Category Archives: Culture & Heritage

Inspired Heritage: Reclaiming the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical clouds at Suryagarh Jaisalmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

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

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

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FACT FILE 

Where to Stay

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi
www.evolveback.com

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

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

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

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
www.suryagarh.com

The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
www.thegranddragonladakh.com

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

Chandernagore: Down Revolutionary Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

Kanheri Caves: Black mountain side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

Burhanpur: Diamond in the Dust

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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

 

 

Maheshwar: Here lived a queen

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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

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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

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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…


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

Ahmedabad: By the banks of the Sabarmati

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Ahmedabad, or Amdavad to locals, will captivate you with its history, architectural gems, heritage walks and food, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Sometime in 1411 AD, while camping on the banks of the Sabarmati River, Ahmed Shah I saw a hare chasing a dog. Intrigued, he wondered if a typically timid hare could be so brave here, how brave would its people be! And so, he shifted his capital from remote Anhilwada Patan to a new riverside location. In a brilliant throwback to the legend, we saw the tenacious Amdavadi spirit on full display as a tiny goat took on a larger one, incidentally at the burial place of Sultan Ahmed Shah at Badshah ka Hazira near Jama Masjid. However, the city was named Ahmedabad not in honour of one man named Ahmed, but four!

When permission to found a new city was sought from revered Sufi saint Paigambar Al Khizr Khwaja, he set forth a strange condition. Only four individuals with the name Ahmed who lived by the rules of Islamic faith and never missed a single namaaz in life could hold the ropes to lower the foundation stone and ensure the prosperity of the city. The four eminent Ahmeds who fit the requirement included Sultan Ahmed Shah himself, worthy grandson of the first Sultan of Gujarat, Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganjbaksh, the saint of Sarkhej, Malik Ahmed whose tomb is in Pathanwada in Kalupur and Kaji Ahmed whose tomb lies in Patan. Thus, Ahmedabad came into existence.

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The Sabarmati river is emblematic of the city and has always played a key role in its story. In the 11th century the area around present-day Ahmedabad was called Ashaval or Ashavalli after local ruler Asha Bhil. When Solanki ruler Raja Karnadev of Anhilwara-Patan defeated him and established a city on the banks of the Sabarmati, it was called Karnavati. Being on the crossroads of trade routes from north to south or Saurashtra and Lat Pradesh, it attracted Jain traders and Brahmins who built several Jain and Hindu temples and monuments.

When Rajput rule came to an end in the early 14th century, Zafar Khan Muzaffar, suba (governor) of the Sultans of Delhi asserted his independence and began ruling Gujarat with Patan as his headquarters. The first three Sultans of Gujarat ruled from there but the expansion of their kingdom prompted them to move the capital from distant Patan to a more central location Karnavati, now Ahmedabad or ‘Amdavad’ as it’s called locally.

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The first structure to be constructed was Bhadra Fort. Built as the principal entrance of the palace complex, it was named after the ancient Rajput citadel of the same name at Anhilwada Patan, dedicated to goddess Bhadrakali. The fort’s massive towers and walls that withstood numerous conflicts finally surrendered to the onslaught of development. Similarly crowded by shops, pedestrians and vehicular traffic is the famous Tran Darwaza (Three Gates), the actual entrance to the walled city. Few know that the Gateway of India was inspired by this structure! Karanj, once a huge area called Maidan-i-Shah was where the sultan and his noblemen watched polo. It also served as a resting place for horses and elephants and a venue for Friday bazaars.

As the city evolved into a textile hub and grew beyond its confines, in the late 1970s, the capital was shifted 30 km further along the Sabarmati to the newly built, well planned city of Gandhinagar. Yet Ahmedabad still continues to be the commercial capital of the state and enthralls visitors with its shaking minarets, fascinating monuments, varied architecture, ancient stepwells and a plethora of museums.

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Heritage

From Hindu vavs (stepwells) at Adalaj, Jain temples and Islamic architecture to colonial influences, Ahmedabad’s heritage is a blend of all these and more. Recognizing its worth, in July 2017, the historic Old City of Ahmedabad was declared as India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City.

