Category Archives: India

MP cuisine: 25 must-have treats in Madhya Pradesh

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a culinary tour of Madhya Pradesh and come up with this definitive food guide of local eats

Kadhi fafda IMG_3427_Anurag Mallick

Like the proverbial heart of India, Madhya Pradesh’s cuisine too is a reflection of its central location. Bound by Bundelkhand and Mewar to the north, Gujarat to the west and Maharashtra to the south, MP has its own distinct culture and language, though its cuisine borrows some elements from neighbouring regions – be it Gujarati kadhi-fafda and khaman (dhokla) to Rajasthani style dal-baatichurma with a twist and the love for poha stemming from its proximity to Maharashtra and strong Maratha presence. Yet, MP has its own set of dishes and treats unique to certain places.

If Gwalior has its bedai and Jabalpur its badkul, then Burhanpur is known for its mawa jalebis, maande and daraba. Yet, all culinary journeys begin in Indore, the imperial city of the Holkars. “Sir ji, main keh riya hoon, Indore toh chatoron ka shahar hai” (Sir, I tell you, Indore is a city for snackers), exclaimed our driver Jitender. Despite the local fondness for namkeen (savoury snacks) and charkha (spicy) flavours, they love their sweets. So much so, that poha-jalebi is considered as acceptable as macaroni n’ cheese.

Sarafa Bazaar Indore IMG_3468_Anurag Mallick

Breakfast rests on the four pillars of samosa, kachori, poha and jalebi. Chhappan Dukaan, a precinct of ‘56 shops’, mostly food joints, is Indore’s answer to Mumbai’s Chowpatty. Visitors flock to local food legends like Vijay Chaat House and Johnny Hot Dog. By night, the party shifts to Sarafa, where jewellery shops down their shutters at dusk and food stalls reclaim the streets. Locals and tourists alike feast on garadu (deep fried sweet potato), sabudana khichdi, dahi bada, bhutte ka kees, kachori, desi pizzas, pasta and Maggi, besides desserts like mawa-bati, khoprapak (coconut-based sweet), shrikhand and malpua.

While Indore has its Sarafa, Bhopal too has a Chatori Gali, buzzing with food stalls selling kebabs, paaya (trotter soup) and an assortment of sweets that often end with a Bhopali paan. Most MPSTDC hotels also serve local specialties like Murgh Razala Bhopali (chicken in white gravy), Malwa ka bhatta bharta (baingan bharta), Dal-baati with churma laddoo and Ghuian (arbi) ki sabzi. Here’s a look at 25 typical treats from the region…

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1. Bedai
It’s neither a poori, nor a kachori, but something in between. At best, Gwalior’s local snack bedai is a poori stuffed with spiced lentils. Every morning, regulars queue up at SS Kachoriwala and Bahadura, an 80-year-old shop in Naya Bazaar for bedai, samosa, kachori, scrumptious jalebis and gulab jamuns. And while you’re on the foodie trail, stop by at Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazaar, Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak and Shankerlal Halwai’s legendary laddus (which had a big patron in former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee).

2. Badkul
It looks like a jalebi but tastes like a gulab jamun. Yes, it may sound like a puzzle, but Jabalpur’s version of a jalebi is made of khova and arrowroot batter. It is believed that the dark coloured sweet with a spongy texture was invented in 1889 by Harprasad Badkul, after whom it is named.

Khopra patties IMG_3255_Anurag Mallick

3. Khopra patties
A specialty from the western MP region of Malwa, khopra patties are golden-hued deep-fried aloo bondas with a stuffing of khopra (grated coconut) and dry fruits like cashews and raisins! Insanely delicious, it’s served with green mint-coriander chutney and red tamarind chutney. Try it at Vijay Chaat House in Indore or Amrit Sweets in Dewas.

Shikanji at Madhuram 56 Dukaan IMG_3270_Anurag Mallick

4. Shikanji
Not to be confused with Delhi’s lemonade of the same name, Indore’s shikanji is a thick, milkshake enriched with dry fruits. It is regarded as a concoction created by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa, which still churns out a limited batch daily. Since it is a blend of various ingredients, it is called shikanji (literally ‘mixture’) made from kesar, elaichi, javitri, jaiphal, kishmish, mattha and milk reduced for 12 hours and cooled for another 12 hours before being served cold.

Shyam Sharma ji from Beawar in Rajasthan started a small sweet shop 35 years ago and called it Madhuram as he wanted a short and sweet name. Sporting a Krishna medallion, the cheery mustachioed owner, personally ladles out shikanji for visitors. “Aise gatak ke mat peena, ismein alag alag taste khojna!” (Don’t gulp it. Savour it slowly to discover its different hidden flavours). First shrikhand, then rabdi, dry fruit and milk. Affable Sharma ‘uncle’ literally force-feeds guests fluorescent green petha pan, another sweet invention.

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5. Gajak
A signature sweet from Bhind, Morena, gajak (sesame brittle) is mostly made of roasted sesame or peanuts and cashew, with jaggery and ghee. Nutty, crunchy and a snack that keeps you warm, gajak is a winter specialty with shops lined with these goodies. Anyone travelling to the region is expected to return with a mandatory pack. In Gwalior, Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar are trusted for their quality products.

Poha IMG_3914_Anurag Mallick

6. Poha
Poha or tempered beaten rice is the go-to brekker across MP. But unlike the Maharashtrian style poha, the Indori poha is much lighter with less use of oil and spices. It is topped with sev or mixture, chopped onion and coriander and served with a wedge of lime. Usually paired with hot scrumptious jalebis, you got to try it to believe it!

Jalebis IMG_3476_Anurag Mallick

7. Doodh-jalebi
In the winter months, you’ll often see milk being reduced in large kadahis (vessels) outside sweet shops and hot jalebis dunked in it and served. A Khandwa specialty, the town’s famous son Kishore Kumar often longed to leave Bombay and go back to his roots. His common refrain was, “Doodh-jalebi khayenge, Khandwa mein bas jayenge.”

Bhutte ka kees IMG_3498_Anurag Mallick

8. Bhutte ka kees
Maize, or bhutta as it’s locally called, is a common staple. Farmers harvest it and bring it by the tractor-loads to be sold on highways. Locals love it roasted on hot coals as a snack, with a smear of lime, salt and chili. Across Malwa, it is eaten as bhutte ka kees, made with grated corn (keesna means to ‘grate’), roasted in ghee and cooked in milk with spices. Sarafa Bazaar in Indore is the place to have it.

Baafla being cooked at Sai Palace Hotel Ujjain IMG_3707_Anurag Mallick

9. Dal-bafla
The traditional bread is bafla, a small ball of wheat dough. However, unlike Rajasthan’s fried baatis, the bafla is typically boiled in water, roasted over dung cakes on an iron griddle and dunked in ghee. It is served as a thali meal with dal, kadhi, aloo sabzi and chutneys of garlic and coriander, often rounded off with laddus. At Hotel Sai Palace near Mangalnath temple in Ujjain, turbaned stewards serve an unlimited meal for Rs.200. Their original eatery Hotel Rajhans at Sarafa in Indore was started 40 years ago by Shri Gyan Chand ji Raka.

Paaniya IMG_5103_Anurag Mallick

10. Dal-paniya
Corn is also used to make paniya or maize flour cakes, sandwiched between aak ka patta (leaves of Calotropis gigantea) and cooked on an open fire of dried cowpat. Best enjoyed at Hotel Gurukripa in Mandu, paniya is slightly bigger and flatter than a bafla, but served with the same accompaniments – dal, sabzi. onion and chutneys.

11. Chakki ki shaak
Another popular local delicacy, Chakki ki shaak is made of steamed wheat dough cooked in a curd-based gravy. Tapu, a local variety of wheat, is also used to make sweet cakes that are used in religious occasions and festivities.

Sev IMG_4590_Anurag Mallick

12. Sev
Sev is a savoury noodle-shaped snack made from chickpea flour paste seasoned with spices, sieved and deep-fried in oil. It is of varied thickness and is consumed as a stand-alone snack across MP or as a garnish on poha, mixtures or chaats like bhel puri and sev puri. Each region has its flavour variants – from Ratlami sev to finer Ujjaini sev. In Ratlam, you get long (clove) flavoured sev while in Indore, the lasuniya (garlic) flavoured sev is the rage. Shops sell a mind-boggling assortment of sev – palak (spinach), tamatar (tomato), dhaniya-pudina (coriander-mint) and hing (asafetida).

Sawariya Seth ki sabudana khichdi IMG_3444_Anurag Mallick

13. Sabudana khichdi
Sabudana or pearl sago is used to make khichdi (though its consistency is not like porridge but drier like poha or upma). At Indore’s Sarafa bazaar, Sanvariya Seth mixes the sago pearls by hand, tossing in some chopped onions, coriander, chili, lime juice and sev. He’ll even customize its spiciness for you.

Burhanpur's maand IMG_6270_Anurag Mallick

14. Maande
In the region of Khandesh abutting Maharashtra in southwest MP, the erstwhile Mughal bastion of Burhanpur is legendary for its maande (roomali rotis), hand stretched and tossed with flourish at roadside stalls. The workers dexterously fling the rotis on to the upturned tava and then to the take-away counter, where it is neatly folded into rectangles and taken home.

Burhanpur's daraba IMG_6364_Anurag Mallick

15. Daraba
Burhanpur’s signature sweet, though not so well known outside, is daraba, made of sugar, semolina and ghee whipped together into a fluffy consistency. The word daraba could be derived from the act of beating. Local INTACH convener and owner of Hotel Ambar Hoshang Havildar says the sweet used to be really soft and smooth earlier. “Isey ghoy ghot ke, ghot ghot ke banate they (They used to beat it for hours). It was so fine, if you touched it to your eye, you wouldn’t feel a thing.” Sold at Milan Sweets, it is relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela on the banks of the Tapti river.

