Category Archives: Culture & Heritage

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/

Where Malgudi was born: RK Narayan Museum, Mysuru

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A public outcry saved author RK Narayan’s Mysuru home from demolition. Now restored and converted into a museum, it offers a peep into his life and times, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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If RK Narayan had to have a museum for himself, it would have been like this – simple, unassuming, Spartan. You’d miss it if it wasn’t for the sign that said ‘RK Narayan’s House’ and his photo on the building’s façade. It was in this two-storey house with red oxide floors on the leafy Vivekanada Road of Mysuru that he wrote 29 novels set in the fictional town of Malgudi. Many cannot believe that this vividly described town does not exist and is perhaps a cartographical omission; such was the power of his pen. Fewer still knew that this was where the author spent nearly four decades.

It was almost 5pm but the watchman allowed us entry despite being closing time. There was no entry fee, only a scribble in a register gave us access. We were asked to leave our slippers outside as if entering a shrine. The whitewashed walls were bare except for black and white photos, quotes and information panels that offered an insight into the life of the author. Honorary doctorate degrees and awards lined the shelves and walls. On another shelf were a pair of glasses and few pens.

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To the rear was a dining hall with a small table and four chairs and a kitchen. His first floor study, a bay room with eight windows that afforded him a view in every direction, held his collection of books. In an adjoining chamber, his old stitched shirts, tattered coats, mufflers and worn out sweaters scented the room with his presence. RK Narayan’s museum, like his simple insightful prose, was shorn of any ostentation or grand flourish.

The photographs gave us glimpses into a man about whom the world knew precious little – RK Narayan as a child of 5, posing with his family and eminent personalities like Jawaharlal Nehru, during a BBC interview in London with author Graham Greene and playing cricket with his nephews as part of the ‘Rough and Tough and Jolly Club.’ On one wall was a rare black and white illustration of Lord Hanuman done by him; on another a Rs.5 postage stamp dedicated to the author released in 2009.

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The information panels were rich in anecdotes. Indian literature’s ‘dirty old man’ Khushwant Singh often wondered how a storyteller of modern times could hold a reader’s interest without injecting sex or violence into his narrative. “I found them too slow-moving, without any sparkling sentences or memorable descriptions of nature or his characters. Nevertheless, the one-horse town of his invention, Malgudi, had etched itself on my mind.”

But if it wasn’t for Graham Greene, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanswami might not have become the author he was destined to be. The story goes that Narayanswami gave the manuscript of his first novel ‘Swami and Friends’, set in fictional Malgudi, to a friend at Oxford. However, he couldn’t find a publisher and in despair, told his friend to destroy it. The friend took the manuscript to author Graham Greene who was so impressed by it that he recommended it to his own publisher and the book was released in 1935. Greene also suggested that he abbreviate his name to RK Narayan for ease of familiarity to an English speaking audience! He was instrumental in publishing Narayan’s next three books as well – The Bachelor of Arts (1937), The Dark Room (1938) and The English Teacher (1945).

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Yet, it was his first collection of short stories Malgudi Days, published in November 1942, that shot RK Narayan to fame. He named his fictional town after the old Bengaluru neighbourhoods of Malleshwaram-Basavangudi. The series was adapted for television by Shankar Nag and the serial was almost entirely shot in Agumbe. Two panels with stills from the making of the serial adorned one wall.

The sketches for the television adaptation were done by his equally talented younger brother RK Laxman. What Laxman expressed through cartoons, Narayan painted in words. Both focused on the mundane, the trials and tribulations of the common man and the observance of daily life that held a mirror to society.

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It was from this house that RK Narayan went on gentle strolls to Mysore market. His observations on life and interactions with shopkeepers and locals gave him much fodder for his books and characters. Having lost touch with England during World War II, he started his own publishing company Indian Thought, which is still active after all these years and is run by his granddaughter.

It was when Narayan visited England that he and Greene finally met. RK Narayan’s works were published in the US for the first time in 1953 and it was during a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1956 that he wrote The Guide. Narayan won a Sahitya Akademi award for his story in 1958, a first for a book in English! The story was later adapted for Bollywood and he also bagged a Filmfare award for the best story in 1967.

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Despite being lauded internationally, RK Narayan remained rooted in his small town Mysuru simplicity. During a literary seminar in Hawaii he would often buy a carton of yoghurt from the supermarket and go from one eatery to another till he found boiled rice! The only compromise he made was eat his curd rice with a spoon. Such was RK Narayan’s zest to write that he admitted he had become lazy after he entered his nineties! His close confidante and The Hindu publisher N Ram reminisces the day Narayan was put on a ventilator. He asked Ram for a diary. When he agreed, Narayan asked whether it will be a 2000 diary or a 2001 diary! Ram confirmed it would be 2001.

The author breathed his last on 13 May 2001, leaving behind a legacy spanning sixty years. Critics lauded him as the Indian equivalent of Guy de Mauppasant, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Despite such acclaim, like the plot of one of his stories, RK Narayan’s house was all set for demolition, until public outcry and universal love for the author, forced local civic authorities to save the building. The dilapidated property was purchased for Rs.2.4 crores and Rs.34.5 lakhs earmarked for repairs. After a neat restoration and landscaping job, the museum was opened to visitors earlier this year and aims to be a literary stopover like Shakespeare’s house at Stratford-upon-Avon.

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It was almost dark by the time we were ready to leave. There was no leaflet or souvenir to take away, except the memory of the visit. The caretaker switched on the decoration lights, bathing the white building in surreal green. The meagre museum may pale in comparison to Mysuru’s grand palaces, markets and temples. Yet, it is a must visit for RKN fans as the endearing memory of the creator of Malgudi lives on…

RK Narayan’s House
D 14, Vivekananda Road, Yadavgiri, Mysuru 570020
Timings: 10am–5 pm

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 20 September 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. https://www.cntraveller.in/story/where-malgudi-was-born/

Royal Rajasthan: 7 Wow Places for your 7 Vows

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out seven dream locations in Rajasthan for the ultimate destination wedding 

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Few places can match Rajasthan for the sheer opulence and grandeur it imparts to a destination wedding. With forts and palaces doubling up as venues, there’s no better location for Maharaja style nuptials. Ghodis (horses) are too plebian; here the groom arrives in style on elephant back or in a vintage car.

