coorg homestays like Gowri Nivas (Ph 08272-228597, 9448193822 www.gowrinivas.com) in Madikeri and Palace Estate (Ph 98804 47702, 94831 98446 www.palaceestate.co.in) in Kakkabe serve Kodava fare like kesa (colocasia) and termay (ferns), in monsoon.

Dasola Yele Khottey IMG_4431

Dasola Yele Khotte
KP Shetty’s unique botanical-themed resort in the lush hinterland off Shiroor is home to over 5000 plants, many of which are used in its ‘health’ cuisine. Try chakramani soppu tambuli (better known as multi-vitamin curry), brahmi tambuli (Indian Pennywort cooler), sandhu balli chutney (cactus vine chutney) and the unique dasola yele khotte (steamed rice dumplings or kadabus infused with hibiscus leaf), served with a dollop of butter.

Where to Eat: Wild Woods Spa & Resort (Ph 7760976680 www.wildwoodsspa.com) at Toodalli village near Shiroor

Brahmi leaf or eli kivi soppu DSC05398

Elikivi Soppu Palya
Brahmi (Centella asiatica) or Indian pennywort is a wondrous leaf that aids intellect and sharpens memory. For centuries, Brahmins have consumed it to help them remember mantras. In ancient times, Sage Manduki noticed that wild animals that drank from a creek where the plant grew became calmer and were attracted to his discourses. In honor of his discovery, it was named mandukaparni (frog leaf) as it was shaped like a frog’s foot. In Kannada, it’s called ili kivi or mouse’s ear! Brahmi is usually stir fried into a palya with onions, mustard and grated coconut.

Where to Eat: Wild Woods Spa and Shanthi Kunnj (Ph 0824-2485180, 9632726888 www.shanthikunnj.com) near Kadabagere

Soute beeja huggi_North karnataka pasta DSC03411_Anurag Mallick

Soute beeja huggi
Believe or not, North Karnataka has rare indigenous pastas, often displayed as part of the Lingayat wedding trousseau! The process of rolling out little pellets of broken wheat dough is rather laborious. It is usually a summer activity, as the pellets can be sundried on the terrace. Using a paradi kaddi (basket stick), the dough is given different shapes – soute bija resembles tiny soute (cucumber) seeds, paradi is bowl or ear-shaped like orechiette while shankha is pressed against a comb and shaped like a conch akin to conchiglie. Once dried, it can be made as a savoury or a huggi (kheer).

Where to Eat: Vijaya Dry Fruits near Durgada Bail in New Hubli stocks a lot of these traditional pastas

Coorg-Madd kool-IMG_2359

Madd thoppu
Literally ‘medicine leaf’, maddu thoppu (Justicia wynaadensis) grows wild in Coorg or Kodagu. It is harvested during the monsoon month of kakkada, the heaviest period of rain from mid-July to mid-August. On the eighteenth day of kakkada, its medicinal properties are at their peak and contain 18 benefits. The stems and leaves are boiled to make a deep purple extract used for madd puttu (steamed cakes) or madd kool payasa (sweet porridge). And, don’t faint in the bathroom if you notice a bright yellow to orange colour when your pee!

Where to Eat: Taj Madikeri (Ph 08272-665800 Email madikeri.coorg@tajhotels.com)

IMG_2986

Vonekk Yerchi
There’s more to Coorg than pandi curry as Kodavas have an array of pork dishes – from chutti, spicy fried bits of pork fat served at Kodava weddings to pork choodals, deep fried pork cubes tossed in green chili-ginger masala, a great accompaniment to drinks. However, the ultimate dish is vonekk yerchi or smoked pork, typically cured for months over the hearth, shredded and stir-fried.

Where to Eat: Cuisine Papera (Ph 08274-247247, 900887767 Email paperacaterers@gmail.com) at Gonikoppal

Tindli Moi (Cashew & Ivy Gourd)-IMG_5628

Tindli Moi
From Konkani eateries to Catholic restaurants in Mangaluru-Udupi, tindli or manoli (ivy gourd) is a popular vegetable. In season, it is stir-fried with beeja (raw cashew) and topped with grated coconut. Tindli-Moi or Manoli Beeja Upkari is a great accompaniment for fish curry-rice meals.