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The highlight of the Old City is its numerous pols (derived from Sanskrit pratoli), self-contained neighbourhoods connected by narrow streets and squares with community wells and chabutaras or bird feeder pedestals. These pols were protected by gates, secret passages and cul-de-sacs, known only to its inhabitants. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation with guidance from CRUTA Foundation runs a Heritage Walk every morning at 8am.

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After a brief slideshow, the walk starts from the world’s first Swaminarayan Mandir built in 1822 at Kalupur and founded by Shri Sahajanand Swami. The temple complex has three sanctums and is surrounded by wooden havelis to house monks. Led by a local guide, the tour takes visitors past various pols, mandirs and monuments.

At Kavi Dalpatram Chowk, we saw a bronze sculpture dedicated to Gujarat’s poet laureate – Kavishvar Dalpatram Dahyabhai (1820-98). He came to Ahmedabad at the age of 24 to study Sanskrit at the Swaminarayan temple and lived in the old mansion behind his statue.

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Lambeshwar ni Pol had intricately carved bird feeders and buildings with wooden pillars, beams and brackets. The Calico Dome built in 1962 along Relief Road was actually the roof of the calico mill shop designed by Gautam Sarabhai and was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a geodesic dome. India’s first fashion show was arranged beneath this dome!

Khara kua ni Pol named after a salt water well had buildings bearing colonial influences – from Art Deco motifs to scenes like a European lady reading a book. Shri Kala Ram ji Mandir has a seated idol of Lord Rama carved out of black kasauti (touchstone). Kuawalo Khancho, named after a community well, had a mix of architectural styles – Gujarati, Maratha, Persian and colonial.

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We stopped to marvel at the unique parrot holes – small niches in the exterior walls of houses sometimes with matkas (earthen pots) embedded in the walls. Harkuvar Sethani ni Haveli, once the largest building in the old city, was the colossal mansion of Sheth Hutheesinh’s wife who fulfilled her pious husband’s dream of constructing a large Jain temple. It was fascinating to discover that 600 years ago the Manek river, a tributary of the Sabarmati, flowed on the very road we walked on! A little ahead, below Fernandes Bridge built in 1884 by the British, was Ahmedabad’s biggest book market Chopda Bazaar.

The 2hr heritage walk ended near Muhurat Pol, the first residential area established in the city, opposite the Old Stock Exchange. The House of MG, a Baroque-themed 1924 home converted into a heritage hotel, organizes an unusual heritage walk by night through hidden bylanes to Mangaldas ni Haveli, Kshetrapal Mandir, Lakha Patel ni Pole besides royal tombs of the queen and kings – Rani no Haziro and Badshah no Haziro.

Getting there: Start from the Swaminarayan Temple in Kalupur and end at Jama Masjid

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Jain monuments

The impressive Hutheesing Jain temple dedicated to the 15th Jain tirthankar Dharmanatha is a massive temple complex, initiated by wealthy trader Sheth Hutheesing Kesarisinh and completed by his wife after his death. Built at a cost of Rs.10 lakhs in 1848, the temple was constructed during a severe famine in Gujarat and created employment for hundreds of skilled artisans and supported their families for two years! Its colonnaded corridor with beautiful arches and manastambha (column of honour) are stunning.

Hidden in the bylanes of the old city are some spectacular derasar (Jain shrines). The temple in Shantinath ni pol, named after the 16th Jain tirthankara, was built in 1923 and has a lovely 19 inch idol. Lambeshwar ni Pol is named after a Shvetambar Jain temple while Doshivada ni Pol, inhabited by the goldsmith community, has a Jain library and marble temple of Ashtapadji. Shantidas Zaveri, a Jain merchant built the beautiful Chintamani Derasar in 1626. When Aurangzeb was suba (governor) during Shah Jahan’s reign, he desecrated the temple, but Shantidas secretly hid the images. His heirs installed the image of Lord Adishwar in 1943, the second image was installed in the cellar of Jagvallabh in Nisha Pol and the third one was installed in the temple of Suraj Mahal. Several other Jain temples are centered in Zaveriwad like Sametshikhar temple, Mahavir Swami’s temple and Shri Manibhadraji’s temple. You can spot the only derasar on a terrace while driving by the Sabarmati in Usmanpura depicting the future tirthankar Shri Simandhar Swami.