Monuments brought alive with 3D laser mapping, processions carrying mashaals (torches) and entertainment that ranges from local folk musicians to international pop stars; whatever you want, if you have the budget, you can get it. Here’s a look at seven wow places for your seven vows.

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Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
The splash of celebratory orange safas (turban) over fort turrets and ramparts, lavish floral arrangements, starry skies and a cool desert breeze; Suryagarh on the Jaisalmer-Sam Road has wowed many as an unforgettable wedding venue. By day, mandaps and pavilions bedecked with orange and white parasols add colour while thousands of lamps light up niches around the Bawdi (stepped tank) by night.

With classy rooms in the main building for guests and exclusive haveli and suite Residences in a quiet corner ideal for the bride and groom’s family, the 77 rooms can accommodate the whole band, baja, baraat. Rait Spa offers specially designed beauty and wellness therapies for a pre-nup, using locally sourced Thar sand and Luni river salt, besides a stunning indoor pool and gym.

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The top notch cuisine blends the best of international fare with Indian cuisine, served in a variety of dramatic locations – from a lavish Halwai Breakfast in the central courtyard, Silk Route Dinner and Sangeet at the Enchanted Garden by the Lake to Wedding by the Bawdi at the Baradari pavilion of the Celebration Garden. Small celebrations take place in the Mehendi Terrace and musical evenings at the Tulsi Garden. Sundowners, strains of the algoza (double flute) and performances by Kalbeliyas and Manganiyars on the dunes culminate in fireworks, making it an unforgettable exeprience.

Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer 345001
Ph +91-02992-269269, 78271 51151 www.suryagarh.com
Tariff Rs.14,000-1,00,000

Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur, from where Suryagarh is 285km/5hrs by road.

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Neemrana
Located south-west of Delhi in Alwar district, Neemrana’s advantage is its proximity to the national capital. Set against the Aravali hills, the sprawling 15th century fort palace is one of India’s oldest heritage hotels and a destination in itself. The Rs.7 crore renovation project took 15 years and it shows! Cascading down a hillside over 12 tiers of lush landscaped terraces, Neemrana is a stunning location for weddings. From the first regal wedding in 1992 (a London-Singapore affair) to a Punjabi royal bash, it has played matchmaker in many an alliance.

Various functions can be held in the fort’s seven palace wings overlooking 6 acres of terraced patios, alcoves and magnificent gardens like Uncha Baag, Mukut Baag and Sirmaur Baag. Blending Sultanate, Rajput, Mughal and colonial styles, each room is unique – Paashan Mahal (Rock Palace) is built around a rockface of the Aravalis, Uma Vilas has terrific hill views, Chandra Mahal was the old Hall of Justice while Francisi Mahal is a French suite. Enjoy alfresco dinners, Ayurvedic massages, two swimming pools – Raj Kund and the exclusive Surya Kund and Mahaburj restaurant serves excellent Rajasthani and North Indian cuisine.

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There’s plenty to do for guests with camel rides, audio tours, camel cart rides to an 18th century stepwell, vintage car rides and a 5-track Zipline, the first in India, by Flying Fox. Being a hill fort, be prepared to walk and climb high steps to reach different levels. For a smaller, more intimate experience, try Neemrana’s Hill Fort Kesroli near Alwar.

122nd Milestone, Off Delhi-Jaipur Highway, Neemrana, Alwar District 301705
Ph 01494 246007, 9310630386 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.6,500-28,000

Jet Airways has several flights to IGI Airport, Delhi from where Neemrana is just 108km

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Udaipur
Steeped in romance and the beauty of its seven lakes interlinked by canals, Udaipur has hosted many a celebrity wedding. In 2004, actress Raveena Tandon got married to film distributor Anil Thadani at Jagmandir Island Palace at Lake Pichola and the whole place transformed into a giant film set with Bollywood biggies flying in from Mumbai. The venue was immortalized in the Bond flick Octopussy.

New York hotelier and Bollywood dilettante Vikram Chatwal married model-turned-entrepreneur Priya Sachdev in 2006 with lavish pre-wedding parties like the masquerade-themed Fantasia that took place in the Zenana Mahal of the City Palace. The sterling guest list of 600 from 26 countries included Bill Clinton, Naomi Campbell and P Diddy, flew in on chartered planes from Bombay, Udaipur and Delhi during the 10-day bash.

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Jagmandir Palace featured again in the marriage of tycoon Sanjay Hinduja with Anu Mahtani in one of the mega wedding spectacles of the country. The global cuisine from 16 countries was served to 16,000 guests in a week-long celebration. There were traffic jams; caused not by the BMWs flown in from Mumbai for transporting guests but due to 208 private chartered planes! The wedding bill alone was £15 million with top artists like J-Lo and Nicole Scherzinger performing at Manek Chowk, a Mughal garden in the City Palace. The mehendi was held at the Shiv Niwas heritage hotel while the starlets stayed in £3,000-a-night luxury suites at Oberoi Udai Vilas.

Besides Fateh Prakash Palace and Shikarbadi Hotel in Udaipur, the HRH Group also lets out Gajner Palace, Karni Bhawan Palace in Bikaner and Gorbandh Palace in Jaisalmer for regal weddings. Udaipur’s advantage is the profusion of excellent lakefront hotels that serve as great nuptial venues. Ferry guests in style at the Taj Lake Palace, opt for a Wedding Package at The Leela Palace or escape to the hilltop fort palace of Devigarh.

HRH Group of Hotels, Udaipur
Ph +91-294 2528016-19, 1800 180 2933, 1800 180 2944
Email events@eternalmewar.in, crs@hrhhotels.com www.hrhhotels.com
Tariff Rs.23,500

Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur 313001
Ph +91 0294 2428700, 2428800 www.tajhotels.com
Tariff Rs.29,000 onwards

The Oberoi Udaivilas, Haridasji Ki Magri, Mulla Talai, Udaipur 313 001
Ph +91 0294 243 3300 www.oberoihotels.com
Tariff Rs.30,000 onwards

Jet Airways flies to Udaipur

Umaid Bhawan Palace/Jodhpur/India

Jodhpur
The big ticket wedding of actress Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar in 2007 didn’t last as long as it took to build the Umaid Bhawan Palace, but that doesn’t dent the eternal charm of Jodhpur. The opulent golden-hued sandstone palace floored well-heeled guests like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Mick Jagger, Sting, Diana Ross and others. Set amidst 26 acres of lush gardens with 347 rooms, it is the sixth largest private residence in the world, with as many as four indoor and six outdoor venues to accommodate a dream Maharaja style wedding.