Where to Eat: Hotel Narayana’s (Ph 9448255025) fish meals and Pereira Hotel at Hampankatta in Mangaluru

Pinyanappa-IMG_5363 

Pinyanappa
Bearys are a Muslim trading community in Mangaluru with a typical cuisine. Wedding feasts or ‘tala’ are opulent affairs with dishes like koli norchad (stuffed fried chicken), whole goat and goat head presented to the groom and his friends. There’s naeveri (stuffed prawn dumplings) and kalathappam (thick rice pancake topped with fried onions) and unique desserts like bonda payasa (tender coconut kheer) and pinyanappa. The rice, egg and coconut milk dessert gets its name from the pinyan (bowl) used to steam the dish.

Where to Eat: Many of these dishes can be savoured at Oota Bangalore (Ph 88802 33322 http://windmillscraftworks.com) in Whitefield

IMG_4800

Authors: This article first appeared on 14 May 2018 in Conde Nast Traveller India online. Read the original article here: https://www.cntraveller.in/story/30-dishes-try-30-districts-karnataka/ 

Maheshwar: Here lived a queen

Standard

Once the capital of Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar, Maheshwar looms above the languid waters of the holy Narmada, enfolding within itself history, heritage and fascinating mythologies, explore ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

IMG_5344

It was evening by the time we reached the pilgrim town of Maheshwar. At the banks of the sacred Narmada we watched the incessant flow of walkers, pilgrims, bathers, wrestlers and locals. The symmetrical steps of the Ahilyeshwar temple looked familiar – it had served as a scenic backdrop for movies like Padman and Yamla Pagla Deewana! The ghat was dotted with stone Shiva lingas and temples along the riverbank – Til Bhandeshwar, Kashi Vishwanath, Narmada Mata and the chhatri (samadhi) of Rani Ahilyabai.

Between 1766-95, Maheshwar served as the capital of Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar. Stopped from committing sati by her father-in-law, she ruled for nearly three decades from her royal seat until Malhar Rao Holkar III shifted the capital to Indore in 1818. High above the ghats, her 250-year-old Ahilya Fort loomed above the Narmada as we caught the last rays of a pink sunset on its languid waters. A yogi, his arms tucked behind his head and legs folded in padmasana, languidly drifted along the current.

IMG_5299

Time flowed unhurriedly like the placid Narmada. We witnessed the devout engrossed in evening rituals as the Kashi Vishwanath arti at 7:40pm was soon followed by the Narmada Maha Arti at 8pm. The priest of Narmada Mata Mandir narrated fascinating legends about the river and the city she coursed through. Born from the sweat of Shiva, Narmada is hailed as Shiv-putri or Shankar’s daughter Shankari.

Maheshwar is thus sacred to Shiva and his imprint can be seen everywhere. Pebbles on Narmada’s riverbed are shaped like a linga (called banalinga). Some say she is both nar (male) and mada (female); others believe she is called narmada because she is narm (soft), bestowing a feeling of peace on the beholder. Her popular name Rewa is derived from rewati or her leaping motion through the rocky bed.

IMG_5700

“Jagat janani, jeevan dayini, wo ajar-amar hai. Sansaar nasht ho jayega, magar Narmada hamesha behti rahegi…” “She is the fountainhead of the world, the giver of life, she is immortal. The world may come to an end, but Narmada shall continue to flow,” explained Pandit ji. “She has other names too”, piped in the others. “Sonsursa, Mahti, Krapa, Mandakini, Mahanawa, Vipapa, Vipasha, Vimala, Namrata, Karbha, Ranjana, Trikuta, Vayuvahini, Dakshinganga.”

Maheshwar was once Mahishmati, founded by king Mahishman and later the capital of thousand-armed king Sahasrarjun. One legend recounts how the king went to the river for a picnic with his 500 wives and blocked the mighty river with his arms so that his queens could frolic in the waters! Meanwhile, Ravana who was flying by in his Pushpak Vimana stopped at the dry riverbed downstream and fashioned a sand shivalinga for his daily worship.

IMG_5352

When Sahasrarjun finally lifted his arms, the gushing waters swept off Ravana’s shivalinga. Furious, he challenged Sahasrajuna to a duel but was pinned to the ground by his 1000 arms. Sahasrajuna placed 10 lamps on Ravana’s heads and one on his hand, bound him and dragged him to the palace and tied him to his son’s cradle, where Ravana remained a prisoner until his release. Even today, the Sahasrarjun temple at Maheshwar lights 11 lamps to commemorate the legend.