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16. Burhanpur Jalebi
Unlike regular jalebis, the Burhanpur jalebi is made of mawa (khoa) and is quite popular at food stalls stretching from Bohri Mohalla to Minara Masjid in Mumbai or Mominpura in Nagpur during Ramzan. Thick and a little chewy, some add arrowroot to bulk it up, but it’s best enjoyed fresh in its city of origin at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre. Deep-fried to a chocolate hue, it is dunked in sugar syrup before being dished out to patrons.

17. Batla kachori
While kachoris are popular all over the country, in Indore it’s stuffed not with spiced lentils, but with batla (green pea). The best place to have it is Vijay Chaat House, started in 1969 by Dayashankar Thakar of Surat. Their flagship shop D Harishankar Dhanjibhai Bhajiyawala has been running in Surat since 108 years!

Kadhi fafda IMG_3423_Anurag Mallick

18. Kadhi-fafda
Another Gujarati touch, fafda (chickpea flour crackers) is typically served with kadhi or buttermilk based curry. Locals swarm shops like Shri Balaji Chaat Corner in Indore, dipping their fafdas in the tangy curry and biting into fried green chilis!

Khaman IMG_3564_Anurag Mallick

19. Fried khaman
While khaman (or dhokla as it’s better known) is universally loved, in western Madhya Pradesh it is also available in a fried version and sprinkled with chat masala. While regular khaman is made from besan, for the fried version only Surti khaman is used made from chana dal as it’s firmer and handles deep frying much better.

Baalam kakdi in Mandu IMG_4962_Anurag Mallick

20. Baalam kakdi
In Mandu and its surrounding regions, there’s a giant cucumber called baalam kakdi, which is served with salt, chilli and lime. Unlike regular cucumbers, it is lemon green in colour with a soft and fleshy pulp and a texture that’s more like steamed squash.

Mandu's Khorasani Imli IMG_4882_Anurag Mallick

21. Khorasani Imli
Malwa’s ancient capital Mandu is home to giant baobab trees, gifted by the Caliphs of Egypt to the sultans of Mandu sometime in the 14th century. Known as ‘dead-rat tree’ and ‘monkey-bread tree’ owing to the fruit’s strange shape and its popularity among simians, it is locally called Khorasani imli (tamarind from Khorasan, ancient Persia) and makes a good souring agent for curries like imli ki kadhi. It is deseeded and sold in packets by local vendors, along with other seeds, barks and agro produce.

22. Mawa Bati
Similar to a stuffed gulab jamun, the mava-based dough is filled with mava, dry fruits and nuts, deep-fried till brown and lightly soaked in sugar syrup. Sometimes, it is dusted with desiccated coconut powder.

Garadu IMG_3505_Anurag Mallick

23. Garadu
If Delhi loves its aloo chaat in winters, Indore goes weak-kneed for garadu, a tuber from the yam or sweet potato family. Cut into cubes and deep fried, it is sprinkled with chaat masala and a dash of lime before being devoured by locals.

24. Kadaknath
Another local specialty is a sooty country chicken called ‘Kadaknath’ endemic to the region. Charcoal black in colour, its blood is believed to be just as dark with even its skin tone being purple-grey. A connoisseur’s delight, this extremely rare fowl is sold at twice the price of a regular country chicken. However, it is not available on regular restaurant menus and patrons must procure it before it can be prepared!

Batteesi Chutney at Ahilya Fort Maheshwar IMG_5627_Anurag Mallick

25. Batteesee Chutney
Richard Holkar, royal scion of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, renovated the queen’s royal seat Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar and revived its weaving and cultural traditions. A gourmand, he also authored ‘Cooking of the Maharajas’ in 1975 and often joins his guests for conversations over a drink or meals. His creation, the legendary ‘Batteesee Chatni’ is a secret recipe involving as many as 32 ingredients. Ahilya Fort is also the perfect base for foodies to enjoy a Maheshwari maalish (massage) along with Maheshwar scrambled eggs (with onion, tomato, coriander), grilled baam (local river fish), chilled soups of carrot, ginger and sweet lime, homemade walnut and sunflower seed bread, banana upside down cake, besides Richard’s exclusive collection of cardamom and citrus preserves.
 Dal paniya thali at Mandu IMG_5115_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Vijay Chaat House
6-9, Chhappan Dukan, Indore Ph 0731-6541710
75/5, Bada Sarafa, Indore Ph 0731-6541709
http://www.vijaychaathouse.com
What to eat: Khopra patties, matar kachori, samosa, fried khaman

Madhuram Sweets
27, Chhappan Dukan, New Palasia, Indore
Ph 0731-253 0555
http://www.madhuramsweets.com
What to eat: Shikanji, Pan Mithai, sweets

Amrit Sweets
AB Road, Bawadiya, Dewas
Ph 07272-258580
What to eat: Poha, jalebi, samosa, kachori

Hotel Sai Palace
Sunder Van Dhani, Mangalnath Road, Ujjain Ph 9009293944
Near Rajkumar Hotel, Freeganj, Ujjain Ph 0734-4061888, 9009004830
What to eat: Dal-bafla thali

Hotel Gurukripa
Main Road, Mandu
Ph 98930 43496, 94250 34837
What to eat: Dal-paniya thali

Ahilya Fort
Ahilya Wada, Maheshwar, West Nimar 451224
Ph: 011-41551575 Email: info@ahilyafort.com
http://www.ahilyafort.com
What to eat: Batteesee Chutney, Maheshwari scrambled eggs & more

Milan Mithai
Main Branch, Gandhi Chowk, Burhanpur
Ph 07325-252315, 252295
What to eat: Daraba

Burhanpur Jalebi Centre
Subhash Chowk, Burhanpur
Ph 98262 72490
What to eat: Mawa jalebi

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 7 Feb 2018 on National Geographic Traveller India online. Here’s a link to the original piece: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/food-trail-in-madhya-pradesh-25-must-have-treats/  

 

 

 

 

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Up, Up & Away: Ballooning on the Horizon

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend the inaugural Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh, turning the spotlight on India’s latest trend 

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As the fourth edition of the Tamil Nadu Balloon festival took off this January at Pollachi with an international focus, all of a sudden hot air ballooning seems to be the hot new trend in travel. Besides trial runs in Amaravati, Agra and the Rann Utsav, the annual calendar now seems full with regular ballooning events at Pushkar Mela and Rajasthan thanks to SkyWaltz, one of the pioneers in the field.

Be it a balloon safari over the lush Sahyadri range at Lonavala and the rugged Aravalis above Jaipur or flights on request at Neemrana, Manesar, Udaipur and Ranthambhore, the main safari season (Dec-March and Sep-Nov) is busy with morning and evening fights. It seemed like the stuff adventures are made of, as we discovered for ourselves at Araku Valley.

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“A hot air balloon is the only vehicle in the world without a steering wheel, motor and brakes. It’s crazy, meant for crazy people…” laughed Johan Vander Meiren from Belgium. We were in conversation with the world’s top balloonists at the international Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh. 16 balloons from 13 countries were participating and all their heavy equipment had been air freighted and transported to Araku Valley. The added attractions were the special shaped balloons – Iwi the Kiwi from New Zealand, the sea horse shaped Neptuno from Brazil and Bee, manned by Luc de Wulf from Belgium.

After a press launch at The Park Hotel in Vizag and two nights of music ‘Sounds On Sand’ at RK Beach (where Luc gained notoriety as the ‘dancing balloonist’ for his antics on stage), we drove into misty Araku Valley in the Eastern Ghats. To host the international pilots and media, a specially designed camp with 40 luxury tents was set up at Bosubeda in a clearing amidst green paddy fields, bright yellow flowers and colourful flags fluttering in the breeze.

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Organizer Samit Garg from SkyWaltz and E-Factor says: “Araku Balloon Fest is a unique tool to promote Araku Valley as a tourism destination and highlight its lush landscapes and waterfalls, fields and valleys, eco-friendly environment and friendly people. We came here three weeks ago scouting for a campsite. A farmer, who was about to harvest his crops, agreed to lease this patch. The whole camp was set up in days! We hope after this event ‘Araku’ will find a place in the minds of travellers.”

Johan had clocked a thousand flights in Europe and has been flying over the historic cityscape of Bruges for the past 12 years. During winter, day temperatures are constant, allowing longer flights over the Alps. “In today’s age, everything is programmable or as per a schedule. Hot air ballooning is not. You float on nature. That’s the reason I still enjoy it.” His hometown Beselare or ‘Village of the Witch’ has a witch festival and he’s currently developing a balloon shaped like a sorceress!

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Luc confided he found inspiration from his grandfather who often talked of flying. “I made my first balloon when I was 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer.” Luc has ballooned in Israel, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico and Dubai. “When you land, the people are so friendly, we’re treated like kings. A balloon ride is something special and often booked for a birthday or anniversary.

Imagine, it’s sunset… a nice landing place – we set up a pop-up café with champagne, cheese, and cheekily ask our passengers ‘Didn’t you do this yesterday evening?’ They wail ‘No’! ‘Exactly!’ Everything isn’t commercial. We spend a whole fun evening together. Why go to a café or bar when I meet so many people through ballooning?”

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After dinner, we retired early for our morning tryst. By dawn, the camp was abuzz with pilots getting their gas cylinders filled with nitrogen. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh, was overseeing the fuelling operations. “We don’t have propane in India, so commercial LPG cylinders are used and pressurized with nitrogen,” he explained. Though non-motorized, the balloon is still an aircraft, so requires registration, licenses and permissions from the DGCA, Airport Authority of India and local Air Traffic Control. Karim started ballooning as a hobby and has flown 800 hours across 15 countries.

It was a short drive to the launch site and the atmosphere was electric. Numbered jeeps rolled onto a grassy clearing and each passenger was given a boarding card with the number of the allocated balloon. We caught up with other participants while they were unloading baskets, setting up equipment and inflating the colourful balloons.