The palace has a private museum (with a Champagne Museum Walk), marbled squash courts and a subterranean pool under the palace decorated with zodiac signs on the pathway. Pamper yourself at Jiva Spa. Typically, a two or three-day wedding celebration begins with a cocktail dinner by the Poolside, a Mehndi ceremony at Mehrangarh Fort, Sangeet at the ornate Marwar Hall and Wedding-cum-Reception at the famous Baradari Lawns.

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The Mehrangarh Fort itself is a great location for a destination wedding as the lofty citadel is lit up in laser lights while the revelry on the ramparts continues late into the night. For a price, wedding planners can also organize an elephant polo match for guests. Don’t want to break the bank? Try Ranbanka Palace or Ajit Bhawan.

Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur 342006
Ph +91 291 2510101, 2510100 www.tajhotels.com
Email umaidbhawan.jodhpur@tajhotels.com
Tariff Rs.77,400

Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur

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Deogarh Mahal
Located between the two nodal hubs of Udaipur and Jodhpur, Deogarh or the Fort of the Gods was once the fourth largest jagir (estate) in Rajasthan. In the aristocracy of the Mewar court, the Rawats of Deogarh were counted among one of the sixteen umrao’s (senior feudal barons) of the Maharana of Udaipur. Built around 1670, their citadel is now a luxury heritage resort run by the Deogarh family.

Its 75 rooms stretch across three locations just 5km/15 min apart – 16 luxury Swiss camps at Khayyam, four exclusive suites at the renovated lakefront hunting lodge Fort Seengh Sagar and the rest at the Mahal (palace). Each room is reflective of a different era with Gokul Ajara, Moti Mahal and Ranjit Prakash rooms dating back to 350 years! With wide courtyards and terraces, there are several locations for various events.

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Gala evenings feature folk music and dance while one has a choice of theme dinners – Royal Desert Dinner at Khayyam with folk artists, Lake-side Dinner at Seengh Sagar or a Chowki dinner with low seating on chowkis, silver ware and typical Rajasthani menu. Fruits, vegetables, milk products and oils are all in-house, lending freshness to the typical Mewari cuisine. The Mahal can take care of all your needs – from elephants, buggies, royal processions, vintage cars, mandap décor, puja accessories, fireworks right down to the purohit!

Deogarh Madaria, District Rajsamand 313331
Ph +91-2904-252777, 253333 www.deogarhmahal.com
Tariff Rs.8,500-25,000

Jet Airways flies to Udaipur and Jodhpur, from where Deogarh is 135 km and 175km respectively.

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Jaipur
With its pink sandstone monuments, opulent palaces and festive spirit, the Pink City seems perennially drenched in celebratory hues. No wonder, businessmen, Bollywood stars, TV actors, royal scions, NRIs and foreign visitors, all make a beeline to Jaipur for their nuptials. Shivraj Singh, the prince of Jodhpur, got married to Gayatri Kumari of Askot here in a glittering ceremony in 2010. Jaipur’s advantage is the wide range of hotels geared up to host a wedding, with all facilities at hand – brass bands, vintage cars, elephants, artists and the best of shopping.

The stunning monuments and palaces like Raj Palace and Jai Mahal Palace also form a great backdrop for pre and post wedding shoots. Taj Group’s Rambagh Palace, voted among the top romantic hotels in the country, offers multiple locations and experiences. The royal meal is served in peacock thalis at the Rambagh Lawns, while private lunches are arranged at the royal hunting lodge.

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You could have an intimate family dinner in the Rajput Room or a royal Indian feast at the former palace ballroom Suvarna Mahal, with 18th century French décor and massive crystal chandeliers. Saving all that money for your honeymoon? Opt for Shiv Vilas Palace or Alsisar Haveli in town or drive out 43km northwest of Jaipur to Samode Palace, snug in the Aravalis. For nearly two and half centuries, the palace and its tented camp Samode Bagh have hosted weddings. Have the mandap or sacred fire in the beautiful courtyard and a royal banquet in the opulent Darbar hall.

Samode House, Gangapole, Jaipur 302002
Ph +91-141-2632370, +91-1423-240013-15 www.samode.com

Alsisar Haveli, Sansar Chandra Road, Jaipur 302 001
Ph +91-141-236 8290, 236 4685, 510 7157 www.alsisar.com

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur

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Ranthambhore
When Katy Perry and Russell Brand got married in 2010 at Aman-i-Khas, a luxury resort outside Ranthambhore tiger reserve, it didn’t escape the attention of wedding planners and matchmakers looking for theme weddings! A local priest officiated over their grand Hindu wedding and Katy even put on a nath (nose ornament) and mehendi for the occasion. The nuptials featured a procession of 21 camels, elephants, horses, dancers and musicians. Part of the Aman group of hotels, the venue (and its tariff) is ideal for small, exclusive gatherings.

Each of the ten high-ceilinged tents is inspired by the airy abodes of Mughal emperors while on hunts or expeditions. You can opt for a ‘Machan’ wedding with the ceremony (sans the sacred fire) taking place on a platform 20 ft off the ground and guests watching the proceedings from elephant back. For a more regular affair, choose a swank hotel like Nahargarh to tie the knot.