Getting there: Hutheesing Temple is located on Shahibaug Road at Bardolpura in Madhupura while most of the other Jain temples are within the walled Old City – Sametshikhar temple in Mandvi-ni-Pol, Mahavir Swami’s temple near Fatasha pol and Shri Manibhadraji’s temple near Rupam Cinema

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Islamic monuments

Sarkhej Roza is a beautiful Indo-Saracenic architectural complex fusing Persian elements with Hindu and Jain styles. Sufi saint Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh, spiritual guide and mentor of Sultan Ahmed Shah chose to settle in the quiet environment of Sarkhej away from the city in his later years. After his death in 1445, Sultan Mohammed Shah commissioned a mausoleum in his honour, along with a mosque. Towards the end of the 15th century, Sultan Mahmud Begada excavated a central tank and added several pavilions, gardens, a small private mosque. Eventually it housed the tombs of his wife and himself.

However, Ahmedabad’s mosques are a treat for any architecture lover. Jama Masjid, one of the India’s largest mosques was built in 1423 at the intersection of four roads with an open court measuring 87,096 sq ft. Two tall minarets around its main arch were destroyed during an earthquake while two remain. Its three gates open to Manek Chowk, Pankor Naka and Kagdi Pol.

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Ahmed Shah’s Mosque was built by the Sultan in 1414 as a private prayer house for the royals. The central hall has exquisite perforated stone windows and corbelled ceilings with a muluk khana (screen hanging gallery) used by the Sultan. The zenana enclosure at the northwest corner has 25 richly carved pillars. Though smaller than the Jama Masjid, it is older and represents the earliest architectural style in its class.

Only two lofty minars remain of the Sidi Bashir Mosque built and named after the famous architect during the reign of Sultan Mahmud Shah I Begada (1458-1511). Destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, only its jhulta (shaking) minars still stand due to the unique plinth construction. Bai Harir Sultani mosque is a stepwell complex and maqbara built by Harir, the chief officer of the Sultan Mahmud Begada’s zenana.

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Rani Sipri’s Mosque built in 1514 by one of the Hindu queens of Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Shah I, is hailed as Masjid-e-Nagina (Jewel of a mosque) for its intricacy despite its diminutive size. Of particular beauty are the perforated stone screens, two slender ornamental minarets and six-domed roof. The Sidi Saeed Mosque built in 1572-73 by an Abyssinian who came to Ahmedabad from Yemen, during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah III, the last ruler of Gujarat took our breath away with its carved jali. The stone lattice with intertwined trees, foliage, depicting the tree of life forms the famous logo for IIM Ahmedabad.

Getting there: Sarkhej is 8km south of the city centre. Jama Masjid is outside Bhadra Fort, along the south side of the road extending from Teen Darwaza to Manek Chowk

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Sabarmati Riverfront

Located in a quiet shaded nook on the river bank, the Sabarmati Ashram was founded in 1917 on the lines of Tolstoy Farm and Phoneix Ashram that Mahatma Gandhi had set up in South Africa. Hridaya Kunj served as the residential quarters of Gandhiji and Kasturba from 1918 till 1930. This was the hriday (heart) of the ashram that inspired all his national activities. Vinoba/Mira Kutir is a small hut where Vinoba Bhave stayed between 1918-21 and Madeleine Slade (Mira) between 1925-33. On display are quotes from eminent leaders and strangely addressed letters – ‘Gandhiji, Delhi’ ‘Mahatma Gandhi, jahan ho wahan’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Mahabaleshwar, About 70 miles from Bombay’.