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Paolo Bonanno from Italy has 37 years of ballooning experience and is the leading authority on burners. He chugged at his trademark pipe and looked up ruefully at the grey sky. “By rule, the maximum permitted wind speed is 10 knots. The perfect condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The landing is most important. We fly for pleasure and avoid taking risks”. His partner Nicole added, “There’s a popular saying – ‘Better to be on the ground and say I wish was in the air rather than to be in the air and say I wish was on the ground!” Their words seemed as dark and foreboding as the low hanging clouds but we laughed.

Paolo originally made automatic machines for industrial textiles and created a balloon just to win a challenge. Back in 1980, there was no concept of ballooning. For 2 years, cops followed him around to confiscate his balloon! Now 73, he planned to continue flying for the next 30 years, Paolo said with a twinkle. He had flown in Sri Lanka and Philippines, but this was his first time in India. At Albuquerque, the organizers said he couldn’t smoke in the fields, so he lit up the moment they were off the ground. “No Pipe, No Fly,” he tapped his badge and chuckled.

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Spaniard Josep Llado from Ultramagic started 30 years ago with a balloon trip across Africa. Be it Albuquerque in USA, the world’s biggest ballooning event with 650 balloons, or a small event like this, each has its own charm, he explained. “It’s freedom – you forget about terrestrial problems”, he laughed. “We’re in an era where we like to control everything. With ballooning it’s very difficult, but you can adapt. There are different wind directions at various altitudes so you can change levels. Early morning or evening is better for flying, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without any thermals, making it easier to control the balloon.”

Ballooning as a sport started in the late 60s and grew in the early 70s in the UK and US before spreading to other places. Josep had flown over Kilimanjaro, India Gate in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra, besides Jaipur, Pushkar and Ranthambhore. “Flying in India is incredible and very colourful. As you fly over a city, people throng the roofs and there’s always a big crowd when you land. In Africa, there are photographic safaris over lions or elephants. In Burma, you fly over temples. In Capadoccia, Turkey, ballooning started in 1992 and today is a big business catering to hundreds of tourists. India is huge, like a continent, and I’m sure there will be fantastic panoramic places for ballooning. We hope Araku will be our favourite!”

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“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong” – piped in Peter Dutneall with characteristic humour from Down Under. His balloon was called Zoz. “Not ‘coz it’s from Oz, it’s my registration number!” he said. “What I love about ballooning is that it puts smiles on people’s faces”. The wind had stopped and the smiles were coming back on. Huge industrial fans had inflated the balloons and burners fired them up with hot air. Last minute instructions were handed out – clutch the ropes inside the basket, bend the knee when landing, hope for a soft touchdown!

Josep was the first to fly out, followed by Marc Blazer from Switzerland, Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, the intrepid ballooning sisters from Malaysia who run the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Kevin Chassa from France (whose mom was the first female balloon pilot in France) and Rick Astral and John who fly Iwi the Kiwi. Rick, who relocated from New Zealand to Santiago, is candid. “There’s so much stress in life, ballooning is all about enjoyment. I’ve flown the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, even landed in an airbase to shoot against some F-16s. I was a Cheeky Kiwi who just wanted photos of balloons in dramatic places!”

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As our pilots fired up with a loud whoosh and hiss of fire, we clambered into our baskets and were off, waving at the screaming crowds below. We rose above the mesmeric patchwork of green and gold fields, noticing streams and grey blue hills that ringed the valley and other vibrant balloons mid-air. Now and then, a paramotorist swooped around us in hypnotic curves. Farmers stopped their work and children waved agog!

Ballooning was as much about the flight as a foolproof exit plan. One had to watch out for low hanging powerlines, forests and hilltops. The most important thing was a flat patch of land and proximity to a road for the crew to easily recover the equipment. Our smooth landing could put an Airbus to shame as we headed back to the camp for breakfast, jabbering about our experience.

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The day was free to visit the Tribal Museum and Coffee Museum in town, Araku’s coffee plantations and tribal hamlets. Near waterfalls like Chaprai, local women sold barbecued chicken and fish on wooden skewers. That evening thousands of locals and tourists converged at a large ground to witness the Tethered Flights and Night Glow balloon spectacle. Later, the party continued at the camp, with lilting folk tunes and an energetic Dhimsa dance, performed by women of the Nookadora tribe.

Kaushik Mukherji, consultant for AP Tourism, explained that Araku was one of the many wonders in Andhra Pradesh. “There are temples with floating pillars, ancient Buddhist sites and 500-year-old Dutch cemeteries. We’re creating different holiday experiences for different customer segments and an event calendar from October-March. There’s horseracing on the beaches at the Vizag Stud Million while the Yacht Pentagonal in mid-Feb will be one of its kind in Asia.”

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On our return, we stopped by at the fascinating Borra Caves, discovered by British geologist William King in 1807. Deep in the bowels of the Ananthagiri Hills, we encountered the most incredible stalactites and stalagmites besides formations, created by the subterranean Gosthani river. Roadside stalls sold ‘Bamboo Chicken’, cooked in hollow stems “without oil or water”. At Vizag, the brand new Fairfield by Marriott, just off the Araku highway and near the airport, was the perfect base for our local explorations. We also got our fix of local Andhra cuisine – Nellore chepala pulusu (fish curry), Gongura Mamsa and desserts like pootharekelu.

A befitting tribute to Vizag’s maritime history, the INS Kursura is a fascinating museum inside a retired Russian submarine. We drove north to Rushikonda Beach, the Buddhist sites of Thotlakonda and Bavikonda and the port town of Bheemli. Not far from the ancient Dutch cemetery, it was startling to see the same Gosthani river descend from the Araku hills and flow into the sea. Life had come full circle, like a giant hot air balloon…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam and Srungavarapu Kota. Borra Caves is a 6km diversion off the main road to Araku and 30km before it. Bheemli is 30km north of RK Beach in Vizag.

Where to Stay
Fairfield by Marriott
KSR Prime, R&B Junction, Marripalem, Vizag
Ph 0891-668 8999 http://www.marriott.com

The Park
Beach Road, Vizag
Ph 0891-304 5678 http://www.theparkhotels.com

APTDC/AP Tourism
Hotels at Vizag, Rushikonda, Araku, Ananthagiri, Tyda
Ph 0891-2788820, 1800 42545454
http://www.aptdc.gov.in

Balloons Only

Hot Air Ballooning Festivals

Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival (10-16 Jan)
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Email tnballoonfestival@gmail.com
http://www.tnibf.com

Pushkar Fair (28 Oct-4 Nov)
Ph +91 8130925252
http://www.pushkarmela.org

Araku Balloon Festival (14-16 Nov)
http://www.arakuballoonfestival.com

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

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 12 January, 2018 as the cover story in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Hyderabad Secrets: 10 offbeat experiences

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Beyond the Charminar, biryani and the pearls ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY dig out these hidden gems of Hyderabad 

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So you’ve had your fill of dum biryani and covered the usual sights in Hyderabad – Golconda Fort, Charminar, Salar Jung Museum, Chowmahalla and Falaknuma Palaces, Birla temple, maybe even Ramoji Film City – what else is there to do in the City of Pearls? Here are 10 truly local things to do.

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An 800-year-old hollow baobab tree
Hyderabad has its own Sleepy Hollow, an 800-year-old baobab tree locally known as ‘Hathiyan ka Jhaad’. Overlooking Golconda golf course in Naya Qila near the 1569 mosque of Mulla Khayali (noted courtier, poet and calligraphist during Qutub Shahi rule), the massive tree gets its name from its elephantine trunk. Parts of the tree look like different creatures from different angles – a rearing elephant, a crocodile’s snout, monkey’s eyes, tortoise, etc.

With a circumference of 25 m, the tree originated in Madagascar and was planted here by wandering fakirs centuries ago. But the most interesting aspect of the tree is that it has a hollow large enough to accommodate 40 people! We climbed inside to see if it was really true. For safety reasons, the tree has been fenced off by a grilled enclosure. Caretaker Abdulla, around for the last 18 years, sweeps the compound and opens the gate for visitors. Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/QzQVoPGPYu0

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Get a free bangle with your meal at Kangan
In the old city, the art of making lac bangles is slowly on the wane. But there’s one place where you can watch a craftsman make a bangle of your choice before you enjoy your meal. In a bid to conserve this age old tradition, Kangan, the Frontier fine dine restaurant at The Westin Hyderabad Mindspace in Cyberabad has a craftsman making a bangle for guests. Pick your favourite colours and Shareef bhai will deftly prepare a customized bangle that you can take home as a souvenir.

Feast your eyes on the fascinating process and enjoy a lavish meal of Nalli Rogan Josh, Peshawari Murgh Tikka, Lahori Aloo, Galawati Kabab and Khubani (apricot) ka Meetha thereafter. With a terrific set menu, the restaurant lives up to its name with décor made up of bangles! While at Westin, try out innovative dishes like vada sandwich and panipuri with guacamole and sol kadi, besides the amazing Sunday brunch (the largest spread in town) at Italian restaurant Prego and Arabian fare at the Mediterranean lounge Casbah. Ph 040 33165086 www.westinhyderabadmindspace.com/

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Find a bargain at Shilparamam
From Kalamkari fabric to Kondapalli toys and Nirmal lacquerware to Bidri ware, there’s many a bargain at the state handicraft showroom Lepakshi. If you’re looking for all that and more then get all your shopping in one place at Shilparamam, a vast art and craft village with streetside shops and food stalls. It’s like a budget version of Dilli Haat. Kashmiri carpets, shawls and papier-mâché products, Saharanpur wooden furniture, Mithila paintings, pattachitra from Odisha, you’ll find it all here. There’s also a village museum and an amphitheatre where cultural shows are organized. Ph 040-64518164 www.shilparamam.in

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Where to grab Irani Chai and Osmania biscuits
Irani Chai was introduced to Hyderabad by immigrants from Persia who settled here on business. The thrill of enjoying a cuppa with a view of the Charminar is indescribable and Nimrah Café & Bakery is the best spot for it. The friendly owner Aslam ushered us into the tiny kitchen to explain how it’s made. First, tea leaves are boiled in water to make a decoction. In samovars or copper handis, milk is simmered on low flame for hours. Sometimes, chunks of mawa are added to make the milk thicker and tastier. The milk is added to the decoction to make the perfect cup of strong, flavourful Irani chai. You can even ask for a ‘cutting’ (one by two) or pauna (three fourth).