Our driver, who had been restlessly shadowing us, politely asked if now we would like to go to our hotel. We laughed and walked up the steps to Ahila Fort. Set amidst gnarled neem and frangipani trees, Ahilyabai’s rajwada (palace) had been beautifully restored into a fort hotel by her descendant Shivajirao or ‘Richard’ Holkar.

IMG_5649

Parisian online magazine ‘The Style Saloniste’ called it “The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown with a dash of Gandhi idealism”. We were chuffed to know that we would join an elite list of celebrities that had stayed at Fort Ahilya – Mick Jagger, Ralph Fiennes, Lord and Lady Cavendish and Prince Michael of Greece (and Denmark).

In the inner courtyard, Kuntabai, who has been with the royal family for over thirty years, led us to Kachnar, our room on the first floor. Interestingly, the rooms were named after the surrounding trees – Imli, Elaichi, Champa, Badam, Gulmohar, Haldi, Kesar. The best rooms were the lavish river-facing Narmada Suite done up in muted greys with tasteful colour accents and the Nagarkhana Suite, the old drumhouse in a gateway overlooking the Ahilyeshwar Temple.

IMG_5436

“Richard ji will see you for supper at 9pm sharp,” the instruction was as crisp as the linen. The stress on ‘sharp’ was enough to ensure we were well on time. Clad in a simple Maheshwari kurta pyjama and Nehru jacket, ‘Richard ji’ was disarmingly informal. We discussed our recent travels through Madhya Pradesh and talk drifted to local food – the succulent balam kakdi, the tangy khorasani imli and the black coloured country chicken Kadaknath.

Author of ‘Cooking of the Maharajas’ in 1975, Richard often joins guests for conversations over a drink or meals and personally curates the home-style food at Ahilya. Dinner was announced by the drumbeats of the dholak with customized printed menus – mushroom pulao, spiced tomato and green gourd, grilled mahi mahi, crispy okra, capsicum raita, chapattis and vermicelli kheer.

IMG_5619

The next morning, we woke up fashionably late, to the sound of the Lingarchan puja performed daily at 8:30 am at the royal family shrine just below the terrace. The sacred ritual was initiated by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1766 for the well being of her subjects and involved shaping river mud into 1300 miniature Shiva lingas on a wooden board, which was ritually immersed into the river.

An elaborate breakfast awaited us at the Poshak wada – bacon, sausages, baked beans, Maheshwari style scrambled eggs, walnut and sunflower seed bread, with the fort’s jams and citrus preserves made by Richard. We even got a taste of the legendary Batteesee Chatni, a secret recipe of 32 ingredients that Richard will never part with. Ambling around the sprawling hotel, we discovered charming nooks under bougainvillea creepers – a hidden turquoise pool, herb garden and the quirky ‘Le Loo’.

IMG_5489

Lined with wooden pillars, the hallways held a treasure of antiques besides sepia tinted photographs of the Indore royal family and their mansions. The walls exhibited ethereal paintings of Maheshwar by late artist-in-residence Harry Holcroft and riveting prints by photographer Ashish Dubey capturing the many moods of the Narmada. A portion of the sales went towards the Ahilya Fort Wall Project.

The Maheshwar Rajwada serves as a museum on the Holkar lineage and a map marks out the pious queen’s sacred deeds at India’s holiest sites – renovating temples, dharamsalas and ghats from the Himalayas to Mathura, Brindavan, Dwarka and Puri. Locals and the devout often walk into the fort to pay homage at the queen’s statue.

IMG_5533

We visited Rehwa Society, a weaver’s cooperative for local women. The clatter of looms mingled with the incessant hum and chatter of kids next door at Ahilya School, founded in 1979 for weavers’ children. Maheshwar’s weaving tradition goes way back to the 5th Century.

However, weaving as a large scale occupation gained prominence during the reign of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar (1767-1795) when she invited master weavers from Surat and South India to create traditional Navvari or Maharashtrian nine-yard saris and turbans as mementos for royal guests.

IMG_5429

The craft languished till the 1970s when Richard Holkar and his former partner revived the centuries-old tradition of Maheshwar weaving. Today, weaving is the mainstay for over 700 local families. At Rehwa Society alone, 70 ladies and a few men worked in shifts. They showed us the intricacies and typical designs that made Maheshwari weaves so popular.