Gandhiji launched the Dandi March on 12 March 1930 from here, vowing not to return till India was set free. Thousands gathered on the historic Ellis Bridge across the Sabarmati to hear Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the salt satyagraha. Linking the western and eastern parts of the city, the 125-year-old steel bridge with its emblematic arches was the first of its kind in Ahmedabad. After floods destroyed the original Lakkadiyo Pul (wooden bridge) constructed by British engineers in 1875, a new bridge was made in 1892. Engineer Himmatlal Dhirajram Bhachech used imported Birmingham steel at a cost of Rs.4,07,000 to build it and named it after Sir Barrow Helbert Ellis, commissioner of the North Zone.

Since the estimated budget was Rs.5 lakh rupees, the Government suspected Himmatlal of using substandard materials. But an inquiry committee found that it was indeed a fine construction and Himmatlal was honoured with the title of Rao Sahib. When the bridge became too cramped with heavy motorized traffic, new concrete bridges were constructed on either side. In 1997, Ellis Bridge was converted into a pedestrian walkway to preserve it as a heritage landmark of the city. The once squalid river, which had become a seasonal stream, was revived by diverting the rivers of the Narmada and beautified into a scenic riverfront.

Getting there: 7km from the city centre
https://gandhiashramsabarmati.org

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Museums galore

From Doc’s Locks (Dr. Hiren Shah’s Old Locks Collection) to Surendra Patel’s Utensil Museum run by Vechaar (Vishala Environmental Centre of Heritage of Art, Architecture and Research) with thousands of utensils, including a 1000-year-old vessel, Ahmedabad has a wealth of rare museums. The Calico Museum’s nine halls showcase India’s textile traditions including the patolas of Patan and bandhnis of Gujarat (visits by prior booking only). City Museum tells the story of ‘Karnavati: Atit-ni-Zankhi’ at Sanskar Kendra, designed by French architect Le Corbusier. The cellar holds a unique collection of kites gifted by Bhanu Shah to Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, making it the first museum of its kind in India.

AutoWorld Museum, developed by Pranlal Bhogilal family, is the largest automobile collection in India with antique vehicles. Shreyas Museum and Adivasi Museum throw light on the tribal and folk traditions of the state. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial Museum was established at Shahibaug (Motishahi) Palace where he stayed. While Gandhi Memorial Museum at Sabarmati Ashram is dedicated to the Father of the Nation, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Space Museum is dedicated to the father of India’s space program.

Getting there: The Calico Museum is on Airport Road opposite the under bridge at Shahibag, Tribal Museum is at Gujarat Vidyapith while the City Museum and Kite Museum are at Sanskar Kendra near Sardar Patel Bridge behind NID in Paldi

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Food

The most popular street snack in Ahmedabad is dal vada, avidly consumed by locals who pop in for a quick bite at outlets like Shree Ambika Dal Vada Centre. Sold by weight ranging from Rs.20 (67 grams) to Rs.290 (967 grams), it is served hot with green chillis and salt. For something more substantial, try a Gujarati thali, which was first served commercially by Chandvilas Hotel in 1900. At fixed meal restaurants like Sasuji (Ph 079-26405065-66 http://www.sasuji.in) that open for lunch and dinner, enjoy a spread of dal, kadhi, chapati, puri, papad, rice, chatni, athana, kachumber and buttermilk for just Rs.270.

At the top end is Agashiye, the rooftop fine dine restaurant at The House of MG that offers two variants – a regular thali for Rs.935 and a deluxe thali for Rs.1265. Interestingly, starters like soup, methi gota, makai handva and patra are served at the alfresco waiting lounge. If you don’t mind a little drive, try the rustic charms of Vishalla, a big draw with locals and visitors. There are enough distractions like the Antique Utensils museum and live entertainment to keep you busy until your name is called out (with an appending ‘Bhai)’ and you are led to a low chowki. After a ceremonial hand-wash, a large traditional spread is laid out on sal leaf plates to be savoured in the yellow glow of lanterns.