The perfect accompaniment is Osmania Biscuit, named after Hyderabad’s last ruler Mir Osman Ali Khan who wanted a melt-in-your-mouth biscuit with a salty aftertaste. Soon, the biscuit began to be produced by bakeries around town. At Nimrah, Aslam sells 75 products and 18 varieties of biscuits alone – tie (bow-shaped), chand (crescent-shaped), khopra (coconut), kaju (cashew) and shatranj (checkered) besides biscuits made of jam, fruits and oats! After making us sample an assortment and handing us a box, he explained that the main ingredient is love. Whether it is the famous Karachi Bakery or Subhan Bakery, nobody comes back from Hyderabad without a box of biscuits. Nimrah Ph 040-24564909 Timing: 4am-11pm

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KKK, the breakfast of champions
While biryani rules lunch and dinner, Hyderabad’s favourite breakfast item is Khichdi-Keema-Khatta, a combo dish of dry khichdi (rice porridge), a bowl of keema (minced meat) and unlimited khatta, a tangy buttermilk based curry. There’s also nalli nihari with naan and a whole range of small eats like khajoor, a deep fried sweet and lukhmi, derived from loqma or morsel – a square keema samosa with four corners instead of three! Wash it down with some milky yet strong Irani Chai at Rumaan (Ph 9700704901) near Chowmahalla Palace or Shah Ghouse (Ph 040 6461 7789 www.shahghouse.in) in Tolichowki.

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Enjoy Golfconda!
Hyderabad has some stunning golf courses set amidst boulders, fort walls and ruins. Just off Seven Tombs Road near Golconda Fort lies Hyderabad Golf Club, the first and only public golf course in the city. Run by the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation and the Hyderabad Golf Association, it offers a stunning view of the Qutb Shahi tombs.

Dubai’s famous Emaar group, the name behind big brands like Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, has a lovely 18-hole championship course opposite ISB (Indian School Of Business). As the name suggests, Boulder Hills has an undulating course designed by Peter Harradine and their signature hole #3 has a massive boulder vantage point, offering a panoramic view of the greens.

Hyderabad Golf Club Ph 040 65588103 http://www.hyderabadgolfclub.in
Boulder Hills Ph 040 6652 0000

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Admire the world’s longest cupboard at Nizam’s Museum
This small yet exquisite museum is dedicated to the last Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan and houses everything from the cradle he was born in (in 1886) to the opulent gifts he received for his silver jubilee in 1936, including the golden throne used for the celebrations. Resembling an 18th-century European palace, Purani Haveli was the official residence of the Nizam.

Among its rare treasures are silver models of the Charminar, Ashurkhana and other landmark buildings in Hyderabad, besides fancy itardaan (perfume holders), silver tea sets, cigarette cases, gold tiffin boxes inlaid with diamonds and ‘Zeher mohra’ cups made of Chinese celadon that could detect poison. A unique feature is the 150-year-old hand-cranked lift wooden lift and the world’s longest wardrobe of the sixth nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan. Built in two levels, it occupies the entire length of one wing of the palace with sherwanis, shirts, coats, shoes, headgear, brocades and walking sticks – in their dozens. Legend has it he never wore the same dress twice!

Adults Rs.80, Children Rs.15, Photo Rs.150 Timings: 10 am – 4:50pm

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Try Barkas ka Jaam
One of the rare local delights is Barkas ka Jaam, a pink-fleshed variety of guava, sourced from the suburb of Barkas. Located near Chandrayangutta off the Srisailam highway, Barkas is locally known as ‘Mini Arabia’ with shops selling everything from burqas, dates and perfumes from Dubai to lungis from Jeddah.

This area was home to the Nizams’ employees, mostly Arabs, who settled in barracks on the outskirts of the walled city. The name ‘Barkas’ is supposed to be derived from the English word ‘barracks’. The guavas of Barkas are auctioned every morning between 6-10 am at the local auction centre and are available on pushcarts across Hyderabad.

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Meet Nasihu, an Egyptian mummy at the State Museum
Inside Bagh-e-Aam, lies the beautiful Iron Bungalow, the oldest building in the public garden and a beautiful mosque where the Nizam offered his Friday prayers, which featured in the Salma Agha movie Nikaah. Also within the extensive grounds is the oldest museum in Hyderabad state, the Telangana State Archeology Museum renamed after YS Rajasekhara Reddy.

You’ll find here copies of Ajanta frescoes, paintings by Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Buddhist and Jain galleries and the main attraction, an Egyptian mummy! Bought for 1000 pounds by Nazeer Nawaz Jung, the son-in-law of sixth Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan, it was donated to the last Nizam in 1930. Dating back to 2500 BC, the mummy is of the teenage daughter of the VI Pharoah of Egypt.

Adult Rs.10, Child Rs.5, Photo Rs.50, Video Rs.200 Timings: 10:30 am – 4:30pm

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Why city buses bear the letter Z
When the seventh Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan started a new public bus service in Hyderabad in June 1932, he wanted it to be named after his late mother Zahra Begum. Hence, the first letter of her name ‘Z’ was added to all number plates in her memory, a practice that continues to this day. The registration number plates of city buses bear the initials AP Z (now TS Z, after the bifurcation of Andhra and Telangana)! Don’t believe it? Check it out on your next visit to Hyderabad.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the story that appeared for Conde Nast Traveller India online. Here’s the original link: https://www.cntraveller.in/story/8-offbeat-hyderabad-experiences-youve-probably-never-tried/

 

 

 

 

Native Spirits: Traditional alcoholic brews of India

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Throughout history, India’s traditional drinks menu has been full of potent, flavourful brews, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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While travelling across India is quite a high by itself, in all our forays, we love trying out the local tipple whenever it’s been offered to us. Be it feni or urak in Goa, bhang during Holi, apong in Arunachal Pradesh during the Sollung festival, kyad on a trek to a Living Root Bridge in Meghalaya, chhang to combat the Ladakhi winter, raksi in Sikkim and Nepal, taadi and handia with tribals in Jharkhand or saraph (salfi) and mahua in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha; we have happily imbibed Indian spirits in all its glorious forms wherever we have travelled…

The history of intoxication in India is as old as its gods. Like the Greek ambrosia or nectar, Hindu texts mention amrit or soma, the divine elixir that gave Vedic gods immortality. Agni consumed it in copious quantities and Indra drank rivers of soma for strength to overcome Vrittra, the fearsome three-headed dragon.

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Soma, a Vedic Sanskrit word, literally “to distill, extract or sprinkle” is derived from the juice of the soma plant, ephedra vulgaris. The golden-hued drink was imbibed by mortals as well, since it enabled hallucinations and ecstasy. It often accompanied sacred rituals, helped warriors overcome battle nerves and inspired painters and poets into bursts of creativity. In fact, soma was considered a divine bridge between the mortal world and the realm of the gods.

Alcoholic beverages were known to the Indus Valley Civilization and appeared in the Chalcolithic Era between 3000–2000 BC. Wormwood wine was quite popular in India around 1500 BC. Sukla Yajur veda describes the preparation of two stimulating drinks – parisrut and sura, popular among kshatriyas (warriors) and peasants alike.

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Agriculturists often set aside a portion of their produce for the fermentation of home brews. Made of rice, wheat, sugarcane, grapes and other fruits, sura was prepared with germinated paddy, germinated barley, parched rice and yeast. Katyayana Srauta sutra gives a comprehensive description for preparing sura.

Boiled rice or barley was mixed with the ferment and the entire mixture was kept in a jar, which was placed in a pit for three nights into which cow’s milk and powdered parched rice were poured. Sometimes the fermenting vessel was covered with horse dung or placed on a pile of grains or exposed to the sun or fumigated.

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Another drink popular from pre-Vedic times is bhang, which has been consumed since 2000 BC. In the ancient text Atharva Veda, bhang is hailed as a beneficial herb that releases anxiety. An integral part of Hindu culture and often associated with Shiva, ascetics used bhang or cannabis as food, drink or smoke to boost meditation and achieve transcendental states.

From the streets of Mathura to the ghats of Benares and Omkareshwar, the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant are ground into a paste in a mortar and pestle and shaped into balls or pedas. Milk, dry fruits and Indian spices are added to make a bhang lassi or thandai, widely consumed during Holi.

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During the time of Kautilya, popular Mauryan era drinks included medaka (spiced rice beer), prasanna (spiced barley or wheat beer), asava (sugarcane beer) and arista (medicinal tincture). However, modern day distillation of alcohol scaled new heights with widespread use in the Delhi Sultanate by the 14th century.

Over time, many rajwadas (royal families) and thikanas in Rajputana concocted their own signature brews for recreation or medicine, based on ingredients available locally and climatic conditions. Spices, saffron, fruits, dry fruits and stimulative agents were added for flavour and therapeutic value, distilled through copper pots and matured in wooden casks.

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Back in the day, many princely states had a separate department for liquors. Broadly, three types of liquors were prepared based on strength and refinement – Ikbara for the common man, Dobara for officers and upper middle class and Aasav, reserved only for royalty and nobility. Often referred to as ‘baap-dada ki daru’ in Rajasthan, some of these liqueurs even had aphrodisiacal qualities.

As per legend, Rana Hammir of Ranthambhore, the 14thcentury ruler of Mewar, had eleven wives but didn’t have the stamina to satisfy them all. One day, a saint gave him the recipe for a potion that would give him “the strength of a hundred horses”. And like a blissful royal tale, they all lived happily ever after. However, not all the royal brews were reserved for kings. It is said there was a honey-based brew with 21 spices that was meant for royal ladies that could make a 60-year-old queen behave like a 16-year-old teen!