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Aman-i-Khas, Sherpur-Khiljipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur
Ph +91-7462 252 052 Email aman-i-khas@amanresorts.com www.amanresorts.com
Tariff Rs.1,06,000

Nahargarh, Village Khilchipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur 322001
Ph +91-7462-252281-83 Email alsisar@alsisar.com www.nahargarh.com
Tariff Rs.25,000

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur, 160km from Ranthambhore

 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story on Destination Weddings in the October 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Royal Gwalior

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From grand palaces and historic forts to scrumptious food and music celebrations, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh has much to offer, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY 

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After winding up Urwahi Road past mammoth rock cut sculptures of Jain tirthankaras, we stood awestruck by the sight of bright blue mosaic tiles and bands of quirky yellow ducks and blue elephants on the stony façade of Man Mandir Palace atop Gwalior Fort. Babur described it as ‘the pearl in the necklace of forts of Hind’ while Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India famously proclaimed “The Gwalior fortress is the key to Hindoostan”. Lying at the crossroads of North India, the historic city was a coveted prize and a strategic outpost on the trade routes that fanned from Delhi to Malwa, Gujarat and the Deccan.

The majestic fort crowns Gopachal Parvat, the solitary sandstone outcrop of the Vindhyas rising above the plains. Once a hill where cowherds lazed, it became a quiet nook for ascetics. Sometime in the 8th century Suraj Sen, a Kachhwaha Rajput chieftain, lost his way while on a hunt in the forest. Tired and thirsty, he encountered the sage Gwalipa on this secluded hill. The saint gave him water from a pond, which not only quenched his thirst but also cured his leprosy. In gratitude, the prince built a protective wall to prevent wild beasts from disturbing the sage’s yagnas and a palace for himself. While the miraculous pond was called Suraj Kund after the king, the city that grew around the fort was named Gwalher after Gwalipa the saint.

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Over the years, smoothened by time and myriad tongues, Gwalher became Gwalior, in the same manner that the Sahastrabahu temple of the Kachhwahas got corrupted to Saas Bahu! But there was good reason for it. Built in 1092 by King Mahipala, the shrine was named after and dedicated to the ‘thousand-armed’ Vishnu, ardently worshiped by the queen. Since the prince’s wife was a Shiva devotee, a separate shrine was built for her beside the Vishnu temple. Collectively, they were called Saas-Bahu Mandir, referring to the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’s temples.

In a similar vein, Teli ka Mandir, the loftiest and oldest surviving structure within the fort has little to do with oil-mongers but was originally called Telangana Mandir on account of its Dravidian spire. Gwalior Fort is a treasure trove of history. While it is common knowledge that the zero was invented in India, the earliest written record of the numeral is an inscription in the Chaturbhuj temple dating back to 876 CE.

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The Pal dynasty of Kachhwahas and the Gurjar Pratiharas controlled Gwalior initially, but the fort changed hands with alarming rapidity, slipping from the grasp of Delhi’s first Turkic Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak to Iltutmish. After the Delhi Sultanate collapsed at the end of the 14th century, independent regional kingdoms sprouted, including the Tomars, under whose reign Gwalior soared to great heights.

Periods of war and bloodshed alternated with interludes of peace and stability, when the sound of music drowned battle cries and the clash of swords was forgotten in the rhythms of poetry. The credit for developing Gwaliori Dhrupad, considered one of the purest forms of Indian music, goes to Tomar Raja Man Singh (1486-1516). Musicians from across the country descended on Man Singh’s opulent palace Man Mandir.

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Two of the most famous musicians in medieval India, Baiju Bawra and Tansen trace their roots to Gwalior. At one time, nearly half the musicians in the Mughal imperial court came from the city. Books preserved in Jai Vilas Mahal recount legends of how Baiju Bawra and Tansen could light oil lamps by singing Raga Deepak; cause rain by singing Megh Malhar; make flowers bloom by singing Raga Bahar; hypnotize deer with Raga Mrigaranjini or melt a stone slab with Raga Malkauns. Tansen, originally one of the nine jewels of Man Singh’s court, later became one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. When the maestro died, Akbar ordered all musicians in the country to join the funeral procession.

Thousands still flock to Gwalior every year in December for a weeklong music celebration in memory of Tansen not far from his 16th century tomb under the shade of a tamarind tree. As per local tradition, aspiring singers often chew the tamarind leaves for a sweet voice. Tansen’s raised rectangular memorial was humbled by the grand mausoleum of his spiritual mentor and Sufi mystic Sheikh Mohammad Ghaus Shattari. With lace-like screens, his massive square tomb was capped with a large dome.

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Akbar borrowed more than the city’s prized poet laureate; he also found in Gwalior’s mahals (palaces) and chhatris (domed pavilions) the inspiration for Mughal architecture. While Man Mandir was a private pleasure palace, Man Singh built another palace for his doe-eyed Gujar queen Mrignayani at the base of the hillock. Gujari Mahal now houses an archaeological museum, with a rare 10th century statuette of Shalbhanjika the Tree Goddess, kept under lock and key in the curator’s office.

Sadly, after the death of Raja Man Singh, the Tomar dynasty was swept aside. Ibrahim Lodhi captured the fortress after a two-year long siege but Babur wrested Gwalior after defeating Lodhi at the Battle of Panipat in 1526. Not known for his appreciation of Indian architecture, the founder of the Mughal Empire was struck by the loveliness of Man Mandir. He noted, “Man Singh’s palace is a wonderful edifice. On every side are cupolas, each covered with sheets of gilded copper. The outer walls are decorated with glowing tiles.”

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Under Humayun, the Mughals lost the fortress to Sher Shah Suri but Akbar reclaimed it. However, the palace that once resounded with song and laughter, echoed with the anguished cries of prisoners. The underground realms and pleasure pools where maharanis once gossiped turned into chambers of torture. French traveller Bernier noted horrific accounts of the prison. From Akbar to Aurangzeb, state prisoners were dulled with poppy and left to decay and die a slow painful death.

Among the few who left the prison alive was sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Singh. Imprisoned unjustly, Emperor Jahangir was forced to order his release at the insistence of his beloved queen Nur Jahan. Seeing the plight of captive princes and fellow inmates, the Guru said he could not leave alone. The Mughal emperor decreed that as many prisoners who could hold on to the Guru’s robe would be released. Overnight, tassels were attached to the Guru’s tunic and thus 51 other people were set free. Not far from the celebrated Scindia School atop the fort, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod celebrates this incident.

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After Aurangzeb’s death, anarchy prevailed until Mahadji Scindia, founder of the Maratha empire seized the fort in 1765. Always at odds with the expansionist British, the Marathas fought many battles eventually losing the fort in 1780 before they faced a complete rout in 1843.