“Weaving one sari could take 3-10 days, depending on its complexity. Some pallu designs could take 3-4 days,” they explained. The in-house store was a rainbow of colours. All around town the inner bylanes reverberated with the constant clack of looms as shops sold kurtas, shawls, saris and stoles.

IMG_5570

The town is dotted with temples. The Rajarajeshwar temple has a ceiling full of mirrors and coloured glass. Smaller shrines dotted the complex and the path continued to Gobar Ganesh temple displaying an idol made of gobar (cowdung). We completed a radial circuit back to Ahilyeshwar temple, with the chhatri of Vithoji facing the elevated Shiva shrine.

The inner courtyard had beautifully sculpted statues of musicians, dancers, apsaras and even two gentlemen in English costume! Marble slabs on the stone steps marked the water level during two big floods – 6 September 1944 and 17 September 1961.

IMG_5779

Boatmen of the Ma Rewa Nauka Vihar Kewat Samaj Samiti offer boat rides to Sahasradhara and Baneshwar. Gliding past the riverside temples and the fort, we took a leisurely ride to Baneshwar Mahadev, located on an islet midstream and returned by sunset.

That evening, we left the palatial Ahilya Fort for the humbler comforts of the renovated gatehouse – Labboo’z café and lodge. The odd name came from the family driver who initially ran it – Lakshman aka Lambu (the tall one), mispronounced as Labbu by Richard’s kids! Its five rooms were named after birds commonly seen around the lodge.

IMG_5676

We headed to the topmost room Bee Eater above the main fort doorway overlooking the ramparts and a private terrace. Inside, cute alcoves on either side served as luggage racks, seaters, wash, shower and a secret toilet behind a blue door! The blue-grey tiles and Kashmiri embroidered linen from Richard’s mother’s collection added a cozy touch. Large cement steps led to another terrace, perfect for stargazing. We sank into the cane chairs under trees with book-lined alcoves and sweet, ever-smiling staff.

Food was mostly vegetarian snacks, perfect for a short bite. But we had been spoiled silly with Ahilya Fort’s hospitality. Richard’s voice echoed in our ears “It’s called La-Booz, but there’s no booze there. For that, you have to come to the palace!” And so we returned for some more fried parval (pointed gourd), a sip of champagne and unhurried conversations in the history-scented fort. We could try the Maheshwari maalish (massage) tomorrow or perhaps take the boat ride from Mandleshwar to Maheshwar? Like the leisurely river cruise, life in Maheshwar drifted ‘slowly down the Narmada.’

IMG_5412

NAVIGATOR

Getting there:
Maheshwar is 95 km/2 hrs southwest of Indore. Mandu and Omkareshwar are just 1.5 hours away.

Stay:

Ahilya Fort
Ahilya Wada, Maheshwar
Ph 011-41551575
http://www.ahilyafort.com
Tariff ₹26,000 per night upwards; min stay 2 nights

Labboo’z Café & Lodge
The Gatehouse, Outside Ahilya Fort
Maheshwar
Ph 07771004818, 7771004811
Café 10am-8pm

IMG_5631

Eat
Besides specially curated home cooked meals at Ahilya Fort, Labboo’z Café offers vegetarian snacks in the shaded fort compound with a nice garden ambience – samosa, pakoda, grilled sandwich, poha and peanut chat, with chai, coffee and lassi.

Shop
Rehwa Society (Ph 81200 01388, 8424999225 http://www.rehwasociety.org) is open between 10 am–6pm and Saris are around Rs.3000, scarves Rs.700 and dupattas Rs.1200. Tana Bana Maheshwari Handloom (Ph 86026 27811) on Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Bazaar Chowk. Women Weave Gudi Mudi (Ph 88004 11898) on Mandleshwar Road, Gadi Khana.

Discover This: Maheshwari Saris
In Maheshwari saris, silk thread is used in the tana (warp) and cotton in the bana (weft), which imparts a silken sheen and a light, comfortable drape – ideal for the region’s hot climate. However, the uniqueness lies in its weave. The body is checked, striped or plain but the striped pallu and border designs are inspired by traditional or architectural temple motifs. Each design has a specific name – rui phool (cotton flower), diya (lamp), chameli (jasmine), hans (swan), aari (wood saw), jugnu (fireflies), baadal (clouds), jharoka (lattice windows), iint (brick), chatai (mat) and heera (diamond) A wavy border pattern is called ‘Narmada ji’ or leheriya inspired by the river’s ripples…


IMG_5809

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