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One royal bastion that stands out for its heritage liquors is Mahansar, a thikana in Shekhawati founded in 1768 by Thakur Nahar Singh, second son of Thakur Nawal Singh of Nawalgarh. The Mahansar royal family’s legendary Saunf was brewed by fermenting gud (jaggery) and ber (Indian date) in an earthen pot for 15 days, distilled by adding milk, misrisaunf and other spices, stored in a ceramic vessel and matured for six years.

The resultant brew was aromatic, spicy and clear, with a dash of pale yellow. Mahansar has maintained its heritage liquor brewing tradition and old royal formulae. In 2006, Shekhawati Heritage Herbals began brewing Gulab, Saunf and Orange, mint and ginger royal liqueurs under three brands – Royal Mahansar, Maharani Mahansar and Maharaja Mahansar. It spurred a local industry of sorts, similar to the homemade wines of Coorg.

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During mid 18thcentury, ably guided by his kulguru, Thakur Karni Singh ji Shekhawat, descendent to a clan of Mahansar thikana, prepared various aasav, using herbs and spices like saunf (fennel), elaichi (cardamom), pudina (mint), dhaniya (coriander), fruit extracts like orange, apple, watermelon, berries and liqueurs like cider grape wine and gulab (rose). The word ‘julep’ was supposedly derived from an English mispronunciation of ‘gulab’. Royal brews like Rohitaasav, Kumari aasav, Kankaasav, Dus mul ka aasav and mahaverlane were made exclusively for the use of the royal families of Bikaner, Kashmir and Nepal, mainly for medicinal benefit.

In 1862, Thakur Zorawar Singh, part of the Champawat clan of the Rathores founded the prominent Kanota thikana. As a tribute to the royal houses of Jaipur, the Kanota family created the drink Chandrahaas in 1863 and named it after Lord Shiva’s indestructible sword. Since then, they have meticulously followed the original recipe of using nearly 165 herbs and spices like kesar, awlah, safed musli, jaiphal, amla ki chaal, white sandalwood and dry fruits.

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Amar Singh ji of Kanota thikana is known for writing the world’s longest continuous diaries. Maintained in English for 44 years from 1898 to 1942 in 89 folio volumes with 800 pages per volume, these precious notes include detailed recipes for dishes and heritage liquors. His heir Mohan Singh and his sons Man Singh and Prithvi Singh offer special royal thalis and Chandrahass at their Jaipur hotels Royal Castle Kanota and Narain Niwas, built by Amar Singh ji in 1928.

Legend has it that Amar Singh’s son-in-law, Raja sahib Karni Singh of Gadi thikana, was on his deathbed and all the efforts of the royal physician to cure him proved futile. When nothing seemed to work, the royal brewer requested for a chance and administered Chandarhaas. Sure enough, Raja sahib was back on his feet!

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The Shyopurs, who were in charge of the household affairs of the Kachhwahas (Jaipur’s royal family), have over three dozen recipes like Angoor, Ananas and Narangi, which is made with oranges and 18 herbs. The drink supposedly keeps the body cool in scorching summers and can be consumed “from dawn to dawn” and one still feels fresh as a daisy in the morning, without a hangover. Shyopur Narangi Ginger is made from fruits, two dozen spices and pineapple flavours!

Jagmohan, an ancient recipe from the royal house of Marwar in Jodhpur, is made of herbs, spices, dry fruits, seasonal fruits, murabba and bark, finely blended with milk, desi ghee, saffron and crystal sugar. Distilled in the royal cellars for the use of kings and princes, it was a drink for winters. It could be consumed on the rocks in summer as a post-meal dessert liqueur, though citrus and acidic drinks are best avoided with it. Similarly, Kesar Kasturi is made from exotic ingredients like saffron, dry fruits, herbs, nuts, seeds, roots and spices, blended with ghee, milk and crystal sugar.

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Another liqueur Mawalin, from the royal house of Sodawas, 90 km from Jodhpur towards Udaipur, has 38 different ingredients including dates, dry fruits, herbs and two dozen spices. Local folklore says Maharaja Umaid Singh Ji of Jodhpur gave the recipe of Mawalin as jagir (aristocratic fiefdom) to Thakur Sahib Bishan Singh Ji of Osian. It is typically served “in a liqueur glass on a bed of crushed ice in summer and in a bowl of half-inch deep lukewarm water in winter.” A good appetizer, it has curative and medicinal properties, when taken in small doses.

To keep these unique traditions alive, Rajasthan State Ganganagar Sugar Mills (RSGSML) has launched Royal Heritage Liqueurs as a tribute to the state’s royal brewing legacy. The fermentation and distillation process used by the ruling thikanedars have been strictly adhered to with use of earthen pots, copper and brass utensils. We got to savour some of these brews with Raghavendra Singh at Fort Amla, a rustic-style heritage retreat in western Madhya Pradesh, bordering Rajasthan.

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While royalty elevated intoxication into an art form and a science, alcoholic brews were not the exclusive domain of palaces but were widely consumed by the proletariat. Across the adivasi heartland of tribal India, we’ve encountered local ladies selling handia in weekly haats (village markets) by the roadside.

Rice is fermented with bakhar, a yeast prepared with roots, bark and leaves of more than 20 plants to produce handia, which is named after the handi (earthen pots) in which it is stored and usually served in makeshift cups of sal leaf. We’ve glugged it from large brass vessels in a Santhal home near Shantiniketan during the Sohrai festival, accompanied by dancing and thrumming of the mandhar (drum).

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Across Central and Eastern India, flowers of the mahua tree are collected and fermented to make a desi liquor mahua, jokingly referred to as ABCD or Adi Basi Cold Drink. Similar to it is salfi or the chheen tree, whose sap is tapped to make a local brew, hailed as ‘Bastar Beer’. It is considered a sign of prosperity and can be found in almost every tribal household.

In Bihar and Jharkhand, taadi or sap from the taad (palm tree) is equally popular, known as neera in the south. We tried salfi at the village haats at Onkudeli and Chattikona with the Bonda tribesmen in southern Odisha, as they offered it to us straight from their unique ridge gourd cup with a spout to gulp it! Needless to say, it was a heady experience.

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Alcoholic brews have always been closely related with festivals and merriment, as we found out. In the North East, during Etor or Chhota Sollung festival in Arunachal Pradesh, we danced with members of the Adi Padam tribe. Wherever we went, villagers handed us kala (black) apong in hollow bamboo stems and the songs and laughter echoed across the hills. The local brew is made of fermented millet and rice. At Abasa Homestay near Ziro, Kago Kampu and Kago Habung taught us how to make homemade apong.

Easily the most well known Indian distillate is Goan feni, made from cashew, a plant that was introduced to India by the Portuguese (we still call it by its Portuguese name ‘caju’). With the advent of summer, the hillsides come alive with the heady aroma of ripening cashew fruits. The fruits are plucked from the trees and the nuts are separated from the cashew apple and consumed after roasting.

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The cashew apple is squashed in a rock cut basin to extract niro, a non-fermented sweet juice best served chilled. All the collected niro is allowed to ferment and transferred into a big earthen pot where it is boiled for distillation. The first distillate is called urak, which is low in alcoholic content while subsequent distillates yield feni. Quite potent and smelly, feni is best enjoyed with lime and soda though many bars in Goa like Soro and Gunpowder stir up feni-based cocktails!

At The Grand Dragon Ladakh in Leh, huddled in a traditional sit down Ladakhi style restaurant in winter, our host Danish gave us a crash course in Ladakhi cuisine. If endless cups of salty gur gur cha with yak butter ain’t your cup of tea, try the local tipple chhang, made from fermented barley. The drink was poured into our kore (cups) with a snack of churpe (hard cheese) served in a pheypor or decorative lidded bowl, often used to store tsampa or barley.

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A thousand miles away, we had discovered chhang at Sonam di’s little shack at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar. It tasted like wine, had a high like beer and cost as much as water. After a round, you only had to add water to the fermented millet, leave it for 10 minutes and voila, your next serving was ready!

We used to pick up sacks of millet to drink it at leisure at home in Bangalore. Little wonder the local authorities banned it. The next time we went to Bylakuppe, there was no whiff of chhang anywhere!

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Perhaps the most easily accessible intoxicating brew across India is bhang lassi or thandai, sold at Govt. authorised bhang shops. We’ve tried it in Allahabad, Varanasi, Pushkar and Omkareshwar, though the craziest experience was at the famous bhang shop in Jaisalmer. Located at the base of the fort since the early 1970s, the tiny shop was immortalized by Anthony Bourdain. Chander Prakash Vyas or Babu, better known as Doctor Bhang, represents the tech-savvy third generation and has a YouTube video, an FB page and a killer spiel to hawk his potion to foreign tourists.

We laughed as he rattled off the variants, “We have a light Baby Lassi for Japani-Korean people because they have baby eyes, then Medium, Strong and Super Duper Sexy Strong – full power 24-hour, no toilet, no shower!” Besides bhang lassis in banana, chocolate and other flavours, they also had bhang chocolates and cookies. As we pored over the menu, Dr Bhang took a long look at us and said, “Better you take Super Duper Sexy Strong!”

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 December 2017 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Kundalika River Run: Mumbai to Kolad

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go rafting down the Kundalika at Kolad, Maharashtra’s only white-water rafting site

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Jaded city dwellers from Mumbai or Pune needn’t go as far as Rishikesh or Dandeli to experience the rush of white-water rafting or wait for the monsoon to ride the waters. The Kundalika River in Kolad, Maharashtra’s only white-water rafting site, is open all year round. Being a dam-fed river, it’s doable 365-days-a-year, as easy as morning poha! We set off early from Mumbai to avoid bottlenecks at Pen and took a diversion off NH-17 towards the undulating Mulshi-Pune state highway, punctuated by scenic fields, farms and the Kundalika river.