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In town, Manek Chowk is a busy hub of gold and diamond trade by day but after the shops down their shutters, it transforms into an open-air food court with diverse snack stalls open late into the night. Little wonder one of the largest and most popular stalls is dedicated to churans and digestives! It’s also a great showcase Ahmedabad’s vibrant nightlife and locals swear by the city’s impeccable standard for women’s safety.

Due to the large Jain and Hindu population, vegetarian fare rules the roost. The first all-veg Pizza Hut in the world opened in Ahmedabad! However, not everything is vegetarian in Ahmedabad. For a non-veg fix, head straight to Bhatiyar Gali for mutton samosas, charcoal-grilled kebabs, tawa fry, salli boti and Surti 12 Handi.

Getting there: Agashiye is located at The House of MG boutique hotel near Siddi Sayyid jali, Vishalla is opposite the Toll Naka on Vasna Road in Juhapura

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Shopping

Manek Chowk, named after Hindu saint Baba Maneknath is an open market square near the city centre that serves as a vegetable market in the morning, a jewellery market through the day and a food market by night. In the old city, the cobbler shops of Madhupura sell mojris or traditional footwear while artisans of Rangeela pol make tie-dye bandhini. Rani no Haziro in the walled city near Manek Chowk and Sindhi Market are good spots to pick up bandhini and block printed fabrics. In the Gulbai Tekra area idols of Ganesha and other religious icons are made.

Come evening, shoppers congregate at Law Garden for a good bargain with some food on the go. It’s a good place to pick up Kutchi embroidery, mirror work fabrics, bedspreads, cushion covers, clothes and handicrafts. Being Mahatma Gandhi’s city, there are several khadi emporia. Sabarmati Ashram has a museum shop where you can buy khadi clothes, books, postcards, charkhas and other Gandhi memorabilia. Gujarati snacks like ganthia, muthia, dhokla, khandvi, patra, fafda, khakhra, sev, khaman and kachori, besides local sweets are also popular.

Getting there: Law Garden is accessible via Netaji Road near Ellis Bridge while Manek Chowk and Rani no Haziro are in the Old City

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FACT FILE

Chandrashekhar Solanki
Heritage Walk Co-ordinator
Ph 9327021686 Email cdsolanki3009@gmail.com
School students Rs.30, Indian visitors Rs.50, International guests Rs.100

Night Walk at The House of MG
Bhadra Road, Opp. Sidi Saiyad Jali, Lal Darwaja
Ph 7925506946 https://houseofmg.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was featured in the March 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.

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.

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains

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Amid gabled roofs, Gothic windows and English weathervanes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go walkabout in the surreal heritage village of Garli in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh

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A Shiva Shambhu or wandering minstrel in a red and black turban adorned with feathers walked in sounding his bell just as we were being ushered into Chateau Garli with drumbeats, tilaks and a shower of flower petals. For a moment no one was sure whether the itinerant was part of the arriving group or the welcoming party. And then as suddenly, like a mirage, he vanished into the afternoon haze.

Though the harsh sun had obscured the surrounding Dhauladhar range, Garli’s presence here seemed equally surprising and incongruous. We looked around in disbelief at the European style mansions with gabled roofs, Gothic windows and ornate weathervanes wondering how such a place could exist deep in the heart of Himachal Pradesh. It was only after the refreshing mint cooler went down our parched throats and the drumbeats stopped we knew it was real.

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In a dark sunless room, with the only light emanating from a red chandelier, our host Yatish Sud and his friend Atul Lal retraced the story of Garli. The mint had been replaced by hops but we swear the surreal setting made Yatish seem like a character in a Quentin Tarantino flick narrating a fantastic tale. The story went like this…

The 52 clans of the hill community of Soods, who find a mention in the Rig Veda with reference to a sacred fire, were driven out of Rajasthan after successive Muslim invasions. They escaped with a band of professionals – cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, craftsmen – and settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away and set up a trading town. The location was protected as well as auspicious – surrounded by mountains and the snowy Dhauladhar range on three sides with the Beas river on the fourth and at the tri-junction of three powerful Shakti peetha shrines –Jwalamukhi, Chintpurni and Brajeshwari.