Public sentiment had built up so much against the British that a handful of soldiers in Meerut sparked off a nationwide rebellion in 1857. Gwalior once again changed hands as Tatya Tope, Rao Saheb Peshwa and Rani Lakshmibai took hold of the fort. The Rani of Jhansi died fighting valiantly against the British at the fort’s southern base, Phool Bagh. Ironically, the Scindias sided with the British and received handsome rewards which fueled a construction frenzy of opulent palaces and mansions in Gwalior.

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Jai Vilas Mahal, styled after a palace in Versailles stands in Lashkar (a Persian word meaning ‘camp’), an area once occupied by army battalions. Forty rooms of the 400-room European style mansion are maintained as the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum, with royal artefacts and opulent dining sets on display. The highlight is a gigantic pair of Belgian chandeliers in the Durbar Hall and a silver train in the dining room that ran on a miniature track dispensing post-dinner cognac, dry fruits and cigars!

Madha Rao Scindia I, founder of modern Gwalior built the Phool Bagh where a temple, mosque, gurudwara and Theosophical lodge stand testimony to the city’s secular ethos. The king also started the Gwalior trade fair in 1905, the biggest fair in Madhya Pradesh. Music aficionados will find it worth their while to visit Sarod Ghar or the Museum of Music, set up in the ancestral house of the legendary maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, father of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

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Nearby, the place where the British Army Unit 34 encamped during Second World War is called ‘Thatipur’, its numerical reference lost on locals. In the syncretic air of Gwalior, Ramtanu Pandey becomes ‘Miyan’ Tansen and a fearless Gujar village belle Nanhi becomes Mrignayani the queen. Unperturbed by the burden of history, Gwalior juggles its various influences with panache and typical Bundelkhandi swagger.

FACT FILE

Getting there
Gwalior Airport is located at Maharajpur, 10 km north-east of the city and is connected by flights from several cities.

When to go
The month-long Gwalior Trade fair is held between the second week of January and February. Tansen Samaroh is a 5-day classical music festival held in December.

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Where to Stay
Deo Bagh
The royal summer house of the Yadavs facing the nine-chequered garden Nau Bagh is run as a heritage hotel by Neemrana. The 25-acre property has lovely gardens, cenotaphs, pavilions and two 18th century Maratha temples.
Ph +91 751 2820357 www.deo-bagh.neemranahotels.com

Usha Kiran Palace
The 120-year-old colonial era palace with twin towers is run by the Taj Group as a heritage hotel and has hosted luminaries like the King of England.
Ph +91 751 244 4000 www.tajhotels.com

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What to Eat
Try the local favourite bedai, a poori stuffed with spiced lentils, besides gajak (sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) from Ratiram Gajak and Morena Gajak Bhandar. Regulars queue up early morning for samosa, kachori and sweets at SS Kachoriwala and Bahadura, an 80-year-old sweet shop in Naya Bazaar. Also check out Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazar, Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak and laddus at Shankerlal Halwai.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the April 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

Holiday on Ice: Ladakh in winter

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY fuse snow travel with slow travel as they discover an icy realm of frozen rivers and waterfalls with authentic Ladakhi hospitality

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“Why have you come to Ladakh in winter? Why??” the old monk at Chemrey monastery asked exasperatedly, twitching his toes and shaking his head in disbelief. Clearly, travelling this far in non-tourist season wasn’t the done thing. Snug in our thermals and jackets, we stood laughing in the freezing courtyard and shot back, “So we could have the Buddha all to ourselves!” Selfish as it may sound, the lack of tourists and the absence of Royal Enfields echoing through the valley did accentuate the silent desolate beauty of Ladakh.

Many are daunted by Ladakh’s unforgiving terrain and temperatures of up to -25 in winter, but the truly adventurous swear it is the perfect time for rarer thrills. They come in Jan-Feb for the Chadar trek from Chilling on the frozen Zanskar River or the wildlife challenge in the rugged hills of Hemis to spot the enigmatic Snow Leopard. For those who don’t wish to undertake strenuous journeys, there are simple Ladakhi pleasures to be found.

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There is an old saying in Ladakh that in this region of remote passes and mountains, only a good friend or a serious enemy will visit you. And what better way to get a sense of this harsh landscape than the flight from Delhi over Himalayan peaks, glaciers and frozen lakes? The full import of the air hostess’s nonchalant announcement that ‘the temperature outside was -10’ didn’t really strike us at Leh Airport, but high up at Chemrey Gompa, lashed by cold winds, we understood what sub zero was all about.

Just layering yourself with clothes, climbing a steep flight of steps or the effort in bending down to tie your shoelaces seemed like climbing Stok-Kangri, often leaving us with ragged breath. Fortunately, we had a few days to acclimatize. Smala, from the Forest Department gave an insightful presentation on the region’s wildlife at our hotel. Besides the apex species the shan (Snow Leopard), Ladakh is home to an impressive array of birds and mammals – kiang (Tibetan wild ass), wolf, ibex, sheep like bharal and urial, and marmots, best sighted on the Changthang plateau. Over time, many became intrinsic to Ladakhi culture, like the ubiquitous black-billed magpie, regarded as a messenger or a sign of guests coming home.

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Stripped of their leaves, the skeletal forms of malchang (willow) and berfa (poplar) added an eerie touch to the landscape. Lakes had frozen into ice rinks where local boys enjoyed a round of ice hockey, a sport that was picking up in the region. The only thing that added colour to the bleak winter was the gustor (festival) at Spituk gompa. With prime terrace seats overlooking the central courtyard and a steep cliff behind us, we watched the twirling cham (masked) dancers. A large covered thangka stretching across three storeys of the gompa was unveiled to reveal Tsongkhapa, founder of the yellow hat Gelugpa sect.

The performance was riveting and our guide Tashi explained the nuances. The sword carried by the dancers was symbolic of a tool to cut ignorance, the skeleton figures denoted emptiness, the different colours symbolized the five elements and various attributes – blue was sky or power, white was cloud and peace, yellow was earth, green was water, red was fire. The highlight was Chhoshkyun, the red faced mask of the head of the gompa, in his fierce attribute.