Since the waters are released from the hydroelectric power station at Ravalje on the Bhira Dam around 8.30am, we needed to be there well before water levels receded. Purists often dismiss a ‘dam-fed river’ as a tepid choice against the thrill of tackling natural rain-fed torrents. Not true. The 14km stretch had as many Grade II-III rapids that transform into Grade IV during monsoon. A few rafts had already been launched, as we geared up and practiced our commands.

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While the first river run took place at Kolad in 1996, the sport became immensely popular only over the last few years. Like most white-water tracts, the rapids have ingenious names. The river kicks off with a prayer – ‘Good Morning Buddha’, the first rapid.

Thereafter, our raft bounced past ‘Hilton’, ‘Pumphouse’ to ‘Fisherman’, named after a fishing spot for local villagers and tribals. At ‘Butterfly’, waves curled and gracefully flapped around the rocking raft, drenching us and eliciting delighted squeals before swooping into a wicked eddy called ‘Crow’s Nest’.

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The next series of rapids come fast and furious forming the main highlight of Kundalika. ‘Key Wave’ unlocked a portal of waves, ‘Bush on the Bend’ glided us smack into a tree growing in the water and before we recovered, we were engulfed in the thick of ‘Morning Headache’.

Pema, our Nepali instructor explained, “If you go overboard in this 2km stretch of rapids, it’s a headache to haul you out!” If that wasn’t enough, the most ferocious rapid ‘John Kerry’ whacked into us before hurling the raft drunkenly into ‘Johnny Walker’.

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From here, we were dragged aboard ‘Rajdhani Express’ a set of non-stop rapids and floated into ‘Boom Shankar,’ which concluded the wild part of the ride. The tame course from here, prompted us to fling our paddles and dive in to swim and bodysurf, soaking in the beauty of the surrounding forests and hills. Friendly villagers along the banks chatted and cheered us along.

Clambering into the raft near ‘Broken Bridge’, we rowed to the finish line – Kamath Village; completing the exhilarating journey in one and half hours! The workout tempted a grab of vada paav and kanda bhajiya (onion pakoda) at the local tea vendor’s stall though the drive down to Orchard Café (10km) and Namrata Dhaba at Kolad offered a wholesome bite.

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While many do Kolad as a day trip, some extend it into an overnight stay at camps and farms like Sai and Sanskriti in and around Kolad for a taste of rustic life amidst paddy fields and groves of betelnut, coconut, chikoo and guava. The food is simple besides gharguti or ‘home-style’ meals of chicken, rotis, rice, dal, vegetable fry and salad. Explore the scenic countryside, laze on hammocks or chat around a barbecue or bonfire. Poojas Farm has cottages set on the backwater’s edge with riverside walks and bullock cart rides.

Adventure outfits offer rafting packages that include lunch, stay or activities like treks, river crossing, kayaking, canyoning and rock climbing around the area with expert instructors. Nature Trails Empower Activity Camp offers ATV rides, river crossing, paintball and corporate training programs while Kundalika Rafting Camp run by Nature Trails has luxury tents, and given rafting experiences to 33,000 adventure enthusiasts since 2006. Being Maharashtra’s only rafting site right in the midst of nature, Kolad is just the shot of adrenalin you need to escape from urban tedium.

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Distance: 138km from Mumbai, 96km from Pune
Time: 3-4 hours from Mumbai; 2hr 40mins from Pune
Route: Take NH-17 (Mumbai-Goa highway), cross Nagothane and 1km after Kolad, turn left on to SH-60 towards Pune via Mulshi. Saje village, the start point is 22km from the highway. The 14km rafting stretch from Saje to Kamat village has 14 Grade I-III rapids. Catch a Goa-bound bus and hop off at Kolad.
Link: goo.gl/AkbDYP

Raft: Kolad Rafting; Ph 9820299088, 9821454434 https://koladrafting.co.in; Wild River Adventure; Ph 98801 31762 http://www.indiarafts.com; Quest Adventures; Ph 8657195551 https://adventurekolad.com; Mercury Himalayan Explorations; Ph 92728 82874, 7276061111 http://www.kundalikarafting.in; Snow Leopard Adventures; Ph 9209265657 http://www.snowleopardadventures.com

Costs: For rafting Rs.600/person weekdays, Rs.1200-1500/person weekends, Rs.400/meal, Rafting+lunch+activities weekend package Rs.1400-2000, Farm stays range from Rs.2,500-4,000/day, Parking Rs.50, Local autos charge Rs.700/auto for ferrying people between the end/start points.

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Stay: Empower Activity Camp, Sutarwadi; Ph 9422691325, 7720873330 http://www.empowercamp.com; 6 AC cottages & 12 Swiss tents, 2 AC dorms (each 20 beds) Tariff Rs.2,600-3,900/person/night including meals. Nature Trails Resorts, Kamath Ph 8080807341 http://www.naturetrails.in; 20 luxury AC tents, Rs.3192 (luxury), Rs.3864 (super deluxe), includes tax, meals and adventure activities (Zip-line, Tarzan swing, Kayaking, Burma bridge, Treasure Hunt). Check-in 5pm, check-out 3pm; Sanskriti Farm, Muthavle; Ph 9987501613; Sai Farm, Ainwahal; 6 rooms, 2 cottages Ph 98691 18763 http://www.saifarmkolad.com; Tariff Rs.1500-1700/person ; Poojas Farm, Dhagadwadi; Ph 9209484178 www.poojasfarm.com; 11 cottages, 4 tents. Tariff 1500/person, including meals

Excursions: Sukeli waterfall, 10km from Kolad and a 1½ hour hike through a forest. Carry drinking water and snacks.

Top Tip: Timings for rafting are strictly 8–11am, so start from Mumbai by 5am. Late-risers may leave a day prior to stay overnight at Kolad. Wear light clothing, swimwear and apt footwear. Carry a change of clothes and towel. The last 5km is flat and requires strong paddling, though ideal for a swim and bodysurfing. Minimum age 14 years, not suited for asthmatics and heart patients. Weekday rates for rafting are cheaper by about Rs.600.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 28 Dec 2017 in Mint Lounge. Here’s the link to the original story: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/76T8vxnYFoJ4yNkZs6YbxI/Mumbai-to-Kolad-Kundalika-river-run.html

 

Dhenkanal: Royal Fables

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The palaces of Odisha are opening up to visitors at long last, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY on a trip to the erstwhile princely state of Dhenkanal 

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It was pitch dark and the narrow mud road was barely discernible in our car’s headlights. Somewhere on the outskirts of Dhenkanal, our vehicle scratched its way through some bramble on an increasingly narrowing path. “Bab…..u”, our driver Kalia’s voice quavered, unsure of the way ahead. “Please let us go back into town and take a lodge,” he pleaded in Oriya. Eerily, we passed by an outré Kali temple, whose female leonine doorkeepers wore skull garlands and wielded a bloodied sword, clutching a decapitated head. We caught Kalia looking at it nervously out of the corner of his eye…

Indeed, there was no road marked, but Google Maps insisted that our destination Gajlaxmi Palace was nearby. The seconds ticked away slowly and Kalia sat on the edge of his seat, teeth chattering, his nose to the steering wheel, until we finally saw a white edifice looming to the right. By the time we had finished rejoicing and unloading our bags, our driver had convinced our hosts that we planned to murder him and decamp with his vehicle. Why two travel writers on assignment would want to pop off their driver was perhaps beyond poor Kalia’s comprehension, but we hoped that it was just Dhenkanal’s wilderness and the long drive that distressed him!

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This was indeed wild country. Inhabited by aboriginal tribes since prehistoric times and surrounded by lush river valleys and the Bahukhai and Kapilash Forests of the Eastern Ghats, Dhenkanal is home to tigers, elephants and other beasts. Located on the gentle slopes of the Megha Hills, the double-storey palace is tucked in an untamed patch on the town’s quiet outskirts. Jitendra Pratap Singh Deo or JP and his charming wife Navneeta run it as a heritage hotel.

Strewn across its living spaces and rooms were large sandook (chests), period furniture and artefacts while hunting trophies lined the walls. From a glass showcase in the drawing room, the shiny eyes of the dreaded man-eating tiger of Naranpatna glowered at us. It had claimed 83 victims before being shot by JP’s father Kumar Saheb Ranendra Pratap Singh Deo at Koraput. The trophy and the palace featured in Satyajit Ray’s Royal Bengal Rahasya, shot by Sandip Ray, besides a host of other films.

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By morning, Gajlaxmi Palace wore a more cheerful air. We savoured the view of the surrounding forests from the terrace and took a morning walk through the orchard to a water tank frequented by elephants, wild boar, barking deer, civet cats, rabbits, peafowl, jungle fowl and raptors. Being the only water source in the area, it attracted all sorts of wildlife. Our appearance from a thicket startled a sambhar on the opposite bank.

Back at the palace, Navneeta explained over breakfast how the palace took seven years to build before being completed in 1942. When she came here from Udaipur in 1998, it was total wilderness and one couldn’t even spot a cyclewala! Her innate Rajasthani love for heritage and hospitality, prompted her to convince JP to renovate it into a heritage stay in 2009. They finally opened in February 2011, naming it after the famous Gajlaxmi puja of Dhenkanal.

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Despite the proximity to Bhubaneswar airport (100 km away), things didn’t look up until they were featured in an international guide as a ‘rural retreat.’ Most of their visitors were from Europe and would often end up extending their stay. JP takes his guests on jeep rides to Satkosia, Saptasajya and other excursions.

The summer heat forces the hosts to close down for 4 months from April, but the rest of the year is excellent for nature walks in the surrounding orchard full of cashew, jackfruit, mango and litchi trees and dense clumps of sal and bamboo. The homegrown produce from the farm like papaya, drumsticks, carrots and cabbage are conveniently used in the kitchen.

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Besides Dhenkanal, the extended royal family of Singh Deos also reigned other princely states like Balangir, Kalahandi and Mayurbhanj. Dhenkanal is supposedly named after a Sabara tribal chief called Dhenka who ruled this patch in 16th century. Sridhar Bhanja, a local chieftain from the neighbouring region of Garh Besalia, vanquished Dhenka in battle.