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Over time, the entrepreneurial Soods became treasurers to the Kangra royal family and as contractors, helped the British build Shimla. The great fortunes they amassed was put back into their hometown and the buildings drew heavily on colonial influences, a touch of Rajasthan and all the finer things that money could buy – Belgian glass, Japanese tiles, fancy chandeliers. Ummm, but haven’t we heard that story before!

In a pattern uncannily similar to the opulent havelis of Shekhawati (set up the mercantile community of Marwaris) and Chettinad (the bastion of the Chettiars), Garli too prospered in the same timeframe. Between 1820 and 1920, the construction frenzy reached its peak, spurring an unstated rivalry to outbuild thy neighbour. And then, by the 1950’s it was all gone.

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“How?”, we chimed. “We’ll continue that on the evening walk”, winked Yatish and led us to the dining area where hot lunch awaited us. After a terrific North Indian meal, we were ushered to our heritage room where we lay down with the looming danger of missing our tryst with the evening. The four poster bed, the paintings on the wall, the colourful embroidered bedspreads, the vibrant windowpanes and antique furniture really transported us to another era. Each of the 19 rooms in the mansion was unique and distinctive. But sleep be damned, we couldn’t wait till evening for the rest of the tale…

A quick round of masala tea and we were ready for our heritage walk through town. Scattered amidst living dwellings with heaving clotheslines and aam papad drying on charpoys were empty majestic homes that held steadfast against time. Some withering edifices lay forlorn and besieged by neglect. In the snaking alleys, one could sense an eerie silence emanating from the empty halls and corridors of run-down mansions.

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“That one with the murals is Rayeeson wali kothi, the one with the uniformed soldiers is Santri wali Kothi and that’s Nalke wali kothi! “Why?” “Oh that’s ‘cause it’s got a public tap in front of it!” There are nearly a hundred mansions marked out on the illustrated map so you could go gallivanting on your own. In market lanes, we discovered the progressive town-planning, water and drainage system that the early Soods had incorporated nearly a hundred years ago!

They established a school for boys in 1918 and a specialized women’s hospital in 1921 (the girl’s school didn’t come up until 1955)! The foundation stone for the Garli Water Works was laid on 8th February 1928 and a new road was built for the Governor of Punjab to come for the inauguration. The water works used imported copper pipes from London and wonder of wonders, it still worked!

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. Pots of water were left at every few paces thoughtfully for the public to help combat heat and thirst. Before the advent of electricity, niches in the wall exteriors held lamps to illuminate the path for the pedestrian.

The humanitarian spirit and thoughtfulness was apparent even at Chateau Garli where the compound wall actually curved around a well. In 1920, when Yatish’s grandfather Seth Melaram Sud struck water while building the house, he decided that the natural resource was public property and moved his walls so that the village folk could fill their pots freely! The practice continues to this day. So how did it all go bust?

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The story goes that in the bygone days, the licentious ones left their families back in Shimla and snuck away to Garli for a secret rendezvous with their paramour or another man’s wife. Some say it was the curse of a wronged woman that brought about Garli’s downfall. By the 1950s, the whole place was abandoned and left to ruin.

“Even our haveli was not too different. My grandfather was orphaned very early in life and was taken care of by Atul’s father. I was the first to come back and then Atul followed. It took years of restoration. The annexe in front of the swimming pool was once a cowshed. We built it like the older structure.” The result was spectacular and seamless…

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Yatish then bundled us into his open jeep for a crazy off-road drive. Recklessly ignoring concerned locals crying “Agey raasta nahin hai…(There is no road ahead)”, we drove down a steep incline, bounced along unpredictably before rolling into the vast expanse of weathered boulders covering the banks of the River Beas. We made it in time to watch the big red sun take its final bow for the day from the horizon.

After a quick stop at the ancient Kaleshwar Mahadev temple we went for a cuppa at Naurang Yatri Nivas, a rustic style country lodge restored by Atul and his wife Ira. The elaborate brick structure was built by Rai Bahadur Mohan Lal for the stay of the Lt Governor of Punjab so he could attend his daughter’s wedding.