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Cosseted in woolen parkas, we sat around a bonfire as our host Danish Din Abdu shared the traditional thermal yardstick. “Chile kalan refers to 40 days of peak winter, Chile kurud is 20 days and Chile bacha is 10 days of milder cold.” With activity down to a bare minimum, the kitchen becomes the most integral part of the house. There is no running water; pipelines are emptied as water freezes and expands as ice, causing the pipes to burst. Family members huddle around the stove to keep warm with typical winter preparations.

After roasted marshmallows and grilled kebabs by the fire, we were invited for a traditional Ladakhi meal upstairs, served on low stools. Skiu is a hearty wheat pasta stew eaten during bitter cold months. The broth is made from mutton bones along with dried vegetables harvested in summer, to which meat and potatos can be added. As chhang (fermented barley drink) was poured into our kore (cups), Danish gave us a crash course in Ladakhi cuisine. Churpe (hard cheese), served as an instant snack, was presented in a pheypor or decorative lidded bowl, often used to store tsampa or barley. Another delicacy is timstuk, wheat flour made into thick strips and served as a soup with black gram. Usually made at homes, it is rare to find such dishes at restaurants in Leh.

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The main course was more of an obstacle course as we tried everything from nang (Ladakhi sausage), shapta (meat curry), phingsha (keema with phing or glass noodles), even fried lungs! Vegetarians needn’t go weak-kneed as there’s plenty of great veg fare – phing alu or glass noodles with potato, taint (Ladakhi saag) and tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns). We thanked the shy cook Phuntsok Thundup profusely – perhaps the chhang had taken its toll. He was from Saini in Zanskar and was happy to learn that we’d be visiting Chilling the next day, the launch point for the Chadar or frozen river trek on the Zanskar.

The morning drive was extremely scenic – via Magnetic Hill and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib (where Guru Nanak had meditated and overcome a local demon) to Sangam, the confluence of the icy blue Zanskar river with the olive green Indus. A diversion to the left took us along the Zanskar – the river was frozen in parts and lacy sheets of ice wafted along its course.

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Waterfalls stood frozen as if cast by a magic spell, glinting like icy sabre teeth. The road was blocked just short of Chilling, so we turned back and continued on the Leh-Kargil highway to Lamayuru. One look at the surreal landscape and you know why Ladakh is called Moon-land. Perched on rocky crags, the gompa offers stunning views all around.

Our driver Stanzin had an interesting analogy for the severity of the Ladakhi winter with respect to the timing of local festivals. “Spituk Gustor mein yak ka thand hota hai, Likir gustor pe bhed ka thand hota hai.” (Cold of the yak at Spituk gustor, cold of the sheep at Likir gustor).

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We returned to Leh via Alchi. Unlike other gompas in Ladakh, the monastic complex was situated not on a hilltop but right in the heart of the village. It was built by noted 10th century scholar Rinchen Zangpo, called Lohtsawa (Great Translator) who disseminated Vajrayana Buddhism and erected 108 monasteries in the trans-Himalayan region. The features in the murals were distinct and we learnt that Kashmiri artists were employed to paint the walls; the paintings at Alchi are some of the oldest and most exquisite in Ladakh.

There were other signature experiences on offer. The serene prayer ceremony at Thikse Gompa was followed by a Ladakhi breakfast in a nearby home with salty gur-gur chai (yak butter tea), served with khambir (local bread). We learnt a little calligraphy from local artist Phunchok Chosgial who taught us how to write our name in Ladakhi. We even dropped by to meet Padma Lamu, an oracle from Chushul, who did a small prayer session at her house near Choglamsar and blessed us. With a costume change in local regalia, our Ladakhi transformation was complete.

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Back at the hotel, Ghulam Mohiuddin, Danish’s father, now in his 50’s, reminisced about the old days when Ladakh had just opened to tourists in 1974. The first tourists (locals called them ‘hippies’ and followed them everywhere) were brought to Leh in special buses from Srinagar. Back then, the Manali-Leh highway didn’t exist (it was opened in 1989) and there were no hotels in town. The foundations of the hospitality industry were laid when the slightly affluent families were asked to host guests and build toilets for their comfort.

“My father was the manager, my mother was the cook and I was the errand boy. We did everything ourselves”, his voice quavered in emotion. From 500 tourists in the 70s to over 1.5 lakh tourists in 2014, the region had indeed come a long way. It was only in the hibernation of winter, devoid of mass tourism and package tours, that you get a sense of how things would have been in the old days… The weather may be cold in Ladakh, but the simple Ladakhis possess incredibly warm hearts.

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Fact File

Getting there
With the Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Leh highways closed in winter, the only access to Ladakh is flying to Leh. Most internal roads within Ladakh are open, except the route to Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri, which can be blocked due to heavy snowfall.

Where to Stay
The Grand Dragon Ladakh
Leh’s plushest hotel that’s centrally heated, serves terrific food and stays open all year round with great views of the Stok Kangri range. Winter packages offer great value (3N/4D for just Rs.22,999 per person, valid Dec 1-Mar 31)
Ph +91 9906986782, 9622997222 www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Saboo Resorts
Located 7km from Leh in Saboo village, Odpal George’s resort has 15 cozy cottages with traditional Ladakhi architecture and cuisine.
Ph +91-9419179742, 9419231374 www.sabooresorts.com

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

Precautions
Located between 9000-15,000 ft, Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert with rare air. Winters are characterized by low levels of oxygen and temperatures ranging between -10 to -25 degrees. Make sure to carry enough warm clothing, jackets, woolen caps, thermals, mufflers and gloves. Keep head and ears protected at all times and avoid stepping out with wet hair.