Dhenka’s dying wish was that the area be named after him and his sacred relic be preserved and worshipped. The area was called Dhenkanal in his memory and his relic is worshipped at Dhenkanal Palace to this day!

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In 1529, Hari Singh Vidyadhar, commander of the southern forces of Gajapati king Pratap Rudra Deva, defeated the local Bhanja chief and established control over the region. The Gajapati Maharaj crowned him as the Raja of Dhenkanal and ever since, 18 generations have ruled the throne. Dhenkanal Palace, a large complex on the slopes of the Garhjat Hills, was built at the site of a fort that witnessed a long drawn siege with the Marathas.

Six rooms have been reserved for guests, two large family rooms double up as lounges while the Durbar Hall hosts folk music and dance performances on request. Be it Aul Palace near Bhitarkanika or Parikud Palace near Chilka, many of Odisha’s old palaces are being converted into heritage hotels.

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Dhenkanal town doesn’t have major attractions, except the 16th century Siddha Balarama Temple with its 90 ft high spire that towers over town, the Dhenkanal Science Museum near the palace Rajbati and the District Museum, which houses weapons of erstwhile rulers and Paleolithic tools found in archaeological excavations.

The presence of Dhenkanal College, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and other educational institutions gives the town a youthful air with a large student population. Snack vendors park their cycles outside schools, colleges and street corners to dish out dahi bada and the eponymous Dhenkanal bada, a traditional fried snack of black gram and rice served with ghughni (yellow pea curry).

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After a quick bite at Gourang Mishtan Bhandar, we drove 24km via Karmul to Joranda, the religious headquarters of ‘Mahima Dharma’, a 19th century monotheistic cult and reform movement that is often described as ‘the world’s youngest religion’. Joranda houses the samadhi of its founder Mahima Gosain.

Ascetics in loincloth with long matted hair roamed about the vast complex dotted with temples – Shunya Mandir, Dhuni Mandir and Gadi Mandir. They believe in a single supreme God or parambrahma named Alekha who is formless and omnipresent.

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Monks lead a life of austerity, celibacy, piety and constant movement, as they cannot sleep in the same place on successive nights or eat twice in the same house. The temples have no idols, only beautiful lamps and feathers and the evening arti is a sublime experience. At the Joranda fair, in existence since 1874, devotees pray together, recite ‘Alekh Brahma’ and burn ghee for universal peace and harmony.

Backtracking to the Y-junction at Kaimati, we continued to Kapilash. At 457 m, the lofty peak with its 13th century Shiva temple of Chandrasekhar is hailed as the ‘Kailash of Odisha’. We parked at the base of the hill, but instead of hiking up 1,351 steps, hired a 4-wheel-drive jeep to tackle the steep ghat road and twelve hairpin bends to the temple.

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The spire of the Shiva temple bears an image of Lord Jagannath, which demonstrates the synthesis of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. East of the main shrine, at a higher altitude of 2239 ft, stand the temples of Narayan and Vishwanath, the latter being older than the Chandrasekhar temple, hence also called ‘Budha Linga’.

Dhenkanal is excellently placed for excursions. Perched at 900 feet, the hill temple of Raghunath or Lord Rama at Saptasajya, 14km away, was built by Rani Ratnaprabha Devi of Dhenkanal. The name Sapta Sajya refers to the ‘seven hills’ where Lord Rama, the Saptarishi (seven celestial sages) and the Pandavas are believed to have stayed.

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We drove into a nondescript village called Sadeibereni where craftsmen practiced the ancient art of dhokra – an indigenous metal casting technique using the lost wax method where they use clay, beeswax and scrap metal to make bracelets, necklaces and idols of gods and goddesses, besides utilitarian pieces.

At the weaving village of Nuapatna, the narrow bylanes resound with the clackety-clack of looms as weavers and master craftsmen avidly share their technique of creating these lovely khandua paat (traditional bandha or ikat saris).

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It was again late evening by the time we drove past Chaudwar towards Kila Dalijoda. Kalia was at the wheel and it was pitch dark outside. He cleared his throat nervously and uttered ‘Babu…’, but luckily we spotted two pillars and on a hunch asked him to drive through.

We ended up at a beautiful two-storey stone house and were welcomed by Debjit Prasad Singh Deo and his wife Namrata who run Kila Dalijoda as a heritage homestay. Stone steps led up to a hall of the European style mansion with lovely stained glass windows, arches and period furniture.

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Once a hunting lodge of the erstwhile rulers of Panchakote, Kila Dalijoda was built in 1931-33 by Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo. It was named after the adjoining Dalijoda forest range of the Kapilas Elephant Sanctuary that once stretched right up to its doorstep!

The original patch of Kila Dalijoda spread over 11,000 acres; today the holding has shrunk to just 40 acres with two large tanks on the property. While we devoured home-cooked Odiya fare like machha besara (fish in mustard curry), saag (greens) and arisa pitha (deep fried rice pancake), Debjit helped us plan our trip to Bhitarkanika and nearby craft villages and tiny hamlets of the Saura and Munda tribes.

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The proximity to the Mahanadi and its back channels gave ample opportunities for fishing and the gently undulating tracts were great for cycling. By the time we were done with Kalia on the Odisha guidebook project for Outlook Traveller, we had driven 3000 km around the state.

As we bid him goodbye at the Biju Patnaik International Airport at Bhubaneswar, Kalia was teary-eyed but we couldn’t be sure whether it was genuine joy of travelling with us, or relief that he was still alive…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Air The nearest airport at Bhubaneswar is 80 km from Dhenkanal, from Kila Dalijoda it’s only 45km.
Rail Dhenkanal railway station serves Dhenkanal district and is well connected to Cuttack (55 km) on the main Howrah Chennai route
Road 75 km NW of Bhubaneswar and 55 km from Cuttack via NH-55 via Chaudwar, while NH-42 connects Dhenkanal to Sambalpur and Rourkela.

Where to Stay
Many of the royal palaces in and around Dhenkanal have now been converted into heritage hotels and palatial homestays.

Dhenkanal Palace
Ph 9437292448, 9748478335
Email contact@dhenkanalpalace.com
http://www.dhenkanalpalace.com

Gajlaxmi Palace
Borapada, 3km from Dhenkanal
Ph 9861011221, 9337411020
Email navneeta.singhdeo@gmail.com
http://www.gajlaxmipalace.com

Kila Dalijoda
Ambilijhari, via Chaudwar
Ph 9438667086
Email debjitsinghdeo@yahoo.co.in
http://www.kiladalijoda.com

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What to Eat
Try the Dhenkanal bara and local sweets at Gouranga Sahoo Mistharna Bhandara (Ph 06762-224861, 9778228877) on College Road and Prasidha Bara in Ganesh Bazaar. Dhenkanal is also known for its Chhunchi Patra, a sweet cake made of ground coconut, rice and maida.

When to go
Dhenkanal is great to visit from October to March. The Joranda fair is held on a full-moon day in the Hindu month of Magha (Jan–Feb). Shivaratri is celebrated at Kapilash with great fervour in Feb-March. The Ramnavami Fair at Saptasajya is held in March-April.

Tourist Office
TRC Complex, Mahisapat
At PO & Dist Dhenkanal 759001
Ph 06762-221031, 234670
http://www.odishatourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine. Here’s a link to the original article: https://www.outlookindia.com/outlooktraveller/destinations/odisha-royal-fables/

 

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Bikaner: Tales of the Wild West

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the bylanes of Bikaner on the Royal and Merchant Trails, tonga rides and other curated experiences while staying at Narendra Bhawan, the residence of the last Maharaja of Bikaner

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In 1488, proud Rathore prince Rao Bika, second son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur Rao Jodha, broke away from the dynasty after his ego was bruised by his father’s barb. On a whim, he came with a band of followers to a barren outcrop of land called Jangladesh to establish his own lineage. This was the Wild West, home to warring Jat clans, who were subdued only after local mystic Karni Mata arranged a strategic matrimonial alliance of Rao Bika with the daughter of Rao Shekha, the powerful Bhati chief of Pugal.

The new capital ‘Bikaner’ thrived due to its strategic location along the caravan routes between Western India and Central Asia. Enriched by trade on the Silk Route, Bikaner’s merchants and nobles built opulent palaces, havelis and temples in red sandstone that have withstood the shifting sands of fortune for five centuries.

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It was the 6th Raja Rai Singh who moved from the original bastion and laid the foundation of a more secure Junagarh Fort, giving impetus to trade in oil and spices. Maharaja Sujan Singh invited merchants to settle at Sujangarh while it was Maharaja Ganga Singh who offered them an incentive to make Bikaner their home, with the promise of tax-free income and donations of land to build houses, ‘for just a rupee and a coconut’. It is said, 1001 havelis were erected during his reign.

Preceding the city’s foundation is the 15th century Bhandasar Temple, the oldest and largest of the 27 Jain shrines in Bikaner, commissioned by Seth Bhanda Shah Oswal in 1468. When someone questioned the need for a lavish temple in a water-scarce region, the indignant trader swore not to use a drop of water. He built the temple’s foundation entirely out of ghee or clarified butter!

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The unique ‘Ghee Wala Mandir’ used 40,000 kg of ghee and is an apt symbol of a proud land, where merchants were no less haughty than kings. Carved in red sandstone and white marble, the temple holds a treasure of frescoes, etchings and wall paintings with rich mirror work and gold leaf work.

We stood awestruck outside the stunning cluster of seven Rampuriya havelis built by three brothers. Red sandstone mansions with exquisitely carved jalis (lattice work) and contrasting turquoise doors and windows lined the narrow lane.

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The Merchant Exploration tour, specially curated by Narendra Bhawan, offers charming insights into the grandeur of the mercantile class and their pivotal role in the growth of Bikaner.

We sat like royals behind Sultan, the sure-footed equine who navigated Bikaner’s impossibly narrow bylanes trotting nimbly beside pedestrians and motorists past havelis on a delightful horse carriage ride. Where the lanes were too tight, we disembarked for a guided walk.