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Subsequently it became an accommodation for travellers and merchants who came to Garli for trade. In disuse for almost a quarter of a century, it took 30,000 litres of water, 250 kg of washing powder, 75 iron brushes, 18 people and 15 months to restore it to its former glory.

Returning to the luxury of Chateau Garli, we nibbled on juicy grilled meat and snacks followed by butter naans dunked in mutton gravy. The next day after breakfast local ice-cream man Satpal Sharma ji tinkled his bells to sell his family’s best kept secret – Malai barf! The creamy kulfi-like dessert with an unchanged 40-year old recipe was served on a sal leaf and priced at only 30 bucks a serving. To Yatish, it was “the taste of nostalgia”.

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Thus fortified, we set off for Pong Dam to witness the massive swathe of wetlands. In the distance, herds of bovines grazed and wallowed in the slush. In winter, thousands of migratory birds come visiting from Central Asia, making it a birding haven.

The Dada Sibba temple nearby has a rich treasure of 200-year-old mural art on the walls. Unusual images of Krishna, Shiva and Parvati made us linger and absorb the genius of unnamed artists who helped evolve and define the Kangra style of painting.

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We drove to the famous 8th century monolithic Masrur rock-cut temples where architectural virtuosity was on full display. Despite being weather worn, the delicate carvings, motifs and expressions were unmistakable. Our guide, like many we had met earlier in other towns and villages across India, claimed that the temples were ‘built overnight by the Pandavas’.

It was too hot for Kangra Fort so we headed back for a swim in Sud’s tempting pool, which boasted a funky underwater sound system! The party was on… and didn’t stop. Around midnight, Yatish mischievous asked, “Ok, who wants to come for an open jeep ride into the wilderness. Last week, we spotted a leopard, right on the road!” We dove right in and the adventure continued. Onion-like, the little town of Garli peels away its layers one by one, to reveal its many hidden secrets.

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Discover This
Garli is best discovered on foot. Start your heritage walk from Seth Melaram Sud’s residence, formerly UCO bank and presently Chateau Garli towards the Beas. Walk by the taal (lake) past spectacular buildings – Kanya pathshala, Mohan Nivas, Govt Girls’ High School, the tall gates of Saraswati Vidhya Mandir and the green gabled roof of the Civil Hospital to Naurang Sarai. While returning, take the left from the Govt Hospital and the right from Kanya Pathshala for scenic viewpoints.

Continue on the main road past Bhagwan Niwas and Peerewalan to the market. To its right lies the Garli Water Works while a left turn from Minerva School leads to Bishnu Nivas and the ‘House with the brick jali’. And for those who are interested, there’s also The Hidden House and a Mystery House, besides several ruins!

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Road: Located 4km from its twin heritage village Pragpur, Garli is 60km from Hoshiarpur, 70km from Dharamsala and 186km/4hr drive from Chandigarh via Ropar, Anandpur Sahib and Nangal.

By Air: The nearest airport is 47km away at Gaggal in Dharamsala or Bhuntar (85km) near Kullu.

By Train: The nearest railway station is Amb, 25km away though one can travel to Una or Hoshiarpur, which have more train connections. From Delhi, one can take the Kalka Shatabdi to Chandigarh and drive to Garli.

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Where to Stay

Chateau Garli
Mohan Niwas, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 94180 62002, 98104 35554 www.chateaugarli.com
Rs.5000 onwards

Naurang Yatri Nivas
Opp Senior Secondary School, Village Nahan Nagrota, VPO Garli, Tehsil Rakkar, Dist Kangra
Ph 01970-245096 http://www.nyngarli.com

Banta House homestay
Near Garli entrance, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 8459220851

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When to go:
Garli is great all year round, though summers can get pretty hot. Time your visit to catch a local festival like Hola Mohalla at Mairi, 15km away or the century old wrestling festival and 3-day fair Maidan ka Mela at Garli in September.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 

Garli: Chateau Charisma

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

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If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

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Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

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Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

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Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

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Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

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Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

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VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/