Take it easy for the first day or two for the body to acclimatize due to sudden change in altitude. Watch out for headaches, dizziness and breathlessness. Get a precautionary health checkup. If SPO2 or oxygen level in the blood is below 90%, you’ll need supplemental oxygen. For low blood pressure, pop Diamox, a blood thinner, twice a day (after meals). Drink lots of water, preferably warm, with a diet rich in fat and protein. Regularly munch on dry fruits to keep energy levels up.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 March, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Gwalior: Sweet strains of music

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In Gwalior, the home and resting place of legendary Indian classical musician Tansen, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the ancient city during Tansen Samaroh and find that art and culture continue to flourish here

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Not too far from the 16th century tomb of Tansen, Pandit Abhay Narayan Mallick’s dhrupad rendition filled the air on a clear December night. Unlike the black tie affair of an opera, Gwalior’s culture aficionados had turned up unabashedly wrapped in blankets, mufflers and monkey caps to brave the winter, yet, united in their love for classical music. Over the weeklong Tansen Samaroh, the country’s top classical singers and performers regaled audiences in a city that was home to medieval India’s most celebrated musician.

The elevated rectangular platform enshrining Tansen’s tomb rested under the shade of a tamarind tree. Its bitter leaves were considered miraculous and local singers often chewed it for a sweet voice. Tansen’s memorial dwarfed in front of the mausoleum of his spiritual mentor and Sufi mystic Sheikh Mohammad Ghaus Shattari. The large square tomb capped with a large dome, hexagonal towers in the corners and delicately latticed walls resounded with notes late into the night.

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Nearly 500 years ago, the voice of Tansen similarly echoed through the galleries of Man Mandir, the palace of Tomar Raja Man Singh (1486-1516), high up in the fort atop Gopachal Parvat. It is said the court poet could light lamps with Raga Deepak and his Raga Malhar could bring down the rains! Tansen later became one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. He sparkled, drawing gasps of awe, much like the brilliant azure, ochre and emerald green mosaic tiles on the façade of Man Mandir Palace adorned by whimsical bands of yellow ducks and blue elephants.

The rambling Gwalior Fort is dotted with several mahals (palaces), chhatris (domed pavilions) and shrines like Sas Bahu Temple and Teli ka Mandir, besides the exquisite Jain rock cut sculptures carved into the hillside. En route to the reputed Scindia School, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod celebrates the release of Guru Hargobind Singh from the fort, along with 52 other inmates. Gwalior is also associated with Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi who died fighting the British at the southern base of the very fort at Phool Bagh.

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At the hillock’s northern base, Man Singh built Gujari Mahal for his doe-eyed Gujar queen Mrignayani. Currently serving as an archaeological museum, its most prized exhibit is the 10th century statuette of Shalbhanjika, excavated at Gyaraspur. We retired to the royal comfort of Deo Bagh, Neemrana’s heritage hotel facing the nine-chequered garden Nau Bagh, located in a quiet campus with two 18th century Maratha temples, cenotaphs and arched pavilions.

For any visitor, Gwalior is worth exploring leisurely over a few days. There’s a lot to see – from the Vivaswan Surya Mandir to chhatris of the Scindias to Jai Vilas Mahal, still used a Scindia residence. Forty rooms of the 400-room European style mansion are open to public as the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum, with Belgian chandeliers, opulent dining sets and royal artefacts on display.

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And where art and culture flourished, can cuisine be far behind? Like music, Gwalior takes its food seriously too. Regulars line up in the wee hours at Bahadura, an 80-year-old sweet shop in Naya Bazaar for the local favourite bedai, a poori stuffed with moong and udad dal (lentils), besides laddus and gulab jamun. Locals love eating out – from samosa, kachori, jalebi and rabdi at SS Kachoriwala or a pure veg thali in Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak or assorted parathas at Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazar.

The city also nurses a sweet tooth with laddus of Shankerlal Halwai made famous by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the legendary gajak (crispy sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) of Ratiram Gajak and Daulatram Gupta’s Morena Gajak Bhandar. Indeed, in the city of Tansen, sweetness is in the air…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December, 2015 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Dance of the Divine: Theyyam & Kalaripayattu

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY travel deep into the Malabar hinterland of North Kerala to experience its celebrated art forms Theyyam and Kalaripayattu 

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Somewhere on the fringes of Pallikunnu, a remote village near Kannur in North Kerala, we waited with bated breath to watch the magical transformation of a mere mortal into a god. In the orange glow of an olachottu, an indigenous torch made of dried coconut leaves, flames danced on the somber face of the performer, who recited an invocation. A crowd had assembled in the dead of the night to witness a theyyam performance.

Theyyam is a ritualistic dance form performed in Kerala’s erstwhile Kolathunad region (present day Kasargod and Kannur districts and parts of Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode). The word is derived from devam or thaivam (god) and is as much art as it is ritual. While classical art forms like Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Kalaripayattu flourished in palaces, mansions and temples as exclusive domains of the elite and upper caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas, folklore ran parallel to the mainstream. It represented the hopes and aspirations of the marginalized segment of society and found a platform at sthanams (village shrines) and kavus (sacred groves).

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It is believed theyyam originated from various cults prevalent in ancient Kerala – from totemism to worship of trees, serpents, tigers, ancestors, spirits, heroes, mother goddesses and divinities that ruled diseases. Traditionally held between the Malayalam months of Thulappathu (mid-October) and Edavappathy (mid-May), theyyam is performed mainly by the Ezhavas and Thiyas, traditionally toddy-tappers, besides Hindu sub-castes like Vannan, Malayan, Anjutton, Mannatton, Karimbalan, Pulayan and tribes like Koppalan, Velan, Mayilon and Chungathan.

There are nearly 400 different kinds of theyyam – Vishnu-murti is most commonly performed with some rare ones called Perumkaliyattam that are performed every 12 years. Vayanattukulavan traces the journey of Shiva’s attendant through the forests of Wayanad after he was blinded for drinking from the lord’s cache of toddy. A Brahmin virgin committed suicide to prove her chastity and was deified in the form of Muchilottu Bhagavathi.

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We were witnessing the thottam (preliminary ritual) of Kunnavu Muchilotu Bhagavathy with minimal make-up and costume. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the performer sang the myth or tale of the divinity. In the background, the chenda drummed up a haunting rhythm as folk instruments like tuti (hourglass-shaped drum), kuzhal (double-reed flute) and veekni gave company. The performer received naithiri (lighted wick) in the nakkila (plantain leaf) from the priest of the shrine, who invokes the deity into the wick. Thereafter, god resides with the performer and is ritually returned after the theyyam.