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From Golchha Haveli to Dadda Haveli and Rangari Chowk, Kotharion ka Chowk to Daga Sitya Chowk, the tour culminated in a well-earned meal at Punan Chand Haveli, once a grand merchant residence. Welcomed with a tumbler of chhaas (buttermilk) and fragrant cold towels, we were ushered up narrow staircases to a chamber on the top floor.

While we absorbed the rooftop view of Bikaner, our hosts assembled an amazing Marwari platter on traditional low seating – sev tamatar, Jaisalmeri kala chana, ker-sangri, bajre ki roti, poori, boondi raita and moong dal halwa. The descent seemed daunting after our heavy feast and we soon returned to the comfort of Narendra Bhavan.

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Set in an urban landscape, the residence of Bikaner’s last reigning maharaja Narendra Singh ji seemed like any other Rajasthani haveli from the outside. But step into this boutique hotel and you are transported into a colourful world, much like the idiosyncratic persona of its former owner.

Narendra Singh ji straddled the cusp when the old order was changing to the new. He was born a royal but wanted to live like a commoner so he left the palace to build a humble home for himself. Composed of memories from his travels near and far, the residence is accentuated with unconventional bric-a-brac and offers thoughtfully curated, bespoke experiences.

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In many ways, Narendra Bhawan is an assault on the senses. Its eclectic influences range from the Art Deco movement of Bombay to the flamboyance of Broadway, the decadence of royalty to regimental pageantry inspired by generations-old royal interactions with military academies.

Tall Ming vases in the verandah, crystals from Czechoslovakia, porcelain from Dresden, red velvet settees and gold walls in the waiting room, bronze sculptures of hounds and horses, Hussein paintings, antique furniture and embroidered tapestries.

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A whimsical electric red Baby Grand piano ‘Edith’, a tribute to Edith Piaf, sat on a raised stage at the far corner of the foyer. Cleverly renovated, the old single-storey structure was encompassed by a four-floor edifice built around it with the old terrace becoming the central courtyard. The haveli’s pillared arches and latticed windows echoed the traditional architecture of the region.

As the perennially dapper Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, the man behind the project, explained, “It’s like the house of a mad uncle we all love. Nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Because it is a residence, it is not themed, but a landscape of memories, a life depicted through time!” The rooms represent Narendra Singh ji’s transition across the ages – somber Residence rooms, flamboyant Princes rooms and Regimental rooms with masculine leather tones… Our room had the flourish of The Great Gatsby with candy pink lights and sorbet green lamps lighting up a marble topped work desk with a maroon leather chair and printed ottoman. No two rooms were alike and the best artworks were reserved for the loo!

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Here, Narendra Singh ji stayed with his family, 500 cows and 86 dogs. It is common lore that he would call individual cows by name and they would respond. He was awarded a Gauratna for his service to cows and he apparently never ate a meal till all his animals were fed. As a tribute to his love for animals, the gaushala (cowshed) and verandah have been reinterpreted into an outdoor dining space for a drink under the stars. The onyx tabletop came alive in the evening, lit up from below, to impart a fiery glow as we sipped the signature Negroni.

Bikaner has one of the most evolved cuisines in Rajasthan – from the banquets of kings and menus structured in French, to a touch of Bikaner with vegetarian fare of the traders and the meaty flavours of Muslim cuisine. P&C or Pearls & Chiffon was a tribute to the ladies of the house and the illustrious military backgrounds of their families. The high backed chairs exuded an aristocratic air.

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Here, churros and chooza kebab went hand in hand while murgh sabja, dahi waley alu, kachre ki sabji (local melon), angoor ki sabji, kale chane ki kabuli and mooli palak rubbed shoulders with goat cheese mousse, smoked duck with Hoisin glaze and white fungus mushrooms with butter cream and fried walnuts. Desserts like red velvet with ghevar, French almond biscuit and fresh berry compote could melt the hardest of Rajput hearts while their version of the Philadelphia Cheesecake was what one ought to eat before hitting the gym!

After a suitably leisurely breakfast at the Mad Hatter’s Bake House, we set off next morning on a bespoke Royal Exploration tour of its fort and palaces. We started off near the Lakshmi Nathji Temple where it all began – at Bikaji ki Tekri, a collection of chhatris or royal cenotaphs of Rao Bika and Bikaner’s early rulers. Stone tablets in Devanagri script commemorated the valour of the kings. On saving Indian princes from the tyranny of Aurangzeb, they received the title ‘Jai Jangalghar Badshah’.

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Unlike other citadels in Rajasthan that are perched on hills or vantage points, Bikaner’s Junagadh Fort is a rare edifice built on flat land in 1593. Yet, the imposing fort of red sandstone, the same colour as dried blood, has never been conquered. Within the complex lie spectacular courtyards and mahals (palaces) with eye-popping frescoes and tile work.

Karan Mahal has Mughal influence, Anoop Mahal bears gold leaf or usta work, the exquisite Phool Mahal features glass inlay on stucco, while Badal Mahal has blue clouds interspersed with lightning motifs painted on its walls and ceilings. A ceremonial 1,100-year-old sandalwood throne stands in the Durbar Hall. Another outstanding highlight is the Sur Mandar’s unique jharokha of blue and white Delft tiles.

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The Fort Museum heaves with riches like Ali Baba’s fabled cave – thrones made of silver and sandalwood, golden swings, royal palanquins and howdahs and an ornate jhoola (swing) with the dancing gopis. There’s even a Haviland Plane displayed in the Vikram Niwas Durbar Hall, pieced together from the parts of two DH-9DE Haviland Planes shot down. Junagarh houses a smaller private museum Pracheena that displays contemporary arts and crafts, period furniture, costumes, photographs, crockery, cutlery and framed menu cards!

Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh ji served in the First World War in France and Flanders in 1914–1915 and sent 1000 camels to aid the British war effort. The elite gun-toting camel corps called Ganga Risala saw action in both the world wars. Ganga Singh ji represented India as one of the signatories at the Treaty of Versailles and opened the Gang Canal from Punjab in 1927. The world’s longest lined canal at the time, it ushered in another chapter of prosperity for Bikaner.

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Ganga Singh ji also commissioned the opulent Laxmi Niwas Palace, which took architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob five years to complete. This fine specimen of Indo-Saracenic architecture (a mix of Hindu, Mughal and European styles) served as the private residence of the royals and is now a heritage hotel. The stunning inner courtyard is lined by various chambers. In the resplendent Swarna Mahal with usta art on a Burma teak-paneled ceiling, dine on elaborate Rajasthani thalis and lal maas or mutton cooked in gulmohar flowers.

Inside the Trophy Bar, an Assamese rhinoceros and a Nepalese bison face off from opposing walls while fourteen magnificent tigers stare down at you in the Billiards Room. In 1902, another royal retreat was commissioned. Lalgarh Palace, now a heritage hotel, was built in Victorian style with beautiful lattices, filigree work and vintage etchings, hunting trophies and old portraits adorning the walls.

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We stopped at the market to see the local jadau jewellery as craftsmen worked wonders with enamel and diamonds studded in 24 carat gold. Others kept alive the tradition of usta, derived from ‘ustad’, an art brought to Bikaner by Muslim artisans. A detour to see the royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar and we were ready to hit the pool at Narendra Bhawan.

Overlooking the city, the terrace dons its Havana-esque style with aplomb. The plain walls with niches and bursts of green foliage contrast the blue sky and the gorgeous azure of its infinity pool. By evening, it transforms to recreate the magic of Arabian nights with shimmering curtains and sumptuous feasts.

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Narendra Bhawan’s unique experiences are not limited to the confines of the haveli. ‘Reveille at Ratadi Talai’ promises ‘goat for breakfast’, a take on the cavaliers grill, with goat grilled to perfection and served with nalli nihari – a robust curry of trotters, with eggs, bacon and hash.

We drove deep into the heartland of the Bikaner desert to a secret enclave for ‘Sundowners at the Pastures.’ The light of the lanterns mirrored the stars twinkling above, a folk musician played a soulful tune on his ravanahatha, singing about battles won and lost. We raised a toast to the wild glory of Bikaner’s past as the untamed Jangladesh wind ruffled our hair.

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Discover This
30 km from Bikaner, the 600-year-old Karni Mata Temple at Deshnoke, is dedicated to the household goddess of Bikaner’s rulers. Famous as India’s rat temple, it is home to legions of rats that are worshipped by the local Charan community as their reincarnated ancestors.

Scurrying in and out of holes, they perch on shoulders of pleased devotees and scuttle down marbled hallways, into pails of milk and platters of sweets, all 20,000 of them! Devotees tread warily performing pradakshinas (circumambulation) around the shrine as harming a rat is sacrilege while a glimpse of the kaaba (white rat) considered most auspicious.

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Air: The nearest airport is Jodhpur, 253 km away or Jaipur, 334 km.
By Train: Bikaner lies on the Western Railway and is well connected to Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kalka, Allahabad and Howrah.
By Road: Bikaner is 249km from Jodhpur, 312 km from Jaisalmer, 334 km from Jaipur and 458km from Delhi with good bus connectivity.

Where to Stay
Narendra Bhawan
Ph +91-7827151151
http://www.narendrabhawan.com

Laxmi Niwas Palace
Ph 0151-2200088, 8875025218
http://www.laxminiwaspalace.com

Lallgarh Palace
Ph 0151-2540201-7, 9711550134
http://www.lallgarhpalace.com

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What to Eat
Local namkeen and mishtan bhandars are famous for sweets like Mawa Kachori and Ghevar besides the local staple mirchi bada. Bhikaram Chandmal Bhujiawala is the best place to pick up the eponymous Bikaneri bhujiya while Chhotu Motu Joshi Sweet Shop is good for aloo puri, methi-puri, kachoris and lassis.

When to Go
The best time to visit Bikaner is between October and March, the winter months. The colourful Camel Fair is held at Bikaner in January.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in November 2017 in Discover India magazine.