We watched guardian attendants clad in red clothes with swords and shield in hand accompanying the theyyam. They were the komaram or velachipad, who swayed to the hypnotic rhythm, moving in synchronized steps in a group dance is called Kudiyattam. The performer then retired to the aniyara (makeshift green room) to complete his make-up and costume, which took a few hours.

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Make up is done with locally available materials – tender coconut fronds for tasseled frocks or headgear and natural dyes like chayilyam (vermillion), manjal (turmeric powder), arichanthu (rice powder paste) and lamp black are used. The spine of a coconut leaf was used to apply make up. Red clothes, masks, eyepieces, breastplates and tusks are typical accessories of theyyam performances.

After final touches of make-up, the headgear is fixed, usually in front of the shrine. Only then does the performer look into a mirror to perceive the deity for the first time. This ritual, called mukhadarshanam, helps him forget his individuality and become one with his character. It is a moment that sends frissons of excitement through the crowd.

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To perform the theyyam, a person has to undergo tremendous preparation, both physically and mentally. He is supposed to concentrate on the deity and often takes on peculiar vows. Some stay in the premises of the shrine, some prepare their own food while others abstain from meat and alcohol or do not mingle with women. Then, on the big night, all this built up energy is unleashed…

There were gasps in the audience as the theyyam was led out into the arena in full regalia, accompanied by attendants holding the kuthuvilakku (metal lamp with iron rod). The theyyam bore a shield and kadthala (sword) in his hand. He circumambulated the shrine thrice and walked to the family members. A theyyam is usually performed as an offering to a particular deity, to fulfill prayers, after getting a serious problem solved or winning a court case. The person conducting it must bear all the expenses.

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As the clan members sprinkled sacred rice, the theyyam heard their supplications. The theyyam becomes an oracle through which the divinity offers anuvada or solutions to various problems. He then walked rhythmically to the crowds to bless them and continued dancing in the courtyard. Theyyam has different steps known as kalaasams, repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. Sometimes, a performance can stretch over hours.

The weapons brandished by the performers hark back to the martial traditions of ancient Kerala society. And there’s no better example of it than kalaripayattu, considered to be one of the oldest forms of combat in existence and a precursor to other martial traditions around the world. The art of payattu (fight) was disseminated through kalari (schools), which served as centres of learning before the modern education system.

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Though Kerala’s culture is rich with several artistic traditions, kalaripayattu blends together various disciplines like yoga, dance, performing arts and Ayurveda with martial art. It is suggested that the art developed during the Sangam Age between 3rd century BC and 2nd century AD, with elements of shastra vidya of warrior sage Parasurama, siddha vaidya of Sage Agastya and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It was codified into its present form only by 11th century, during an extended period of conflict between the Chera and Chola dynasties. The art was widely practiced by the Pada Nairs and Chekavas, a sub group of Ezhavas and gained popularity over time.

Often, to save on the loss of lives and material in a full-scale war, disputes were resolved with ankam, a one-on-one combat between the best fighters from the two sides. It was like ‘Olympics meets Mortal Kombat’. The stakes were high and nothing was left to chance. Every warrior received regular training in target practice, riding horses and elephants and the use of different weapons – vel (spear), val (sword), kedaham (shield), vil-ambu (bow and arrow), neduvadi (sticks), katthi (daggers) and the deadly urumi (long, flexible sword).

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Kalaripayattu bears an uncanny resemblance to kung fu and some conjecture it migrated from India to the Far East with the dispersal of Buddhism. While on the one hand you have Shaolin monks; on the other, are Brahmin warrior sages. Like Kung Fu, kalaripayattu too, borrows a lot from animal movement for vadivu (postures) and combat techniques – asva (horse), sarpa (serpent), simha (lion), gaja (elephant), kukkuta (rooster), mayura (peacock), marjara (cat) and varaha (boar). For all you know, Crouching Tiger and Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow might be more Indian than you think!

To the untrained eye, it may all seem the same but there are three distinct styles of the martial art. Vadakkan (Northern) Kalari, practiced in North Malabar, focuses on weapons rather than empty hands and lays emphasis on meippayattu (physical training and oil massages). Madhya (Central) Kalari, practiced in North Kerala, lays emphasis on application and lower body strength. Thekkan (Southern) Kalari has its roots in Siddha medicine and marma (vital points) techniques.

CVN Kalari teaching the young

After the Portuguese and the Dutch, when the British came to Kerala they realized the deadly power of kalaripayattu. To prevent any potential rebellion or anti-colonial movement, they banned the practice and the Nair custom of holding swords. And thus, an ancient art languished till the 1920s when public interest revived the artform and Thalassery became the epicentre of learning. Though there are several cultural platforms where kalaripayattu is demonstrated, a visit to a kalari is the best way to understand the martial art. We dropped by at the renowned CVN Kalari at Kozhikode for a ringside view.

Built as per vastu sastra, the kalari has an east facing entrance and main door to the right of centre. The sunken central training area is 3.5 ft below ground level with a high thatched roof. The typical architecture shields students against winds that could lower body temperature. Even the floor made with wet red clay offers cushioning and prevents injury. In the southwest corner is a puttara (seven tiered platform) with the guardian deity, usually Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva. Students offer flowers, incense and water in veneration before every training session. The guru’s stern voice cracked through the chamber like a whip as well-oiled pupils practiced their squats, kicks, jumps and fighting techniques, the way their forefathers did centuries ago. We watched in awe as they flew through the air, swinging swords that set off sparks. In Kerala, the old traditions are well and truly alive…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Kerala is well connected by air with international airports at Trivandrum, Kochi and Kozhikode. Thalassery is 70 km north of Kozhikode.

When to go
October to March is a pleasant time to visit, though theyyam season goes on till May, which can get quite warm.

Tip
Those who can’t catch a performance during theyyam season, there’s an early morning ritual performed in the Muthappan Temple at Parassinikkadavu every day. Local dailies and roadside posters list out theyyams taking place in the area. A detailed list is available at www.theyyamcalendar.com

Where to stay
Gitanjali Hermitage at Bekal, Kannur Beach House at Thottada, Ayesha Manzil in Thalassery and Hari Vihar in Kozhikode are excellent host-run properties that serve as excellent bases for culinary and culture tours.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August-September 2015 issue of India Now magazine.